Fixing Afghanistan’s Intelligence

by Joshua Foust on 1/22/2010 · 12 comments

The infamous Flynn paper, so-called for Major-General Mike Flynn, the senior military intelligence official in Afghanistan and primary author, has been rightly making waves since its publication earlier this month. In fact, I daresay Andrew Exum undersells its importance, though not necessarily for laudatory reasons. To summarize it ever-so-briefly:

  • The military intelligence (MI) system is imbalanced. It is too focused on IEDs and killing insurgents, and not focused enough on the overall theater of operations to be effective.
  • Where MI is focused on the theater, it is misfocused, with emphasis on vertical ideas like “governance” instead of holistic areas like “Paktika.”
  • Information needs to bubble up from the ground level in a discoverable way; at the same time, higher-level analytical shops need to be more focused on relevance and less on specialty.
  • One way to address many of these issues is to create a new layer of analysis shop at the Regional Command (RC) level, with analyst mandates to travel into the field for in-person collection.
  • Have analysts integrate a wider variety of reporting, to include open sources and aid groups.

Here’s the thing: I largely agree with this (I know right, I don’t hate everything!). However. There are a lot of things Flynn either gets wrong (it is actually not that easy to just hop on a helicopter and move between bases, for example) or mischaracterizes (I nearly spat out my coffee lolling when I read the DIA, of all places, has the most qualified cleared analysts with the best writing skills). But on the major points, Flynn is correct. But he is also overly optimistic about the prospects of achieving even the relatively moderate goals he laid out here, and has sold short previous efforts to enact precisely what he envisions. Which is kind of ironic when you read him complain that officers aren’t aware of previous efforts in their areas.

Anyway, earlier this year I was still working for the TRADOC G2 Human Terrain System (no secret, right?), an Army program not coincidentally designed to address the very shortcomings Flynn identifies. They sent me in the field to do what he seems to want: to take a detailed, analytical background in Afghanistan, and travel between various field teams collecting the information they have which wasn’t filtering back to my research center, and try to mesh it with other reporting I could find to generate relevant reports. Since by design HTS biases itself toward unclassified information, I can talk about this relatively freely.

Now, obviously I encountered some pretty serious challenges while I was there, whether it was a PRT commander mistreating our interpreter, or even the insanities of trying to secure transportation (which is something Flynn would know if he ever traveled like a grunt or contractor).

But my overall impression of the experience was overwhelmingly positive: I had tried to study Kapisa province (a region I’ve since written about extensively) before, but the paucity of information had been aggravating. Being there in person, getting to talk to Afghans, to the soldiers and aid workers and the security guys, gave me an irreplaceable understanding of the place (my experience at FOB Salerno was less extensive but still nevertheless instructive).

MG Flynn’s call to give analysts field experience is by far the best idea he has. Despite my belief in the power of a solid academic foundation—I could not have contextualized my experiences without literally years of research beforehand—there is just no experience for speaking with the people active in an area face to face. If the intelligence community could figure out how to integrate this experience into its analytical process, everyone would be far better off.

But the goodness of the idea behind field experience is tempered by General Flynn’s surprising utopianism. Even within HTS there was tension between the Human Terrain Teams at the Brigades and the supposed needs of the HTS mission. Sometimes, the very intel people Flynn says need cultural knowledge would push their cultural advisers to collect insurgent information (the HTTs, as best I know, largely resisted such pressure).

While Flynn characterizes this as merely a leadership question, it’s actually deeper than that. The men he lauds, like Colonel Kolenda, were successful at their missions by essentially flaunting the normal Army way of doing things. As my Super++ BFF Tom Johnson recently noted (pdf):

Big Army talks the talk of counterinsurgency but still walks the walk of attrition. Last year, for example, an Army Special Forces officer returning from a year of duty in southern Afghanistan told us that although he had pacified his district by building a relationship of trust with the elders, and had the lowest number of IED attacks and ambushes in his province for the past six months, he was rated the lowest of all the officers in his unit for promotion because he had the fewest number of “kills” during his tour of duty.

Now, it matters tremendously when a Major General complains his Army is being too enemy centric. But when his soldiers, the ones who have to struggle and toil to reconcile frankly contradictory goals and bureaucracy are faced with such a choice, that Major General needs to demonstrate that the Army system is what’s largely to blame, as much as it is the intel system (there are a great many intel analysts, for example, who get so frustrated with the system they just quit). Indeed, the risk aversion and paperwork culture of the Army in a general sense is as much to blame for MI’s shortcomings as the intelligence community itself.

