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.