January 27, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading

The senior American int guy in Afghanistan is... not sounding optimistic. (Not that an army int guy ever should.)

No dice on more troops from NATO, reports the Washington Post. The 4,000 they've found this year barely keep pace with the Dutch soldiers they're losing.

Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum's back in as the Afghan army chief of staff, less than two years after having been fired for obstructing justice.

Finally, reports of an unimpressive turnout from the Turkish contingent guarding Kabul during the Jan. 18 attack there:

Worrisome as well was the apparent failure of foreign soldiers to come to the front-line aid of Afghans under siege. NATO officials said they had played an "advisory" role to Afghan security forces that finally managed, after six hours, to repel the attack and restore a semblance of order.

Turkey has the lead role with the International Security Assistance Force in protection of Kabul. But an interpreter who works for the Turks in their HQ said commanders had refused to involve their soldiers.

"The commander said, 'These are internal issues and you people have to deal with it yourself,'" the translator, who asked that his name not be used, told the Star. "He said, 'We don't want to be involved in the war.'

Posted by BruceR at 10:36 PM

On fertilizer

I was ragging on the Kandahar press pool a couple days ago, but Sonia Verma has penned a perfectly good piece in the Globe on reaction to the ban on high-nitrate fertilizer in Kandahar Province.

While obviously you've got to do something if Verma's correct that 95% of the fertilizer is being used for IEDs, the blowback pattern here is undoubtedly going to be similar to cracking down on opium... punishing all farmers for the actions of a few bad apples, doubling one of their key fixed costs overnight, making the Afghan government look both cruel AND weak... it's not good.

Towards the end of my tour, I recall a delivery from one of our teams in the field. All very well packaged up, I was kind of hoping for captured documents, but no: it was three empty 1-litre plastic water bottles each filled with a different kind of nitrate fertilizer taken from somewhere in the Arghandab, along with matching pictures of the bags etc., and a very thorough RFI (request for information) politely requesting that I find out for them which was the kind that you made bombs from. Apparently they'd been patrolling a bazaar or some such and were attempting to do a little detective work on the occupants. Smart, I thought at the time.

The answer I got, though, which I'm ashamed to say for morale reasons I never fully shared with the guys in the field, was that ALL of their three fertilizer samples were perfectly good for bomb-making purposes. Every day it seems, they had been surrounded with mounds of bags all carrying a key element in their own potential destruction. No, I thought, I can't do that to them: they were just trying too hard to do the right thing here, to pick the right bad guy out of the crowd, to hit them with that, at that point only a few days before they all headed home. I left the RFI response and the fertilizer samples for my successor, and theirs, to deal with.

Posted by BruceR at 09:41 PM

January 26, 2010

Arghandab update: Worst. Briefing. Ever?

The current rumour among American military sources is that the sudden firing of the CO and battalion sergeant-major of 2/508 Infantry, a U.S. battalion currently operating under Canadian Task Force command in Kandahar Province, actually could relate partly or even wholly to some non-PC slides in a PowerPoint deck observed on that Jan. 7 visit that I mentioned by Gen. McChrystal and Senators McCain and Lieberman to the Arghandab*. Again, that's only the most common rumour going around, in the absence of other info. But... woah. Talk about Death by PowerPoint if any of that turns out to be even remotely true.

*Any suggestions the offending slide was a risque Photoshop involving the senators and Sarah Palin are, I'm sure, utterly without foundation.

UPDATE: Gulliver at Ink Spots has an in-depth analysis of the American effort in the Arghandab to date. Among other things, he points out a Facebook post where the recently fired U.S. CO, LTC Jenio, said his battalion, the 2-508 Para Infantry, was being "a helluva lot more aggressive" than it's predecessor (previous error corrected; see update #2 below). I hope those two CO's never run into each other at a mess dinner... as far as the first half of Gulliver's piece, I've previously mentioned here how 1-17's reported penchant for large sweep operations was related to the limitations they were operating under, but still somewhat alarming:

There's a lot of debate about whether large wheeled APCs like the US LAVs and their Canadian equivalents are good vehicles for the Arghandab terrain, which is very similar to the Zhari terrain, that frustrated Canadians for three full years (possibly even more restrictive, in fact). You've got to go dismounted. A lot. Going with tracked instead of wheeled APCs wouldn't help much, either: the real problem is that moving large vehicles past heavily irrigated orchards and fields (two words: foot bridges) on very narrow high walled roads means inevitably either destroying the irrigation, the fields, or the walls to some degree every time you do it, even if you weren't worried about the IED threat. In the Arghandab, as mentioned below, the main FOB (Frontenac) is farther away from the key terrain areas, on a canalized line of march, giving ample early warning and interdiction abilities, as well.

