WASHINGTON – Military intelligence officers were scrambling a year ago to collect and analyze the social, economic and tribal ins and outs of each valley and hamlet in Afghanistan.
This information wasn't the kind of secret or covert material many military intelligence specialists were used to. But it was seen as crucial to helping commanders tell the good guys from the bad, learn what Afghans really needed from their government and undermine the Taliban-led insurgency by winning hearts and minds over time.
Since last fall, top intelligence leaders in Afghanistan shifted their focus back to targeting the enemy in the more traditional way, by mapping their networks and analyzing what made the Taliban tick.
They didn't stop collecting the other information. But their goal now was helping tell commanders what they needed to know to kill insurgents and drive the enemy to the negotiating table.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States will start bringing home U.S. troops next month. His announcement is part of a gradual scaling back of American operations and ambitions in Afghanistan that's expected to emphasize raids over governance, making tracking Afghan culture and bolstering the government less important, three current officials in Afghanistan said.
The White House has been frustrated by Afghanistan's corruption and the inability of President Hamid Karzai's government to provide competent officials to serve far-flung provinces. That has helped shrink U.S. goals, and the new bottom line is a government strong enough to prevent terrorists' safe havens from returning.
Targeting insurgent leaders and their support networks is seen as an important part of the U.S. exit strategy. The thinking is that Taliban leaders will be more ready for a deal if they feel threatened personally.
The U.S. has confirmed preliminary outreach to the Taliban, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that fruitful talks probably are a long way off.
These developments come as the man in charge of military intelligence in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Steve Fogarty, has shifted his focus to how the U.S. gathers social, economic and tribal data, and how troops are getting access to it.
But he may now face a closing window of opportunity to bolster those programs, with the looming drawdown of manpower and resources as ordered by an administration fed up with the war's $10 billion-a-month cost.
A secret U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan issued in February said raids and small-scale special-operations-led stability operations were showing progress, but projects meant to bolster Afghan governance were not yet taking hold, according to the officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
That assessment was one factor in Obama's decision to withdraw all but a small contingent of the current approximately 100,000 forces by 2015, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic discussions.
In early 2010, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal's mission was to keep the population safe, in addition to the traditional hunt-the-enemy role. That meant understanding enough about a town or village to know whether the insurgency was best combated by killing a key leader, giving out loans to build a factory and provide jobs, or in many cases both, according to a senior intelligence official in Afghanistan.
The drawbacks of focusing solely on the enemy were laid out in a paper published by then-senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn. He called his work "Fixing Intel" and he bypassed traditional Pentagon channels to get it published by a Washington think tank.
After publication, Flynn put in place new layers of collection and analysis that included the Stability Operations Information Centers, whose staff members function like news reporters. They travel to field locations to collect intelligence that others didn't have time to share with the rest of the NATO-led effort.
Analysts also gathered "atmospherics." They asked Afghans what the man on the street was talking about, trying to get a sense of everything from sentiment about Karzai to whether they believed NATO troops were staying beyond 2014.
Flynn also championed the Human Terrain System, which uses anthropologists to study village and social networks throughout Afghanistan.
Most important, intelligence officials say, was his move to build district-by-district assessments to provide an encyclopedia of information readily available to the troops in the field.
Flynn left last fall. His successor, Fogarty, reorganized those three components — the information centers, atmospherics, and human terrain — into one location, at a base outside NATO headquarters.
That move was seen by some who had helped Flynn establish those operations as a rejection of the need for social, civil and tribal intelligence. They also pointed to a turnover in leadership at some of the stability centers and the dismantling of one center in eastern Afghanistan.
Two senior intelligence officials involved in the reorganization say it was simply a response to Gen. David Petraeus' priorities, when he took over from now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Knowing the White House clock was running out, Petraeus knew he had limited time to show his troops had weakened the Taliban.
The top U.S. commander did try to send the message that social intelligence was important in tracking enemy networks, and he asked officers to count things such as the number of cellphone towers in an area, as a measure of success equal to the number of insurgents killed, the official said.
But some military intelligence teams in the field still interpreted the change in leadership from Flynn to Fogarty and the reorganization of some of Flynn's top projects as a shift back to what they had studied in school: targeting the enemy over protecting the population.
In parts of Afghanistan, they embraced the shift wholeheartedly, two U.S. officials say.
For instance, Kandahar's military intelligence center merges social and cultural data, satellite weather data and information gleaned from special operations raids. But the focus on the enemy is reflected in the souvenir coins the center hands out. Beneath the traditional counterinsurgency slogan, "Winning hearts and minds," is a picture of an armed insurgent, with a rifle-sight superimposed on him.
"People are still comfortable with what they know," said Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who just returned from a year serving as the senior counterinsurgency adviser in eastern Afghanistan.
"There's a level of synchronization between unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft, and forces on the ground when it comes to targeting the enemy that simply isn't there, when we talk either about knowing which key leaders to talk to, or aid is needed and where," he said.
That doesn't mean leaders don't want or need the more detailed information, Ollivant said, "just that they haven't yet perfected the best way to get it."
Flynn remains influential. He was just promoted to the three-star rank and appointed to a high position advising the director for national intelligence. One of Flynn's co-authors, Marine Corps Capt. Matt Pottinger, says his paper "Fixing Intel" is all but required reading at military intelligence courses.
For those who think Fogarty's focus excludes social intelligence, a senior intelligence official points out that he set up his own version of human terrain analysis of Afghanistan two years ago, when he was Petraeus' intelligence officer at U.S. Central Command in Tampa.
In Fogarty's previous time in Afghanistan, he didn't have the staff to gather the kind of data Flynn advocated because the bulk of the resources were going to Iraq, according to a senior official in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
With Petraeus on the way to being confirmed as CIA director, 33,000 U.S. troops headed from Afghanistan over the next 12 months, and a new focus on pounding the Taliban into peace talks, he may be facing that fight for resources all over again.
Dozier reported from Washington and Kabul, Afghanistan.
Flynn's paper: http://tinyurl.com/y8ckrrr