IN THIS WEEK'S ISSUE

The 'chief operating officer' in Afghanistan

Major General Michael T. Flynn 'doesn't stay in his lane'

  • By Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
  • Published: 00:00 December 4, 2009
  • Weekend Review

The peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains create a stunning backdrop for the United States military's Kabul headquarters but Major General Michael T. Flynn rarely notices.

Sheltering Taliban fighters and American combat outposts, the mountains symbolise the old way of fighting. Flynn was sent here to help define a new strategy for the war.

In a heavily fortified teleconference centre at the military complex, Flynn sat before a microphone pressing his case for more Predator drones, intelligence analysts and satellites to peer beyond those craggy peaks. An ocean away in the US, a senior officer seemed to be dragging his heels, unwilling to reassign the assets.

Flynn knows the US needs better intelligence to bolster its effort to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan but oftentimes 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.

Flynn's boss, Army General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top US and allied commander, has ordered an overhaul of how intelligence is collected, disseminated and, most of all, used by troops in Afghanistan.

"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."

A 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 adviser, his influence extends much farther. 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 ordinary people feel, the less likely they are to support insurgents. As a result, learning about militant groups has become more important in many cases than destroying them.

Flynn 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 operations.

"Now we do the opposite," Flynn said. "We do the ops to get the intel."

In meeting after meeting, Flynn cajoles, badgers and pesters fellow officers to move on initiatives such as sharing information with Afghan leaders and overhauling intelligence collection.

Flynn is known for subjecting subordinates to withering barrages of questions and demands. He pushes people to think beyond their narrow assignment — and take deeper responsibility. A military officer who served with Flynn on several assignments described the experience as "the Flynn rollercoaster. You had to strap in and ride it out."

For the US 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 is often ready to push back.

Flynn grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of a retired army master sergeant. During his freshman year of high school, he started dating his future wife, Lori.

After attending the University of Rhode Island on a ROTC scholarship, Flynn became an intelligence officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He participated in the Grenada invasion in 1983 and peacekeeping operations in Haiti in 1994. Flynn and McChrystal first worked together in the early part of the Afghanistan war. The two have forged a close relationship.

"I've always operated so far outside my lane, I'm not sure what lane is mine anymore," Flynn said.

To institutionalise the sharing of intelligence in Afghanistan, Flynn is building new intelligence "fusion cells". These centres are 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.

An 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 US and Afghan military headquarters to allow officers to share intelligence.

The project bumped up against Nato bureaucrats. In one meeting, Canadian and Polish officers, adeptly staying in their lanes, said Flynn's plan faced serious problems: There was no money 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," Flynn told them. "This is a combat zone."

After the meeting ended, Flynn stopped the two officers in the gravel courtyard behind the Nato headquarters and tried to enlist them in his cause.

"We are 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."

A few days later, Afghanistan's military got its top-secret communications equipment and a direct link to McChrystal's war room in Kabul.

Weekend Review takes an in depth look at the issues behind the news

Weekend Review