Combine that with trying to keep on side a population that until recently was strongly pro-government and you have a devil of a pickle. The article mentions some American officers were focussed on creating smaller platoon bases, presumably so they could get troops down into the valley at night; I know we had a devil of a time with that ourselves. If you wish to avoid expropriation, competing land claims (there is no Afghan land registry, so you tend to end up paying everyone and adding months of delay each time you try to buy something to put up a new base), and general unwillingness to have a FOB as a neighbour (you'd be a NIMBY too if there was the possibility of direct fire attacks every night) often leads to ISAF forces taking over the local school or district centre or some other public property location. Which is obviously not a great way to advance your development aims.

Note Naylor's article doesn't mention an ANSF contribution to the Arghandab fight at all: I suspect they were as limited in terms of support in this regard as the forces in Helmand, where a shortage of ANSF has often been remarked upon, were. I also found interesting the US focus on clearance operations (Canadian forces, in part to avoid alienating the government's last friends in the area, always insisted on Afghan troops for any sweeps in the Arghandab), and the belief of 1/17 going in that direct fire attacks would be a greater threat in Kandahar Province than IEDs. I honestly don't know how you could believe that, knowing anything about what we were dealing with a year ago.

UPDATE #2: Gulliver clarifies that LTC Jenio's "helluva lot more aggressive" quote (found here) refers to the unit he and 2-508 previously relieved in Helmand in August 2009 (probably from the same Illinois National Guard brigade, 33rd BCT, that had the PMT duty when I was there), not 1-17 in Arghandab. Still seems an unusual thing for any CO to say publicly about the guys he's relieving though.

UPDATE #3: In other news, friends or proxies of the spouses of the fired LTC and of the Colonel who fired him are duelling it out in Ricks' comments now. Seems there was some history there, although it's hard to see that as a reason for a battalion sergeant-major getting sacked, too. This is getting positively sordid.

Posted by BruceR at 06:48 PM

January 25, 2010

Canadian terp story: the unmentioned factor

Over at Milnews, growing concern over the delays in helping former Canadian interpreters emigrate.

I suspect a lot of the problem here is the problems with getting local national interpreters into KAF (cough... without getting caught... cough). Most terps don't have the ISAF accreditation to walk onto the base, which when I was there took over a year to complete. Hence you can't put any office meant to expedite their emigration on KAF itself: you have to put it in the city somewhere.

Do I have to explain the problem with having a fixed address in the city where Canadian-employed interpreters can visit to get help with their immigration application? Most of these guys' mothers don't know what they really do for us. And anyone who walked in the door would risk being strung up out in Loya Wiyala by midnight.

The smart thing to do would have been to set up a seacan or temporary office in the space between the Afghan outer security cordon around KAF, which terps can normally get through without drawing undue attention, and the ISAF inner cordon, which they can't get through very easily, a massive donut of space which includes the 1950s civilian air terminal, the Afghan army base etc., and man that post with Canadian civilians. I had some of my best and most memorable times out "between the lines" as it were; it's really pretty safe, compared to the rest of the countryside.

Trouble is, when I was there, most Canadian civilian employees at KAF were not cleared to go even into the intercordon areas for safety reasons. So for instance they couldn't (officially... cough) help much with the school for the Afghan soldiers' kids that's out there, either. So, I'm sure rather than fight that issue, someone chose to scratch that plan and go back to Afghan local nationals working somewhere in the city and shipping properly completed, translated applications back to the Canadian government, um, somehow. This when the country has no working internet or couriers, and dropping off or entrusting flash sticks with the personal details of a whole bunch of potential lynching targets poses its own set of problems. Yeah, this one is going to take a while...

Posted by BruceR at 08:46 PM

Rough times in the Arghandab, redux: American CO working for Canadian TF sacked

From Ricks, the CO of 2/508th Para Infantry, which as I understood it was at least TACON to the Canadian Task Force Kandahar and responsible for covering Arghandab District for us since last month, has been relieved of command. Reason given being his "actions were of poor judgment which fostered a command climate that was not consistent with our Army values." Oops. (No more known than that, but when one sees language about "command climate" and "judgment" and "values" it can often suggest allegations of inappropriate conduct involving one's own troops, rather than tactical failings.*)

The relief comes less than two months after the previous U.S. battalion in Arghandab, 1/17 Infantry, fired its company commander responsible for the same district, and shortly thereafter was moved out altogether in favour of the paratroopers. Arghandab District has always been a tough nut to crack, but these sorts of hiccups can hardly be helping to establish any continuity of approach on the Canadians' or ISAF's part. The district as a whole really seems to be a bit of a career-ender for commanders at the moment. Better luck to the next guy.

UPDATE: The CO's relief must have come shortly after this event on Jan. 7, where he briefed the ISAF commander in the company of Senators McCain and Lieberman.

