Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington Laura King -- U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have ordered steps to overhaul intelligence gathering and analysis in response to deficiencies uncovered during a lengthy White House strategy review last year.
The overhaul announced Monday will broaden the scope of intelligence gathering from hunting down extremists to gathering information about local attitudes, concerns, people and leaders as part of an effort to win over the Afghan population.
The changes were ordered by Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, director of intelligence for the military command in Afghanistan, and were detailed in a paper published Monday by the Center for a New American Security, a military think tank.
They became public as military officials announced the first U.S. combat deaths of the new year. Four U.S. troops were killed by a roadside bomb a day earlier in Afghanistan's violent south. A British soldier was killed in a separate explosion.
The military did not reveal the location of the U.S. deaths, but most Americans in the south are based in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where the Taliban movement is the strongest. Those provinces are also a center of Afghanistan's drug trade, which has close links to the insurgency.
Roadside bombs are the No. 1 killer of Western forces in Afghanistan and have become the signature weapon of the Taliban and other militants. Multiple fatalities in a single incident have become common because the Taliban is using more powerful bombs.
Western commanders have warned that an increase in casualties is likely as the first of 30,000 new U.S. troops begin flowing into the country, adding to the 68,000 already there. That is in part because the additional forces will push into parts of the country that have been under the sway of the Taliban and other insurgents.
But in the paper, Flynn and two other officials argued that intelligence efforts in Afghanistan have been focused too tightly on searching for insurgents and roadside bombs, often ignoring crucial information from knowledgeable Afghans, local council meetings, radio broadcasts and similar sources.
"This vast and underappreciated body of information, almost all of which is unclassified, admittedly offers few clues about where to find insurgents, but provides information of even greater strategic importance: a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself," Flynn and his coauthors wrote.
Western officials also are worried about the weakness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Karzai is under pressure to form a government before a major conference of international donors in London begins Jan. 28.
On Monday, the Afghan leader ordered parliament to put off its winter recess and vote on a new Cabinet lineup as soon as this weekend. On Saturday, lawmakers defied Karzai by rejecting two-thirds of his Cabinet picks.
Senior aides to Karzai suggested that he may put forth some of the same nominees. Among those rejected was Ismail Khan, a powerful former warlord who is the incumbent minister of energy. The support of a number of onetime militia leaders helped Karzai win a second term in office, though the August election was clouded by massive fraud.
As part of the U.S. intelligence overhaul, commanders want to amass more information on leaders at the district and local levels. Flynn ordered the creation of teams to work across the military hierarchy to collect information and pass it up the chain of command.
The teams will work out of new information centers, where analysts will compile reports on many of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts. Flynn and U.S. officials compared the operation of the intelligence teams to journalists, in that they can operate somewhat outside the traditional military hierarchy and move from unit to unit across regions.
The moves by Flynn were prompted at least in part, by deficiencies discovered during last year's White House strategy review.
During the review, administration officials pressed for information about dozens of critical Afghan districts, asking about local attitudes to the international military effort and about the strengths of local officials. But intelligence analysts are so lacking in data, they "could barely find enough information to scrape together even rudimentary assessments of pivotal Afghan districts," Flynn and his coauthors wrote.
Flynn makes it clear that intelligence plays a significant role in "finishing off enemy leaders." But he believes the military's priorities must be balanced to better understand local conditions.
He also wants the intelligence reports to be available to allied militaries and nongovernmental organizations.