What Can We Learn from Afghanistan’s Intelligence Problems?

This essay is based on a 2010 publication entitled, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan.

“The graveyard of empires,” my section sergeant said, upon learning that we were deploying to Afghanistan.  I had volunteered to go to Iraq, and was disappointed that we had been selected to go to what I thought was the lesser of the theaters.  By then, Afghanistan had been put on the backburner – we had started calling it The Forgotten War, there for a while.

Between 2006 and 2011, I spent two and a half years in Afghanistan, all in Intelligence missions.  I was able to experience company-level Intelligence all the way up to national-level.  I wouldn’t call Intelligence in Afghanistan broken, but there were a few things that needed to be fixed.

Coalition wars are inherently inefficient, even given modern technology.  When we consider all the classification caveats – which partner nations could see what, and which of our partners were ‘read-on’ to the various programs – Intelligence sharing, too, was horribly convoluted.  I remember a U.S. Captain telling a British counterpart that he couldn’t share a particular piece of threat intelligence because the British Intelligence officer didn’t have the correct security clearance… And here we were fighting a war alongside them.

A retired colonel once told me that the reason why Napoleon Bonaparte was so effective was because he always fought coalitions – again, infamously inefficient coalitions.  “It’s kind of hard to quickly tell three different armies who speak different languages to gather at a set location at a set time and date, to attack a common enemy,” he said.  When I look at the preparedness networks popping up across America, I can’t help but consider them each a little node of an enormously inefficient intelligence-sharing coalition.  (Although organizations like AmRRON are working toward bridging those gaps.)

So the question we ask ourselves is, “How do we increase communication and interoperability among our area or regional counterparts?”  We ask ourselves that question because in a protracted, post-SHTF environment, we may very well see a resemblance of the ground in Afghanistan – tribalism, internecine violence, power vacuums, struggles for legitimacy, and a fight to restore law and order.  In other words, all the things we dealt with (rather poorly in some instances) in Afghanistan, minus al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In a matter of speaking, this is “graduate-level” preparedness, at a time when most preparedness-oriented Americans are struggling to meet basic needs – beans, bullets, and band-aids.  One question I’m always quick to ask is, Exactly what are you surviving into?   I hope that this article gives you something else to think about – once you’ve survived, whether it’s been for 30 hours or 30 days, what will you inherit?  Are you preparing now to build or secure a life of Liberty in the future?  What kind of governance will you have?  Who will be the authority, and will that new governance make you better or worse off?  In my opinion, preparing to survive a disruptive event, or a cataclysmic one, is rather unimportant given the prospect that your new quality of life could be much, much worse.

Fixing the Focus of Intelligence for Patriots and Preppers.

Lesson #1: Don’t Discount the Need for Intelligence on the Operational Environment

One critical problem that I recently pointed out on the Forward Observer Podcast Episode 004 (21 Oct 14) is that we’re trying to do too much.  We’re trying to tackle everything on three levels of intelligence – tactical, operational, and strategic – and we end up doing it poorly.  My recommended solution was that preparedness groups choose the level most important to them, and then be the best at it.  In most cases, that’s going to be the tactical-level – the areas around your home and/or community.  We should be striving to become the subject matter experts on our Area of Operations (AO), but not in an intuitive, off-the-cuff way.  We desperately need to collect relevant intelligence information and structure our approach to solve these complex problems.

[pullquote]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. – Fixing Intel[/pullquote]

On the less disruptive end of the spectrum, let’s take an ice storm that strands hundreds of thousands of people and cuts off power to even more (similar to last year’s ice storm across the South). One Priority Intelligence Requirement that I would generate is, How long does this community have before violence and/or criminality begins to erupt?  That’s a tactical-level requirement, but answering that would depend on lots of other questions.  So we have this complex problem – trying to figure out how long we have until we see criminality, i.e., a threat – and we need to break it down into smaller, more easily answerable questions.  Who are the known criminals in the area?  Where does criminality currently exist?  How much stored or available food does the community have?  How will charity/religious organizations aid the community?  What are the charitable organizations in my community?  How long could the charitable organizations supply the community?   So on and so forth, until we we start to get a clearer picture of the potential breaking points of our community.  These last few are environmental requirements – the answers inform you about the operational environment.

Our first lesson from Fixing Intel is to correct the mistakes of the Intelligence Community in Afghanistan.  “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.”

In the case of a catastrophic event, convincing your neighbors to band together as a community in order to provide 24/7, 360-degree security is going to be critically important to you and your family.  Therefore, it logically follows that you should become an expert on your surroundings, and the people who surround you, so that you can more effectively influence them.  Who are the veterans?  Who are the most capable in the community?  Which people have useful talents and skills, and how should they be best utilized?  Who are the current leaders or influencers in your community?  These are all relevant questions that should be known by the subject matter experts – you – before you need to know it, instead of after.


Lesson #2: Every Patriot is a Sensor

Fixing Intel correctly points out that:

This is why ground units… and everyone close to the grassroots bears a double burden in a counterinsurgency; they are at once the most important consumers and suppliers of information.

