A Jan. 2010 report called “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan” written by Gen. Michael Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor may well be a useful blueprint to combat the tightening stranglehold being felt by many communities across America. It is also, in its own right, a remarkable analysis of some of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan.
Explicitly, the paper takes a look at the conflict in Afghanistan, the very real threat the Taliban exert on local, tribal communities, and how the collection of intel must and can be shifted to more effectively help forces operate to then “protect and persuade” the people of this Central Asian country. Metaphorically, this analysis has many useful parallels and lessons for Americans here and at this time.
The paper emphasizes a core belief that in fighting a counterinsurgency, “The most salient problems are attitudinal, cultural, and human.” It also points out that the intelligence community, at times misguidedly, places a high priority on secrecy and is, as a result, less likely to achieve “mission effectiveness.” The intelligence community, the authors believe, too easily “[falls] into the trap of waging anti-insurgency campaigns” which are “far from sufficient for military success in Afghanistan.”
The basic premise of the analysis is that, in order to be effective in Afghanistan, a shift in focus must happen—when it becomes clear the enemy is repeatedly winning. In this case, it was (and is) the Taliban in Afghanistan who has won. Simply stated, the authors contend that the focus must shift from a more enemy-centric, reactive mode to a more proactive focus on the lives of the people who are living under the thumb of fear and enemy threat.
Discussed is the reality people in the local Afghani communities face daily. They have learned patterns of behavior that help them function and operate daily in an environment of fear and imminent danger. Therefore, the analysis seems to advocate that an intelligence community that pursues a focus on the practicalities of the daily life of the local people; “the political, economic, and cultural environment” in which they live—is an intelligence community who will be more likely to guide a counterinsurgency that would reap the kind of lasting change local people need.
Such intel would go further to alter their willingness to distance themselves from a fear-based way of approaching daily life for themselves and their families than to merely react to attacks by the enemy.
“Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. 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 the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers—whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers.”
“Enemy-centric and counter-IED reports published by higher commands are of little use to warfighters in the field, most of whom already grasp who it is they are fighting and, in many cases, are the sources of the information in the reports in the first place. Officers in the field believe that the emphasis on force protection missions by spy planes and other non-HUMINT platforms should be balanced with collection and analysis of population-centric information. 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 irrigation project we paid him to put into service?”
Also highlighted in the paper is the experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, “when despite killing hundreds of thousands of Afghans, they faced a larger insurgency near the end of the war than they did at the beginning.” Again, the authors assert “the inescapable truth” that, counterintuitively, “merely killing insurgents usually serves to multiply enemies rather than subtract them.”
In summary, the authors explain:
1) brigade and regional command analytic products, in their present form, tell ground units little they do not already know; and 2) lethal targeting alone will not help U.S. and allied forces win in Afghanistan.
So what are the fresh elements of understanding and intel collection being advocated in the paper and how do they serve as a metaphor or a blueprint for our current climate of oppression here in the U.S.?
In both, grassroots-level engagement are key. The war is won or lost down at the local level. In fact, that is very much one of the foundational elements espoused by our founding fathers. The 10th Amendment set out to “confirm the understanding of the people at the time the Constitution was adopted, that powers not granted to the United States were reserved to the States or to the people.”
The authors of the paper describe the effect of a soldier’s actions on the battlefield. It doesn’t get any more grassroots than the boots on the ground. They discuss “the strategic corporal” or “how the actions of one soldier can have broader implications” on the nation as a whole. “Tactical-level information,” the authors emphasize, “is laden with strategic significance. All counterinsurgency is local. (‘Tip’ O’Neil).”
“In a counterinsurgency, the flow is (or should be) reversed. The soldier or development worker on the ground is usually the person best informed about the environment and the enemy. Moving up through levels of hierarchy is normally a journey into greater degrees of cluelessness.”
A critical passage in the analysis can be found below. It is a recounting of an incident in NAWA in late 2009. It cannot be stated more emphatically that a shift away from reaction to and a focus on the enemy to a proper focus on understanding the ecosystem, the realities, and the perceptions of the local community were key aspects of the turnaround.
