Military launches Afghanistan intelligence-gathering mission

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 20, 2010; A12

KABUL -- On their first day of class in Afghanistan, the new U.S. intelligence analysts were given a homework assignment.

First read a six-page classified military intelligence report about the situation in Spin Boldak, a key border town and smuggling route in southern Afghanistan. Then read a 7,500-word article in Harper's magazine, also about Spin Boldak and the exploits of its powerful Afghan border police commander.

The conclusion they were expected to draw: The important information would be found in the magazine story. The scores of spies and analysts producing reams of secret documents were not cutting it.

"They need help," Capt. Matt Pottinger, a military intelligence officer, told the class. "And that's what you're going to be doing."

The class that began Friday in plywood hut B-8 on a military base in Kabul marked a first step in what U.S. commanders envision as a major transformation in how intelligence is gathered and used in the war against the Taliban.

Last month, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, published a scathing critique of the quality of information at his disposal. Instead of understanding the nuances of local politics, economics, religion and culture that drive the insurgency, he said, the multibillion-dollar industry devoted nearly all its effort to digging up dirt on insurgent groups.

"Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy," he wrote in a paper co-authored by Pottinger and another official and published by the Center for a New American Security.

Part of Flynn's new approach is to deploy dozens of new intelligence analysts with more freedom to move throughout the country, including out on the ground with U.S. soldiers and civilians, to write detailed narratives about key districts of Afghanistan. These reports are intended to give commanders and foot soldiers a more textured understanding of the population that the U.S. military has set out to protect.

At the moment, about 90 percent of the intelligence effort in Afghanistan tries to unravel the links "between various guys who are putting IEDs in the road," Pottinger said of the makeshift bombs known as improvised explosion devices, and "ten percent on all the rest."

"This ratio needs to be perfectly flipped upside down," he said.

The first crop of about 20 intelligence analysts assembled Friday at a counterinsurgency academy in Kabul for a week-long course to begin the process of rethinking their mission. Most of them came from the Defense Intelligence Agency, along with the Office of Naval Intelligence and Pentagon outfits such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force.

"You are like the IV being put into my arm right now," Flynn told them. "I need about five of them, but you're one that will be an infusion of energy and intellect that's going to help us continue to clarify and really give us a more clear picture of what it is that we're facing."

Military intelligence officials described the huge and unwieldy military bureaucracy as perhaps the biggest obstacle to change. The bureaucracy makes headquarters commanders wary of sending their analysts to roam the country conducting research.

Some of the intelligence analysts taking the course said they welcomed the new mission but still seemed unsure about what their new jobs would look like.

"My biggest question is, once they get the new data . . . how are they going to use that information to really change the situation here?" one analyst asked. Military officials requested that the analysts not be quoted by name.

The stakes involved in improving the quality of intelligence, Flynn told the class, could not be higher. Fueled in part by anger at the ineffective Afghan government, the insurgency has steadily gained strength. Around 2003, he said, the Taliban had about 1,500 fighters. That number has reached nearly 30,000. The past year, a record number of roadside bombs -- more than 9,000 -- were used, and the amount last month has set an even faster pace. He warned the analysts not to underestimate the sophistication or determination of the insurgents.

"I've heard people describe this [as] 'we're fighting a bunch of guys in shower shoes and bathrobes.' Well, a bunch of guys in shower shoes and bathrobes could beat 44 nations of the international community," Flynn said. "I mean, think about that."

But the military won't be able to defeat the insurgency just by chasing Taliban fighters across the country, Flynn said.

"If we didn't kill one more insurgent, we could win this thing. But if we kill 10,000 more, we'll lose. So it's not about killing our enemy," he said.

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