In what is arguably one of the most radical reorganisations of intelligence operations ever attempted in the middle of a conflict, US Army intelligence officers operating in Afghanistan are to be trained to operate like journalists, to collect and gather information from the front line in the hope of avoiding the narrow, sterile, issue-based intelligence-gathering that appears to be failing so comprehensively at present.
The outline for this new method of working is set out in a publication from the Center for a New American Security called Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for making intelligence relevant in Afghanistan by Major General Michael T Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence, for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan since June 2009.
As he says in the document's introduction: "Just as the old rules of warfare may no longer apply, a new way of leveraging and applying the information spectrum requires substantive improvements."
In fact his assessment makes it clear that the US reliance on covert intelligence gathering and all the other paraphernalia of modern intel operations has led to a situation in Afghanistan where commanders can no longer see the wood for the trees.
Flynn begins his report with a damning critique of eight years of intelligence gathering in Afghanistan: "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 powerbrokers 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 – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency."
At the battalion level, he says, intelligence officers read human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and signficant activity (SIGACT) reports to try to get an idea of the battlefield.
But these officers rarely gather or process information from patrol debriefs, minutes from local shuras with farmers and tribal leaders, translated summaries of radio broadcasts or field observations from a wide range of personnel.
This leads to an over-emphasis of information about the enemy at the expense of political, economic and cultural information - most of it unclassified - that provides ways of marginalising the insurgency. Battalion commanders have begun to realise that they learn more about their own battlefield from reading newspaper reports than they ever would from reading material collated by their own intelligence officers. The newspaper reports discuss more than the enemy and IEDs.
He quotes one battalion operations officer: "“I don’t want to say we’re clueless, but we are. We’re no more than fingernail deep in our understanding of the environment.”
Flynn proposes that in future intelligence analysts should integrate information collected by a wide range of agencies, including civil affairs officers, atmospherics teams, Afghan liaison officers, female engagement teams, NGOs, UN officials, psyops teams, human terrain teams and others, dividing their work geographically, instead of along functional lines. Their reports will attempt to describe what is happening in a particular district from all standpoints, instead of having separate reports on governance, narco-traficking, insurgent networks, etc - an approach that Flynn recognises is not working.
Flynn says the analysts who have gathered this information will provide it to 'information brokers' who will organise all the reports and distribute them. Both analysts and brokers will be part of what Flynn calls Stability Operations Information Centers, together with State Department officials.
Flynn says "Leaders must put time and energy into selecting the best, most extroverted and hungriest analysts to serve in the Stability Operations Information Centers. These will be among the most challenging and rewarding jobs an analyst could tackle.
The highly complex environment in Afghanistan requires an adaptive way of thinking and operating."
Indeed the very format of this report is unique. Its author says it should be regarded as a directive (ie an order). Why did they choose to publish it in an open format, instead of as a memo to the general staff? "We chose to embody it in this unconventional report, and are taking the steps to have it published by a respected think tank, in order to broaden its reach to commanders, intelligence professionals and schoolhouse instructors outside, as well as inside, Afghanistan. Some of what is presented here reinforces existing top-level orders that are being acted on too slowly. Other initiatives in this paper are new, requiring a shift in emphasis and a departure from the comfort zone of many in the intelligence community."
Flynn's approach is exactly the same as that adopted by the British more than 100 years ago when fighting against the Afghan tribes. British officers immersed themselves in the culture and language of the Pashtuns, even translating their poetry and epic literature and compiling enormously detailed reports on tribes and areas. Colonel H C Wylly's From the Black Mountain to Waziristan, Lieutenant Charles Gray Robertston's Kurum, Kabul and Kandahar, the anonymous Report on Waziristan and its Tribes - these and dozens of other books published in the late nineteenth century are still the best sources on many of the tribes and their histories.
Then again, there are those who have spent a lifetime studying the Afghans who would claim they still don't really understand much at all....