During my time at the National Training Center earlier this month, my unit went through an intense training exercise involving all aspects of modern warfare. I did my part as an intelligence analyst, reading (fake) intelligence reports, and trying to predict what the enemy was up to and what his capabilities were. Reading the reports for over a weak, I came to the conclusion that the enemy was planning a large scale attack on a town called Qalati.
During a meeting over Adobe Connect with various other units in my battalion, as well as the Brigade intelligence section, I told the Brigade S2, a Major, that I suspected the attack on Qalati would involve at least 40 insurgent fighters, and as many as 200. He was surprised, and asked where I was getting the high end number.
I made this assessment based on several factors. First, the area in Qalati the fake intelligence reports said the insurgents would attack was a small, but built-up and fully manned American base. The insurgents were not stupid and I was sure understood that a large force was needed to successfully attack the base. The reports also indicted that many insurgent leaders were taking an active role in the planning of this attack. Additionally, I cheated a bit, like every good intelligence professional does. A previous exercise at NTC which was considered “out of play” as far as the overall scenario went, even though it took place at the same time as the big exercise and involved members of my unit, had several hundred insurgents attack a small outpost. I spoke with the platoon leader that was stationed at the base during this time, and he said the attacks resembled Soviet WWII human wave attacks. So I knew NTC had the manpower to simulate such a situation, and NTC has a reputation for hitting units with almost un-winnable odds.
It wasn’t easy making this type of call to a Brigade level intelligence officer, especially with representatives from all the units listening in. Later, I also produced a presentation for the Battalion Commander that stated the same thing, and that I also expected the Taliban to try to get a large number of suicide bombers into an American base, probably all at the same time, and possibly using a vehicle. Nobody else was making the same predictions I was. Most other predictions were safe equivocations.
Eventually, the attack came. There were not 200 enemy fighters, but there were a significant number, perhaps 40 and there were suicide bombers–ten of them. They attacked the American base in the town of Qalati as I’d written they would. Yet nobody I worked with made this assessment, either because they simply didn’t come to the same conclusion, or because making the call put them at risk.
In the world of American intelligence, the goal is not so much to make the correct call, which requires that the analyst expose himself to criticism, but to foster a vague hypothesis which allow wiggle-room and will not raise eyebrows or offend sensibilities. An average intelligence report may read: “something bad may happen. Or it may not…” I’m generalizing, but this is the essence of the matter. But playing it safe does not at all appeal to me. Anyone is capable of making generalized statements, equivocating, and sitting on fences. If this were all that the military needs, we would not need analysts. And yet such is the culture of zero-risk, most analysts are reduced to collectors of data, both because the system does not adequately select talented people and because that is what the system expects them to do.
I do not pretend to have a magical ability to predict the future. I do claim to have an ability to instinctively see patterns and an above average ability to sense what an opponent may be thinking. I possess an odd learning curve. In almost everything I do, fellow classmates, team mates and colleagues start off ahead of me, but given time, I pass almost all of them. When I learned a new language, my classmates started fast, but faded as I moved ahead. When I play a new game, my opponent will usually beat me the first few games, but before long I see his patterns and make adjustments and end up on the winning end most often. And so it is with intelligence analysis. By instinct, which is really just a collation of all my experience, (read Malcolm Gladwell’s, Blink, for a possible explanation) I seem to be able to make assessments that others dare not make. My gut feelings even help in the office football pool.
I have my weaknesses. Mostly that I tend to skim when I should read and reread. Mostly because I may be bored and would prefer to feel what will happen as opposed to coldly consider. I eschew charts and diagrams for pacing and pondering, though the former have a place in the intelligence world considering the mountains of data that must be sifted. And there are some technical analysis fields where my instincts would have no place at all.
It should not surprise anyone that Libyan offshoots of al-Qaeda were able to pull of the attacks against US State Department personnel in Benghazi recently. The Libyan “government” cannot control the extremists in the country, since the extremists were the ones, along with NATO, that destroyed the former government and swiped all of the military’s weapons, including man-portable antiaircraft missiles and chemical weapons. Libyan law is now in the hands of militias constituted by al-Qaeda and al-Shabab. And it should surprise no one that American intelligence didn’t convince anyone of the dangers. Most of America’s analysts are handcuffed by political correctness, a play-it-safe atmosphere and a lack of developed talent. And the Director of National Intelligence is a politically appointed position, currently held by a retired Cold War Air Force General, James Clapper. In my opinion, Clapper disqualified himself for his position when he stated, in 2011, the following:
“The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood‘…is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam,” … “They have pursued social ends, a betterment of the political order in Egypt, et cetera…..In other countries, there are also chapters or franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is no overarching agenda, particularly in pursuit of violence, at least internationally.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is essentially another name for Hamas. Clapper seems ill prepared to understand the visceral nature of the war we are fighting, and will be fighting for several more decades. He can see the figures, but he does not feel them. It is likely though that someone did feel what was going to happen in Libya, and it is even more likely that the analyst dismissed his or her own beliefs because no one else saw a problem–they all wanted Libya to work the way we imagined it should.
I have never shied away from making the call. Anyone can look through my older blog posts and see some of the things I’ve said, where I was correct or wrong. I began reading the tea leaves in college, before I had much of a clue how anything works. When it came to Libya and the Arab Spring, I wrote and spoke about the negative implications over a year ago when I was in Afghanistan. Shortly after the attack on the State Department facility in Libya, an analyst whom I worked with while deployed emailed me:
“Well Doug, you certainly called it right, and well ahead of most people.
I remember you and talking about Libya, and the whole mess with AQ and other radicals positioning themselves in the so called Arab Spring and “democracy.” Apologies, excuses, appeasement, and other cowardly and failed methods are dominating US policy and action under the Administration.
It is going from bad to worse, and the Obama supporters still don’t get it, and refuse to see cause and effect.
Any way, hope you and your family are well, Battle Buddy.
I’m glad to be home and working online. I am working full time for [removed] and enjoying it much.
Have a great week.
Not trying to pat myself on the back, but I think I’ll be relying on my instincts before I’ll listen to the ideologues and wishful thinkers.