“A small number of U.S. Marines and British soldiers were the only foreign forces in Nawa, a district of 70,000 farmers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The American and British troops could not venture a kilometer from their cramped base without confronting machine gun and rocket fire from insurgents. Local farmers, wary of reprisals by the Taliban, refused to make eye contact with foreign soldiers, much less speak with them or offer valuable battlefield and demographic information.”
“The tide began to turn in Nawa on July 2, when 800 Marines descended in helicopters and began sweeping across the district on foot, establishing nearly two dozen patrol bases in villages and cornfields along the way. Five months later and with few shots fired by Marines after their initial operation, the situation in Nawa is radically different. Insurgents find it substantially more difficult to operate without being ostracized or reported by farmers; government officials meet regularly with citizens to address their grievances, removing this powerful instrument of local control from the Taliban’s arsenal; the district center has transformed from a ghost town into a bustling bazaar; and IED incidents are down 90 percent. Nawa’s turnaround, although still fragile, could not have occurred without population-centric counterinsurgency techniques. This evolution illustrates the pivotal role intelligence plays when a battalion commits itself to understanding the environment at least as well as it understands the enemy.“
“The men of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines who fanned out across the district that hot July morning had to operate with no more supplies than they could carry on their backs. For weeks, they had no hardened bases, little electricity, and only radios for communication. The battalion S-2 and deputy intelligence officers, finding their unit widely dispersed across an alien environment without classified or unclassified data networks, responded with two particularly farsighted decisions. First, they distributed their intelligence analysts down to the company level, and second, they decided that understanding the people in their zone of influence was a top priority.”
The authors go on to say that how one deals with “local residents and their perceptions” can affect the way the war goes:
“What do locals think about the insurgents? Do they feel safer or less safe with us around? What disputes exist between villages or tribes? As the picture sharpened, the focus honed in on identifying what the battalion called ‘anchor points’—local personalities and local grievances that, if skillfully exploited, could drive a wedge between insurgents and the greater population. In other words, anchor points represented the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities.”
The battalion, in this case, found vulnerabilities to exploit using thoughtfully collected intel from the local people and elders. In the end, the integrated intelligence gave the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines the kind of information they needed to engage and strengthen the power structure of the local elders while at the same time subverting the Taliban power structure.
“The battalion commander partnered with the district governor, traveling with him constantly and participating in impromptu meetings with citizens to build their confidence in Afghan and U.S. security. To demonstrate the benefits of working with the Afghan government, the battalion facilitated development projects that addressed grievances identified through coordinated surveys of the populace by Marines and civilian officials. These efforts paid off. The district governor persuaded elders to reconstitute a traditional council featuring locally selected representatives from each sub-district. The council now serves as the primary advisory board to the Afghan government in Nawa.”
The paper also states that you must turn your focus to serving and supporting the battalions in the field. “Maps, imagery, surveillance, and SIGNT support” are some of the things battalions need. It is a “proactive approach” where officers:
“Use telephones or show up in person to walk the battalion’s S-2 through the support they can provide, like tailors fitting a customer for a new suit. They personally know the soldiers going out on patrol each day and this makes a difference.”
With this kind of intel collection and support, patterns of behavior are identified. Identifying those patterns in many cases prevent well-intended decisions from having unintended negative consequences.
The example of the building of water wells in Afghanistan is instructive:
“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.”
“Swedish troops operating in northern Afghanistan also found that new wells could create animosities between neighboring tribes by depleting the aquifer in one area in favor of another. This is a problem well known to water engineers the world over, but not necessarily to every executive agency or military commander operating in Afghanistan. The Swedes now repair wells rather than dig new ones. Without the ability to capture this simple history, prosaic as it may be, others are doomed to repeat it. Equally important is the cumulative effect of thousands of other small but important histories and cultural vignettes of this type.”
