Intelligence analysis in COIN wrap up

Well, that went reasonably well.  I had a technical glitch on my end which prevented me from hearing anything but I could speak perfectly well (Mrs. TwShiloh really would prefer the reverse situation around the house.  eds) and a bit of an attack of nerves (Wait?  Me?  Talk about what?  What’s an insurgency?  What analysis?).  Audio of the presentation and copies of my slides will be available here or here.

The best part of these things are the questions and the ones raised here were quite good.  I wasn’t able to get to one of them at the time and asked him to email me it.  I figured I’d put it up here as well.

I wondered what your thoughts are on the following question against the context of both President Obama (Jul 11) & Prime Minister Cameron’s (2014) combat forces drawdown statements:  As we shift to the transition phase of the campaign and look to shape the exit strategy through partnering and advising, what are your thoughts on the use of indigenous collection and fusion resources to maintain momentum against the INS rather than the current reliance on coalition capacity?  With Afghan literacy levels, how do you think this may be best achieved?

My response:  The statements by US and UK governments indicating their intentions for withdrawal do introduce some complexities into the application of COIN in Afghanistan.  I think (in Obama’s case at least) he gave himself wiggle room to allow quite sizable numbers of troops to remain in Afghanistan while not technically undermining his previous statements.  How this all plays out remains to be seen.  For better or for worse, most people look at Afghanistan and start the timeline from 2001.  I don’t think that’s particularly helpful since we essentially didn’t do much until 2007/2008.  From a COIN perspective, therefore, I’d say we’re only 2 or 3 years into this process and leaving aside political considerations, could reasonable expect an insurgency to carry on for upwards of another decade even if we end up being successful.  I’m not sure anyone’s political system can handle the thought of another 8 years in Afghanistan so it’s unclear how COIN might get modified and/or abandoned to get crammed into a political schedule.

I think relying on indigenous forces is a critical goal of a successful COIN operation but I’m not convinced that it’s a starting point generally or that we’re ready to rely on it in Afghanistan specifically.  Because of our lack of understanding of the operating environment reliance on local forces necessarily requires a massive amount of trust in those forces.  While I can’t speak to events going on there currently, I certainly was able to see how local ‘friendly’ forces used our ignorance against us (and, to be fair, we would do the same thing if the circumstances were reversed).  If they didn’t like a particular arrangement or decision by our forces they could wait several months for a new unit to rotate in and try again for a more favorable outcome.  Likewise, my experience was that local forces clearly understood the power inherent in playing the role of explaining current events and placing them in context and exerted a great deal of effort in trying to win that role for themselves.

So, most important in terms of relying on indigenous forces for your contextual/local information is trust that they’re going to tell you something reasonably close to the truth.  I think things like reduced literacy levels would be a relatively easy obstacle to overcome if you could be reasonably sure the information/analysis you were getting was reliable and credible.   My argument in the presentation is that we’ll probably need to develop some sort of collection/verification process internally anyway to establish that level of trust in Afghanistan as well as any further insurgencies we find ourselves involved in…so we might as well start building it now.

In terms of ‘fusing’ resources, this is one area where I think there remains a lot of low hanging fruit to exploit.  We still don’t partner as well as we should with all of our coalition partners let alone the various other groups that could provide us with information.  Some of this is institutional and some is just plain old inertia.  There’s no reason most of the analysis I’m talking about couldn’t be unclassified (if we draw the parallel with civilian law enforcement it most certainly is in almost all cases) which would allow you to bring in many more people as both collectors and analyzers (NGOs, coalition partners, community groups, etc).  You’d still need that analytical ‘gatekeeper’ to keep facts in and ‘spin’ out but if a project like Wikipedia can do it fairly well on a voluntary basis there’s no reason we couldn’t do it on a more formal one.  Even when we are talking about classified information, usually that’s due to the sources and it’s usually not difficult in the majority of cases to come up with a reasonable ‘unclassified’ version that still has value.

I’ve written about fusion centers from a (U.S.) civilian perspective and I’ve generally been underwhelmed by them although, to be fair, I suspect that’s generally because they seem to be put together and run by people with little to no background in intelligence (and if I’m feeling particularly cynical I’ll use that word in its broadest possible sense).

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