Red tape and bureaucracy are always good targets for new managers eager to show fast progress, and so Donald Trump, in his first presidential speech on Afghanistan, promised to lift restrictions that he said prevented commanders in the field “from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.” But how much do such restrictions really matter?
Defense One put the question to two Army officers with multiple deployments to the region, one a retired Special Forces operator; the other, an intelligence officer now in the Reserves. They both named several restrictions that they called obstacles to greater success in Afghanistan. But they weren’t the same restrictions, or the same obstacles, and that’s as good an indication that there’s no quick fix to America’s longest war.
On Monday, Trump said he would “expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos through Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms.”
The intelligence officer said this line left him shaking his head. Targeting, of course, can mean many things, the most straightforward of which is “picking a human to capture or kill.” But Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Haqqani network, and others “were pretty much fair game,” especially for the special operations community, he said. “There never seemed to be serious restrictions on groups that were considered ‘terrorist networks.’”
What would improve things, the intelligence officer said, is lifting restrictions on the ways that U.S. advisors can work with the Afghan National Army.
Here’s a quick primer on the ANA process for targeting individuals and networks for small plane strikes, as described by Maj. Gen. Robert Walters Jr. and Col. Loren Traugutt in the May-June issue of the Army’s Military Review.
First, an ANA tactical team looking to strike a target makes a request, and sends what data they have via the ANA’s National Information Management System, or NIMS, to the National Military Intelligence Center. “The NMIC targeting staff conducts a thorough review of the information…to ensure there is a viable target for execution,” Walters and Traugutt write. This review sweeps up a ton of metadata and other intelligence artifacts, including “friendly force frequencies, call signs, and mobile numbers; datamining of recent intelligence reporting within the NIMS; and geospatial imagery content.” That review also feeds a report about nearby civilians, friendly forces, and infrastructure.
All of that information — the original request, the review, the vicinity report, etc. — goes to the Afghan Target Working Group: representatives of the government, the military, and the intelligence community who meet daily. If the package meets the group’s “stringent criteria,” it goes to the Army’s Targeting Board, which decides whether the strike should proceed despite the risk of collateral damage. Approved strike orders are sent to the mission planning cell, which plans the operation.
From September to November 2016, this process took in almost 200 target requests that resulted in 65 strikes by Afghan A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, Walters and Traugutt wrote.
Walters and Traugutt note that Afghan intelligence agencies are tapped into deep and complex human-intel networks and are increasingly well-equipped with gear like Boeing ScanEagle drones, Wolfhound voice interception radios, and PC-12 planes.
But the intelligence officer said plenty of incorrect or misleading intel still makes it into targeting reports despite the “thorough review.”It’s the sort of thing advisors might be able to fix by improving the process of intelligence collection at the source. “I was hoping for removal of restrictions for military advisers, not necessarily concerning the rules of engagement,” said the intelligence officer of Trump’s speech. That means loosening restrictions on how advisors move about the country, allowing them to do with less security, giving them the ability to permanently embed with the brigade level commands, and allowing advisors to train Afghan soldiers differently on intelligence collection, emphasizing how to collect quality intelligence, rather than spending a lot of time and effort to make bad intelligence conform to some wonky international standard to appease a bunch of bureaucrats elsewhere.
As for the Special Forces officer, he said the key restriction he would like to see lifted is the ability to reach across Afghanistan’s eastern border. “We’ve struck targets in Pakistan. But we’ve done it in half measures. We’ve never said, ‘Here are all the targets outside of the Mīramshāh [region]’” he said. He acknowledged that an increase in such strikes would surely strain U.S. relations with Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. The Pakistan government would likely “see it as a violation of their sovereign space,” he said. That’s why any strategy should also focus on marginalizing the Pakistani intelligence service, or ISI, within the Pakistani government.
The brunt of the work would still be done by the special operations community, said the Special Forces officer, who pointed out that just days before Trump’s address, the ANA announced the creation of a new Afghan corps for special operations missions.
“Let’s just assume that Special Forces has a huge part,” the former Special Force officer said. “That’s a continuation of what happened under Obama…I think Trump discovered the same thing that the other presidents discovered.”