Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ashley, deputy chief of staff for intelligence for ISAF in Afghanistan. (ISAF)
The U.S. is pressing to set up a basic intelligence apparatus for Afghan forces, and the man with a big role in setting up that apparatus is U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ashley, the top allied intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
By all accounts, it’s a tough job. Afghanistan’s national police and army have few means of collecting intelligence on their own, and so the U.S. is building simple versions of signals intelligence collectors and full-motion video aircraft for them. On top of that role, Ashley is the officer who comes under fire whenever the Taliban gets off an attack in Kabul — although he says he doesn’t view it as heat: “I try to figure out how it happened, what we may have missed … so we can inform decision-makers to take action.”
Ashley is trained as an expert in strategic intelligence, the art of anticipating the broader consequences of specific policies or actions. Before arriving at his current post in January, he was director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command. He is also a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command, the organization that includes SEAL Team 6, the group that killed Osama bin Laden.
Ashley conversed by phone and email with editor Ben Iannotta from his headquarters in Kabul.
The Abbottabad [Pakistan] raid is on people’s minds because of the anniversary. What impact, if any, do you think that’s had on either the Afghan National Security Forces or the local Afghans?
I can tell you it’s not something they even talk about. The concerns of the Afghans have to do with the Taliban, not al-Qaida.
What’s the big change or thrust you’re trying to implement? Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had his “Fixing Intel” paper that Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Fogarty followed up on.
What we want to try to get accomplished [with the Afghans] is building out their intel structure. Just making sure they have the basics in terms of support for [the Ministry of Defense] and the capability to do analysis and fuse intel. So we’re trying to take them and build a basic, professional intel force for them. The other part of that is in policy terms. Employees at the national level, in terms of how they do intel, security clearances, for example.
We [in ISAF] have a very deliberate process in terms of background checks, before we share intelligence with another country. That’s one of the things we’re working with the Afghans is, how do you build information assurance? Building up the basic analytics. How to do tactical SIGINT. How to do tactical HUMINT. Then putting some basic structures in place for how they manage their intel enterprise at the national level.
Is there time to do that before 2014?
Sure. We’re in the process of discussing a number of those issues right now with some of those Afghan ministries.
Is this something you’ve just started?
No. We’re carrying on some of [Gen. Fogarty’s] initiatives as well.
To get back to Gen. Flynn’s comments about pushing intel, pushing analysis down, looking at human terrain, all those things are still ongoing, and we’re still building upon those ideas. How do you bring in human terrain data? One of the things — Gen. Flynn’s paper talks about that — and we’ve kind of built out structure through regional commands that can have those kind of developments. Stability Operations Information Centers collect some of that white information in terms of what’s going on.
Is the plan for the Afghans to actually fly SIGINT collectors, for example, or is the plan for the U.S. to share its SIGINT collections with the Afghans?
The plan we’re working right now is to build basic tactical SIGINT, ground capabilities for the Afghans.
On the ground — so, sensors on antennas or towers?
It’s what we call low-level voice intercept. Tactical push-to-talk type capabilities: UHF, VHF.
You mean being able to intercept the other side’s UHF and VHF conversations?
Yes, it’s a very basic tactical capability.
What about the Afghans having a full-motion video capability?
We are going to develop an airborne ISR FMV capability for the Afghans. Exact platform is TBD … but I expect it will be a manned turbo prop platform.
What is the level of trust between you and your Afghan counterparts?
It’s very high.
We hear so much in the media, in the open-source literature, about green-on-blue attacks.
When you look at the number of folks we have embedded — and where we have had green-on-blue [violence], and every one of them is a tragedy — it is something that we talk to the Afghan leadership about. It is something that we talk to our troops about. And you never want to say that it’s a small percentage and less value on those individuals, but in the scope in which we work with the Afghans, each one of those, they’re significant events, but they are not respective of the greater relationship we have with 99.9 percent of the Afghans. There is mutual respect. There is a tremendous amount of teaming that goes on. People latch on to a couple [of] insider threats and extrapolate that to the relationship, but it’s not the case.
What’s your sense overall about the course of the war? About the ability to transfer to the Afghans in 2014?
There’s still a lot of work to do. We’re still growing the Afghan National Security Forces. They’re very, very capable but there’s a lot of work to do. We have another couple [of] years to work on it.
Under the Lisbon conference, the Afghans will be in the lead by 2014. We are moving through a very deliberate process of shifting the Afghans into the lead. At this time the Afghans have the lead for security covering approximately 50 percent of the country, and [the Afghanistan government] will soon be announcing the next round of districts to transition to Afghan lead.
You talk about building an army of this size from scratch. So, we’re seeing the insurgents and the Taliban recognizing that capability, and they’re concerned about it. This is not Afghanistan at the period of the early 1990s. It’s very, very different.
President Obama said the goal is for Afghan forces to be leading combat operations across the country next year. Will those forces be able to do their own intelligence work by then?
We will still be in an advise-and-mentor role through 2014.
On those attacks in April in Kabul and other locations, what kind of changes have you made since then? How has that affected your work?