UPDATE #2: A commenter over at Ricks' place notes the fired CO, LTC Jenio, was COL Steele's Brigade S3 in Iraq at the time of the 2006 Iron Triangle murder controversy, which ended up with Steele reprimanded and three soldiers convicted for murder. Small world.

UPDATE #3: 2/508 recently also lost one of its own company commanders, Capt. Paul Pena, and another soldier to an IED while on a foot patrol on Jan. 19. Note Jenio is not quoted in any of the coverage, indicating he was already out of theatre.

Aside: given that this is the most significant thing to happen at KAF in nearly a month, and undoubtedly a prime gossip item in every coffee line there, I'm kinda surprised none of our Canadian pool reporters there had picked up on it yet, and left it to a guy at the Fayetteville Observer back home to get the scoop. Kinda reminds me of when Jim Day, working for the tiny Pembroke Ontario daily (also called the Observer) heard about the Somalia allegations first. Desk editors here in Canada might want to get someone to check the huts to see if their reporters are under the weather. If they are conscious, questions they might want to forcefeed them would include: was Canadian task force commander BGen Menard consulted on the Americans' decision to fire his immediate subordinate? Did he request it himself? etc. (I'm sure things were at sixes and sevens after the tragic loss of reporter Michelle Lang to an IED four weeks ago, Haiti, etc., but surely some arrangements have been made to keep press coverage in Afghanistan going. This strongly suggests they're not working.)

*Also the fact the battalion sergeant-major was relieved at the same time. If this involved a battlefield failing the CO would be wearing it with a different member of his staff, or alone, not with the unit's lead disciplinarian.

Posted by BruceR at 07:32 PM

January 18, 2010

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan

Maj. Jim Gant is, well, going Gant.

Christian and the Security Crank both let fly with both barrels.

Maj. Gant, for those just joining us, is the leading proponent of the "arm the tribes" solution to Afghanistan at the moment, who has grown popular for his advocacy for small Special Forces type teams disappearing into the mountains and essentially going native.

I've already cited my own concerns about the Gant approach, which aren't as extensive or condemnatory as those others.

Yes, it's absolutely true what Christian says, "Using “tribe” as your dominant analytical tool will lead to failure [in Afghanistan]. The individual is important. Even if it is not as obvious as in western Europe."

And it's true that Maj. Gant's writing is frequently lacking in both discretion and any kind of academic rigour, and certainly presumes too much in believing his approach in the eastern highlands could ever be replicated across all of Afghanistan, which is too complex a country for any "one size fits all" approach. There should also be serious concerns about how to keep any approach from undercutting parallel Afghan security force development efforts. He's clearly a rough-hewn fellow, one whose close association with sword-and-sandals fiction author Steven Pressfield has both helped and hurt. (And yes, the Washington Post piece on his being sent to Afghanistan is embarrassingly fawning.)

That said, I'd still have to agree wholeheartedly with the "smaller footprint" part of the argument he's making. Greater integration of Western forces with existing Afghan security structures, even the ad hoc, tribal kind, is a must. Getting out and living with the people is a must. We can't look down from on high and hope that's going to help. Given a choice between the continued kind of utter isolation we saw this year in incidents like the Kunduz tanker bombing and the Gant approach writ large, I'd still favour the latter. Insofar as he is an advocate for engagement qua engagement, he's in the right.

Also, the guy's a fluent Pashto speaker, who seems to genuinely like the Afghans he knows, and has no problem foregoing personal security and creature comforts and sharing risk and hardships living among them. The real problem isn't that there's a Maj. Gant. The problem is that, for whatever reason, and despite years of effort, we don't have more Gant-types in the western military contingents in Afghanistan than we do yet to compare and contrast with him. We should have had a lot more people with Maj. Gant's experiences behind them by now... and if we had, I daresay we'd be doing a lot better than we have been.

Maj. Gant doesn't have the history to really situate his ideas, but when he's talking about the tribes, what he's really evoking is dialling down the level of military engagement, back to a time (call it the 19th century on the Northwest Frontier) that talking about "the tribes" was top-notch stuff. Back then, Gant-ishness made sense, because it was the only thing possible, logistically. Nowadays we have almost no logistical limitations that matter, and it has led us to go in too heavy and too intrusively, too expansively right from the start... to the point where dialling things back down to something sensible and sustainable like "let's do what we need to do keep the Afghan urban majority safe and content, and not try to push further into their hinterland than their own government's writ extends, other than maybe with some Gant-style teams and bribery" seems ever so far away.

Maj. Gant is really one more version, a very flawed but personally charismatic one, of the increasingly general call for the Afghan military effort to return to some sense of reality, and he should probably only be engaged as such, not as a universal blueprint for success or anything. And frankly I very much doubt the American military leadership who's brought him back to Afghanistan sees him as anything much more than that. I give them that much credit.

