Looking out the window

Major General Flynn USA, Captain Pottinger USMC and Paul Batchelor of the DIA recently put together a paper on how to improve intelligence in Afghanistan. It’s opening paragraph is a classic: it at once summarizes the problem of a bureaucracy attempting to escape from its own toils and possibly forced into reliance on foreign intelligence agencies to get eyes “on the ground”.


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 problem has two roots: the paucity of capability at the grassroots, where much is known but where there is little time for systematic data management and analysis and salvo-chasing. Intelligence assets are focused on the most pressing problem of the moment and the long-term foundations of building a sound intelligence base are neglected. The biggest roadblock to fixing these problems, according to the authors isn’t money, or numbers but attitude.

Ironically, the barriers to maximizing available intelligence are surprisingly few. The deficit of data needed by high-level analysts does not arise from a lack of reporting in the field. There are literally terabytes of unclassified and classified information typed up at the grassroots level. Nor, remarkably, is the often-assumed unwillingness to share information the core of the problem. On the contrary, military officers and civilians working with ISAF allies, and even many NGOs, are eager to exchange information. …

The most salient problems are attitudinal, cultural, and human. The intelligence community’s standard mode of operation is surprisingly passive about aggregating information that is not enemy-related and relaying it to decision-makers or fellow analysts further up the chain. It is a culture that is strangely oblivious of how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders.


The importance of getting the analytical loop working right down at the ground is highlighted by the extreme complexity of the war in Afghanistan. Generalizations are of limited use. Specific knowledge is paramount. Villlages have their individual character. In this complicated human ecosystem, every person is a leaf and every family is a branch. Flynn and his co-authors describe instances in which the intel analysis was brought closer down to the grassroots level, resulting in “fireside chats” in which the commander and his dust-caked intel shop would share out what they had learned that day.

Ironically, the real benefit of particular knowledge wasn’t in the sheer accumulation of detail for detail’s sake but its ability to frame the immense masses of data already in hand. In other words, being close to the ground, intuitively understanding the situation helped the analysts perform that most valuable of tasks: to connect the dots.

One of the peculiarities of guerrilla warfare is that tactical-level information is laden with strategic significance far more than in conventional conflicts. This blurring of the line between strategic and tactical is already widely appreciated by infantrymen. They use the term “strategic corporal” to describe how the actions of one soldier can have broader implications – for example, when the accidental killing of civilians sparks anti-government riots in multiple cities. …

Brigade and regional command intelligence summaries that regurgitate the previous day’s enemy activity tell ground units little they do not already know. But periodic narratives that describe changes in the economy, atmospherics, development, corruption, governance, and enemy activity in a given district provide the kind of context that is invaluable up the chain of command and back down to the district itself.


One of the most interesting anecdotes of Flynn’s paper is the contrast he draws between the futuristic world of the brigade level intel shops and the primitive world of battalions. Computers hum, electronic comms reach out to satellites in space. But there is little grist for the high-tech mill.

Regimental and brigade-level shops face problems diametrically opposed to those of battalion S-2 shops. Resources are abundant; there are broadband classified and unclassified networks and technicians to keep them running, printers and map plotters that actually work, hot chow and showers, and, at least at the brigade-level, scores of military intelligence analysts. What they lack is what the battalions have in abundance – information about what is actually happening on the ground.

The intel shops that stayed inside this hermetic loop were the least successful. Those which ventured out and, like private sector entrpreneurs looking for a customer, tried to fill the needs of the line units were most successful.

Brigade intelligence officers keep their analysts busy creating charts linking insurgents, building PowerPoint “storyboards” depicting violent incidents within the area of operations, and distilling intelligence summaries from units in the field. They direct their efforts toward keeping the brigade commander updated with news from the battlefield.
But the most competent regimental and brigade intelligence shops, according to the battalions they support, are the ones that do three specific things. First, they make every effort to advertise collection and production capabilities and to make these capabilities available to the battalions. Second, they send analysts down to augment battalion and company-level intelligence support teams even if only on a rotating basis. And third, they produce written summaries that incorporate everyone’s activities in the area of operations – civil affairs, PRTs, the Afghan government, and security forces – rather than merely rehashing kinetic incidents already covered in battalion-level intelligence summaries.


Flynn’s paper is one of several studies which are looking to make US intelligence better not by stuffing it with more procedures and gee-whiz hardware, but by making it flatter and teaching its practicioners to make better use of the ample tools at hand. Someone once suggested to me that the problem was “all the information is stovepiped to death”. Maybe it’s not what you have, but what you know. Maybe the real problem with connecting the dots isn’t the lack of dots.

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