Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Intel in the Counterinsurgency

Cori Dauber at Rantingprofs asks some good questions about an Op-Ed piece from the NYT on the subject of intelligence in a counterinsurgency, and she also supplies some good answers to her own questions.

I think the intelligence needs of insurgents are far less than for the counterinsurgents, and the intelligence needs of terrorists are even less than for insurgents (as Cori points out, as long as you know where your target is departing from, the suicide bomber just needs some patience). The primary reason is that terrorists do not need to pick a specific target (unit or person) when attacking U.S. troops or Iraqi policemen or security forces or Iraqi civilians. If you don't need a specific target, then the issue becomes one of technical expertise (in making, concealing, transporting and detonating the explosives) rather than intelligence. While there have been some targeted acts in Iraq, the overwhelming majority of violence has been against random targets.

The counterterrorists/counterinsurgents, on the other hand, must act with great precision (the degree of precision is much higher for U.S. forces due to our free press and political opposition than it is for other countries). We avoid using random violence or rounding up people without cause, so our target identification intelligence must be far superior to that of the terrorist.

So is our intelligence good enough relative to the terrorists to win?

I have a lot of gripes with our intelligence system, and I grimace whenever I hear someone say that the whole outcome rests on intelligence (because it usually means we will create more intelligence staff at the higher levels of command), but I am still convinced that the results so far in Iraq show that we will win.

The best indicator of victory is the progression of the "insurgency" from a focus on attacks on U.S. forces to attacks on Iraqi security forces and police and finally into the "terrorism" phase where the majority of attacks are on Iraqi civilians. If the terrorists had that great of an intel system they would not have to resort to bombing women and children in markets, so clearly they are feeling some pressure.

There is a tendency among analysts of the Iraqi conflict (and I think the author of the piece Cori comments on falls into this class) to grant great wisdom and organization to the terrorists simply because we don't fully understand their composition or goals. We know there are foreign fighters mixed with Iraqis. We know some terrorists only want the U.S. to withdraw, others want to kill Americans wherever they can and will continue to seek destruction even if we left, and others who are acting only out of youthful bravado or for pay. We know there are many groups committing violent acts, and we know some of these groups are communicating. But there is a lot we don't know. We must be careful not to allow those things we don't know to drive us into a shell by overestimating the intelligence capabilities of the terrorists.

One last point about intelligence. We have learned a tough lesson in Iraq about the difference between conventional and unconventional soldiers and units, and we probably should have learned the same lesson in Vietnam. Our conventional units are superb at fighting conventional wars, but their intel apparatus is stacked at the top of the pyramid. The higher commanders get the intel and command the lower units to act.

In an unconventional unit, the intel personnel are pushed as far down as possible, which allows the leader on the ground to act immediately rather than waiting for orders (or at least that is how we try to do it).

So what happens when we fight a conventional war and win, but then try to transition to an unconventional war with our conventional guys still not only in place but also in charge? More on that question later.