U.S. intelligence chief in Afghanistan wages battle for resources
Gen. Michael Flynn encounters military resistance in his task of
overhauling U.S. intelligence-gathering in Afghanistan to boost efforts
to defeat the Taliban.
By Julian E. Barnes
November 25, 2009
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
"Now we do the opposite," Flynn said. "We do the ops to get the intel."
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.
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."
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.
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
"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
To solve the problem will take creative thinking,
Flynn said. But it is also going to require more resources -- quickly,
"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
Flynn grew up in Newport, R.I., the son of a
retired Army master sergeant. During his freshman year of high school,
he started dating his future wife, Lori. (He notes that they broke up
in the 10th and 11th grades and she turned him down for the junior
prom.)After attending the University of Rhode Island on an ROTC
scholarship, Flynn became an intelligence officer with the 82nd
Airborne Division in Ft. Bragg, N.C. He participated in the Grenada
invasion in 1983 and peacekeeping operations in Haiti in 1994.
and McChrystal first worked together in the early part of the
Afghanistan war. McChrystal was the chief of staff to the U.S. military
command and Flynn was the intelligence director.
The two have forged an unusually close relationship, one in which Flynn
feels comfortable giving his boss unvarnished advice.
a personal friend, he is always looking out for you," McChrystal said.
"He is the guy who can say, 'You are too tired, you are talking stupid,
go to sleep.' "
Flynn is adept at reading a gesture, or a
half-formed expression, and instantly knowing what McChrystal wants to
do. "We have a connection. I just have this sense of what he is
thinking about," Flynn said.
His brother, Charlie, 46, met
McChrystal first and is the commander's executive officer and top aide.
The new command team in Afghanistan projects an air of austerity,
illustrated by McChrystal's habit of eating only one meal a day. Even
in that crowd, Michael Flynn's lifelong tightfisted ways stand out.
Flynn, a colonel, jokes about the way his brother happily mooches
drinks at bars and the car he had driven daily to work at the Pentagon.
Michael Flynn, who would park his 1986 Buick Park Avenue next
to the Suburbans, Cadillacs and Lexuses in the generals' lot, defended
his car as a classic.
His brother was not impressed by the
sagging springs of the car's velour seats. "He looked like a gangster
pulling out of the Pentagon," Charlie Flynn said. "Gen. McChrystal
says, 'The only guy cheaper than me is Mike Flynn.' "
of nine children, Michael Flynn said that growing up with so many
brothers and sisters made him value privacy and quiet time. And the
experience of being a middle child instilled in him an ability to
command attention when he needs to and to think unconventionally.
"I've always operated so far outside my lane, I'm not sure what lane is
mine anymore," Flynn said.
his casual manner, Flynn projects a looseness uncharacteristic of Army
intelligence officers. Intelligence experts, by and large, are trained
to compartmentalize information, sharing it only with those who need to
know. But in a series of top intelligence jobs, and now in Afghanistan,
Flynn has worked to change the culture.
Robert Cardillo, a
senior Defense Intelligence Agency official, said Flynn has long tried
to get more people involved in sharing, analyzing and using
Flynn's methods create tensions with people who want information held
"What is most useful about Mike's approach to problems was his
unconventionality," Cardillo said. "He would ask things in ways that
intelligence officers weren't raised to ask. What that would do is
challenge the common wisdom."
To institutionalize the sharing of
intelligence in Afghanistan, Flynn is building new intelligence "fusion
cells." These centers are staffed and equipped to gather all available
intelligence from video feeds, audio intercepts and other sources and
make it available immediately to combat units across the country.
even bigger hurdle for Flynn is improving how the allies share
intelligence with the Afghan security forces. Earlier this year, Flynn
proposed installing a secure video connection between the U.S. and
Afghan military headquarters to allow officers to share intelligence
and plan operations.
The project bumped up against North
Atlantic Treaty Organization bureaucrats. In one meeting, Canadian and
Polish officers, adeptly staying in their lanes, said Flynn's plan
faced serious problems: No money was budgeted for the equipment,
installing it would violate NATO rules and there were not enough
technicians for the job.
As the meeting dragged on, Flynn became
exasperated. "This isn't the Balkans and a peacekeeping mission," he
told them. "This is a combat zone."
After the meeting, Flynn
stopped the two officers in the gravel courtyard behind the NATO
headquarters and tried to enlist them in his cause.
going to move this command into the 21st century as fast as we can,"
Flynn told them. "If you want to push back, push back. If what I am
saying isn't right, tell me. But from my experience, we can do this,
and we can do it faster. Do not worry about perfect."
seemed to be coming around, he pressed his point. "We are beyond the
nonsense," he said. "There is not a lot of time for us to show progress
here in Afghanistan."
A few days later, Afghanistan's military
command center got its top-secret communications equipment and a direct
link to McChrystal's war room in Kabul, the capital.
On a summer
evening in Kabul, darkness had fallen as Flynn scurried through a maze
of buildings to his destination, a meeting being run by McChrystal.
Halfway there, Flynn stopped. "I get this feeling of anxiety," he said.
fears that he will overlook an important issue or fail to prepare the
commander for a crucial decision. "I can't miss anything," he said.
front of the military headquarters, 42 flags representing the NATO
countries and other nations contributing troops form a ring. It had
been the deadliest fighting season for the alliance since the war
began. On most other days, the 42 flags have been at half staff.
"The flags are at full mast," Flynn said that night as he looked up.
"It is a good day."
Then he walked into the building and went back to work.
2009 Los Angeles Times