War effort critics like Christian and the Crank, who come at Afghanistan from the academic, socio-political-anthropological field, and who both have extensive in-country "down among the central Asians" experience themselves, may not be seeing any commonality there, so caught up as they are in all the obvious and lamentable failings of the good Major's philosophy and writing. But the two of them and the Gantians seem really flip sides of the same coin in some ways, too. They don't need to like Maj. Gant, but I hope they wouldn't see him as an unremitting threat, either. Because unlike some people in the military they may have tried to work with in the past, Maj. Gant, or at least someone who had read and respected Maj. Gant, might be just the kind of guy who might actually listen to them and try to operationalize their work someday. Just saying.

Posted by BruceR at 08:56 AM

January 14, 2010


The Globe:

The first main elements of the DART, the Forces' 200-strong rapid-response team, will land this morning in Port-au-Prince in a massive C-17 Globemaster cargo plane that will carry medical supplies and personnel, search-and-rescue technicians and equipment, and engineers to help re-establish power and phone service.

It will also carry two CH-146 Griffon helicopters, part of batch of at least four helicopters being sent to help transport needed items through a country in rubble: another Griffon is to leave later Thursday on a cargo plane, and a Sea King will sail with the navy ships.

The frigate HMCS Halifax and destroyer HMCS Athabaskan are to set sail Thursday, loaded with medical equipment, engineering supplies, along with such tools as chainsaws, plus with 500 sailors, soldiers, and airmen.

PS: That'd be Napoleon the First, you miserable ignorant moron.

Posted by BruceR at 12:01 AM

January 10, 2010

Cordesman on Flynn

I think Tony Cordesman, a seasoned int veteran, has written the definitive take on the Flynn report, "Fixing Intel." I agree with every word. My favourite quote:

"As a final comment, Fixing Intel repeatedly focuses on the need for internal transparency and to fight the tendency towards overclassification and compartmentation. This reflects a valid concern, and a tacit recognition of the fact that one never knows whether one is better off shooting the enemy, or ones own public affairs and security officers. All three actions generally have the same positive effect."

It's not all that wry, of course. His comments on the failure of accurate assessments of host nation forces being a major cause of defeat in Vietnam resonate strongly with me. Also what he has to say on intelligence-sharing with Pakistan.

It always baffled me that any product about the enemy in Afghanistan, from route names to assessments, to UAV feeds, was classified, and therefore unshareable with any of our Afghan friends. But that same information in many cases could be shared with the Pakistani ISI, because they were an ally, even if we may have doubted they were monolithically opposed to the Afghan Taliban. Afghanistan technically was not an ally, so we couldn't tell them anything we knew.

On the other hand, any assessments of Afghan force capability were by definition unclassified. I'm not complaining, it's the main reason I have been able to be so frank here and elsewhere about what I did, but... the lack of a classified alternative meant that any such assessments risked becoming sugar-coated almost beyond recognition, for fear that, you know, someone somewhere might read them -- since anyone can read the unclassified stuff -- and see them as disparaging to Afghans. And since the tendency for something to be read (or at least, the fear that it might be) rises in parallel to the rank level of its author, the sugar coat would grow thicker with each level in the chain of command. That would have been fine, just good PR really, if there'd been a classified equivalent where higher-ups could say what they really thought. But there wasn't.

So you had this bizarre situation where junior officers could offer their candid assessments, in effect confident that they likely would be filtered out of higher aggregated information, because it was unclassified. Decision makers only saw the sugar, and the only really accurate assessments of what the Afghans were capable of that anyone in the leadership outside of the combat zone would see were those of leakers and independent journalists, who were often criticized for their pains as defeatists.

Posted by BruceR at 03:43 PM

January 08, 2010

Yes, but what did they do, exactly?

David Brooks:

"At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative."

Um, no. Once you were at the point where the "explosive substance" was already smoking away and the bomb-wearer was getting burned, it almost certainly wasn't then going to suddenly detonate. The "plot was foiled" by an incompetent bomb maker and/or degraded explosives. What the passengers did was put the flaming would-be terrorist out and restrain him so he couldn't do any more damage to himself or others. Which was awfully nice of them, and undoubtedly brave, too. Given that the alternative was a guy with his pants literally on fire running up and down the aisle screaming until the plane landed, presumably someone was going to have to do something about it sooner or later. And they should also be credited, I think, for not kicking the guy in the head more than they apparently did... it's always nice when our side is the civilized one. But in all likelihood their "initiative" didn't save their own lives or the plane by doing so, any more than the "centralized state" did.

See also Lewis Page.

