He Studied Accounting. Now He Hunts the Taliban.
Posted January 14, 2018 11:27 p.m. EST
AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — When Navy Lt. William Conway is piecing together clues about a new Taliban or Islamic State terrorist cell in Afghanistan, he often falls back on skills he learned hauling crooks, swindlers and embezzlers into court in Chicago.
Conway is not your typical military intelligence analyst. A former state prosecutor in Chicago, he comes armed for his sleuthing duties with a law degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Not to mention an undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
All of which made Conway the right person at the right time, despite his relatively junior rank. He arrived at this air command center in August on Navy reservist duty to lead an Afghanistan intelligence team just as the Trump administration was ramping up its air and ground campaigns there.
“Working complicated embezzlement cases, it took a lot of time trying to trace individual transactions, how crimes had occurred or how a person was able to steal so much,” Conway said in an interview. “I use the same skills here, getting little nuggets of intelligence all the time — some important, some not — then weaving them together into a narrative.”
Under Conway, what was a one-person unit has grown to six analysts — including personnel from the U.S. Army and Air Force and the British Royal Air Force — who track Taliban and Islamic State threats for the air war commanders here, and alert other analysts about potential militant targets.
Trump’s new Afghanistan policy is sending thousands of additional U.S. troops closer to the front lines — and more warplanes to protect them. That includes bombing Taliban drug depots to cripple the group’s financial lifeline, as the Pentagon did in Iraq and Syria in striking the Islamic State’s oil tankers and cash-storage sites.
With the war in Afghanistan in its 17th year, the strategy aims to drive the Taliban to a negotiated settlement. It seeks not only to squeeze the group’s revenue from opium — estimated at $200 million a year — but also to increase Afghan army offensives backed by U.S. air power and to hold elections to enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Tracking threats on the ground and in the air is pivotal to the strategy’s success.
“My team’s job is to stay on top of all the intelligence trends and threats in Afghanistan,” said Conway, 39, whose analysts recently started working 12-hour shifts round-the-clock to keep pace with the quickening events.
For instance, Conway said there has been an increase in deadly attacks on Kabul by the Islamic State — at least eight since October. “Should ISIS-K take additional territory, this is likely to be a trend that will continue,” he said, using another name for the ISIS branch in Afghanistan.
Gauging the effect of the airstrikes on the Taliban and Islamic State is also a high priority for his team. Watching and eavesdropping on the scurrying around by drug-lab operators whose depots were not hit in the first wave of strikes offered keen insights for planners drawing up the next set of strikes, helping them map out local Taliban networks.
“The Taliban is trying to find other ways to make money,” Conway said. “We have to stay one step ahead of that. Narcotics is still No. 1. But we’re also looking for other sources of their revenues, such as extorting the local population.”
The weekly intelligence updates from Conway and his team provide senior officers and planners here “with the detail and context needed to successfully plan and assess air operations in a very complex fight,” Maj. Gen. David S. Nahom, the deputy U.S. air commander for the Middle East and Southwest Asia, said in an email.
Conway’s path to his job here was a circuitous one. He grew up listening to war stories from his grandfather, a Naval Academy and Korean War veteran. When he considered joining the Navy after college, however, military rules at the time disqualified him because of surgery he had as a teenager to repair a hole in his heart.
After law school and a brief stop at a technology company, Conway landed at the office of the Cook County state’s attorney in Chicago, initially slogging through misdemeanors and traffic court.
When a department reorganization offered a job in the public corruption office, Conway, with his accounting background, became the lead prosecutor in several complicated embezzlement cases. One conviction involved a suburban welfare department official who skimmed $125,000 in welfare funds. Another focused on a township treasurer who overpaid himself $135,000 over three years.
About this time, Conway learned that military rules had changed and that he could join the Navy Reserve with a medical waiver, which he did in May 2012. He had also been taking night classes at the University of Chicago to earn his MBA, believing a career in business might be more to his liking. In July 2013, he joined J.P. Morgan in Chicago as an investment banker dealing with large manufacturers like Ford and General Motors.
Conway spent a couple of monthlong reservist assignments in Britain, but his first extended overseas deployment brought him to Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf nation, over the summer for a seven-month tour.
He will wrap up his assignment here at the end of March, and return to Chicago to teach real estate finance at DePaul University, marry his fiancée (a fellow lawyer) and root for his beloved Chicago Cubs. Until then, he is focused on Afghanistan.
“When you look at the Taliban, it’s not like fighting a country,” he said. “It’s a group of networks that fit together — sometimes strong, sometimes weak — that drives the fight. It forces us to be nimble.”