Military Intelligence Goes Civilian

There’s a lot to digest from Gen. Michael Flynn’s internal report (.pdf) on the U.S. intelligence effort in Afghanistan, not least of which is that it was released by CNAS. Flynn, after all, is the acting commanding general of the . . . U.S. intelligence effort in Afghanistan. When I first saw the report mentioned in a blog post, my mind’s eye inserted a ghost “(ret.)” after his name. Given Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent remarks about airing policy debates in public being a career-ending offense, one wonders whether that won’t, rightly or wrongly, soon be the case.

As for the contents of the report itself, they’ve been spun by some to imply that, eight years into the war, we have yet to get a handle on the intelligence terrain in Afghanistan. But that’s not what Flynn argues. Indeed, he says that in terms of intelligence gathering, there is plenty of raw information to both target who to attack and identify who to defend. The problem is that at all levels above the battalion level, all the effort to synthesize the raw data is going to the former, with the latter — for which there is the greatest tactical need in a COIN campaign — being ignored.

In other words, the problem is not raw materials, but how they are being processed and distributed. While acknowledging the importance of targeting information, the report calls for a cultural shift in the intelligence production line that is best summed up by one of its section headings: COIN warfare calls for COIN analysts — and, I’d add, COIN analysis.

Now, given the Army’s embrace of COIN doctrine in general, that’s a pretty unsurprising conclusion, until you consider the kinds of questions Flynn and his co-authors, Capt. Matt Pottinger and Paul Batchelor, consider relevant to the warfighting effort:

Is that desert road we’re thinking of paving really the most heavily trafficked route? Which mosques and bazaars attract the most people from week to week? Is that local contractor actually implementing the irriga¬tion project we paid him to put into service? These are the kinds of questions, beyond those concerning the enemy as such, which military and civilian decision-makers in the field need help answering. (p. 8)

As for the kind of “processed” intelligence that would be relevant, the authors offer this:

Brigade and regional command intelligence sum¬maries 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, cor¬ruption, 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 dis¬trict itself. (p. 12)

This is pretty striking, because it essentially argues for adding what amounts to an NGO-like development component to the military intelligence production line. My first thought on reading it was that, once we get the U.S. Army out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s going to be a pretty effective tool for development assistance in non-conflict zones. But, of course, all of this expertise already exists, and the problems identified in the report, and elsewhere, have centered around the two-fold difficulty of militarizing what are ultimately civilian functions, and civilianizing an ultimately military institution.

As for the practical applicability of all this, although I’m pretty sympathetic to COIN doctrine in the abstract, I’ve been skeptical about how effective its formulaic approach can be. But the report offers a pretty compelling example from an operation in Nawa district (on p. 12 of the report) of how reprioritizing intelligence from military targeting points to civilian data sets dramatically improved the tactical situation on the ground. Unfortunately, it also points out that the success was due in large part to the particularly effective partnership between a “charismatic” district governor and a “modern” battalion commander, and in larger part to an uncommonly “robust” concentration of force (a soldier-to-civilian ratio of 1-to-50).

But finally — and this should set up the ever-formidable Michael Cohen with a big, fat “Mission Creep Watch” softball over the plate — the recent Afghanistan strategy review, as articulated by President Barack Obama, explicitly prioritized the military targeting component of the Afghanistan war over its nation-building component. Since then, there have been some reports that the former is being taken care of by more shadowy means. But there have also been some suggesting that the military command has not yet renounced its intentions to pursue the COIN tactics that seem to fit more into the latter.

By explicitly calling for a restructuring of the in-theater intelligence apparatus to emphasize the sort of civilian development efforts that characterize nation-building, Flynn’s report might fit well into the doctrinal context of COIN. But it muddies the strategic waters, at best.