One of the wisest statements found in the analysis can be found in the quote from General McChrystal:
“The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.”
General McChrystal and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall recently wrote:
“History is replete with examples of powerful military forces that lost wars to much weaker opponents because they were inattentive to nuances in their environment…A single-minded obsession with IEDs, while understandable, is inexcusable if it causes commanders to fail to outsmart the insurgency and wrest away the initiative…”
“A military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks, is akin to the bull that repeatedly charges a matador’s cape— only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent,”
“This is predictable—the bull does what comes naturally. While a conventional approach is instinctive, that behavior is self-defeating.”
Where We Are Today
For over a year now, groups of parents have shown up at school board meetings, at rallies, in front of legislatures in hopes of wresting back freedoms that are rapidly slipping away. We have been told to mask up, vaccinate, stay home, stop talking, close businesses, leave loved ones to die alone, not to travel, not to get certain treatments, you-name-it. All these edicts and mandates are either coming from people we perceive to be in power or people we say have it. Are we, however, employing a winning strategy by focusing our time and attention on what the “enemy” is doing?
How can we use the lessons outlined in the blueprint from Afghanistan to change our paradigm? Who is the enemy and should our focus shift somewhere else? Who are the people we seek to help, protect, and persuade and how are we collecting the kind of intel on them that will engage their support and subvert the enemy? Why do we keep losing at the mercy of school boards, legislatures, and bureaucrats in our government? Are we falling into the “trap of anti-insurgency,” chasing our tails, reacting to the enemy and losing our story and our strength? Is our mission ineffective because of secrecy and an unwillingness to share the practices that have the power to shift the power to us?
Do we adequately understand the fears of our silent allies—those individuals we seek to enjoin our fight? Why is it that some continue to bring their 5-year-olds to school in a mask even when they may already know the masks help very little and, in fact, may even be harmful? What lessons can we learn from the battalions in NAWA? What can we do to understand other “people in their zone of influence” and help them explore and offer their talents for the benefit of the community? How can we help people repair and continue to drink from their own wells?
It seems that there is a message in this blueprint that is poignantly relevant to what is now happening in our country. Would these authors suggest that Americans are so focused on “the enemy” that they are failing? Should our focus now shift to one of operating proactively by our rules? Perhaps the time for thinking we can persuade the enemy is now over.
We aren’t winning. The enemy isn’t listening. Maybe it is because we are playing by the enemy’s rules. Maybe it is time to make our own ecosystem, informed by “intelligence”—the kind which gives our silent allies the tools they need to resist tyranny and regain their freedoms.
If the fear is loss of school structure, maybe we form home school communities. Many are already cropping up. If the worry is lack of childcare, maybe a community pulls together and helps its mothers. Band together. Shore each other up. Show others what it really means to resist a mask mandate by staying home for a month en masse. Send a clear and unified message that you mean business.
Can a website be developed that creates an ecosystem of doctors, media, businesses, school options, churches, and platforms that support a community that seeks freedom from tyranny? What ideas do you have that embolden the ones who are too afraid to speak up? What can you do to learn more about what the barriers for unified participation are?
We are in uncharted waters. The way is not clear. However, it is becoming abundantly clear that we are continuing to focus on and react to an enemy that has little interest in our livelihoods, our health, our wellbeing, and our communities.
The time has come to shift the focus from the enemy to the people we seek to protect and persuade—our children, our grandchildren, and all the allies who have been sitting on the sidelines, hoping the tyranny will magically disappear. It won’t.
Help your allies make better decisions by giving them the support they need to overcome whatever their perceived or real barriers are. Be there to catch them when they fall. Help them find the tools they need. Make them, not the “enemy,” the object of your time and treasure.
The message is being sent loud and clear. We are fighting and losing because we are fighting by the terms of the enemy while thinking that is the way we win. Sometimes the way you shift your perspective makes all the difference in the outcomes you seek. “Tactical-level information is laden with strategic significance.”
In the words of Sun Tzu, “One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.”