Reforming the larger Army culture, making it more adaptive and responsible, more flexible and relevant, is an enormous undertaking that is of vital importance both to the Afghanistan mission and, let’s be honest to world peace itself. When seem from a broader, holistic perspective, Flynn’s complaint winds up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Despite the many barriers to its success, including horrible management, HTS still sometimes produces really damned good work (note: I did not author that paper, so it’s not self-promotion to promote it). It also misses the point, decrying an overly bureaucratized system while proposing the solution in another layer of bureaucracy. But the intent behind Flynn’s call, that analysts need to be relevant to matter, is beyond question. That is the point I hope his paper drives home.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


M Shannon January 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm

First. If you want to find out what Afghans think or who’s who then hire an Afghan. If you don’t trust him have two who don’t know about each other. If you’re the commander have an Afghan assistant who can fill you in and answer cultural, political and economic questions that come to mind. Hiring a guy from Ohio with a Phd in Korean culture (who needs a expat PSD team to guard him) to explain Afghanistan to you is absurd.

Secondly. Get a covert recce capability. Afghans and a very few expats with motor scooters, Corollas and taxis whose job it is to answer immediate questions and not cause a fuss with a platoon of MRAPs (or take casualties from IEDs). For example: Is the bridge damaged or destroyed? What crops are growing in X? How many voters are going to the polls? Are there Taliban at large in Y? What’s the mood in the mosque?

Three. Hire guys for 2) who live in remote districts and you can call up for info.

The above is dead simple and the fact that there are PRTs with HTTs that can’t tell you what’s happening a klick from their from their front gate without 48hrs lead to send out a platoon is ridiculous.

Joshua Foust January 22, 2010 at 8:20 pm

No arguments there. I’m trying to be realistic, however. We cannot simply hire the thousands of Afghans needed to produce that, while maintaining even a modicum of security for our troops. Look at the fallout from the Camp Chapman bombing—seven CIA officers killed rushing a source onto the base to get intel. It’s still a firestorm in intelligence circles.

I’m seeking some sort of compromise (and I know of several HTT members who have advanced degrees in anthropology, political science, and history who have focused their scholarship on Afghanistan, so the problem isn’t quite as stark as some dude from Ohio).

David January 23, 2010 at 6:22 am


Welcome back! And none too soon!

I’ve returned to theater after a couple years away and am working with ISAF. I’m struck by how little has changed for the better with respect to our practitioners’ understanding of the social and political situation at the local level despite all the talk about their need to improve in this regard.

What I see are operators and analysts who have read something like “Three Cups of Tea,” or a few articles on Afghanistan in the readily available military journals and are convinced that they’ve cracked the code and can now check their Afghan human terrain box. After all, they now know about Durranis and Ghilzais.

I have yet to meet a single officer who recognizes the complexities of local populations such as described in the superb “My Cousin’s Enemy if My Friend,” or the work of Bernt Glatzer, Andrew Wilder, Conrad Schetter, Thomas Ruttig, Tom Barfield or any of the other serious Afghan researchers.

Instead, they breezily offer up their insights into esoteric Pashtun “tribes,” the ways to use Pashtunwali against the enemy, or how to apply Jim Gant’s slam-dunk formula for victory.

I’ve yet to hear anyone in or associated with our military mention qawm, patronage-based networks, or the complexities of ethnic identity or community in rural Afghanistan.

Instead, what I find among our military (and also the civilians who are being surged in after their Afghanistan familiarization at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury) reminds me of the certainties and self-referential system of Marxist academics. The Marxist economists produced seamless, theoretically consistent studies and analyses. They molded reality into their satisfying theoretical models. But their stuff proved useless. Their scholarship was elegant, gratifying and unchallenged by reality until the system that nurtured, sheltered, and rewarded its practitioners collapsed.

Let’s hope to God that our fate in Afghanistan isn’t that of those Marxists academics who managed to avoid confronting reality until they had no choice and had their faces rubbed in it.

Sailani January 23, 2010 at 1:19 pm

The standout point for those of us with our feet in the dirt is the one you mentioned above. The army is not yet fighting a counterinsurgency wholeheartedly. However, they are much further along than the kinetic-minded SF/SOF boys who are probably doing more harm than good overall, sadly. Oh, and Flynn’s ppt brief from December 23rd was even more illuminating than his paper.

Anyway, welcome back mate.

Toryalay Shirzay January 23, 2010 at 8:16 pm

For those of you in the theater here is some insider info: in every village and town there those who have or are attending regular school as opposed to religious school.These are your best bet against the enemy.Work and empower these guys and you have won most of the fight.The mullah and those attending mosque regularly are not only to be avoided but must be watched carefully as these are the murderers.The Malik,the village head, is tricky,he can go either way depending on who has power and the most likely winner.This approach will go along way in defeating the enemy,that is if you have ears to hear!!

