A report on how the U.S. military needs to revamp its intel gathering operations in Afghanistan is causing quite a stir. Authored by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan” contains fairly gutsy admissions–like the U.S. is pretty much “clueless” (a direct quote)when it comes to figuring out what’s going on in the communities they’re operating in. Good at killing bad guys and mapping insurgent networks, the report says, bad at understanding the local political, economic, and cultural dynamics.
One of the other more startling quotes in the report comes from General Stanley McChrystal. According to the report, McChrystal said at a recent meeting:
“Our senior leaders – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the President of the United States – are not getting the right information to make decisions with … The media is driving the issues. We need to build a process from the sensor all the way to the political
The report goes on to say:
“It is little wonder, then, that many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain “ground truth.””
So what does it recommend? (At least in part.)
“Select teams of analysts will be empowered to move between field elements, much like journalists, to visit collectors of information at the grassroots level and carry that information back with them to the regional command level.”
A few things to unpack.
1) In my experience, it seems that one of the main goals of the U.S. military and others in our foreign policy officialdom over the past 5 years has been to prove the media wrong. That is, they are often very dismissive of media reports, claiming they are exaggerated, false, biased, too negative. (And there are some truths to these claims at times, of course.)
2) So U.S. officialdom doesn’t like to believe media reports, and often actively discredits them. But, if what the report says is true, and the media has been the primary source of information for “ground truth,” then isn’t it somewhat ironic that they are relying information they claim not to believe?
3) On the whole, and with notable exceptions, I would agree that American officials in Afghanistan and Iraq often seem “clueless,” especially the higher one climbs up the chain away from the dudes in the field, who can’t afford to be clueless, at least not to the same extent. I always wonder if it’s because top officials really don’t know what’s going on, or if they actually know what’s going on but publicly pretend to spin it, or if they’ve just convinced themselves of their version of events (that, again, in my experience is often regularly contradicted by reality’s liberal bias.)
Okay. So can this intel problem be fixed by sending out U.S. government employed analysts in the field as if they were journalists?
A) The report doesn’t address, or doesn’t seem to recognize, the fundamentally different “missions” of being a journalist versus being a representative of the USG.
B) When a journalist goes to Village X, and convinces people to speak to him/her, the tacit bargain between interviewer and interviewee is something like this: I want to hear your story. I want to understand your suffering, your pain, your situation. I want to bring attention to it. I am a (somewhat!) honest broker, looking for the truth, and that truth, though perhaps not directly beneficial to you, might help you in an undefined and vague way, so you should talk to me. Maybe the publicity can help you pursue your own goals, whatever those might be. Plus, you get to see your name in the paper or your face on TV. And I agree George W. Bush is a prick who ruined the world.
C) The tacit bargain of an intelligence analyst interviewing a resident in Village X would be somewhat different. Something like: “I’m a representative of the USG, and we’d like to hear about your situation so the information can be used to pursue American foreign policy goals in your country. Our main tool to pursue those goals is the direct application of violence, though we give out tons of money, too. Lucky for you, our intentions are benevolent, and by helping us establish the kind of government we want in your country, you’re actually helping yourselves. We don’t like the Taliban, and you shouldn’t either. Btw, not to harp on this, but if you and your village doesn’t get on board, we have 150,000 foreign troops here, a portion of which eventually might be used to convince you otherwise. Yes, I guess it would be fair to call me a spy, though I prefer the term civilian analyst, and sure, I realize that the CIA doesn’t have the best reputation around these parts, and you don’t want to be viewed as a collaborator but…Did I mention we have a bunch of money?”
D)There is an obvious “security” problem here that USG analysts face that journalists don’t. Journos can travel lightly, without armed guards. How will these new teams of analysts travel? In MRAPS? In convoys guarded by Triple Canopy or Blackwater? The dangers of USG analysts traveling is one of the prime reasons for the cluelessness to begin with-it’s not safe enough for them to go outside of isolated compounds. The presence of armed men is not always conducive to getting valuable and forthright information.
E) Journalism has a very streamlined and efficient structure(more streamlined each passing day of layoffs, actually)compared to the cumbersome bureaucracy of the intel community. Journalist goes out, doesn’t need to get permission from anyone to do so, gets his story, sends the story to a couple of dudes back in New York or DC or London on a Gmail account, and bam, there you go. There is usually only one or two layers between information gathered and information disseminated. The report recommends making the military intel gathering process more efficient, but the military bureaucracy loves its bureaucracy.
F) The incentive for the journalist is to usually highlight the most provocative, disconcerting, negative, and inflammatory bits of information he has gathered. The journalist has incentives to criticize, rain on the parade, piss all over the conventional narrative.
G)Those incentives don’t exist in the military.The culture is very much to not rock the boat, to stay positive, to tell people what they want to hear.
H) From conversations with American military and diplomatic officials over the years, sending information up the chain of command that does not fit into “good news,” that has the potential to make someone somewhere along the way up look bad, isn’t always appreciated. The incentives, in fact, are to smooth the rough edges of reality to fit with the preconceived notions of the clowns back in DC. Now, this report addresses intel gathering on things like the basic facts of area–who are the political leaders, what the economic indicators are etc–but even these kinds of issues might be seen as something better off left unexamined. Or, even more likely, the really good information will be highly classified, so nobody knows about it. (Like the fact that Leader of Village X is an opium smuggling and arms dealing pedophile who used to work with the Taliban and has ties to Al Qaeda, but had some kind of falling out, and now he’s on our side!)
I) Last point. What’s kind of crazy is that we’re 9 years into the war in Afghanistan, have spent hundreds of billions of dollars there, and our some of our top ranking military officials admit we are still “clueless” about the basics. My God! How much money have we spent on intel gahering operations there, I wonder? A few billion, at least, if not tens of billions. How much has the entire Western media spent on covering the war in Afghanistan? Tens of millions of dollars? Certainly, a tiny fraction of what the military spends.
J) My suggestion? Have the USG give a few hundred billion to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times–they could use the money, and they’d be better able to tell you what’s up!