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U.S. Seeks New Balance In Afghan Intelligence

French soldiers take part in a patrol near Tagab in Kapisa Province in January 2010.
WASHINGTON -- For well over a year, the U.S. military has asked Washington for more civilians to help balance its approach to fighting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

Now it seems that balance will be struck, courtesy of NATO.

The American in charge of NATO intelligence, General Michael Flynn, on January 4 issued a new plan for the alliance aimed at greatly increasing information-gathering from civilian sources in Afghanistan to complement the military effort to liquidate insurgents.

Flynn's plan was presented in a report issued publicly through a Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security, in order to reach the widest possible audience in the intelligence community. In it, the general said U.S. intelligence officials, working separately from NATO in Afghanistan, may be learning much about the enemy but remain ignorant of the needs of civilians.

As a result, Flynn will recommend that NATO's intelligence gathering focus on Afghanistan's local economies, its local centers of political power -- the topics that he says are necessary to fight a credible counterinsurgency.

Such a two-track approach is welcome, assuming each track shares its findings with the other, says Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. State and Defense departments who's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research center.

The focus, Cordesman tells RFE/RL, probably will be the presence the insurgents have in populated areas, particularly what he calls "shadow governments, which dispense the only justice system in a country whose formal government doesn't have an operable justice system.

The insurgents' justice system, though, also controls the growth and sale of opium poppies, by which they help finance the shadow governments, according to Cordesman.

"When you're fighting this kind of threat, you can't focus simply on the people who are leading it, particularly because they are so often leaders that can be relatively quickly and easily replaced," Cordesman says. "In the last four years, they've gone from informal shadow governments in a handful of provinces to the point where they now have shadow governments in every single province except one."

Cordesman says a shift in the focus of intelligence is long overdue, because until now, the attention of U.S. and NATO forces has been limited to the insurgent fighters, and not on how the insurgents were controlling local populations; or the impact of corruption under President Hamid Karzai; or how the Afghan population perceived the competence of U.S. and NATO forces, as well as Afghan forces.

"What General Flynn is basically recommending is a far more balanced, far more developed approach, which looks at the Afghan population, and looks at its security and perceptions as being as critical as the day-to-day military actions of the threat," Cordesman says, "but also focuses on how competent the Afghan government -- how competent the Afghan forces are."

In his critique of military-only intelligence, Flynn said U.S. intelligence officials in Afghanistan were "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced...and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."

"Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy," Flynn added.

Matthew Hoh knows first-hand the significance of Flynn's critique. Hoh served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq, and later was a U.S. State Department official in Afghanistan specializing in reconstruction efforts. He quit three months ago over his disagreement with President Barack Obama's decision to pursue the war in Afghanistan.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Hoh recalls one case in which NATO forces were planning a raid on a marketplace in eastern Afghanistan, based on inaccurate intelligence. He says he managed to stop the raid before U.S. forces could mount it.

"It was in an area that we could operate freely in, and that the Afghan government could operate freely in, and [where] you're seeing the benefits of a government presence," Hoh says. "Something like [an attack on a marketplace] would destroy years of hard work by Americans and Afghans because it would have been a raid that would have been destructive and it would have accomplished nothing except destroy years of hard work building relationships with the local people."

So how can intelligence reports be so totally wrong? Hoh explains that intelligence analysts -- and, by extension, policy makers -- tend to be isolated from the realities on the ground. They're given information by field officers who themselves don't get out very often, and who tend to deal only with Afghans who are already friendly to U.S. forces.

What's important, Hoh says, is to gather intelligence, directly or indirectly, from all kinds of Afghans, including those who are hostile to the United States, because they're the ones most likely to be familiar with the insurgents.

Hoh says this problem is only made worse by a bureaucracy at the U.S. Defense Department that he says hasn't been rewarding officers who signed up to be members of a group of experts for the Afghan war. He says that hasn't been part of the Pentagon's recommended career path, and so too few officers volunteer for it.

"If you commit five years to [the dedicated Afghan corps], you're bucking the whole career-progression path. And so you're not going to get all those checks in the box that you need in order to be promoted," Hoh says. "So it's a risk some guys don't want to take, particularly guys who have wives and kids who need to do well for their families."

He adds: "[Because of this resistance,] we rotate too quickly in and out [of Afghanistan], we don't develop the understanding that we need to [have], we don't have the expertise that we should [have]. It's a worthwhile program, but unfortunately I think that the [Pentagon] bureaucracy is not fighting the war, the bureaucracy is fighting to keep itself alive."

Hoh is skeptical that even if the Pentagon eventually corrects its approach to officers' career paths, even if it finally understands the best way to gather intelligence in an insurgency, such corrective measures may be too late. Already, he says, three decades of war have turned many Afghans against the foreign forces in their country.

Other experts give a somewhat more optimistic assessment. But most agree that Flynn has his work cut out for him.