Posted by BruceR at 06:54 PM

January 07, 2010

Some gems from FRI

Tim from FRI on the ANA:

"Of course nobody in Afghanistan or any place else on planet earth believes we will start to pull out in 18 months but that is not the point. Afghans currently populating positions of power have paid hefty sums to be appointed to those positions and are insisting on getting a good return on their investments before the gravy train leaves the station. My military friends have seen the same thing as they fight endless battles on the Niper net to get the food allowances and other petty cash paid to their Afghan Army soldiers without getting the Afghan senior officers they mentor fired for bringing the problem up in the first place. It is most depressing and leaves little for me to write about as I cannot blog on specifics which were told to me in confidence."

Also here:

"The Army has started changing up their operations by embedding the Afghan Army inside there combat brigades. They take care of the logistics. commodities and personal administration but the price is that all patrols are joint and done under US force protection rules. The effective administration of things like pay and leave may help reduce ANA attrition. But if you mandate that every squad which goes out has with it a four MRAP, 16 man American equivalent and that the patrol only go where the MRAP’s can go and that the patrol be cleared with multiple correctly formatted PowerPoint briefs then your tempo of operations plummets."

Too true. More good observations at both links.

Posted by BruceR at 10:51 AM

Other random Afghan report-based observations

The U.S. high command is apparently disappointed at Gen. Flynn's report on intelligence, referenced in two posts here yesterday. I agree with Blake Hounshell's observation that it's unlikely a serving officer would put out such a critical report under CNAS letterhead unless and until he's entirely dissatisfied with the possibility of working the changes the way he wants within his chain of command... and this is the senior int guy for the whole war we're talking about here. At least the McChrystal and Eikenberry leaks looked like leaks. This is a shot across someone's bow. (Indeed, the report's preface says exactly that: "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.") See also Judah Grunstein.

Meanwhile in December there was yet another U.S. military report critical of the ANA leaked to the press. The leaked document itself has not yet surfaced that I'm aware of, but the highlights according to NBC are (all reportedly actual quotes from the report in question):

"Many ANA leaders work short days..."


"...are often absent..."


"...place personal gain above national survival..."

No question.

"Corruption, nepotism and untrained, unmotivated personnel make success all but impossible."

I'd like to read the whole paragraph there, and know what date that observation was made, but it's not exactly crazy talk, surely.

"...mentally, physically unfit and drug addicts hurt units..."

True. As reported here before, the days of Afghan soldiers being expected to behave like hopped-up mountain goats are in the past.

"Estimate for soldiers actually in battalions far below reported...between 40 and 50 percent in some areas."

I've said as much, several times.

"The ANA above company level is not at war."

Said that too.

Posted by BruceR at 12:09 AM

January 06, 2010

On the underpants bomber

Alarmingly for South Park fans, apparently the enemy's plan really was: Phase 1: Collect Underpants --> Phase 2: ? --> Phase 3: Profit... Of course, as usual we're all wildly overreacting.

Also as per usual, Dick Destiny has some useful stuff. I like the honey bit.

The Globe reported today the explosive in the underwear amounted to 80 grams of material. Clearly it was not created correctly or degraded in transit somehow and so would never have high-order exploded. But at that size it almost certainly couldn't have brought down the plane even if it had detonated correctly: as discussed previously, planes have survived internal explosions in the 450 gram HE range before. I also have yet to see any evidence yet that full-body scanning would have been any more successful at detecting this kind of attack than any other method would be: you'd think that'd be a claim their manufacturers would be at least trying to make. If they'd said there should be more sniffer dogs at Pearson, it would at least make some sense, but this is really just safety industry-fuelled hysteria at this point.

Airport security really is like the guy waving his arms to ward off elephants. Haven't seen any elephants, have you? Airport security guards have never caught anyone, that I'm aware of. Ever. Therefore they need more money.

And so collectively we take more infringements of our civil liberties and happinesses, out of fear of losing our liberties and happinesses. Hmm... I guess the terrorists won, then. Pity.

Also... why exactly are we going to be body-searching Cubans, again?

Posted by BruceR at 11:39 PM

On the CIA tragedy

While on the topic of intelligence failures, I think Pat Lang's saying everything worth saying on the killing of 7 CIA agents last month (second of his two posts here).

Posted by BruceR at 11:09 PM

On intelligence and PowerPoint

Yglesias focusses on what to me is the fairly minor observation in General Flynn's Great Big Intelligence Smackdown (see next post) that the tool of the intelligence trade should be Microsoft Word, not Microsoft PowerPoint. Here's the short version of my perspective on that: Amen.

