Tag Archives: afghanistan

Should spies emulate journalists?

Canadian soldiers fire an M777 155mm Howitzer ...
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Interesting, especially the advice to think like journalists:

American intelligence in Afghanistan is broken, says the top U.S. intelligence officer there. That’s because it focuses too much on whacking Taliban, and not enough on figuring out Afghanistan’s social and cultural landscapes. But the report from Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top intelligence aide to International Security Assistance Force Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, raises lots of other issues, too. Like, what happened to the military’s “human terrain” programs to map those landscapes? Can spies really perform better if they think and work like journalists? And why is this report being publicly distributed through a think tank?

Flynn’s report — which was prepared for public release by the Center for a New American Security – begins with a stunning admission. “Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy,” the report states. “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.”

I have some opinions on OSINT that generally center on organizations’ ability to absorb it in useful, credulous ways.  OSINT is essentially old-school journalism, the difference being that news organizations value it.

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5 reasons the “Taliban holiday” meme is false

This is a bit beyond the bailiwick of this blog, but a particular point of the Af-Pak strategy needs to be addressed, and I do address strategy:

The general agreement among Afghans is that Barack Obama’s highly anticipated speech had his trademark message of hope. But unfortunately this message of hope was directed at the Taliban and not the people of Afghanistan. In the words of a friend and fellow Afghan, Obama basically told the Taliban to go home and rest for 18 months and then return to a no-man’s land up for grabs.

Some variation of this has been printed in just about every news article and opposition piece since that speech.  It’s rubbish.  Here’s why:

  1. Whether there is an announced timetable or not, the Taliban are going to, you know, sort of notice when the US troops leave.  It doesn’t matter when that is unless one subscribes to war without end, for which the American people have neither patience nor resources.
  2. A strategy without benchmarks and timelines is not a strategy.  Full stop.  Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of heat when he suggested metrics for the war in Iraq, but I think he was getting closer than anyone (including Obama) has in defining success.  Without these, the US will not know when or if it has won.
  3. Speaking of war without end, the enemy in this war has neither the will nor the ability to surrender, which is usually how inter-nation wars end.  Not the will because they view this as a holy cause to be rewarded in the afterlife, and not the ability because there is no one who speaks for or controls the whole.  A lack of formal organization limits actions born of coherence.
  4. To the argument that the Taliban will take an 18 month vacation, I feel it more than obvious to point out that they aren’t taking that vacation in St. Croix.  Whether they fight or not, they’re going to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  A force of over 100,000 troops with a timeline and benchmarks is going to be hard at work.  As Ronald Reagan noted in another conflict, they can run but they cannot hide.
  5. Undefined wars are demoralizing to the troops and the public. If you like winning, say when and how you’re going to win.  Then do it.  The real dithering is to under-fund, under-resource, and under-specify the war.  After eight years of vague and irresponsible attention to Af-Pak, it’s time to win and go home.

The “Taliban on vacation” trope is pure political posturing, not the sort of cohesive support 100,000 people in harm’s way deserve.

White House risks classic mistakes in AfPak KPIs

This is worrisome:

The White House has assembled a list of about 50 measurements to gauge progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan as it tries to calm rising public and congressional anxiety about its war strategy.

Administration officials are conducting what one called a “test run” of the metrics, comparing current numbers in a range of categories — including newly trained Afghan army recruits, Pakistani counterinsurgency missions and on-time delivery of promised U.S. resources — with baselines set earlier in the year. The results will be used to fine-tune the list before it is presented to Congress by Sept. 24.

Why worrisome?  Here are five reasons this move is cause for alarm:

  1. 50 measurements.  It’s far too many, at least for the executive and public level.  The number should be closer to 6-10 if the goal is to show the big picture and enable insightful questions about interconnected metrics.  If the White House is beginning with 50 in order to whittle down to the ones that matter, that could be useful, but that approach would lead one to believe it is…
  2. Measuring what it can measure rather than what matters.  It’s really very simple–when we measure what’s available, we back into strategy rather than leading with it and defining metrics that reflect the strategy.  The metrics are generally very easy to define (though not necessarily to report) when the strategy is clear.  When it isn’t, the activity risks becoming an…
  3. Steering the ship by its wake.  Comparing 50 metrics to a baseline set “earlier in the year” will at best give some sense of what has happened over the last several months without necessarily explaining why it happened or what will happen next.  One reason for this dilemma is that the process is…
  4. Taking a long time.  I suspect two dynamics are at play:  one is probably a push for perfection rather than rough and dirty KPIs (something understandable in a political environment) and a tendency among data owners to select and massage data to present their performance in the best possible light.  These suck the relevance out of the data, and both are exacerbated by a tendency to spend too much time…
  5. Defining metrics out of meaning.  What I mean by this is expanding and contracting definitions of terms such as “newly”, “trained”, “Afghan”, “army”, “recruits”, etc. in ways that allow for wiggle in what gets reported.  When project managers tasked with reporting project data ask, “what do you mean by ‘project’?”, it’s time to return to first principles.

There are other causes for concern, but these are the ones I suspect are most predictive of where the metrics might fall short as well as providing a roadmap for avoiding that.

There is a bright spot in the article:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, “personally gets a daily update — daily, mind you,” on supplies shipped to Pakistan, the U.S. defense official said. “That should give you some sense of how riveted we are on this.”

