Intelligence in Complex Environments
Four years into the United States military’s effort to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa its leader, Joseph Kony, remains elusive. This certainly isn’t for lack of effort or resources. One hundred Special Forces advisors, a robust command and control structure, contracted airplanes, even the occasional short-term deployment of a CV-22 squadron have all assisted African partner forces to remove a few leaders from the battlefield and enable many more fighters, wives, and children to escape the organization. Yet the mission still faces serious obstacles. The tyranny of distance has oftentimes been crippling to the effort, hindering logistical resupply and time sensitive strikes. In addition to geography, this mission continues to pose many challenges which test the U.S. intelligence community but, if overcome, can serve as a model for U.S. intelligence support in low-intensity conflicts and other crisis areas worldwide. Removing Kony and his LRA from the battlefield is, foremost, an intelligence problem. Without accurate intelligence of Kony and his forces’ location, counter-LRA forces will continue to be reduced to “searching for a needle in twenty haystacks.” Further complicating the situation, in addition to the joint U.S. and combined foreign forces requiring coordination, many other stakeholders are active in the area of operations. Non-government organizations (NGOs), aid organizations, the United Nations, civilian village defense forces, even the Catholic church all contribute to central Africa being a complex environment.
A demonstrated, increased reliance on Special Operations Forces in the coming years as well as continued budget constraints and the fatigue of the general purpose forces combine to offer an increased likelihood for small-scale deployments of U.S. advisors to low intensity conflicts around the globe. As U.S. advisors move into more remote corners of the world, they often encounter representatives of NGOs many of which hold a long established presence in the locality. As such, NGOs can have better ties to the local populace and serve as a primary, if not the only, source for information regarding attacks, sightings or other knowledge relevant to the search for the enemy. Soldiers must determine in what capacity they might work with, against, or around these organizations in pursuit of the mission objective. Indeed, it is the range of actors in such environments that ultimately presents a particularly complex problem for U.S. operations. The requirement to work with non-traditional partners is a challenge which U.S. forces will increasingly face as they export significant technological, logistical and planning capabilities.
After joint and combined operations, the next step in the evolution of partnered operations are those in complex environments, where militaries and government agencies from the U.S. and foreign nations, as well as NGOs and other entities, all operate within the same area with varied objectives and purposes. The starkest, most recent example of a complex environment may be the response to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, when U.S. and foreign militaries, as well as scores of other government agencies and a menagerie of aid organizations, descended upon the tiny nation with separate, distinct and yet congruent goals. Likewise, the counter-LRA effort is challenged by the complex central African environment with forces from several African militaries being advised by U.S. Special Forces, United Nations missions, inter-agency government projects and a collection of aid organizations as well.. On the ground, many groups endeavor to work productively together, but the mission as a whole benefits from intelligent synchronization. Crowd-sourcing disaster response and low-intensity warfare in the African jungle is rarely more effective than coordinated activity. Foremost is the need for an effective means to share information.
Complex operations necessarily call for collaborative enterprises. Respect must be given to each stakeholder’s particular motivations and purposes, and any constructive overlap must be maximized. The Internet provides an unprecedented medium by which information can be shared and operations synchronized. A common information environment, open to all but still protected to maintain sincerity, would allow effective information sharing and commonality of purpose in such situations. This tool must also allow for the collating, data-basing, and analysis of information collected by various partners, supporting informed decisions which enable each entity to pursue its own purposes in a way that benefits the overall goal. Fly-away systems with independent power generators or solar cells and small portable satellite broadband connections are in various stages of development. However, a truly effective collaborative interface remains elusive.
