The top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, just released a damning report urging a wholesale shakeup of the intelligence gathering and analysis effort there. The report, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, released through the Center for New American Security, a Washington DC think tank, is a devastating assessment of the failed intelligence effort in Afghanistan. It details how poorly the U.S. intelligence community has adjusted to the demands of counterinsurgency, as well as the community’s continuing obsession with unnecessary secrecy, a Cold War legacy that hinders its effectiveness in a world where the vast majority of useful information is open source.
Basically, the top intel officer in Afghanistan says the intelligence community is largely irrelevant to the war effort there. The industry that isn’t irrelevant and actually provides useful information and intelligence to war fighters, according to Flynn: the media.
“Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.”
The intelligence failure occurs at every level from small units to higher echelon headquarters, the report says. At battalion and below, intel shops know quite a bit of relevant information about their immediate surroundings, but they are woefully understaffed and thus can’t mine what they have for useful nuggets. Too much of their analytical effort is focused on rooting out enemy IED networks. While understandable, bomb emplacers are mere foot soldiers, readily dsicardable and easily replaceable. Taking out IED cells is certainly a laudable goal, but the cells are just enemy units, and low level ones at that. “A single-minded obsession with IEDs, while understandable, is inexcusable if it causes commanders to fail to outsmart the insurgency and wrest away the initiative.”
Higher echelons, brigade and regional commands, provide ground units with little information that is useful or that they don’t already know. While the higher headquarters have access to vast amounts of intercepted signals intelligence and imagery provided by drones and satellites, they use all that high-speed intel to try and spot IED emplacers. “Some battalion S-2 officers say they acquire more information that is helpful by reading U.S. newspapers than through reviewing regional command intelligence summaries. Newspaper accounts, they point out, discuss more than the enemy and IEDs.”
When it comes to providing information on local populations and governance issues, the higher echelon intel shops are useless. “If brigade and regional command intelligence sections were profit-oriented businesses, far too many would now be “belly up.”
The problem isn’t a lack of available information, again, most of it open source. The real problem is cultural, according to the report’s authors. “It is a culture that is strangely oblivious of how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders. It is also a culture that is emphatic about secrecy but regrettably less concerned about mission effectiveness.” Because of the secrecy and insularity of the community, lousy intel officers are rarely called on the carpet. “Too often, when an S-2 officer fails to deliver, he is merely ignored rather than fired. It is hard to imagine a battalion or regimental commander tolerating an operations officer, communications officer, logistics officer, or adjutant who fails to perform his or her job.”
The war in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency war, and hence a political war, the authors point out. Gathering local level information on personal and power relationships, tribal dynamics, social connections, power brokers and economic development, the “down in the weeds” information, is the truly useful stuff. “One of the peculiarities of guerrilla warfare is that tactical-level information is laden with strategic significance far more than in conventional conflicts.” While that information offers few clues about where to find insurgents, “it does provide elements of even greater strategic importance – a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself.”
Flynn’s prescription is to create civilian analytical teams that can mine the reams of data provided by both military and civilian sources, then write that data up into something that is actually useful. And when he says “write” he means it: “There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency.”
The civilian analysts will travel to ground units and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to gather information and then compile it into “meaty” descriptions of “pivotal districts throughout the country,” containing political, social and economic information vital to counterinsurgents. Every effort will be made to keep classification to a minimum.
Flynn says civilian analysts are preferable to military intelligence analysts. Why? Because there aren’t enough smart guys in uniform to do the job, quite frankly, and civilians are better trained at analysis and writing. The authors cite a report by the 18th Airborne Corps on the dismal state of military intelligence officers:
“Intelligence analytical support to COIN operations requires a higher level of thinking, reasoning, and writing than conventional operations. In general, neither enlisted nor officer personnel were adequately trained to be effective analysts in a COIN environment…. In an overall intelligence staff of 250, CJ2 leadership assessed four or five personnel were capable analysts with an aptitude to put pieces together to form a conclusion.”