Best Defense

The Flynn Report (V): How to feed the beast

Here Adam Silverman, who served in Iraq as a civilian advisor to the 1st Armored Division, comments on what he thinks the real problem is that General Flynn and his guys were trying to get at. Major General Flynn, Captain Pottinger, and Senior Executive Batchelor recently released an interesting, thought provoking, and largely excellent report ...


Here Adam Silverman, who served in Iraq as a civilian advisor to the 1st Armored Division, comments on what he thinks the real problem is that General Flynn and his guys were trying to get at.

Major General Flynn, Captain Pottinger, and Senior Executive Batchelor recently released an interesting, thought provoking, and largely excellent report dealing with both the problems of what types of intelligence or information need to be collected in Afghanistan (and by extrapolation other theater’s of operation) and how such materials should be handled so that the decision makers have timely, accurate, and useful information to inform their decisions.  The focus of what is being referred to as the Flynn Report is near and dear to my heart as my work of the past two and a half years, in a variety of ways and locations has been about how to determine what the policy maker needs to know, how to get the data, how to package it, how to disseminate it, and how to archive it for easy retrieval by others.  From close reading of the report I think that MG Flynn and his colleagues have clearly recognized the scope and enormity of the problem – that there is information and intelligence [1] [2] that is collected, but that never makes it way very far up the chain of command. Moreover, the authors recognize that there are chokepoints in the flow of knowledge from the lowest levels to the highest ones. What I would like to focus on are what I perceive as a couple of discordant notes in an otherwise fine report that deals with both data collection and knowledge management.


Data Collection

The authors of the Flynn report indicate that members of companies, battalions, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), HUMINT teams, Civil Affairs (CA), and Human Terrain Team (HTTs) are all collecting, in various ways, important intelligence and information about the host country population, which are referred to in the report as the white layer.  They also, correctly, assert that this data often becomes operationally useless as it winds up stuck somewhere at the team, company, battalion, or brigade level.  Where I think they loose the thread is in the argument that a whole new set of collection rules and procedures need to be put into place to go out and capture this white layer data, which is so crucial in successful counterinsurgency operations. This data is being captured, it is not being captured, or some is and some is not.  If it’s the former, then the solution is better knowledge management practices and if it’s either of the latter, then the collection issue needs to be dealt with. 

As a recent post at Democracy Arsenal made very clear the Flynn report does not seem to deal very much with what has changed in Afghanistan that has an effect on data collection.  While the anecdotes about the Marines in Nawa is very interesting the report seems to elide or gloss over the fact that for the PRT or HTT, and even to some extent the CA, to go out and do their jobs of interacting with the local population to gather the information necessary to understand the socio-cultural context, socio-cultural dynamic, and socio-cultural location of the white layer elements that need to be engaged, they need to be able to go out.  In a clear and hold situation, which is too often what Afghanistan has been over the past eight years, it is very difficult for the information enablers to go and get the data that is needed to be successful.  This is also the case in Iraq.  I can tell you from first hand experience that the ability that my team had to operate effectively was a result of being in a comparatively stable operating environment (OE).  Had we been working with a brigade that had to concentrate on kinetic and lethal operations our ability to assist and enable would have been hampered and this would have changed the nature of our mission.

Moreover, there are too few enablers for the operations that we are conducting.  The Civil Affairs soldiers are taxed, we have too few foreign service officers (about 6,500 for the entire world), and each human terrain team was conceptualized as having nine members or so.  In my OE in Iraq, a geographic space about twice the size of the City of Baghdad, but with only about 400,000 people, I had six personnel, the PRT had seven personnel pulled from the Department of State, USAID, the Department of Agriculture, and the military with another five or six bilingual advisors, and our CA Company and CA Teams were short staffed because there is never enough of those guys to go around – and they are worth their weight in gold!  The result was we all tried to information enable for each other and for the brigade and battalions. 

From reading the Flynn report this seems to be the reality in Afghanistan as well.  At least for the parts of Afghanistan that we have personnel deployed in.  I have sat in meetings dealing with this issue where the question was repeatedly brought up: “how come we don’t have any information from this area?”  Looking at the part of the map being referred to the simple response is that there is no military presence in the area, which means no PRT, no CA, and no HTT there either.  Provincial Reconstruction, Civil Affairs, and Human Terrain members work very hard, but even they can’t bring back primary source data from places that no one is operating in.  So the real problems in collection of information, as well as intelligence, is too few personnel, non-permissive environments, and/or no coalition force presence in areas where decision makers would like to have primary source data from.