Here's the long version of my perspective on that:

Intelligence officers like to talk. They have to. Intelligence staff at all levels need to be able to brief and write clearly, but when newcomers in the Canadian military ask me should they go officer or senior NCO, my advice to them on my own experience has been that if you like the heads-down, analyst work, you'll likely get more of that in the ranks. If you're a showman or a manipulator, and like influencing people, you'll get more of that as an officer. Again, that is just a general tendency, and it's based on the way most intelligence cells are structured, with the senior guy getting the most facetime with his own commander and counterparts from the other branches. But it's an asset for a corporal to be a good briefer. For an officer it's a necessity.

Because we are all part showmen, any intelligence officer I know is prepared on the drop of a hat to talk to fill the available space. You may get 5 minutes in the back of a helicopter with your boss, or you may get 50. He may ask you 1 question or 10. Doesn't matter. You roll with it.

It is commanders and their hatchet men (and I mean that in a nice way), the operations officers and adjutants, who control your time. Any important revelation you have needs to be served up on your part with a cold assessment of the commander's receptivity in those circumstances to that info. Your objective is always to influence their decisions, and every commander needs to be reached a different way. Lots of accurate assessments have been poorly delivered, and hence ignored. That is not all the commander's fault. Your second-in-command and your staff analysts don't need to worry about that stuff quite so much. They just have to convince YOU, someone who hopefully is trained to manage them and appreciate when they're being brilliant or not.

The upshot is no intelligence officer, possibly ever in history, has ever been told by their boss he (or she) didn't talk long enough or didn't write long enough. If he was good he shut the tap off at the point of maximum effect. If he was bad he prattled on until the commander or someone else told him to stop.

Watch that great scene in "A Bridge Too Far" again, where the intelligence officer tries to convince Maj. Gen. Browning he has aerial photos of tanks. He's absolutely right, but completely ineffective in getting the point across. Again, that is not all the fault of the Browning character, either. It was an ineffective brief, but not because it didn't conform to the axioms of PowerPoint purists. Putting yourself in diametric opposition to the person you're trying to convince of something is difficult to pull off in any setting. On the reverse side, you have Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur's G2-for-life, who may well have been the worst intelligence officer ever, because he never disagreed with MacArthur, ever. It's tricky.

So what does this have to do with PowerPoint? Well, PowerPoint is forced upon on the intelligence trade, frankly. Commanders are busy people. Maybe the Ops O will tell you your briefing last night was too long, and you need to bring it down to 2 slides and 5 minutes the next time. How exactly do you respond to that the next day when you or your staff just deduced something brilliant and complex and all that matters is your timely influence on the command staff before something stupid happens? Cram everything into the one slide to the point where it's unreadable? Leave important stuff out because PowerPoint best practice says four bullets only? Slip intelligence summaries under their pillows at night? Ambush them in alleyways? Hey, your call when the day comes. But it's days like that that made it the most unusual and challenging staff job in the army to me.

I was lucky in my command staff on my Afghan tour, luckier than some. But in my limited experience the best way was to push the detailed written assessments in advance, and also do up the slide with their conclusions bullet pointed for that night's brief, if only to encourage them to push through the long-form in their inbox. As a general rule, slides without the background documentation were less useful, in my experience, and documentation without slides ignored. But every audience and situation varies, and there's no one to tell you when you're doing it right; the only way you know is when they listen to you just a little bit longer the next time you're in front of them.

The intelligence staffs in Afghanistan will happily produce longer and more complex written products if they get even the vaguest encouragement that commanders and operators will read them if they do. Of that I have no doubt: influence is all to us. It's what we love doing. So if Gen. Flynn's report encourages ISAF senior officers to give their intelligence briefers one more minute, or one more slide, or one more page on their intelligence summaries, it'll be a good thing, absolutely. But just don't think it's the int guys who are ever holding them back in that sense.

Note: that does not mean there are not going to be intelligence reports circulating that prattle on for pages saying nothing new or useful. I know that all too well. Intelligence teams form a crucial gatekeeper function in a military organization, to stop that bumf at their desk as much as possible. There's nothing that can more undermine your influence with your staff colleagues than uncritically passing on another team's document they thought was clearly useless, or wasting your allotted five minutes on the immediately obvious. That of course means you have to read a lot of crap first to tease out the good, new, relevant stuff.

But the war on bumf has more to do with Flynn's other points about promoting competence, organizational redundancy, and getting commanders asking better questions. In my experience, every trained intelligence shop produces a roughly per-man equivalent amount of reading material, useful and unuseful combined, as any other team in the same role (within a factor of 2 or 4, anyway). As I said, we're all keen as individuals to churn it out. But when you have redundancies within your organization, or the commander hasn't properly focussed his own int team on what he really cares about at his level, (Flynn talks about regional-level G2 shops just repackaging and sending back lower-level intelligence summaries to the originators) that will lead to the encroachment of uselessness because of all the stuff that is being generated by the redundant cells. That's an argument for either thinning out, or kicking the redundant staffers out in the field, not limiting ourselves as a trade to one slide at the update brief, as Flynn rightly recognizes. As he says, in a COIN environment, either higher HQs need to refocus some of their int efforts, particularly on the underresourced "white," non-SOF aspects, and/or their personnel need to be pushed down to augment those thinly-staffed lower battalion-level cells that desperately need the manpower. Either would have worked for me back in the day.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I don't want to sound like some kind of int paragon here. I'm hardly a persuasive presence by nature. And I'll always be haunted by the suspicion that had I been a little bit more forceful or if I'd read one more document, or had one more useful insight, things in our little war might have been different. Mistakes, I've made a few.

