Tag Archives: Taliban

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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Week in Public Organizations, 31May2009


Missing the long view, a history of credit cards, virtual warfare, nonprofit hypocrisy, an ascendent Freedom Party, quick responses, even more pirates, and a proposal for nationwide broadband.  These were some of the interesting stories about organizations in public life last week:

Systemic thinking often absent in management
Visual history of credit card lends insights
New military command for cyberspace
Stonesifers take on nonprofit hypocrisy
Freedom Party making gains in Holland
Taliban extremely effective in strategic communications
Pirates addressed by economics, Senate
Orem proposes nationwide broadband

Taliban extremely effective in strategic communications

Is the Taliban a model of organizational agility?

On May 20, an investigating team from U.S. Central Command released its interim findings concerning civilian casualties that resulted from U.S. bombs dropped during a battle near Farah, Afghanistan, on May 4.

A 16-day interval may be entirely appropriate for an internal investigation of U.S. military practices. But if this report is an attempt at “strategic communications” to counter Taliban propaganda, the United States is failing and needs a new approach.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report on strategic communications highlighted at Small Wars Journal showed how good the Taliban have become at propaganda and how far the United States must run to catch up. The Taliban doesn’t need 16 days to get its message out:

[Michael] Doran [a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense] said that in Afghanistan, U.S. forces carry out an operation “and within 26 minutes — we’ve timed it — the Taliban comes out with its version of what took place in the operation, which immediately finds its way on the tickers in the BBC at the bottom of the screen.”

Taliban information operations are not only speedy — they also reach a range of media markets:

Taliban warlords renovated printing presses; launched new publications in Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English; and maintained Voice of Sharia, a radio station, for dissemination of Taliban ideas and statements. … By early 2009 Afghan and Pakistan Taliban factions were operating hundreds of radio programs, distributing audio cassettes, and delivering night letters to instill fear and obedience among their targeted populations.

What is the U.S. government doing to improve its strategic communications effort? The U.S. Army is responding by rewriting Field Manual 3-13: Information Operations to give lower ranking commanders more authority and flexibility over local information campaigns.

This is slightly reminsicent of an inane conversation I had with a very senior executive team at a prominent global company.  The question was about the team’s succession plan–who would replace any member if they were hit by a bus?  The team seem flummoxed by the question, with some protesting that the scenario was unlikely and that there were more important things to discuss.  On the same day, I read about the death of the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, who had a replacement nominated within hours.  Leaving the office, I wondered what it meant that a terrorist organization had a stronger succession plan than a Fortune 100 company.

As above, it means that the slow and stupid will have their asses handed to them.  It pains me to see such a bureaucratic response to an alarmingly present problem.  Much like the corporate team who resisted common sense, the Army is trying to routinize and belabor a process in a battle that requires instant response.

26 minutes.

The Taliban are defining reality while the Army goes through “proper channels”.  War is not merely about incursions and kills; it is increasingly about public perception and support for the side that prevails.  If there is one place where the US is not currently exhibiting superiority, it is in the war to define what happened.

Sometimes bureaucracies play a role in establishing repeatability and fairness.  Sometimes–as in the case of Field Manual 3-13 or a team of overpaid, decision-challenged idiots–they’re just pathetic.

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.