So, last time I made the point that military intelligence could probably realize some gains by looking to law enforcement for ideas of how to improve their intelligence capabilities in COIN environments. Specifically, I think improvements in the collation and dissemination parts of the intelligence cycle could be ways in which the military could better imitate the ways in which a local law enforcement agency develops a deep understanding of its operating environment.
Now the way things generally occur now (at least as it went back in 2003 and I assume it hasn’t changed that much since) is that when a unit is ordered to deploy (let’s say to Afghanistan), they should be given some contact information for the unit they’ll be replacing. This allows the two commands to talk and begin to exchange information. Perhaps a small group will be allowed to act as an ‘advance party’ and go to Afghanistan early to smooth the way for the incoming unit and pick up more information. Finally, when a unit arrives in theater they should operate in tandem with the unit they’re replacing (called ‘left seat/right seat’) to get a handle on the routine of things.
That’s about the extent of how institutional knowledge transfers from one deployment to another. It’s important to know that as a unit is transferring into theater the staff is concerned about a whole host of issues and, I suspect, intelligence isn’t always at the top of the list. Even if it is, however, this system isn’t really geared for transmitting knowledge in any sort of comprehensive or systematic way. Rather, you’re most likely to get is a pretty good overview of what’s hot and current and issues that aren’t the current focus of attention of the staff will be minimized.
Further, it means that your historical perspective will be limited. You might get a decent understanding of what’s happened during the tour of your immediate predecessor, maybe (but I doubt it) something from the operation before that and not much other than perhaps some legends and myths from earlier tours. This is one reason why some have said that Afghanistan isn’t a nine year war but rather 9 one year wars. But in population centric operations you HAVE to have that historical context or you’re going to keep fighting your war one year at time…over and over again.
War story: Shortly after we arrived in Afghanistan and the unit we replaced had left a local commander had come and asked for something (I don’t remember what know but it was for some special consideration – unfettered access to the base, a development project, a competition free contract, something). When we balked the commander said that our predecessor had always afforded that courtesy and reluctance to continue would jeopardize our relationship and future cooperation.
Was there such an arrangement? Who knows? With all of the ‘important’ issues that the hand over was concerned with information about local commanders was limited to one or two meetings and some briefings but let’s face it. There’s simply no way you’re going get a meaningful, detailed summery of a one year relationship with a local official who comes from a different cultural background, has a different language in an unfamiliar environment on issues that no one has much training with in a few PowerPoint briefings. Now, magnify the difficulty of doing that by realizing that you don’t have the luxury of only having to worry abut one person but rather you’ve got to get that level of familiarity with several (many?) different actors and not only have to understand how you interact with them but also how your actions might impact the relations between them and if that will help or hinder your overall mission.
What’s needed is a way to capture that information as it’s collected, absorbed and analyzed and made accessible to future units.
Currently, the military has products and processes to collect and report information in a systematic way but it remains based on a system that’s more suited to a fast paced conventional war rather than a long term one. Information is produced and sent up or down the chain but the important questions now should be how is stored, collated with other information products and retrieved? We want to avoid a situation where every unit that occupies district X asks the same questions because it’s easier than digging through tons of old reports to find the answer.
Of course, that’s not the only obstacle. Our system of classification can create problems as well. My understanding is that sharing information with coalition partners has gotten better than during my time there but I suspect there still remain difficulties in sharing information due to classification, or even language barriers. The fetish of classified information, I suspect, continues as does the reluctance to embrace outside information (that is, information developed outside the military collection system).
In my last post I said I thought the recommendations to improve intelligence thus far collation and dissemination. Collation is defined as “the assembly of written information into a standard order”. The information isn’t just ordered but it’s formatted in a way that it can be used by customers. You might have all of Shakespeare’s works summarized in note cards but if I want to do a text search or some sort of analysis on theme I’m going to have problems. I’d need you to digitize those cards in such a way that my text analysis program could read them. Then, it’s collated.
And here’s where I think Gen. Flynn doesn’t take the bull by the horns. He advocates better collection and analysis but his solution then is to produce the same old hard copy reports and tell commanders that they’re just going to have to find the time to read and digest lengthy written documents. I’m just not sure that’s the most practical or efficient thing to do with intelligence products because it’s not just the commanders that are going to need this information. If we’re going to buy into the idea of the ‘strategic corporal’ then we need to accept that everyone up and down the chain is going to need more information. The sergeant may not need as much (maybe, however, it’s a matter of focus rather than volume) information as a general but he’s still going to need more information than his counterpart of 20 or 30 years ago was expected to need. Apart from that, do we really expect commanders (and their staffs) to cram time in to regularly read lengthy analysis? Do they have that much extra time?
But let’s say they do. As a new unit is rotating in to the command, what are they to do? Go through every previous report? Even if you could present the reports as some sort of coherent whole (through editing the old reports into some sort of ‘super summary’) that’s hardly a long term solution since such work would require a great deal of time and effort and have to be repeated for every new incoming unit.
Nope. Altering the way we do collection and analysis may produce better products but alone they aren’t going to solve the deeper problems forces have in understanding the operating environment and passing along that knowledge in a way that minimizes disruptions when new units come into the area.
Next time: Part 4