But one thing I do know from making those mistakes is that it's not enough in intelligence to be right. It's not even enough to know you're right. You have to be able to convince a select group of other people that you're right. And that area, lying hidden under the big arrow on those "intelligence cycle" diagrams with the vaguely obscene-sounding words "dissemination phase," that's where the craft, the skill of our trade, gives way to the art. No one could tell me how to do it. I don't know if I could explain how to do it now. But it's kind of like when Armstrong gave the definition of jazz. If I hadta ask I was never gonna know anyway.

Posted by BruceR at 06:11 PM

Canadian intelligence lauded

A lot of people have posted on the big report on intelligence in Afghanistan, so I'll try to limit myself to the non-obvious.

Note the report focusses primarily on the ineffectiveness on the unclassified, or open-source intelligence side, at the regional and to some extent the brigade level as well, with intelligence shops at those levels reportedly overfocussed on special-ops kinetics and providing little of value in the way of information to their lower main force unit headquarters. This has been a common observation of the regional-level support structure by lower-level officers long before now. The observations that because of security restrictions, the existing intelligence offices and their products particularly at those higher levels are inaccessible to a lot of people they should be shared with, that more proactivity and getting out on the ground by all intelligence staff everywhere is required, and the observations that a lot of information is being lost in inaccessible archives, are also common self-criticisms of the intelligence branch.

The criticisms aimed at the level I and a great number of Canadian intelligence staff have operated at (that being battalion and below) were also pretty unremarkable: commanders need to ask smarter questions, and have the patience for longer answers. Check. Incompetents should not be left in key positions. Check. Ideally junior intelligence staff should still report to a battalion S2 officer, but be detached to company-level out in the field for extended periods to provide direct support to the troops. Check. I don't know many Canadian intelligence officers who would disagree with any of that either, and I saw the last recommendation in particular deployed with effect by the Canadian battlegroup S2 shop I toured alongside.

The trouble I see is, the two shining examples of intelligence brilliance detailed in the report's main text are both at the battalion level, while the main body of the critique in terms of structural change requirements, etc. is aimed at intelligence cells working at the regional and also brigade levels, with little in the way of useful examples of success for intelligence teams at those headquarters to emulate. In this context, I just wanted to point out footnote #10, reproduced below, which is the closest the most senior U.S. intelligence officer in Afghanistan comes in his report to praising a higher-level intelligence product about his own AO:

(10) The closest thing to a substantive district-level assessment that we were able to find was produced not by the intelligence community, but by a research team commissioned by the Canadian government to explain the general situation in Kandahar City. This 75-page unclassified product, widely read in Regional Command-South, offers a rough model for the sort of district assessments Information Centers would write. See District Assessment: Kandahar-city, Kandahar Province (Commissioned by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: November 2009).

Kudos to all involved in that one (even as I doubt it was entirely DFAIT). I guess we Canadians aren't completely hopeless after all.

UPDATE: A couple other quotes I liked:

"[Intelligence] is a culture that is strangely oblivious of how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders."

To me that was always the only game in town. But obliviousness to intelligence is a two-way street sometimes, too.

It is hard to imagine a battalion or regimental commander tolerating an operations officer, communications officer, logistics officer, or adjutant who fails to perform his or her job. But, except in rare cases, ineffective intel officers are allowed to stick around.

Yeah, that was my experience with the army on operations: all ineffective personnel, every last one I ran into, just happened to be from the intelligence branch! Everyone else, by contrast, was a frigging superhero! Riiight...

For instance, 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.

I heard that story (supposedly from Kandahar Province) during my tour too. Except in that telling the women didn't destroy it... they just didn't use the new well. Given where I've seen it pop up before, I suspect it's the Afghan equivalent of an Urban Legend, frankly, "Too Good to Check" as the journalists, say, with whatever element of truth was there now completely lost... I was surprised to see it footnoted in this report as an example of intelligence brilliance. If all the new Information Centres did was preserve and pass around unverifiable fables, they wouldn't be much use.