What is misleading is for someone to come out and say, “Hey, we had this huge intelligence failure.” What people don’t realize is that there are threats that are made — existing threats — against Kabul. It’s probably the most threatened [city] in Afghanistan. The key issue there is all the threats that have been interdicted — that doesn’t make its way into the press. What makes its way into the press [are] the ones that get through. At this time last year, there were four complex attacks in Kabul. This is the first one [this year].
And the other key thing that people keep seeming to miss is to have an appreciation for how quickly the Afghan security forces mobilized, got to their various objectives, isolated the threat and neutralized it. It’s really confusing for someone to say “intelligence failure.” Lots of threats are deterred and neutralized. What you see in the media is not indicative of what life is like day to day in Kabul. What people don’t see are the little boys and girls, they’re skipping off to school. Life is pretty normal in the city.
The attack back in September that used the partially constructed 14-story building in Kabul — didn’t sort of the same thing happen two weeks ago there? Can’t you just secure the partially built buildings?
I know our guys know there’s a number of partially constructed and vacated buildings.
Is it possible to secure those buildings?
I can’t speak to the manning and number of empty buildings in Kabul, of which I’m sure there are many, or how the police developed their coverage. I’d rather not speculate.
In our sister publication, Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Col. Danny Davis wrote an article saying that the Afghanistan he found was not nearly as “rosy” as what he was led to believe when he got over there.
I don’t want anyone to misconstrue where we are. We’re making tremendous headway, but there’s a lot of hard work left to do.
I wasn’t with Lt. Col. Davis, so I can’t speak to what he heard. I have no doubt there are bad and good leaders in the ANSF. But as Afghan forces die at a rate of about 3-to-1 over ISAF, I find it disingenuous to say they are not willing to fight.
What is some of the hard work that would be of interest to our readers, who are interested in intelligence and technology and all of that?
If you think about where [the Afghans] are from a technological standpoint, we’re building out the fiber networks, things like the Internet, their ability to communicate.
The cellphone network is growing, but when you look at what we would consider communications — secure comm, to be able to do all those things — that infrastructure doesn’t exist. So we use and leverage the Internet to some degree.
You have to appreciate that these are some dedicated, very, very bright people, but the infrastructure is very rudimentary. So that’s one of the big challenges in terms of pushing that technology out. It’s truly about getting the basics in place to let them do command and control.
Any Joint Urgent Operational Needs projects in the works?
We have JUONs that are for the Afghans. For us, it’s just making sure that we have sufficient ISR to cover the battlespace as we reduce force structure. We’re down 22,000 by the end of September to get us at the 68K level [plus 40,000 non-U.S. ISAF troops]. Technologies that we continue to work on are the IED problem set, good systems that are helping us to counter the IED threat. That’s one of the key areas we’re focused on. Helping us to find those threats. About 40 to 45 percent of the casualties, recently, are subject to IEDs.
What’s the latest on the Airborne Cueing and Exploitation System Hyperspectral sensor?
It arrived in March. There’s a whole host of systems that are coming.
So we’ve not completed kind of building out the ISR fleet. In the ISR Task Force, there’s still quite a great deal of development work that we can benefit from here.
All the Iraq [counter-IED systems] are here.
Have you talked to Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Palumbo, who will be taking over from Army Lt. Gen. John C. Koziol?
Not talked to him, but we have the normal interface with Gen. Koziol through VTCs [video teleconferences].
On IEDs, is it possible to get to the source? If it’s fertilizer bombs, shouldn’t there be a way to have a less explosive fertilizer or untangle however legitimate fertilizer is diverted?
Sure, we’re tracking a lot of the homemade explosives [in which] the calcium ammonium nitrate comes out of fertilizer that’s made in Pakistan. That is a challenge for us, and I think there is some engagement with Pakistan just to see if we can get at that problem.
Over here, there’s a sense that there’s been a shift away from COIN toward counterterrorism, meaning striking targets with drones, less concern with the traditional COIN concern of securing local populations. What do you think?
The focus is on the population-centric counterinsurgency, securing the population. Part of that is targeting insurgents that are in the battlespace, and that is with drones that are armed as well as close air support and Apache helicopters.
But that doesn’t mean we are getting away from the COIN concept or COIN strategy.
Do COIN and counterterrorism work together?
The first part is defining what’s the difference between insurgency and terrorism. Insurgency really is violence by a group whose intent is to overthrow the government, whereas terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, focused on coercion.
What we’re doing is building a viable government with the infrastructure to provide an economic foundation for the country, but also to have security for the country. Some of that is building out the [Afghan] National Security Forces. It’s training the military. It’s making a professional military that’s responsive and is trusted. It’s that underpinning that allows the other things to grow. It’s ensuring that the average Afghan feels that he is not threatened. The insurgency has lost ground — some of the traditional safe havens where they enjoyed freedom, some of those traditional areas where they threatened populations, have diminished.
Are there areas in Afghanistan that the Afghan National Security Forces are securing on their own yet?
There obviously are drones, but not everywhere. There are places where the Afghan National Security Forces are that we are not. Part of the process that we go through is a transition, putting Afghan National Security Forces in front. We’re working that process now.
At Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, the president said the goal was for Afghans to lead combat across the country next year. Can districts and provinces be transferred before the Afghans have their own intelligence apparatus?
It’s not a sequential progress, but a simultaneous one. We will still provide enablers to the ANSF over the next two years. How and if those enablers are provided after ’14 is still to be determined.