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U.S. intelligence chief in Afghanistan wages battle for resources

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn encounters military resistance in his task of overhauling U.S. intelligence-gathering in Afghanistan to boost efforts to defeat the Taliban.

November 25, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes
  • Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, director of intelligence in Afghanistan, confers with his brother Col. Charlie Flynn, left, an aide to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, director of intelligence in Afghanistan, confers… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains create a stunning backdrop for the U.S. military's Kabul headquarters, but Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn rarely notices. Sheltering Taliban fighters and American combat outposts, the mountains symbolize the old way of fighting. Flynn was sent here to help define a new strategy for the war.

In a teleconference center at the military complex, Flynn sat before a microphone, pressing his case for more Predator drones, intelligence analysts and satellites to peer beyond those peaks. An ocean away in the United States, a senior officer seemed to be dragging his heels, unwilling to reassign the assets.

Flynn knows the United States needs better intelligence to bolster its troubledeffort to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, but often he feels frustrated that others do not share his sense of urgency. He listened to the senior officer, peering incredulously over his glasses. He muted the microphone, then exploded, unleashing a torrent of profanity. "Come on guys, get your [expletive] together!" he yelled.

Flynn's boss, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, has ordered an overhaul of how intelligence is collected, disseminated and, most of all, used by troops in Afghanistan.

McChrystal arrived in June, relatively unknown outside military circles. He has gained a high profile in the bruising policy debates of Washington, in part because of his request for more troops, on which President Obama is expected to announce a decision next week. Less visible are the commanders McChrystal has promoted to oversee the conflict.

Chief among them is Flynn, 50, a longtime McChrystal colleague who is charged with carrying out the commander's vision of remaking a military establishment -- one that has historically admonished officers to "stay in your lane" -- into a more nimble and less hierarchical organization.

"He doesn't stay in his lane," McChrystal said of Flynn. "He never asks, 'Why can't we do this?' He just busts down walls."

A former top intelligence officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flynn knows well the importance of spy data and analysis. As McChrystal's most important advisor, his influence extends much further. Among military officials in the Pentagon, he has become known as the "chief operating officer" of the Afghanistan war.

McChrystal has made protecting Afghan civilians the military's top priority. According to military theory, the safer people feel, the less likely they are to support insurgents. As a result, learning about militant groups, in many cases, has become more important than destroying them.

Flynn believes the military needs a different approach to gathering intelligence about insurgents and their networks. When attacked, insurgents move, regroup and talk -- all information that can be collected and used to build a complete picture of the enemy.

Traditionally, commanders used intelligence to plan military operations.

"Now we do the opposite," Flynn said. "We do the ops to get the intel."

In meeting after meeting, Flynn cajoles, badgers and pesters fellow officers to get moving on initiatives such as sharing information with Afghan leaders and overhauling intelligence collection.

Flynn is known for subjecting subordinates to withering barrages of questions and demands. He pushes people to think beyond their narrow assignment and take greater responsibility. A military officer who served with the general on several assignments described the experience as "the Flynn roller-coaster. You had to strap in and ride it out."

For the U.S. military, the change is unsettling and not altogether welcome. Some find it reassuring to know the limits of their responsibilities and duties. As Flynn tries to push through changes, testing those limits, a large military bureaucracy often is ready to push back.

In the secure video teleconference, the officer who must approve Flynn's requests represented one such roadblock. When Flynn's temper subsided, he flicked the microphone on once more and launched into something of a sermon.

"The problems we have are not insignificant," he said in a voice that bears a New England accent. "The problems are not ones that have developed in the last 90 days. They have grown over the last nine years."

To solve the problem will take creative thinking, Flynn said. But it is also going to require more resources -- quickly, he stressed.

"We have a shift in our major effort not because Gen. [David] Petraeus said so. And not because Secretary [Robert] Gates said so," Flynn said. "But because the president of the United States has said so."

Flynn prevailed. The command in Afghanistan received an initial increase in the number of Predators and other spy planes, including several reassigned from Iraq. Whether Flynn will get the rest of the intelligence assets he has requested will depend on Obama's decision.

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