06 January 2010

Fixing Intel: Empowering Companies at the Tactical Edge

Although many have probably already seen the “Fixing Intel” report published by CNAS this week, I wanted to link to it and highly encourage you take the time to read it. Written by MG Flynn (ISAF J2), CPT Matt Pottinger (his aide), and Paul Batchelor (DIA), the report is a brutally honest assessment of the current state of military intelligence efforts in Afghanistan [*For a great profile of MG Flynn, see this LA Times article from November]. Examining our intelligence process through the lens of a full-spectrum counterinsurgency (COIN) perspective, Flynn concludes that, “Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy,” and that, “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."

Afghan Intel - Flynn (Jan 10)

MG Flynn does a great job of laying out many of the critical shortfalls in the existing military intelligence (MI) system and then proceeds to recommend several major changes to the way business is currently done. Most importantly, MG Flynn points out that,

“The U.S. intelligence community has fallen into the trap of waging an anti-insurgency campaign rather than a counterinsurgency campaign. The difference is not academic. Capturing or killing key mid-level and high-level insurgents – anti-insurgency – is without question a necessary component of suc­cessful warfare, but far from sufficient for military success in Afghanistan. Anti-insurgent efforts are, in fact, a secondary task when compared to gain­ing and exploiting knowledge about the localized contexts of operation and the distinctions between the Taliban and the rest of the Afghan popula­tion.”

While his recommendations span the entire spectrum from tactical to strategic, I’d like to focus my comments on the tactical level considerations since this is where I believe we can have the greatest impact and this is where the expertise of most of the Al Sahwa authors lies.

Under Flynn’s proposed changes, the scope of what tactical-level intelligence analysts will be responsible for increases dramatically. I wholeheartedly agree that intelligence shops at the Battalion level should be focused on gaining an in-depth understanding of all of the complex factors at play in their operational environment (governance, economics, development, local populace, etc.). In many cases, however, Battalion S2 sections are under-staffed, over-tasked, and under-resourced. Priorities from their commander are often more focused on lethal targeting and with limited time and resources the “non-lethal” elements of the fight can become an afterthought. As the reports explains, “At the battalion level and below, intelligence officers know a great deal about their local Afghan districts but are generally too understaffed to gather, store, disseminate, and digest the substantial body of crucial information that exists outside traditional intelligence channels.” This doesn’t excuse a lack of production on their part, but just means that we must change how things are currently done (as MG Flynn argues).

In my opinion, the most effective way to improve the system is to make an investment at the tactical level by providing more resources to maneuver battalions and companies – best achieved by institutionalizing and empowering Company Intelligence Support Teams (CoISTs) across the force. If we are expecting these elements to expand the scope of their responsibilities, we must resource them to do so. As MG Flynn highlights in the section of the report that discusses one of the units that “got it right” (1/5 Marines in Helmand province), the company level is where the greatest potential for understanding the environment exists. We must enable maneuver commanders at the company level to capitalize on this opportunity and gain true situational understanding (SU). For more on the successes of the 1/5 Marines, see JD's previous post here.

In order to effectively visualize and understand all of the complex factors at play in a company’s operational environment (OE), the commander must be resourced with a team of analysts who are properly trained and resourced to do the job. Many units across the Army have created ad hoc company-level intelligence sections that have been extremely effective in both Iraq and Afghanistan (such as the units highlighted by MG Flynn – 1/5 Marines, 1-91 CAV, and 3-71 CAV). However, there are still too many units who don’t get this right. The Army must develop a standardized manning, training, and equipping plan for these CoISTs and make them part of a unit’s MTOE, rather than relying on each unit to create these sections from their existing personnel. The Army must agree on what the core capabilities must be for the CoIST and use this as a baseline to develop a robust plan to man, train, and equip them.

I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about this topic, especially after hearing LTG Zahner (the Army G2) discuss his plan for “Rebalancing the MI Force.” (For more details on this plan, see LTG Zahner’s slides here and his article here). Based on my experiences as a Battalion S2 who implemented a somewhat successful system of company-level intelligence sections in Iraq (we called them “Company S2s rather than CoISTs), I propose the following six core capabilities for CoISTs that must be capable of conducting full-spectrum operations ranging from COIN to foreign internal defense (FID) to conventional offensive operations:
Follow-on posts will discuss more details on how to properly man, train, and equip these CoISTs, but I would greatly appreciate your thoughts/input on what core capabilities we should focus on.


  1. Pat,

    You are familiar with my work on trying to figure out a quantitative way to effectively measure the religious/cultural landscape. Afghanistan is a case in point, but as you discuss here, the intel community is largely "unable to answer fundamental questions about the envi­ronment."

    I think, first off, that cultural analysts are needed for IPE - specifically ASCOPE. Even if these analysts are limited in operational military training, they will still be able to answer the who, what, when, and where for environment prep.

    You state that we should "make an investment at the tactical level by providing more resources to maneuver battalions and companies – best achieved by institutionalizing and empowering Company Intelligence Support Teams (CoISTs) across the force." I think a sound administrative objective should be to begin to integrate a comprehensive span of social sciences.

    As I have argued, religion (and a certain theological perspective) stand within this model. Religiously-minded analysts, or analysts who understand thoroughly the religio-cultural underpinnings - are needed to consistently assess the morphing ideology and tactics of jihadi terrorism. In order to do this, they need to be on the ground at the company level as you rightly conclude.

    A case in point - Al Shabaab's call to Muslims to join the fight in Yemen.

    What say you as an experienced S2?

  2. Dan:

    Thanks for the response. Two things come to mind based on your comments:

    1) There are already teams composed of political scientists, cultural/linguistic experts, reconstruction experts, etc. They are part of the Human Terrain Team (HTT) program, which usually attaches an 8-10 person team to BCTs in theater. They are tasked with helping the BDE commander to better visualize the various elements of human terrain. Theoretically, this is a great idea. However, in practice the program is a large failure. Based on my personal experiences with the team assigned to the Ninewa province area in N. Iraq, I was extremely disappointed with what they produced. Much of this is personality dependent, but we need to improve this program to better enable the teams. I would recommend increased training in IPE (Intelligence Preparation of the Environment) and non-lethal targeting, so that the teams are able to translate their "civilian" expertise into something the military can understand.

    2) As far as embedding religious/cultural experts any lower than BCT level, it's just not going to happen. Great in theory, but there just are not enough resources to give an HTT-like element to every BN in combat. What we can do, however, is heed the advice of MG Flynn and change the mindset (and some of our training methodologies and collection focus) to make sure that our 35F Intelligence Analysts are able to conduct true IPE that includes all of the ASCOPE elements and many of the facets of Human Terrain. I think this is pretty reasonable to do given the proper attitude and command emphasis.

    One final thought: I do think there's some value in considering the formation of HTT teams or cultural-expert teams to deploy to areas where we don't have a large conventional presence (such as Somalia, Yemen, W. Africa), but we do have SOF and SF training elements. This would allow us to build a greater understanding of the complex cultural and political landscape in these areas and be able to have some already developed knowledge and analysis of the operational environment in case of future operations there.