Idi January 23, 2010 at 10:26 pm

H, H. fl s hrny nd kntc wth ths tgh mltry tlk n hw t kll ppl n md hts. sy strt ff wth th kds. Thy r sy t kll lthgh th trgt s smllr thn n dlt. Thy r knd ct wth thr bg drk nncnt ys, bt nt s ct s th tw hdd kds y hv lft bhnd n Knss, tht mythcl lnd f th frm by. n fct, f, s Tryly (kn, ctmt) ssrts, thy hv ll bn bggrd lrdy, s y’d b dng thm fvr. Thrw thm p n th r nd sht thm t th px f th prbl, r lt thm fll n bynt. Y cn vn hv sm frndly wgrng. Yr chpln, f h sn’t ccmpnyng y, cn rd n hs bts ftr wtchng th ctn trnsmttd frm yr cll phns. Mst lkly h’ll b n hs kns frvntly thnkng th Prnc f Pc nd sngng yr fvrt hymns. Mst lkly h s n rsh rg wth twnkl n hs y nd lqr n hs brth nd hps tht y wll cm bck wth tyk s h cn bpts hm wth hly cm. Nw tht y hv dsptchd th bys y gtt dl wth th chcks. Ths wll b sy bcs s slmFscst Slf rtrgrd hmrtc Pshtns jst fckn’ ht wmn. nd mn ll wmn, vn nmls f th fml gndr, lthgh t s tgh tllng r wmn prt frm th sh gt. W cn’t stnd r mthrs, sstrs r dghtrs nd y wld b dng s hg fvr f y cld smply nnhlt thm. W prfr bggry nywy, s g hd, b r gst. nc y gt rd f th kds th dlts wll jst gv p. Wht wld b th pnt f fghtng. t s ptrrchy nd f thr r n kds wht th fck r y gnn ptrrch vr nywy. n cpl f yrs thy wll wthr wy t nthng. Thn y wll hv ths lvly lnd ll t yrslvs. dn’t knw wht th fck knd f plns y hv fr t, bt t wll b yrs. njy.

clarisse January 24, 2010 at 7:12 am

You can read (in French only, sorry) a good analysis of the Flynn report by French General Michel Masson, former Head (2005-2008) of French Military intelligence -Direction du renseignement militaire (DRM).

This op-ed “Réorienter le renseignement en Afghanistan” presents reflexions and perspectives about leading operations in Afghanistan, from the intelligence and military fields:

CF2R is a French independant think-tank working on intelligence, terrorism, conflicts and proliferation.
Comments are welcome.

NoShit January 26, 2010 at 10:58 am

Wow. Blaming “the system.” How long did it take you to figure that one out?

Joshua Foust January 26, 2010 at 11:03 am

At least ten minutes.

jenniferro10 January 28, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Back in November, I delivered an admittedly sophomoric paper on cultural training to the I/ITSEC conference. The gist? The current doctrine used to determine the effectiveness of cultural training programs does not work for cultural training programs. The best ways to collect that info and measure effectiveness of cultural training “flout the Army way”, and considering the dire need for effective and operational culture knowledge, this is a serious problem. It’s bigger than that, though. Our need for understanding culture is, I think, exposing the weaknesses in *all* military doctrine: intelligence, training, knowledge management, even acquisition.

evodude February 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Well now, isn’t David the arrogant elitist? Comparing Marxist economics to Afghan culture and lobbing incindiary, yet irrelevant buzzwords borne from superficial meetings with ‘officers’ in country. Apparently paying attention an undergraduate econ 101 class qualifies one to comment on Pashto cultural complexities, and indict the entire officer corps of the military for being ill-trained and unqualified for their duty.

Before one convicts these officers of the same supeficiality – perhaps a little more travel around the country and talking with officers outside of Kabul is warranted. Beware, some of those same folks that read “Three Cups of Tea”, and are trained at Camp Atterbury – also read this site. Not that this makes us any more qualified – just better read – and able to recognize pompous, self-promoting pontificiation when we see it.

Joshua Foust February 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Well, I don’t want to put words in David’s mouth, but his knowledge and understanding of Afghanistan go back several decades. I can’t judge the veracity of his judgments on the U.S. officer corps here, but he does speak from a position of deep understanding of Afghanistan.

I also don’t make it a point to censor comments, unless they are of a personally invective tone.

Previous post:

Next post: