How to Fight a Better War – by Jacob Laksin


The recent success of Jordanian suicide bomber and al-Qaeda double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi in carrying out a deadly attack on CIA officials in Afghanistan’s Khost military base also marked a tragic failure of U.S. intelligence. Had intelligence operatives discovered al-Balawi’s jihadist identity sooner and acted on the knowledge to prevent his meeting face to face with CIA officers, seven of the agency’s employees might still be alive.

Yet the dismal state of U.S. intelligence gathering in the war on terror goes beyond the CIA’s failures. The armed forces, no less than their clandestine service counterparts, rely on detailed and precise intelligence as part of their daily struggle to defeat the Taliban insurgency and bring stability to Afghanistan’s lawless outlands. But much of that intelligence is of such inferior quality, at least for the purposes of a counterinsurgency campaign, that some commanding officers have taken to reading U.S. newspapers instead of intelligence reports in order to get a grasp of the ground-level realities that confront the troops.

That’s the stunning revelation of a new report on the state of U.S. intelligence in Afghanistan. Authored by top intelligence officers in Afghanistan and published this month by the Center for a New American Security, the report, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” offers a pointed critique of the intelligence collection process on the war’s frontlines. In the blunt assessment of General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, military leaders “are not getting the right information to make decisions with.”

One factor undermining U.S. intelligence, according to the authors, is its misplaced focus. Presently, the intelligence community in Afghanistan spends its time analyzing the various networks of terrorist insurgents and monitoring their actions. That information is then passed along to combat units, who can spot Taliban fighters planting bombs and IED’s for an ambush and kill or capture identified targets. This approach may sound sensible in theory, but it comes with a serious drawback: it is innately reactive. In practice, that means that U.S. troops must wait for the terrorist threat to surface before they can neutralize it. But what if there were a way to diminish the Taliban’s capacity to inflict terror before they strike?

There is, the CNAS report contends. Instead of limiting their interest to Taliban insurgents, intelligence analysts should be looking at the broader Afghan population. In this scenario, analysts would turn their attention to the daily dynamics of life in Afghan districts. Everything from the power relations among village elders to the pace and progress of development projects would become the new focus. Such “population-centric informa­tion,” much of it already available but underused, may not sound as critical as identifying the insurgents and IED sites. Strategically, however, it may be even more useful to the U.S.-led mission. For only by securing the support and cooperation of the Afghan people can coalition forces hope to defeat the Taliban insurgency.

The case of Nawa is instructive. As the report explains:

“In late June 2009, a small number of U.S. Marines and British soldiers were the only foreign forces in Nawa, a district of 70,000 farmers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The American and British troops could not venture a kilometer from their cramped base without confronting machine gun and rocket fire from insurgents. Local farmers, wary of reprisals by the Taliban, refused to make eye contact with foreign soldiers, much less speak with them or offer valuable battlefield and demographic information.

The tide began to turn in Nawa on July 2, when 800 Marines descended in helicopters and began sweeping across the district on foot, establish­ing nearly two dozen patrol bases in villages and cornfields along the way. Five months later and with few shots fired by Marines after their initial operation, the situation in Nawa is radically differ­ent. Insurgents find it substantially more difficult to operate without being ostracized or reported by farmers; government officials meet regularly with citizens to address their grievances, remov­ing this powerful instrument of local control from the Taliban’s arsenal; the district center has trans­formed from a ghost town into a bustling bazaar; and IED incidents are down 90 percent.”

How did the Marines do it? Primarily, by realizing that understanding Nawa’s residents was the key to driving out the Taliban. Relying on wide variety of intelligence sources – from the accounts of military patrols, to the notes of officers who met with local officials, to the observations of civil affairs officers – intelligence analysts tried to find a chink in the Taliban’s armor.

They found one. While the Taliban empowered young fighters and mullahs, they also made an enemy of local elders, who resented having their traditional power structure challenged by the Taliban’s parvenus. The Marines, aided by a charismatic district governor, stepped in to support the tribal elders, widening the wedge between Nawa’s people and the Taliban. Deprived of local support, the Taliban found it more difficult to operate – hence the 90 percent drop in IED attacks. (The CNAS report notes that intelligence collectors who focused exclusively on countering the threat from IED’s also saw declines in the number of attacks, but nothing on the dramatic scale of what occurred in Nawa.)

It’s not always that simple, of course. The Marines in Nawa had certain unique advantages. One was an effective district governor, who helped rally the local population. Another was substantial troop and police strength. With one Marine, Afghan soldier or policeman for every 50 citizens, locals could be assured of protection against Taliban reprisals. That made their decision to side with the Marines against the Taliban that much easier. Even taking these advantages into account, however, the report makes a convincing case that the security turnaround in Nawa could not have happened without the right intelligence gathering techniques.

Unfortunately, Nawa remains the exception rather than the rule. It’s a grim reflection on the state of U.S. intelligence collection that the military became aware of the Nawa success not through intelligence channels but through media reports.

Still, the CNAS report suggests that a fundamental rethinking of U.S. intelligence strategy in Afghanistan is underway. More and more, military leaders are beginning to understand that killing Taliban fighters, though important, must take a back seat to the less storied but more essential work of winning the hearts and minds of Afghan population and turning them against the Taliban. It may sound counterintuitive, but the evidence seems to bear out General McChrystal’s dictum: “The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.”

  • Robert Bernier

    Wow! Read this one. It is really good. And this gentleman says it just like it is.

