Commentary Magazine


Michael Flynn’s Revelatory Report

One of the reasons I admire Gen. Stanley McChrystal and think he is the right commander to turn around the war effort in Afghanistan is that he is not afraid to be unconventional and effective even if, in so doing, he leaves a few colleagues with noses bent out of joint. And he has surrounded himself with similar hard chargers, including Major General Michael Flynn, his chief intelligence officer. Now Flynn has done something that has caused a minor earthquake in the Pentagon — he has written a scathing overview of the intelligence operations in Afghanistan not for internal distribution to a handful of top-secret addressees but rather to the whole world, via the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

His report, co-written with a DIA officer and a Marine captain (who was formerly a Wall Street Journal reporter), is a must-read for anyone who cares about the war in Afghanistan, the wider war on terror, or the subject of intelligence in general, much in the news these days.  It includes the kind of blunt talk seldom heard from serving military officers. The authors begin this way:

Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. 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. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the cor­relations between various development projects and the levels of coopera­tion among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence offi­cers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-mak­ers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.

The rest of the report isn’t so diplomatic. Flynn and his co-authors go on to describe the tendency of intel analysts to “overemphasize detailed informa­tion about the enemy at the expense of the political, economic, and cultural environment that supports it.” They propose a solution—setting up new fusion cells called Stability Operations Information Centers, which would focus on Afghanistan district by district. The analysts who work there will not be allowed to remain in a cushy office far from the battlefield. They call for commanders to:

… 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.

That may sound like common sense, but it is a radical departure from how many within the intel community work today.

Normally, reports of this sort come and go, issuing recommendations that are by and large ignored by policymakers. In this case, Major General Flynn’s rank and position mean that his insightful criticisms and prescriptions will get the attention they deserve — he can order many of these changes to be instituted. But he also knows that issuing memos in Kabul doesn’t affect fundamental change on the ground. To get out his message to current and future operational commanders, he has chosen a most unconventional approach — one that has caused predictable sniping at the Pentagon. Such uproar is instinctively avoided by most officers — indeed by most federal employees — but McChrystal and his aides know it is the only way to bring about the fundamental change needed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.