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Gates backs critique of spy agencies in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates threw his support on Thursday behind a harsh critique of the U.S. military’s spy agencies in Afghanistan, increasing pressure on them to shift focus from killing insurgents to winning hearts and minds.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrives for President Obama's security meeting at the White House, January 5, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The rare public critique by U.S. Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, put a spotlight on what some American officials describe as a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war within the U.S. military and intelligence community over priorities.

In his report, Flynn described U.S. intelligence officers and analysts in Afghanistan as “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers.”

While the U.S. military’s focus has shifted under President Barack Obama to mounting a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at sidelining the Taliban by winning over the Afghan people, Flynn said the intelligence community was instead still focused on capturing and killing mid- to high-level insurgents.

U.S. hunt-and-kill operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, frequently using unmanned aerial drones armed with missiles, have been condemned by human rights groups and have fueled anti-American sentiment.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates found Flynn’s analysis “brilliant” and his findings “spot on.”

But Morrell said Gates had “real reservations about the general’s choice of venue for publication.” Flynn’s report was issued on Monday by a private Washington think tank, surprising Pentagon officials.

Some saw it as a breach of the established military chain of command and an unusually public flogging of intelligence agencies that Flynn is meant to lead in Afghanistan.

Flynn said in his report that he had directed intelligence officers and analysts to gather more information on a wider range of issues at a grass-roots level, as well as to divide their work along geographical lines.

Pentagon officials said the report was aimed at intelligence agencies overseen by the Defense Department, and not the CIA, which has overseen strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda targets along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“This is internal criticism. It is not directed at our colleagues elsewhere in the intelligence community,” Morrell said.

Release of the report came less than a week after a suicide bomber killed seven CIA officers at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan, the second-most deadly attack in agency history.

Al Qaeda’s Afghan wing claimed responsibility for the bombing on Thursday, saying it was launched to avenge the deaths of the group’s leaders. Some of them were killed in CIA drone strikes.

An intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the focus of U.S. spy agencies on insurgents, saying: “You can’t be successful at counterinsurgency without a profound understanding of the enemy.”

Editing by Anthony Boadle and Eric Beech