Targeting and Intelligence at the Company Level: Lessons Learned from a CoIST in Afghanistan

Although the mission in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, lessons learned from this fight will shape preparations for future counterinsurgency efforts. This fight is often a small-unit battle, with Company-sized elements requiring organic intelligence capabilities to leverage information into tactical success. This article seeks to build on experiences operating a Company Intelligence Support Team (CoIST) within a Stryker Brigade in southern Afghanistan. Company-internal intelligence-gathering and targeting, along with how the company interacts with battalion in this process, is addressed in an attempt to avoid mistakes already made, and streamline the efforts of future CoISTs.  Given resource and manpower constraints within any element, the key to a successful CoIST becomes building the right team and developing tailored pre-deployment training. CoISts are at a disadvantage, upon arrival on a counterinsurgency battlefield, and need to focus targeting priorities and manage the volume of incoming information to provide Commanders and Soldiers with actionable intelligence that will protect Soldiers and defeat enemy networks.  How to focus those efforts and turn intelligence gathered into disruption tactics, as a prelude to clear, hold, build will also be addressed.

A principle in counterinsurgency is that units, especially at the Company level, must organize themselves for intelligence[1]. In counterinsurgency operations, where each Company (and in many cases, Platoons) has their own Area of Operations and every Soldier is a sensor[2], the role of Company Intelligence Support Team  (CoIST) in synchronizing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and integrating this with the targeting process is critical to successful effects on the battlefield. The purpose of the article is to present lessons learned by a CoIST operating in southern Afghanistan within the paradigm of current Army doctrine and manning.  Company-internal intelligence gathering and targeting, along with how the company interacts with battalion in this process is addressed in an attempt to avoid mistakes already made, and streamline the efforts of future CoISTs. My own experiences operating a CoIST within a Stryker Brigade in southern Afghanistan form the basis of this article, intended to provide future leaders a road map of friction points and best practices. Though the mission in Afghanistan may be drawing to a close, the lessons learned from this modern counterinsurgency fight will shape the preparation for future conflicts.

The Right Team

 If “effective operations are shaped by timely, specific, and reliable intelligence, gathered and analyzed at the lowest possible level,”[3] then a successful company requires a CoIST that is properly manned properly and trained, capable of critical thinking, and efficient in its execution. Though the Army continues to debate providing dedicated CoIST manning in Company headquarters, it is critical to choose the right Soldiers for the job.  While the Army recommends six personnel to man the CoIST, enabling 24-hour operations[4], we were able to effectively operate with as few as three or four well-trained personnel for most of the deployment.

Manning the CoIST with the right skill-sets requires a trade-off with other elements in the company and battalion.  Some units assign the CoIST to the Fires Support Officer (FSO), while others prefer assigning a Maneuver Officer to the role. With FSOs increasingly tasked with non-lethal targeting in counterinsurgency conflicts, this choice has the benefit of integrating all of the targeting under the responsibility of one individual. Assigning a maneuver platoon leader with the task limits maneuver capabilities for the company. In our battalion, the Mobile Gun System Platoon Leader received the additional duties of Headquarter’s Platoon Leader and CoIST Officer, providing a maneuver Lieutenant to the Company Command Post to assist in Command and Control and integrate ISR into operations. This choice allows the Battalion Commander to put an officer in the position who possesses a solid understanding of small-unit tactics. Assigning a junior intelligence officer at the Company-level may not be the answer to this dilemma, given the limited experience and understanding of the tactical-level fight most intelligence Lieutenants would bring to the table.  Until the Army prioritizes CoIST to the point of providing additional manning to company-level operations, this will continue to be a costly choice.

Choosing Soldiers to man the CoIST requires taking intelligent Soldiers with the capacity for critical think and analysis from the maneuver platoons to provide their skills to the company as a whole.  Additionally, though the battalion intelligence shop may be hesitant to provide one of its analysts to each company, this decision is consistent with pushing intelligence analysis to the lowest level and is one of the most effective ways to provide the battalion with an accurate understanding of each company battle space. The trained intelligence analyst provided to our CoIST by the battalion brought technical skills to the company level and improved communication with battalion, making him critical to our success on the battlefield. The infantry Soldiers assigned to the CoIST had their ability to think critically, operate digital systems, and execute projects independently. 

