In late June 2009, a small number of U.S. Marines and British soldiers were the only foreign forces in Nawa, a district of 70,000 farmers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The American and British troops could not venture a kilometer from their cramped base without confronting machine gun and rocket fire from insurgents. Local farmers, wary of reprisals by the Taliban, refused to make eye contact with foreign soldiers, much less speak with them or offer valuable battlefield and demographic information.
The tide began to turn in Nawa on July 2, when 800 Marines descended in helicopters and began sweeping across the district on foot, establishing nearly two dozen patrol bases in villages and cornfields along the way. Five months later and with few shots fired by Marines after their initial operation, the situation in Nawa is radically different. Insurgents find it substantially more difficult to operate without being ostracized or reported by farmers; government officials meet regularly with citizens to address their grievances, removing this powerful instrument of local control from the Taliban’s arsenal; the district center has transformed from a ghost town into a bustling bazaar; and IED incidents are down 90 percent. Nawa’s turnaround, although still fragile, could not have occurred without population-centric counterinsurgency techniques. This evolution illustrates the pivotal role intelligence plays when a battalion commits itself to understanding the environment at least as well as it understands the enemy.
The men of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines who fanned out across the district that hot July morning had to operate with no more supplies than they could carry on their backs. For weeks, they had no hardened bases, little electricity, and only radios for communication. The battalion S-2 and deputy intelligence officers, finding their unit widely dispersed across an alien environment without classified or unclassified data networks, responded with two particularly farsighted decisions. First, they distributed their intelligence analysts down to the company level, and second, they decided that understanding the people in their zone of influence was a top priority.
By resisting the urge of many intelligence officers to hoard analysts at the command post, the S-2 and his deputy armed themselves with a network of human sensors who could debrief patrols, observe key personalities and terrain across the district, and – crucially – write down their findings. Because there were not enough analysts to send to every platoon, the infantry companies picked up the slack by assigning riflemen to collate and analyze information fulltime.
While the concept of forming mini S-2 shops at the company level is not new (the Army calls them Company Intelligence Support Teams; Marines call them Company-Level Intelligence Cells), it is uncommon for them to be staffed with more than a pair of junior soldiers. First Battalion, Fifth Marines saw things differently. Alpha Company, for instance, dedicated five non-commissioned officers to their intelligence cell.
The battalion intelligence officers refused to allow the absence of a data network to impede the flow of information. Each night, the deputy intelligence officer hosted what he called “fireside chats,” during which each analyst radioed in from his remote position at a designated time and read aloud everything learned over the last 24 hours. Using this approach, daily reports incorporated a wide variety of sources: unclassified patrol debriefs; the notes of officers who had met with local leaders; the observations of civil affairs officers; and classified HUMINT reports. The deputy intelligence officer typed up a master report of everything called in by analysts and closed each “chat session” by providing them with an updated list of questions – called “intelligence requirements” – for the companies to attempt to answer.
In the earliest days of the operation, many of these questions dealt with basic logistical matters, such as the location and conditions of roads, bridges, mosques, markets, wells, and other key terrain. Once these were answered, however, the focus shifted to local residents and their perceptions. What do locals think about the insurgents? Do they feel safer or less safe with us around? What disputes exist between villages or tribes? As the picture sharpened, the focus honed in on identifying what the battalion called “anchor points” – local personalities and local grievances that, if skillfully exploited, could drive a wedge between insurgents and the greater population. In other words, anchor points represented the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities.
The battalion soon found one to exploit. Many local elders, it turned out, quietly resented the Taliban for threatening their traditional power structure. The Taliban was empowering young fighters and mullahs to replace local elders as the primary authorities on local economic and social matters. Despite this affront to the elders, they were too frightened to openly challenge the Taliban’s iron-fisted imposition.
Based on its integrated intelligence, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines took steps to subvert the Taliban power structure and to strengthen the elders’ traditional one. The battalion commander partnered with the district governor, traveling with him constantly and participating in impromptu meetings with citizens to build their confidence in Afghan and U.S. security. To demonstrate the benefits of working with the Afghan government, the battalion facilitated development projects that addressed grievances identified through coordinated surveys of the populace by Marines and civilian officials. These efforts paid off. The district governor persuaded elders to reconstitute a traditional council featuring locally selected representatives from each sub-district. The council now serves as the primary advisory board to the Afghan government in Nawa.