Line units manned by soldiers had potentially 24/7 access to Human Intelligence (HUMINT) information.  These soldiers could be approached by local residents and provided with critical, time-sensitive information.  This critical, time-sensitive information was likely much more important to those soldiers than it was to the company intelligence cell, or the Battalion S2, or the Division G2.  But if those soldiers hadn’t been taught the importance of interacting with the populace, and learning from what these people had to say, then that same intelligence information would not exist and we would be able to exploit it.  In a very literal sense, intelligence began and ended with that squad of soldiers: they were the ones who collected it, and they were the ones who were going to use it.  Soldiers were a treasure trove of good intelligence information for the analysts who ventured to sit down with a returning patrol leader or platoon sergeant.

Similarly, every Patriot or Prepper should also be a sensor for intelligence information.  This goes especially for the most active or connected in the community.  Your group should know your intelligence requirements, and always be passively collecting intelligence information to better inform decision makers.  No one is as smart as everyone, as the saying goes; and the larger and more aware our group, the wider and deeper intelligence networks we can build.  Passive intelligence collection is a very wonderful thing. Whether you’re monitoring a police scanner, combing through your daily email alerts, or reporting up the information you overheard at the court house, or airport, or a friend’s house, each of us plays a part in intelligence collection.

The second lesson we can learn is that you are vital to your group’s intelligence element.  Understand what types of information to look for (BESTAMPS, for instance), and then know how to report that information so it can be included in a comprehensive view of your environment and turned into intelligence.


Lesson #3: Intelligence is More Than Just the Threat

[T]he most competent regimental and brigade intelligence shops…produce written summaries that incorporate everyone’s activities in the area of operations – civil affairs, PRTs, the Afghan government, and security forces – rather than merely rehashing kinetic incidents already covered in battalion-level intelligence summaries. – Fixing Intel

I know the paragraph above is going to contain some gibberish, but I’ll simplify it in one sentence: Intelligence is more than just the threat.  Identifying and reporting threat intelligence is among the most important tasks of the intelligence element.  Truly, since the beginning of warfare, this has been the singular purpose of having an intelligence element.  If intelligence is a pie, the higher we go in echelons (Division or Corps), the larger the pie becomes, and the lower we go (Battalion or Company) the smaller the pie gets.  This is to say, the smaller the unit, the less it understands about what’s going on outside its area of responsibility… but that’s not to say that what’s happening in another area is unimportant to you.

Your group is likely going to run into this problem.  The smaller your group, the less likely you are to have a clear understanding of your area or region.  If you’re building out your intelligence networks now, and practicing the ability to pass relevant information to others, then you should consider what may be important to them as well.

The third lesson we can learn is that intelligence is more than just the threat.  Could the attitudes of the populace towards the sheriff’s department be important to you?  Could the actions of your county government be important to someone in another county?  Could your county’s support of or resistance to tyrannical laws or policies be important to someone outside your county?  The answer to all these questions is, yes.

When we’re talking about intelligence sharing, we can increase our efficiency if we include relevant information in those communications.  If you’re a member of a prepper network, or maybe one node of a regional network, then be sure to coordinate with your neighboring groups and find out what might be of importance to them.  Remember: Intelligence is more than just the threat.


There are, of course, many other lessons that can be learned from Afghanistan.  I talk a lot about Afghanistan because I think we could see in America, in a moderately bad to worst case scenario, some of the characteristics of that conflict.  At the heart of Iraq and Afghanistan is the fight for legitimacy.  The Islamic State is getting the latest word on who’s the legitimate authority in Iraq, though hardly the last.  The Taliban is getting the latest word on who’s the legitimate authority in Afghanistan.  This article is really geared for those who believe that there may be a fight for legitimacy in America, and there’s certainly a segment of the population who shares that same concern; especially as more and more Americans view authoritarian government as illegitimate.  Clausewitz famously said that war is politics by other means.  This nation is, in a sense, being ravaged by that political fight for legitimacy.  I prepare because I know that politics isn’t the solution to fixing America, and because many others agree.  War is an extension of politics, and our political leaders acknowledge this secretly.  One day soon, they very well may acknowledge it openly.


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The problem is not the collection of information, but the distribution. In a non-violent regime change oriented insurgency information is key and if you look at all domestic counter intelligence totalitarian state run operations they are extremely violent and dirty. Initially, agents of the totalitarian state penetrate an organization and feed it false information while attempting to identify any main actors and neutralize any effect or efforts they may have. It has a chilling effect on people in general, which is its intended purpose. I’m not saying that the best option is to do nothing as that has no effect, but if you are using good operational security most everything that is being worked on and or accomplished is being compartmentalized and so very few people will have access to that information, In a place like Afghanistan the indigenous people don’t care if they die or lose everything as life is worth little and people have nothing to loose. Plus, I believe, they themselves are in it to win it. Western people tend to hang on to what life they have, lose of social status and material goods is often worse then death and people in general hold such a high regard for their personal life that they will go through extreme hardship to remain alive, or do anything to avoid even the possibility of death.

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