Intelligence: Afghanistan Is Different


November 13, 2009: The intelligence techniques that were so successful in Iraq, are still being adapted to the different conditions in Afghanistan. The two big differences are the larger spaces you have to operate in with Afghanistan (where most of the combat is out in the country, not urban), and the hillier terrain (which makes it more difficult for UAVs and video cameras in general to spot people, who now have more hiding places.)

But some things have improved, like the technology that provides Internet like access to live video feeds from aircraft and UAVs. The U.S. Air Force and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have been particularly keen on this, and has shared the technology with the other services, and friendly nations.

There has also been progress with the U.S. Army image analysis system. This is basically just another pattern analysis system. However, it's been a very successful system when it comes to finding newly planted IEDs, and enemy activity in general. As the techniques are adapted to Afghanistan conditions, the enemy will suffer higher casualties, and NATO forces less.

Pattern analysis is one of the fundamental tools Operations Research (OR) practitioners have been using since World War II (when the newly developed field of OR got its first big workout). Pattern analysis is widely used by the financial community, by engineers, law enforcement, marketing specialists, and now, the military. The basic application uses a special video camera system to observe a locality and find useful patterns of behavior. Some of the cameras are mounted on light (C-12s, mainly) aircraft, others are mounted on ground structures. Special software compares photos from different times. When changes are noted, they are checked more closely, which has resulted in the early detection of thousands of roadside bombs and terrorist ambushes. This has largely eliminated roadside bomb attacks on supply convoys, which travel the same routes all the time.

No matter what the enemy does in covered areas, the cameras will notice. In Iraq, this effort led to the death of over 3,000 terrorists caught in the act of setting up roadside bombs, or lying in wait to set them off and attack their victims with gunfire. Hundreds more terrorists were captured, and many thousands of roadside bombs were avoided or destroyed before they could go off.

All this geeekery works, and the troops like tools of this sort mainly because the systems retain photos of areas they have patrolled, and allows them to retrieve photos of a particular place on a particular day. Often, the troops returning from, or going out on a patrol, can use the pattern analysis skills we all have, to spot something suspicious, or potentially so.

A related math tool is predictive analysis. This was widely used in Iraq to determine who the bombers are, where they are, and where they are most likely to place their bombs next. This has enabled the geeks-with-guns (the Army OR specialists) to offer regular "weather reports" about expected IED activity. The troops took these reports very seriously, especially by those who run the hundreds of daily convoys that move people and supplies around Iraq. If your route is predicted to be "hot", you pay extra attention that day, and often spot IEDs that, as predicted, were there. Usually, the predictions are used to send the engineers and EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams out to scout and clean the route. It's the feedback from these guys that has brought the geeks their reputation. If the geeks, and their tools (computers, aerial images, and math), say there is something bad out there, they are generally right. For the geeks, it's all pretty obvious. Given enough data, you can predict all sorts of things, or just about anything, really. But to many people, including most reporters, it's all still magic.

Afghanistan is different from Iraq, in terms of geography and the psychology of the enemy. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy proved very adaptive, and these tools often give you an early warning on new enemy techniques, and how they fit in with your current tactics. But new enemy tactics don't befuddle these tools, which analyze, determines patterns, and it tells you what the bad guys are up to and where they are.


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