War Study: Troops Had Bad Intel, Worse Spin
By Spencer Ackerman
Ten years of war have given the U.S. military more than its share of frustrations. According to an internal Pentagon study, two of them were as fundamental as they were related: Troops had terrible intelligence about Iraq and Afghanistan, and they told their own stories just as badly.
Those are some preliminary conclusions from an ongoing Pentagon study into the lessons of a decade of combat, authorized by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the multi-tour Iraq veteran and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The study doesn’t single out any sensor or spy platform for criticism. Instead, it finds that U.S. troops didn’t understand the basic realities of society, culture and power structures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and couldn’t explain what they were doing to skeptical populations.
“We were slow to recognize the importance of information and the battle for the narrative in achieving objectives at all levels,” according to a May 23 draft of the study, which InsideDefense obtained, “[and] we were often ineffective in applying and aligning the narrative to goals and desired end states.”
Neither of these criticisms are unfamiliar to observers (and veterans) of the war. But the study is designed to help shape the military of the 2020s — which could accordingly see a greater emphasis on both local knowledge of foreign hotspots and, well, spin.
For the most part, the study is agnostic on the wisdom of the wars. That’s understandable, since the military is supposed to consider the merits of a given war beyond its purview. But the study contains not-so-oblique references to unrealistic strategy that made success difficult.
“In operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere,” the report reads, “a failure to recognize, acknowledge and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions and goals.”
The report considers that less a strategy failure than an intelligence failure, and it doesn’t point fingers at anyone outside of the military. But the military’s intelligence structure, once in Iraq and Afghanistan, was entirely focused on discovering and locating its enemies, which left it blind to the experiences of the local population, which nourished them.
“A focus on traditional adversary information” limited the U.S. and its allies’ “effectiveness in countering asymmetric threats such as insurgencies and mitigating terrorist and criminal influences,” the study finds.
That should vindicate Michael Flynn, the three-star Army general tapped to take over the Defense Intelligence Agency. As intelligence chief in Afghanistan in 2010, he lambasted military intelligence for neglecting to understand the way the locals lived; what their concerns were; and how they changed over time.
Yet the draft has practically nothing to say about the Human Terrain System, the Army’s experiment with embedding sociologists into military units to provide cultural analysis — precisely what the report identifies as a critical need. The report acknowledges the Human Terrain System’s existence, but offers no analysis of the value added by a program that faced deep problems almost from its inception.
And if U.S. troops failed to understand the countries they fought in, they also failed to communicate their missions to the outside world. The report assails the military for clinging to an outdated media paradigm that attempts to “tightly control and limit information,” while news organizations kept “news stringers on fast-dial from an insurgent/terrorist cell phone.” From a journalist’s perspective: That’s a copout, and one that inaccurately and offensively suggests that the public got its news from journalists who were complicit with American enemies.
Still, the effect the study identifies is a valid one: The U.S. military frequently saw insurgent narratives take shape faster than the military could refute them. Yet the report elides the critical question of whether the proper target of “information operations” — that is, spin, or even propaganda — is a foreign civilian populace, which determines the outcomes of irregular wars, or the U.S. media, which doesn’t.
In fairness, the report doesn’t say that spin could have won the wars. “[W]ords alone were not sufficient; they had to be consistent with deeds,” it finds. “The image of the US was frequently tarnished by tactical actions that contradicted US values or strategy. The Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, documented in photos that were widely disseminated, undermined the mission and significantly injured the image of the US.”
The study Dempsey ordered is ongoing and will have several volumes, each with multiple iterations, before the military produces a definitive assessment of what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just the first volume. But it helps identify a series of problems that the military thinks it needs to fix to win the wars of the future.
That future military needs to “leverag[e] technology and social media” in order to consider “all relevant actors’ instruments of power; cultural, religious, and other demographic factors; and employs innovative, non-traditional methods and sources.” In other words, spin harder — and know what you’re talking about.
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