Posted by BruceR at 10:35 AM

January 04, 2010

For shame

A certain popular blogger (who I've mentioned before but shall not link to now or hereafter) recently put on his website details relating to a recent IED strike of:

*number of total casualties (including wounded);
*details of the damage to an ISAF vehicle produced by a certain quantity of explosive;
*precise details of the limitations of counter-measures employed by that vehicle; and
*the ISAF name for the route where it occurred.

In the same post, that blogger urged Canadian media to publicize the same info and claimed the Canadian government was trying to cover up its own incompetence by citing the security of the troops in asking other media not to reprint it. "There is nothing classified or sensitive about the information supplied..." he yawped. For the record, he's wrong, on all four counts above; that information would have been considered under various levels of classification during my tour under ISAF regulations and I'm sure still is today.

Whether you or I agree with those restrictions or not (and your opinion or mine doesn't and shouldn't count for squat) operational security rules that were intended to protect soldiers' lives in future were broken by his deliberate and provocative little bloggy temper tantrum. Some days we really make it easy for our enemies.

That same blogger has frequently complained about restrictions on his freedom of movement imposed by various nations during his embedding time in war theatres, on which this sort of action sheds an uncomfortable new light. I seriously hope those restrictions are only tightened after this evidence of flagrant irresponsibility on his part. Were it not for his rep alone, his actions in this instance would clearly indicate him to be a potential menace to any troops he accompanied and claimed to support in the future (Geraldo was expelled once for something similar after all, and his rep didn't help him then), and anyone who is thinking of hitting that particular internet tipjar from now on might want to keep that in mind. Those who care will know exactly who I'm talking about.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, anyone can always make an honest mistake, and journalists should be expected to push back behind the scenes at these sorts of barriers to telling a story. It's the open incitement to subvert the rules set out for embedded news organizations by their handlers that rankles here. I may think the French practice of not releasing the last names of their soldiers is kinda silly but I wouldn't publish those surnames because I felt like it, or encourage other journalists currently embedded with the French military to, either.

UPDATE #2: Um, okay, I give up: it was Michael Yon.

Posted by BruceR at 11:24 PM

If Sarah Palin were a three-star...

...her interviews would probably sound a little like this. Yeesh. I can see why COMISAF does most of the media work.

To be fair, a lot of it is the transcriber here. No one talks in perfect sentences: when I worked as a journalist, I at least tried to put in periods where they would make sense in a written piece and avoid the run-ons. The staff of Stars & Stripes obviously couldn't be bothered, and now they've made the second-in-command in Afghanistan read like a babbling idiot. Even if they had done their job, he would have still sounded pretty fluffy, but as it is it's just embarrassing to all involved.

Posted by BruceR at 11:03 PM

A reading recommendation

A commenter who shall remain nameless reminds me that the Afghan bibliography in the post below doesn't reference opinion pieces, only factual research pieces and monographs. Yeah, I know, I was just too lazy to do two posts there, so I stretched for the segue. Never mind.

In the monograph recommendations (yeah, I know this isn't for the bibliography either, I'm segue-ing again), if you're looking for a really good history of the 1916-18 Arab Revolt (and really, who isn't?) I must strongly recommend Brit James Barr's Setting the Desert on Fire, which was released in this hemisphere finally in 2008, but which I only finally got around to over the holidays. So good I wished I'd written it... When you compare it to the pallid stuff on this topic that went before, like that 2002 work by Anthony Bruce with the stupid title, it's just not even in the same league.

On the critical topic of what T.E. Lawrence was really all about, he comes across as neither pie-eyed, nor obsessively iconoclastic, finding a new middle ground on that flawed but pivotal figure. And like any good history, it spends the minimum necessary time on the dry what, who and when, and illuminates instead the "how did they manage that?", "why did they act that way?" and "why the hell should I care?" sorts of questions that make for good reading. Bravo for Barr on what was obviously a five-year labour of love.

Posted by BruceR at 10:34 PM

A valuable Afghan resource

Christian has updated his Afghan Analyst bibliography, I see. An absolute must-have for serious researchers and scholars.

One possible future addition might be Rory Stewart's NYRB must-read:

As long as the US asserted that Afghanistan was an existential threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the US had no leverage over Karzai. The worse Afghanistan behaved—the more drugs it grew and terrorists it fostered—the more money it received. If it sorted out its act, it risked being relegated to a minor charitable recipient like Tajikistan. A senior Afghan official warned me this year "to stop referring to us as a humanitarian crisis: we must be the number one terrorist threat in the world, because if we are not we won't get any money." By asserting convincingly that Afghanistan is not the be-all and end-all and that the US could always ultimately withdraw, Obama escapes this codependent trap and regains some leverage over the Afghan government.

This strikes me as exactly correct as a diagnosis.

UPDATE: A contrasting opinion on the Stewart piece, here.

Posted by BruceR at 08:44 AM