Knowledge Management

Based on my reading of the Flynn report the real issue is knowledge management; how to get the data from where it is residing to where it needs to be to enable proper decision making.  While it is always possible to improve some of that data such as making sure that there are always GPS coordinates included in one’s reports when referring to items that have to be situated in time and space or having complete names and kinship references, the real problem that needs to be fixed is how to manage the data.  This includes getting it out of people’s heads and into reports, as well as off of team, company, battalion, and brigade servers and sharepoints and into the hands of the decision makers.  One of the problems that the authors identify here is the multiple databases that material can be placed in and the often times difficult process of retrieval.  To resolve this they are recommending the creation of Information Centers that will collect, aggregate, and ultimately disseminate the white layer information collected in the field and through secondary sources.  While a coordinated network like this is a worthy endeavor, I have three concerns.  Firstly, would it not be simply more practical to take the existing CIM Cells, staffed by Civil Affairs personnel to manage the information at brigade, division, and corps and network them together to create the Information Centers? These personnel are already in place, specialize in this type of work, and have the capacity to work out in the field going all the way down to the company level to collect data that might not otherwise be pushed forward.  Why reinvent the wheel, as we so often do, when we can simply adapt and perfect a very useful system that is already in place.

My second concern is that the military in general, seemingly derived from military intelligence,  has two negative reinforcing dynamics: if you needed to know it you already would and if I know it and you don’t, then I’m more powerful than you.  Operationally relevant knowledge management will never be effective, regardless of the system that is put in place, until or unless this dynamic is broken!  My third concern is that aggregation and collection of data into a centralized location, is still not going to solve the problem.  The operational side of the House, whether hungry for information for non-lethal operations or intelligence for lethal ones must be fed!

Feeding the Beast

The real resolution to the knowledge flow and management problems that are identified in the Flynn Report come down to one issue: feeding the beast!  The operational side of the House is the beast and it wants to be fed constantly. While clearer guidelines about what information and intelligence need to be created, as well as a streamlined system for managing the compiling, archiving, and retrieval of this information will certainly go a long way towards fixing problems, they will not, at the end of the day, feed the beast.  The decision makers, whether a company, battalion, brigade, division, corps, or combatant commander, or senior executive, director, secretary, chairman, or president, all need to be constantly fed a diet of easily digestible, timely information to enable better decision making.  Information Centers, which are a great idea to help resolve these problems, still require that someone either pull data out or request data be pulled out to produce the material to satisfy the decision makers.  A far better approach, what I call feeding the beast, is to determine what format is most easily acceptable for each decision maker and how to get concise reports in those formats into that person’s briefing books.  To do this a number of institutional barriers have to come down.  For instance, after learning from attendance at a variety of working groups or by people contacting me directly that various decision makers did not feel as if they had the necessary human terrain/socio-cultural information necessary to make decisions I recommended to the HTS higher ups that we simply identify who to contact to get our stuff into these briefing books, work out the most accessible formats for these decision makers, and start feeding the beast.  I was commended for having a great idea and told that HTS was not allowed to do this, due to institutional constraints from above and outside the program, unless specifically asked to provide this type of direct support by the decision maker in question.  I know for a fact that HTS, just as the CA, the PRT, and other civilian agencies have a large portion of the information that these decision makers want, but until this constraint on the ability to proactively provide the information is removed the refinements in collection, storage, and retrieval will only produce a partial resolution. 

The suggestions that the authors of the Flynn Report make about the creation of estimates and summaries and reports at the Information Centers is, again, a very good start to solving the information enabling problem, but it is only a start and until that material is further broken down into concise, easy to access, and easily digestible formats and regularly provided to the decision makers it will not fix the problem.  If we’ve truly reached the point that we have to redefine and rework the process to satisfy the informational hunger of the decision makers, then retooling the system simply is not enough.  The beast is hungry, we have the ingredients to feed it a proper diet, but too often we’re not allowed to even prepare the meal, let alone serve it.

[1] [2] I make a distinction between the open primary and secondary source unclassified information that Army Human Terrain personnel, as well as the PRT, allied civilian agency, and NGO personnel collect, as well as some of the Civil Affairs data and what members of the military and civilian intelligence shops collect. The former I call information and the latter intelligence. The reason for this is because of classification, methodology, and purpose. Information is used to enable non-lethal engagements and operations (governance, reconstruction, development, reconciliation), while the latter is primarily used for targeting.  There is, of course, some overlap and each side of the house needs to be aware of the other side.

Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Leader for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from October 2007 to October 2008. Upon his redeployment to the United States he served as the U.S. Army Human Terrain System Strategic Advisor through June 2009. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the U.S. Army.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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