To be sure, various chips had to fall the right way in order for our forces to enable this positive turn of events. Nawa was lucky to have a charismatic governor and a modern battalion commander who, together, ran their joint effort like a political campaign as much as a military operation. The robust presence of security personnel (there was one Marine or Afghan soldier or policeman for every 50 citizens) was also vital.
But the battalion’s intelligence effort was equally decisive. Battalion leadership understood that driving a wedge between the people and the insurgents would advance the U.S.-Afghan mission, and it geared its intelligence toward understanding the environment, knowing this would ultimately make Marines safer than would over-concentrating on the IED threat. Crucially, the battalion commander took an active role in feeding and guiding the collection effort. His priority intelligence requirements, which he frequently updated, asked who the local powerbrokers were and what social dynamics were ripe for exploitation. A visitor to the district center of Nawa last June, before the battalion arrived, would today not recognize the bustling marketplace. Farmers who last summer would have said nothing upon spotting the Taliban burying a roadside bomb now chase them away themselves.
To the extent that intensive intelligence analysis pays dividends against IEDs, it appears to occur when analysts are closest to where the problem lies – at the ground level. Even then, the effort seems to have less impact than analysis aimed at exploiting social networks and associated powerbrokers to marginalize insurgents across the board. As an example, one brigade in Regional Command East devoted a robust multi-functional team of intelligence collectors and analysts solely to countering IEDs and without a doubt, they had a positive impact. There was only a 20 percent increase in IEDs in their area, compared to triple-digit percentage increases in IED attacks in neighboring brigade battle spaces. But these results pale in comparison to the experience of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in Nawa, where they not only saw a zero increase in IED attacks, but experienced a 90 percent decrease in IED activity. The 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment in Nuristan and Kunar, and the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry in Logar experienced comparable drops in violence. This evidence is admittedly anecdotal, but it is not irrelevant. Any comparison of approaches with results this divergent merits investigation and replication of the successful model.
The success of the battalion in Nawa became known not through intelligence channels, but from reports by American news outlets. In our search for details, we were unable to find significant information in official reports and summaries reaching headquarters level. Ultimately, one of us had to fly to Nawa to get the full story in person. As an investigative effort, this is acceptable. As a coherent and effective intelligence system, it is a failure.
In the end, however, the Nawa anecdote is doubly instructive. While it demonstrates the extent to which the intelligence community above the battalion level is out of touch – officers are oblivious even to big successes in the field – it also offers clues about how to fix the problem.
To begin, commanders must authorize a select group of analysts to retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work. These analysts must leave their chairs and visit the people who operate at the grassroots level – civil affairs officers, PRTs, atmospherics teams, Afghan liaison officers, female engagement teams, willing NGOs and development organizations, United Nations officials, psychological operations teams, human terrain teams, and staff officers with infantry battalions – to name a few.
People at the grassroots level already produce reams of reports and are willing to share them. Little of what they write, however, reaches Afghanistan’s five regional commands, and even less reaches top decision-makers and analysts in Kabul and beyond. Some reports remain trapped at the ground level because of a lack of bandwidth, while others get pushed up only to be “stove-piped” in one of the many classified-and-disjointed networks that inevitably populate a 44-nation coalition. But even where there is a commonly available network, such as the unclassified Internet, little from the ground level in Afghanistan reaches a central repository where customers who need information can access or search for it. Instead, vital information piles up in obscure SharePoint sites, inaccessible hard drives, and other digital junkyards.
Although strenuous and costly efforts are underway to move to a common, classified network and to establish a few master databases, eight years of disunity has shown that technology alone is not the answer. To solve the problem, specially trained analysts must be empowered to methodically identify everyone who collects valuable information, visit them in the field, build mutually beneficial relationships with them, and bring back information to share with everyone who needs it.
This is easier to do in Afghanistan than it might appear. Helicopters routinely shuttle between PRTs and brigade and battalion headquarters, offering analysts what their predecessors in the Cold War and in conventional conflicts could only dream of – firsthand, in-person access to the ground-level environment they are analyzing. Information essential to the successful conduct of a counterinsurgency is ripe for retrieval, but analysts that remain confined to restricted-access buildings in Kabul or on Bagram and Kandahar Airfields cannot access it.
Jag ska försöka vara lite mer originell i nästa inlägg.