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Atmospheric Intelligence Should Be The Focus When Conducting Counterinsurgency (COIN) Operations In Afghanistan

Updated on December 29, 2014

“Effective, accurate, and timely intelligence is essential to conducting any form of warfare, including counterinsurgency operations, because the ultimate success or failure of the mission depends on the effectiveness of the intelligence effort” (Teamey, 2006).

Importance of Atmospheric Intelligence

Intelligence is a process of collecting, analyzing and disseminating information about our surrounding environment that will assist our civilian and military leaders to make informed decisions regarding potential threats to U.S. interests. The intelligence process and fusion is paramount to conducting successful counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan in order to neutralize the threat, protect the Afghan population and provide a stable government under the authority of Hamid Karzi (Japan Times). Major General Michael Flynn, the senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recommended “sweeping changes to the way the intelligence community thinks about itself- from a focus on the enemy to a focus on the people of Afghanistan”. U.S. collection efforts have focused too much on the disposition of insurgent groups, leaving fundamental intelligence gaps about the environment in which we operate and the population we are trying to protect and persuade. Re-focusing or widening the U.S. Intelligence efforts on the atmospherics of the environment rather than solely on the enemy situation can effectively aide the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The purpose of this study is to closely examine how a shift to an emphasis on atmospheric intelligence will greater prepare NATO forces in Afghanistan to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan population and defeat the insurgency, especially when factoring in the proposed exfiltration of NATO forces circa 2014. Focusing intelligence efforts on the enemy situation is important, however, studying the atmospherics of the country and population "can provide a leverage for popular support and marginalize the insurgency" (Flynn, 2010).

Map of Afghanistan to help you visualize the geography of the region.
Map of Afghanistan to help you visualize the geography of the region. | Source

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Soldiers getting to know the village elders.
Soldiers getting to know the village elders. | Source

Intelligence Is Too Enemy Centric

The focus of this literature review is to present the importance of atmospheric intelligence and how it can play a major role in the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Atmospheric intelligence is an essential piece of intelligence collection because it provides the commander or decision maker the ability to fully understand their operating picture to make important informed decisions.

Throughout history, the United States has observed insurgencies against the British during the Revolutionary War, the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II, supported the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War and the Lebanese Civil War. Lessons learned from this case study further highlights the importance of intelligence and the need to understand the opposing culture during a counterinsurgency, which underlines the conflict and provides the backdrop for every aspect of their life (Reamer, 2009).

Flynn, Pottinger and Batchelor (2010) in “Fixing Intel in Afghanistan” discusses the importance of not only enemy-centric intelligence, but also the need for population-centric intelligence based on hundreds of interviews conducted inside and outside the intelligence community. At the battalion level and below, analysts read and assess human intelligence, signals intelligence and significant activity reports that describe various criminal activities. Additionally, intelligence analysts spend a vast amount of time outlining insurgent networks for targeting operations and scanning the countryside in the hope of locating insurgents emplacing IEDs or preparing for ambushes. These reports and collection techniques focus solely on the enemy situation, which is essential, but relying on them exclusively entices intelligence shops to provide reactionary analysis at the expense of finding ways to strike at the very heart of the insurgency (Flynn, 2010). Flynn argues battalion S-2 shops (intelligence shops) rarely collect data and assessments on “census data, patrol debriefs, discussions with local shuras, farmers and tribal leaders; after action reports from civil affairs officers and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs); polling data and atmospherics reports from psychological operations and female engagement teams; and field observations of Afghan soldiers.” A population-centric intelligence approach fosters the cooperation of the local Afghan people who know the environment and are far better at locating insurgents. The lack of atmospheric data to include governance, development and local populations is needed in order to prevail in Afghanistan.

Example of Atmospheric Intelligence

The article critically examines the Nawa district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and the positive effects of implementing population-centric counterinsurgency techniques or atmospheric collection. In June 2009, U.S. Marines and British soldiers located in Nawa could not leave their base without receiving machine gun and rocket fire from insurgents. Local farmers would not share pertinent information for fear of reprisal from the Taliban insurgents making it difficult to obtain valuable demographic information. On July 2nd, 800 Marines from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, conducted an air assault operation establishing twenty-four patrol bases within Afghan villages and towns. After their initial operation, the company level intelligence section was able to work closely with local village elders and the district governor to discuss local personalities, issues and grievances (Flynn, 2010). The Marines and civilian officials conducted coordinated surveys to address the grievances, which inspired the facilitation of development projects and ultimately took power away from the Taliban and gave control back to the village elders. The battalion’s intelligence effort drove a wedge between the people and the insurgents by focusing intelligence collection on the atmospherics of the district. Due to the shift of power, farmers began reporting the location of insurgents and government officials met regularly with the population to discuss grievances causing IED and violent activity to decrease by 90 percent. Nawa’s transformation “illustrates the pivotal role intelligence plays when a battalion commits itself to understanding the environment at least as well as it understands the enemy” (Flynn, 2010).