Pre-Deployment Training

The CoIST officer and analysts received additional training for almost a year prior to deployment on intelligence doctrine, systems, and CoIST operations. At this nascent stage in the development of CoISTs, the military needs to place additional emphasis on developing doctrine, standardized training, and training exercises I order to prepare CoISTs for deployment.   Training in targeting, ISR integration, technical systems (such as Palantir, TIGR, etc), and information management is critical to an effective CoIST.  These are perishable skills, which require regular training exercises in the classroom and in the field.  Developing interactive simulation training that forces CoISTs across the brigade to integrate systems they will be using in combat and coordinate horizontally and vertically would be a realistic and invaluable exercise. 

The last phase of this training should also provide CoISTs pre-deployment real-time capabilities to interact with the CoISTs that they will be relieving in theatre to begin gaining an understanding of their future battle-space.  The limited look our CoISTs received provided the best insight into the battles ahead. By the time we deployed, our Soldiers brought both the understanding of ground warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures learned through years of infantry training and a basis for the knowledge of how to effectively operate as CoIST.  Improved pre-deployment training would facilitate troops hitting the ground without a loss of forward momentum.

Target the Terrain

When entering unfamiliar terrain on an asymmetric battlefield, it is easier to determine from where you are being attacked, than to know precisely who is committing that hostility.  In targeting, it is most tempting for CoISTs to try to identify the individuals by name and fixate on these individuals as targets.  Figuring out who is in command and targeting that individual can reap great benefits but takes time.  Old techniques like terrain analysis to identify likely enemy avenues of approach, chokepoints susceptible to IED emplacement, and possible points of origin for small arms fire, can be more effective for CoISTs early in deployment to a new area of operations.  Combining these classic analysis techniques with current persistent ISR capabilities and historical data from previous unit SIGACTs can provide CoISTs the ability to develop actionable intelligence that is useful a patrol stepping outside the wire.

In southern Afghanistan, we found that Taliban consistently used well-established ambush positions that provided cover and concealment, were within range of likely friendly avenues of approach, and allowed for quick exfil.  Many of these positions had probably been used for similar harassing fire on the Soviets decades prior. Identifying these positions, made possible by sorting through historical SIGACTs and targeting them with ISR, was effective, especially when combined with deceptive patrolling techniques such as a feint.  On numerous occasions, we were able to use dismounted patrols in a feint towards the enemy objective to identify their ambush positions and observe their arming of IED positions, allowing for follow-on exploitation.  This could be accomplished with a patrol in conjunction with persistent ISR and close combat air, held at a distance until the enemy committed to their fighting positions. 

The previous unit in our area of operations regularly took contact whenever their surveillance aerostat was brought down in daylight, often from the same fighting position.  Placing additional assets, such as snipers, in towers to respond was not effective, and placing mounted patrols outside the wire each time the aerostat needed to come down for weather was a drain on resources.  By focusing on the point of origin as the target, we were able to confirm enemy fighting positions and pattern of life.   The fighting position had adequate cover that the fighters felt safe from the direction of the combat outpost.  By emplacing our own ambush position behind the identified fighting positions, using the cover of darkness the previous night, our unit lowered the aerostat after daylight, triggering the enemy response, which we successfully engaged.

Individuals as targets are high payoff but are better to be considered as targets of opportunity than the priority. In our experience, terrain was a more effective and certainly a more efficient target.   It is possible to render key enemy leaders ineffective when by denying IED emplacement locations, fighting positions, and lines of communication.  Understanding enemy networks and focusing on valuable nodes, such as a particularly skilled IED maker, should still be a goal that is attainable as the CoIST becomes familiar with the area of operations, but the unit is most vulnerable in the first days in the area or the first days of the fighting season, when an effective offense of terrain denial and interdiction can be the best defense.