A further obstacle to adopting a common information environment is the U.S. military’s habitual fixation with classified information at the exclusion of all else. With aid agencies often enjoying better access to stricken areas than the U.S. military, as well as the steady rise of relevant social media applications, the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. Forces will have to evolve in order to suitably contribute. Complex environments can be the most challenging for U.S. operations precisely because of the fact that the U.S. has the least need to cooperate. With its mighty capability for logistics and command and control, it is tempting for U.S. forces to come in heavy and operate independently, giving no more than passing lip service to the other stakeholders in the area. U.S. commanders and leadership must be cognizant of this and sensitive to how actions can be perceived by other stakeholders. Commanders must value and demand cooperation with the non-traditional partners involved. They must take a hard look at information flowing in and decide if it truly needs to be classified. They must then aggressively seek to declassify information and share it with traditional and non-traditional partners. Open tactical operations centers should be created to facilitate the sharing of information and displaying a common information picture. The end result being that all vested organizations can operate on the same page.
A unique aspect to working with NGOs is that they often operate with fewer restrictions than the U.S. advisors, both financially and operationally. This means that the local NGO office has a freer hand with their budget and where the NGO workers can go. U.S. personnel are often hindered by long chains of authority for emergent expenditures outside the concept of operations, which was likely narrowly conceived to attain legal approval. However, the local NGO head of office can usually buy whatever is needed within the budget. Likewise, while U.S. personnel must submit a detailed plan including actions for medical evacuation (no small feat in these areas of the world), communications, and force protection for any movement, NGO workers can hire a local guide and head off anywhere they are able at any time. The freedom of action enjoyed by NGOs can make them a valuable partner.
Yet, success in this environment requires a delicate diplomacy. First, bureaucratic cultures must be overcome at the same time as they are respected. Many NGO workers as well as the organizations they serve have a deep-seated distrust of military forces, some to the point of disdain. Much of the access they enjoy is precisely because they aggressively maintain their neutral status and keeping a great distance from any military connection. However, in the case of the LRA, the duration of the conflict and the egregious nature of the atrocities committed, has led to a situation where NGOs that would normally avoid military intervention are welcoming the cooperation of U.S. forces. Attitudes range from benign approval to actively seeking partnership.
In 2011, I found myself in the middle of the Congolese jungle paving the way for the special forces mission the President would soon announce. I had the unique experience of brokering a joint information operation whereby the UN’s office for Demobilization, Disarmament, Repatriation/ Resettlement and Reintegration, or DDR/RR, needed new fliers announcing the successful rescue of LRA family members from the bush. The UN hoped that getting updated fliers with pictures of the wives and children happy, clean, and healthy and with personal messages to their husbands and fathers would encourage the fighters to lay down their arms and come out as well. At an informal meeting over local beers at the house of one of the NGOs one evening, the DDR/RR employee lamented that he could not get fliers printed quickly enough through internal UN channels to take advantage of the situation. The NGO employee quickly offered his own printing resources in Kampala, and even offered to pay for the printing as the effort to encourage fighters to surrender was squarely within the NGO’s mission. However, he had no way of getting the fliers delivered from Kampala to the bush location in time. I happened to be headed back to Entebbe the next day for routine meetings with my chain of command and was due to return three days hence, and offered to bring the fliers with me. So the DDR/RR employees designed the fliers and digitally transferred them to the NGO, which printed them and delivered them to me. Four days later I was flying back to the middle of the bush with ten thousand fliers supporting a UN program which had been printed by an NGO and were delivered by the U.S. military. In this way, these operations present a fragile environment where NGOs are enablers as well as the enabled.
When information is scarce, what you do with the small amount you do have is all the more critical. Primitive communication methods defeat our capabilities. Small tidbits of information are days, sometimes weeks, late. Cooperation and expertise become critical to make the best use of what little information there is. The key to success will be a willingness to partner with non-standard entities such as UN missions and NGOs. This will require commanders, fielded forces, and civilian workers to be willing to explore creative ways to maximize each other’s advantages and expertise. It will also require U.S. forces to embrace information sharing outside of secure channels. We must put aside hubris and approach the problem with humility, recognizing that there may be things the U.S. military, and perhaps the government as a whole, can't do as well as others. Indeed, on its own, there may be things it can’t accomplish at all.