    This venerable and much honored WW II vet is well known in Hawaii
    for his seventy-plus years of service to patriotic organizations and causes all over the country. A humble man without a political bone in his body, he has never spoken out before about a government official, until now. He dictated this letter to a friend, signed it and mailed it to the president. Consult :

  • Joe Smith

    It is simple how to fight a better war. Allow our troops to kill as many of the enemy as possible . Someone people today believe this approach is unique (sarcasm) but this is the essence of war . Howver, the incompetent fools beginning with the Manchurian fool in the White House and his politically correct generals along with the fillthy traitor Nancy “1000 face lifts ” Pelosi are traitors who are preventing the US from winning. The rules of engagement are so insane , if I stated the current ROE in Afghanistan , you think I'm delusional. Stop building schools . We almost totally destroyed almost every Japanese city during WWII and they remain a relatively reliable allie. Therefore, we shouldn't worry about collateral damage and immediately stop using our soldiers to build schools and other structures when they could be out killing the enemy.

  • ApolloSpeaks


    Why can't America win the War on Terror under the leadership Barack Hussein Obama? Why can't he rise to the level of a great wartime leader like a George W. Bush, an FDR, a Truman or Abe Lincoln in fighting our radical Moslem enemies? The answer lies in Obama's politically correct view of Islam and his little understood war on Moselm poverty. Google ApolloSpeaks (one word) and read my ground breaking piece: Obama's War on Moslem Poverty and see what I mean.

  • jim douthit

    Mr. Laksin–

    I urge you to get Yaron Brook's CD, “The Morality of War.” (Yaron is head of the Ayn Rand Institute). This spells out the “rules” of the Just-War Theory, that set of rules by which we now fight our wars which guarantee that we can never ever ever ever WIN another war. Gen. McChrystal's statement at the end of your column is tragically mistaken. –someone has to open up debate about the Just-War Theory, which is being taught at our military academies and adhered to religiously. Please get hold of the CD I mentioned. It will stun you–and provide you with intellectual ammunition for many columns. jd

  • SteveNVicki

    At least now we're seeing what was known in previous wars. You've got to get your finger on the pulse of the people. In Europe it was the neighborhood church with the preists being the best source of intelligence as to what the people were thinking what their fears were, concerns for the future, what plans were being formed, if they were supportive of exisitng leaders, who were the resistance, etc. Find this link and exploit it. Just like our enemy is doing on our soil. Note Detroit.

  • fwilson

    This the old case of over-reliance on “intelligence gathered by technical means”, as contrasted to human intelligence. Technical intelligence can tell you what an enemy can do,(his capabilities) and what he has done, but it will not “get inside his head” and tell you what he is likely to do. To do the latter you must have human intelligence and understand the enemies way of thinking and his priorities.

  • USMCSniper

    Anyone who impinges on America's freedom such as terrorist states and their proxy terrorist have chosen the rules of the game. We must bring their war to them big time in spades. They bomb a church, we bomb 10 mosques. They hijack a plane, we take out one of their airports. They execute American tourists, we tactically nuke an entire muslim city, they take out an American city with a WMD, we annihilate Mecca and all the holy places of Islam, and bun down every mosque in the world. Our job should be to make the cost of jihadist terrorism and their supporters for it to be so horrific that is becomes unthinkable to attack Americans because of the even more horrific consequences to them that will surely follow.

    They must learn that: “We the punishment of God…If you had not committed such great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like us upon you.”

  • jlaksin

    jd: I’m familiar with some of Brook’s arguments, but I don’t think I agree with many of his premises, not least his view that we need to wage something on the order of total war to be successful. Morality aside, that invites all kinds of complications that the McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy avoids. The latter strikes me as the more sensible, and, given the political realities of what the United States is actually willing to do, the more pragmatic course.

    fwilson: I think that’s precisely right, and indeed the central insight of the report discussed in the column.

  • Keren

    In 2002 when I read that the FBI had refused the services of about 70 Jewish volunteer recruits with fluent native-level Iraqi Arabic language skills, I understood the war on terror was over.

  • turbeaux

    “For only by securing the support and cooperation of the Afghan people can coalition forces hope to defeat the Taliban insurgency.”

    If anyone believes that we can actually win the hearts and minds of Muslims, I have a bridge I would like to sell them.

  • Angry Platoon Commander

    I was a United States Marine Lt who served as a platoon commander in Afghanistan. I have just returned from an incredibly successful tour in the Nawa district of the Helmand province. We did this by treating the people and their culture with respect and targeting only those who needed to be killed. Counterinsurgency is a thinking man's game. I lived it, and I saw it work. I'm willing to bet almost all of you who have made comments on this forum about not trusting Muslims or blowing up entire villages have never even been to war. You actually have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. By the end of the deployment I have Afghans that I would consider my friends asking me not to leave. Please, before you post something, actually take the time to “think” and maybe read something or talk to someone who actually knows something. This war is winnable, but not if we use the insane ideas that many of you have presented here.

  • turbeaux

    Just exactly what are we fighting for in Afghanistan anyway? Some of you guys need to read Diana West’s eye opening three part series: Was the Iraq “Surge” a “Success”? Which you can access by clicking below:….

    I’d love to see Front Page Magazine publish her three part series to spark debate. Diana West is a conservative, by the way. A real one! However, unlike most of the Republicans and the right today, she isn’t blinded by political correct multiculturalism.

    One of the main reasons I dumped the Republican Party and don’t plan to ever go back is because they are just as blind and political correct as most Democrats. The notion that Islamic society can be brought into the 21st century via endless fantasy based nation-building missions and democracy is ludicrous. Not to mention also that poverty and despair have exactly zero to do with the reason why they attack us.

  • God

    Being a blog writer myself, I really appreciate the time you took in wriitng this article. I am currently reading it on my Blackberry and will scan it once I get home.

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