Manage Information

Time in sector and use of persistent ISR (aerostats, unmanned aerial vehicles, and fixed cameras on outposts, combined with signals intelligence) will allow the CoIST to develop and improve its understanding of the battlefield and of enemy patterns of life.  Disseminating this intelligence vertically and horizontally will facilitate operations and serve as a force multiplier.  This knowledge is useless if it is not shared with the Soldiers to the lowest level, wasted if it not shared with units in adjoining areas of operations, and limited in its potential if not shared with higher headquarters for analysis in the broader context with additional assets. While this seems simple in concept, it becomes complicated by multiple communication and analysis platforms. The sheer volume of data, from intercepted communications to persistent ISR video feeds can be overwhelming to manage and digest, but attention to this pays dividends by disseminating the data to levels where the resources to analyze may exist and eliminates the time required to retrieve data when needed.

PowerPoint provides the ability to effectively portray informational graphically, but limits the ability to analyze information across multiple events. Additionally, ISR audio and video data is useful for dissemination and analysis, but difficult to transmit across platforms with limited bandwidth.  Information management and dissemination is one of the more daunting challenges a CoIST may encounter.  The primary audience, Soldiers and Platoon/Company leadership, may best digest information on one platform (maps, videos, or even a whiteboard) while higher headquarters is likely to require information in a different format for their products.  This is a time-consuming challenge that degrades the ability of the CoIST to focus on gathering and analyzing additional information. 

It is critical, at all levels, to develop a seamless system to manage the information of operations and intelligence.  The debate between Distributed Combat Ground System and Palentir is only one facet of this challenge (note: we used Palentir exclusively and found it more-user friendly and effective).  Communication between all levels of command (from Division to Company) prior to deployment to develop standard reporting criteria and information management procedures can minimize the time wasted on duplicate efforts in combat that divert the focus of an overwhelmed CoIST.  This is an especially acute source of friction early in a deployment, when command and control systems are being adjusted and established, CoISTS are attempting to understand the enemy situation, and squads are maneuvering in unfamiliar terrain.

Disruption First

Moving in to our combat outpost, it became immediately clear that we had a large area of operations but a much smaller battle space.  While our Company area of operations may have extended several kilometers from our outpost, the security bubble established by previous units was limited to primary lines of communication and less than a few hundred meters from each piece of tactical infrastructure.  Doctrinally, the key approach to counter-insurgency is “clear, hold, build.” The primary tasks of the first phase of this approach are to “provide continuous security for the local populace” and “eliminate insurgent presence.”  This population-centric denial of strongholds is a key to success, but as doctrine points out, “some cases may require attacks to disrupt such strongholds, even if counterinsurgents cannot clear and hold the area[5].”

Persistent ISR and indirect capabilities provide friendly forces the ability to affect the battlefield beyond that which manning/resources/enemy situation allow for clearance operations.  This facilitates disruption as a key task to set the conditions for “clear, hold, build.”  Just as the value of clearance is lost when not followed by hold and build, disruption alone cannot defeat an insurgency.  FM3.90 notes that disruption is “never an end, it is the means to an end.”[6] The integration of indirect fires, used to disrupt an enemy’s operational tempo on the battlefield and reduce enemy capabilities can be critical to setting the conditions for follow-on clearance operations. 

Disruption, prior to “clear/hold/build”, can degrade enemy capabilities, provide valuable information on enemy patterns of life, and identify enemy fighting positions/caches/IED hotspots. Disruption integrates intelligence, maneuver, and indirect fire assets to interdict enemy lines of communication or IED emplacement prior to clearance operations.  MAJ John Kennely’s article “Insurgency Disruption for the Warfighter”[7] reinforced the tactics our Company employed and refocused our thinking on tactics we could use to set the conditions for future operations.  In a village within our persistent ISR coverage, local Taliban had established a defensive network of over 30 IEDs blocking all likely avenues of approach.  A clearance operation of the village would have entailed navigating precariously through this belt. However, by targeting the terrain, utilizing persistent ISR and calling in indirect fire assets during IED emplacement and maintenance activities, we were able, over time, to identify the entire IED belt, degrade the enemy’s ability to maintain these defensive obstacles (IEDs were turned on/off daily to allow local farming), and undermine Taliban influence in the area.  This village, that the Taliban was intent on holding and used as a point of origin for attacks on our combat outpost was effectively marginalized, attacks ceased, and the IED belt was negated. The best argument for utilizing disruption effectively to set the conditions for clearance operations is the reduced risk to friendly forces on the ground.