Winning the hearts and minds.
Winning the hearts and minds. | Source

Army Field Manual In Support of Atmospheric Intelligence

Teamey and Sweet (2006) contributors to Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, titled “Organizing Intelligence for Counterinsurgency” discusses the significant role of intelligence and six major principles of intelligence for success during a counterinsurgency. Teamey states the six major principles are “Intelligence in counterinsurgency is about people, counterinsurgency is an intelligence war, operations and intelligence must feed each other, all operations have an intelligence component, insurgencies are local, vary greatly in time and space, and are mosaic-like, and in a joint-combined environment, all echelons must work at intelligence” (Teamey and Sweet, 2006). His research highlights the importance of intelligence in a counterinsurgency is to understand the populace, the host nation, the operational environment and the insurgents. Teamey and Sweet suggest the first rule to overcoming an insurgency is to understand the perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decisions of the Afghan population, which are the foundation for intelligence collection and analysis. The authors rely on their knowledge and contributions to Army doctrine, Field Manual 3-24, practical experience and observations to portray their research findings. The article vaguely states what research methods or measures were implemented to shape their results, although, the article is supported by numerous scholarly references and originates from Army doctrine or policy. Additionally, this article only discusses military intelligence efforts and procedures, which is only one key aspect of the U.S. intelligence community.

Lessons Learned From Previous Insurgencies

Reamer (2009) wrote “Importance of Intelligence in a Modern Insurgency” and summarized the effective and ineffective intelligence strategies and lessons learned from the American Revolution, Boer Wars, Filipino insurgency during World War II, Vietnam War, Soviet-Afghan War and the Lebanese Civil War. The effective and ineffective intelligence strategies varied from each insurgency.Reamer’s research suggests the United States failed to understand the culture, history of the conflict and the government during the Lebanese Civil War. Although, the intelligence efforts and strategies varied from each insurgency, the research also highlighted the need to understand the atmospherics of the culture, which provides the motivation for the conflict. Reamer states “Some of these successful intelligence tactics are being used today to combat insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan but each one of these tactics is like a piece of a puzzle. By not using every piece, the puzzle cannot be completed and the counterinsurgency cannot progress…An insurgency cannot be defeated by brute force. It requires the precision that only good intelligence can deliver” (Reamer, 2009). This case study portrays multiple ways to focus the intelligence effort to overcome an insurgency to include the atmospherics of a society.

Sociocultural/Atmospheric Intelligence Strategy

Patton in “Sociocultural Intelligence: A New Intelligence Discipline” defines the significance of a sociocultural intelligence strategy. Wayne Simmons, a retired CIA agent of thirty years who supports Patton’s research states “I have discovered through personal experiences and by witnessing asymmetric terrorist threats worldwide that social and cultural understanding is crucial to the success of military and civilian intelligence agencies in the Global War on Terror” (Patton, 2010). Sociocultural intelligence is defined as the process of collecting and analyzing data related to geography, people, economics, demographics, political affairs and then disseminating such data for situational awareness. Patton argues the need for establishing sociocultural intelligence (SOCINT) as a new discipline recognized by the intelligence community. Patton uses historical references from Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, United States and Afghanistan to portray the success of implementing sociocultural intelligence. The Afghanistan case study was developed from multiple sources originating from local indigenous people throughout Afghanistan. The identities for this case study were modified for their protection and the information was obtained through ongoing research and physical operations lasting from October 2001 to November 2008 (Patton, 2010). The case study outlines the life of “Mahmood” to assist the U.S. government to understand the typical life and survival of the Afghan people. The case study describes Mahmood’s environment and teaches the key importance of learning Islamic customs, courtesies, family, love, and religion, and emphasizes the major differences between American and Islamic culture. The research from this article suggests U.S. intelligence efforts need to spend more time collecting atmospheric intelligence or in Patton’s words sociocultural intelligence to aide the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Speaking with locals to understand their culture or implementing a population-centric approach is crucial to gain insight about the environment in which we operate (Patton, 2010).

The intelligence effort is critical to support counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. Re-focusing or widening U.S. intelligence collection efforts on the atmospherics of the environment rather than solely focusing on the disposition of insurgent groups can effectively aide the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Each case study provided documented and historical data to support their thesis on intelligence and described many intelligence successes and failures throughout history. Reviewing multiple scholarly journals and case studies indicates the cultural, political and economical factors or the atmospherics are an important aspect of the intelligence effort. Understanding the perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decisions of the Afghan population can provide insight into their culture and way of life in an effort to better support the counterinsurgency strategy. Each study highlights the importance and need for atmospheric intelligence whether it represents a piece of the puzzle or is the main effort of intelligence collection. Collecting atmospheric data on the environment allows the commander or decision maker to fully understand the underlying conflict and the operating environment to include the local populace, demographics and the cultural, political and economical aspects to ultimately win the hearts and minds and foster the cooperation of the Afghan population.

Conclusive Remarks

This research focuses on the importance of atmospheric intelligence with an emphasis on the Afghan population and their cultural, political, and economical aspirations, which are the foundation for intelligence collection and analysis to support counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. The literature review emphasizes the need for U.S. intelligence efforts to focus on the atmospherics of the environment rather than solely on the disposition of insurgents to effectively aide the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Knowing the disposition of insurgent groups is necessary, but understanding the depth behind the conflict will win the hearts and minds of the populace, ultimately defeating the insurgency.


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