I have high regard for Petraeus based on what I read and on what people who have worked with him have said about his intellect and acumen.  If there is a leader who can get this right, he can.

Scorecards represent a highly political process, usually far more so than we acknowledge in our work and in the literature.  I don’t mean “political” only in the public meaning of the term–I mean it in the sense of power and positioning that occurs in organizations every day.  A scorecard is a tangible artifact of a complex and interconnected set of organizational dynamics that usually exist beneath the surface.  One of our natural tendencies is to keep those dynamics beneath the surface.  Doing so serves a purpose for individuals and groups that is often at odds with the purposes of the whole.

War moves faster than this.  One doesn’t have to be a general to recognize that information–better, faster, more relevant–is strategically valuable and paramount to success.  It’s not clear to me from the above that anyone knows yet what success looks like.

We can do better.

Danger Room: Cargo operations key to war in Afghanistan

Photo:  Danger Room

Danger Room features an on-the-ground look at one of the foundations of the AfPak war–cargo operations:

The mobility guys pretty have at least eight different jobs. They’ve got a FedEx-like operation that moves cargo from point A to point B, by a certain guaranteed date. There’s the wartime equivalent of an airline reservations office, delivering gear and passengers when they can – usually within 72 hours. (An “itinerary” is developed for, say, 200 Army troops from Fort Benning to Talil; passengers are booked in a system most similar to budget airlines like Ryanair or Southwest and no, you don’t get to pick your seat.) They run an executive charter service, transporting generals and other “distinguished visitors,” or “DVs.” They evacuate injured troops. They manage a fleet of contracted airhaulers, spending up to $6 million a day on outsized or inconvenient loads, often carried by massive Russian cargo jets. And they drop giant crates of gear out of the sky, to stock isolated bases.

That last task has grown exponentially, with the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Lousy roads and unforgiving landscapes make traditional convoys and cargo runs difficult, at best. Since 2005, there’s been an 800% increase in air drops – from two to three per week to seven to eight per day. In July, they had 1,700 air drops over Afghanistan. That’s the most since the start of the Afghan conflict, in 2001.

That doesn’t sound terribly sexy, but it’s a convincing argument for the continuing dominance of logistics as a strategic factor in warfare.  One wonders what practices have filtered into private industry, and vice versa.

New information on al Qaeda org structure

New information on al Qaeda from the inside:

The interrogations of two accused Westerners who say they trained and fought with al Qaeda in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region provide an inside view of the terror group’s organizational structures.

Arguably, they shed more light on the state of al Qaeda than any material previously released into the public domain.

The documents reveal training programs and the protective measures the terrorist organization has taken against increasingly effective U.S. missile strikes.

This is something I began exploring on this blog over five years ago, the theory being that insight into the organization would point to more precise ways to neutralize the organization.  Looking back at what I wrote then, I think I should have been more careful to emphasize that an org chart is just a construct that hints at some of the workings of the organization.  Orgporn is usually more of a clue than a definitive answer.  It tells you what questions to ask next.  That said, any insight should prove useful.

Without seeing the new intel, it’s hard to say what’s in it, but the source of the information seems better than most.  More to come.

[Image: Xchango.com]

US increasingly relies on foreign intel cooperation

Despite some thorny problems, cooperation may be desirable and necessary:

The United States is now relying heavily on foreign intelligence services to capture, interrogate and detain all but the highest-level terrorist suspects seized outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to current and former American government officials.

The change represents a significant loosening of the reins for the United States, which has worked closely with allies to combat violent extremism since the 9/11 attacks but is now pushing that cooperation to new limits.

In the past 10 months, for example, about a half-dozen midlevel financiers and logistics experts working with Al Qaeda have been captured and are being held by intelligence services in four Middle Eastern countries after the United States provided information that led to their arrests by local security services, a former American counterterrorism official said.

The thorny problems, of course, include the potential for catch-and-release policies to return bad guys to the field and for innocents to have electrodes attached to their genitals.  Those considerable concerns aside, building patterns of cooperation with foreign intel services just makes sense.  It defuses a lot of the anger about US interventionism and creates interdependence (and influence) among parties closer to the problem.

That said, torture and detention of the wrong people is almost a certainty, and the US cannot dispose of its complicity in these activities by outsourcing them.  Effective cooperation requires transparency and accountability.

Pakistani peril on the agenda

Reihan Salam knows how to employ a visual to set up an argument:

Pakistan’s Swat Valley is best known as a lush, gorgeous resort, about as close to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad as East Hampton is to New York. Only now the Swat Valley has been overrun by crazed, bearded Taliban intent on turning one of the most beautiful corners of the world into a medieval hell. To understand the psychological impact on Pakistan’s whiskey-loving elite, consider what might happen if survivalist guerrillas had wrested control of Long Island’s most beautiful beaches from the federal government and started beheading any soldiers and civilians who dared get in their way. Yet Pakistan’s military has essentially ceded the Swat Valley to the Taliban, and the militants have continued to press forward, inching closer to Pakistan’s biggest cities. Keep that in mind as Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, meets with President Barack Obama this week in Washington.

If you understand the game theory on this one, you are playing at a higher level than most.  Pakistan’s slow crumble is being accelerated by the Taliban’s incursions, and the instability of the region and the country’s nukes hang in the balance.  As a matter of policy, this one doesn’t offer up any easy answers.