Exploit with Minimal Resources

Successful operations provide the clues for the first steps in the direction of the next intelligence find or operation. Finding an IED or a weapon and destroying it may degrade enemy capability temporarily, but exploiting that successful operation to identify the supplier is the role of the CoIST.  However, the CoIST itself is both unlikely to be at the point of retrieval or have the capability to fully exploit the asset.  This requires the CoIST to facilitate training Soldiers in the company and its partners in tactical site exploitation, and to transport materials to higher headquarters for proper exploitation in a timely manner.

At the tactical level, taking the time and care necessary to properly exploit evidence is far simpler in training than in combat. Additionally, the tactical site exploitation supplies that units are advised to use[8] are often cumbersome when combined with all the other counter-IED, communications, medical, and other gear Soldiers are required to carry.  Soldiers are already burdened with enough gear. Training in tactical site exploitation combined with identifying and minimizing the critical supplies to accomplish this task will improve its implementation.  Squads are not likely to carry tactical site exploitation backpacks with every possible tool for a Hollywood-style crime scene investigation, but they can bag, tag, and document a cache sufficient to get the information needed for exploitation with proper training.  Soldiers already wear gloves and carry a pen, so a pouch with a camera, plastic bags, and note-cards can successfully accomplish most tactical site exploitation activities.  Combined with a biometric enrollment device and chemical detection kit, there is little else that a well-trained squad on the ground will need for tactical site exploitation and tactical questioning of suspected insurgents.

Costly Lesson Shared

Although the preference would be to claim that this article is based on a flawless record, these lessons are not comprehensive and all came at a cost.  A comparison of the enemy situation template prior to our arrival and upon our transfer of authority to the next unit paints a picture of enviable success. However, along that path enemy forces exploited our limited maneuver capability to engage fixed positions, emplace IEDs along critical lines of communication, and draw friendly forces into defensive IED belts with small-arms fire.  As a CoIST, the goal is to avoid those sacrifices by knowing the enemy, predicting their activity, and providing friendly forces with the intelligence to guide successful operations. Friendly casualties are an emotional jolt to CoIST members who will question if they could have predicted and avoided these losses. The answer is probably not; the enemy, regardless of our efforts, will always have a vote.  However, sharing these lessons learned will hopefully build on the growing understanding of the role intelligence plays at the tactical level, and avoid the friction and mistakes that degrade our warfighting capabilities.

[1] Kilcullen, David, Dr. (LTC) “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency

[2] FM 3-21.75 Chapter 8, “Every Soldier is a Sensor”

[3] FM3-24

[4] Center for Army Lessons Learned 10-20: Company Intelligence Support Team Handbook

[5] Paragraph 5-53, FM 3-24

[6] Paragraph B-50, FM3.90

[7] Kennely, John, “Insurgency Disruption for the Warfighter”, Small Wars Journal, August 2012

[8] Center for Army Lessons Learned 07-26: Tactical Site Exploitation and Cache Search Operations


Your rating: None


There is a very good SWC thread 'Company Level Int Led Operations' which started in 2007, last post in 2008; it started when 'Coldstreamer' was posted to Kabul, as the OiC of a UK infantry company and created his own intell cell. Link:

I will add a cross-ref on the thread to this article.

For what it is worth at this late date, the Marine Corps has institutionalized the concept of the "company level intelligence cell (CLIC)" in both doctrine and with a change in the infantry company's T/O. An 0211 intelligence analyst is now a permanent member of the HQ Platoon.

Never too late for important comments as the latest appear on the SWJ main page and, at times, jogs memories. Thanks for commenting - Dave D.

Not to overstate the articles utility, but this is one of the best articles I've read on SWJ. It perfectly illustrates and supports the argument for organic low level intelligence and analysis and I'm positively giddy with the theory's applications.