Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Overhauling intelligence ops in the Afghan war

Army Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, is an unusual guy. He just wrote a paper for CNAS on how to fix intelligence in the Afghan war. He wants a very different approach — and he is in a position to get it. He and his coauthors tell some hard ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Army Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, is an unusual guy. He just wrote a paper for CNAS on how to fix intelligence in the Afghan war. He wants a very different approach -- and he is in a position to get it.

He and his coauthors tell some hard truths. Here are some highlights:

"In a recent project ordered by the White House, analysts could barely scrape together enough information to formulate rudimentary assessments of pivotal Afghan districts. It is little wonder, then, that many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain ‘ground truth.' "Too often, the secretiveness of the intelligence com­munity has allowed it to escape the scrutiny of customers and the supervision of commanders. Too often, when an S-2 officer fails to deliver, he is merely ignored rather than fired. It is hard to imagine a battalion or regimental commander tolerating an operations officer, communications officer, logistics officer, or adjutant who fails to perform his or her job. But, except in rare cases, ineffective intel officers are allowed to stick around. "An NGO wanting to build a water well in a village may learn, as we recently did, about some of the surprising risks encountered by others who have attempted the same project. For instance, a foreign-funded well constructed in the center of a village in southern Afghanistan was destroyed -- not by the Taliban -- but by the village's women. Before, the women had to walk a long distance to draw water from a river, but this was exactly what they wanted. The establishment of a village well deprived them of their only opportunity to gather socially with other women. "The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowl­edge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts."

Army Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, is an unusual guy. He just wrote a paper for CNAS on how to fix intelligence in the Afghan war. He wants a very different approach — and he is in a position to get it.

He and his coauthors tell some hard truths. Here are some highlights:

  • "In a recent project ordered by the White House, analysts could barely scrape together enough information to formulate rudimentary assessments of pivotal Afghan districts. It is little wonder, then, that many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain ‘ground truth.’
  • "Too often, the secretiveness of the intelligence com­munity has allowed it to escape the scrutiny of customers and the supervision of commanders. Too often, when an S-2 officer fails to deliver, he is merely ignored rather than fired. It is hard to imagine a battalion or regimental commander tolerating an operations officer, communications officer, logistics officer, or adjutant who fails to perform his or her job. But, except in rare cases, ineffective intel officers are allowed to stick around.
  • "An NGO wanting to build a water well in a village may learn, as we recently did, about some of the surprising risks encountered by others who have attempted the same project. For instance, a foreign-funded well constructed in the center of a village in southern Afghanistan was destroyed — not by the Taliban — but by the village’s women. Before, the women had to walk a long distance to draw water from a river, but this was exactly what they wanted. The establishment of a village well deprived them of their only opportunity to gather socially with other women.
  • "The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowl­edge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts."

Some of you may also recognize the name of his co-author, Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger, and not just because he used to play keyboards in the rock band Blind Dog Whiskey. Rather, before joining the Marines (and then last year being named the Corps intelligence officer of the year) he was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, and speaks Chinese. He once wrote an eloquent explanation of his decision to become a military.   

This is one of the most informative documents I’ve ever read on contemporary intelligence issues. I think you should stop reading this blog and read it now!

By the way, the report has the effect of an order from a two-star general — I believe that’s a first in think tank history. As I understand it, the paper was released through CNAS because Gen. Flynn wanted to reach beyond his own chain of command and his own community and talk to people such as commanders of deploying infantry units about what kind of intelligence they should be demanding. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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