Coalition urged to revamp intelligence gathering, distribution in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The highest-ranking U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan has called for a major restructuring of the intelligence gathering and distribution in that country, arguing that the present system "is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy."

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, called for a shift from collecting information to help with capturing or killing insurgents, and said more resources should go toward gathering facts about the political, economic and cultural environment of the population that supports the insurgency.

"Lethal targeting alone will not help U.S. and allied forces win in Afghanistan," Flynn wrote in a published report. He said that although the insurgents are worthy objectives, "relying on them exclusively baits intel shops into reacting to enemy tactics at the expense of finding ways to strike at the very heart of the insurgency."

He said little is being done to fully understand the support for insurgents, declaring that U.S. intelligence efforts are "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the power brokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects . . . and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."

Too often, Flynn said, intelligence analysts are assigned at the regimental and brigade levels, away from the grass roots, where the most valuable information can be gathered. As a result, there are not enough intelligence officers in units close to the population who can accurately assess critical information such as census data.

Flynn praised some Afghanistan-based units that bucked his overall conclusions. He cited a Marine battalion in the Nawa district of Helmand province whose commander used regular riflemen when he lacked enough ground-level intelligence analysts, because he "decided that understanding the people in their zone of influence was a top priority" and was able to create an effective information network.

But such instances have been rare. Criticizing the tendency for intelligence to flow from the top down in wartime, Flynn said the process should be reversed in a counterinsurgency. "The soldier or development worker on the ground is usually the person best informed about the environment and the enemy," he wrote.

Flynn reported that when President Obama made his request in the fall for an analysis of pivotal Afghan districts, "analysts could barely scrape together enough information to formulate rudimentary assessments."

He described many intelligence analysts in Kabul, at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa and at the Pentagon as so starved for information from the field that they say their jobs "feel more like fortune telling than serious detective work."

The report focused on Defense Department intelligence activities and was unrelated to other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA, which lost seven employees last week in a suicide bombing by an al-Qaeda double agent who breached a secret intelligence facility in Afghanistan.

Flynn took the unusual step of publishing his report, "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan," through the Center for a New American Security, a think tank co-founded by Michèle A. Flournoy, who is now undersecretary of defense for policy.

Flynn said he did so to reach "not only officers in his command but also other intelligence officials and instructors in the field, including those outside of Afghanistan."

He also directly addressed some of the military intelligence community's shortcomings.

"The secretiveness of the intelligence community has allowed it to escape the scrutiny of customers and the supervision of commanders," Flynn wrote. "Too often, when an S-2 [intelligence] officer fails to deliver, he is merely ignored rather than fired. . . . . Except in rare cases, ineffective intel officers are allowed to stick around."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company