Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 11 months ago

From The New York Times:

The Taliban commander was back in the village. Our base roared to life as we prepared to capture him. Two Chinook helicopters spun their blades in anticipation in the dark. Fifty Afghan commandos brooded outside, pacing in the gravel. I was nearby, yelling into a phone: “Who else do we need approvals from? Another colonel? Why?”

A villager had come in that afternoon to tell us that a Taliban commander known for his deployment of suicide bombers was threatening the elders. The villager had come to my unit, a detachment of the United States Army stationed in eastern Afghanistan, for help.

Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan.

Some couldn’t be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. “Where are you?” the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.

At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous.

This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: “I can’t come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission.”

In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act.

Analysis & Commentary

We dealt with this same thing in Seeking Riskless War based on an experience by Vampire 06 blogging at Afghanistan Shrugged.  Illumination rounds were needed in order to conduct kinetic operations against insurgents, with the request to deliver those rounds denied by Battalion command 100 miles away because the eight pound canister might land on a domicile.

This same mentality is evident in McChrystal’s tactical directive that essentially promulgates new rules of engagement under a single signature.  The rules as they stood were restrictive enough, and if McChrystal had wanted to calibrate his reports a closed door meeting would have been the best option.  Instead, publishing the new rules has opened up new space for the insurgents according to the Pentagon.

Four Marines were killed in the Kunar Province while under fire, when after twice requesting artillery and air support, they were twice denied by command who was located remotely.  The problem goes not to the issue of whether there should be rules or whether overuse of kinetics might lead to rejection of U.S. forces by the population.  The problem goes to whether tactical directives should be issued from remote locations to Lance Corporals in the field under fire, thus undermining the decision-making of those sustaining the real risk.

Norville de Atkine in Why Arabs Lose Wars has a remarkable analysis of the role of NCOs and first line command on troops and troop performance (also available here).

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective. The show-and-tell aspects of training are frequently missing because officers refuse to get their hands dirty and prefer to ignore the more practical aspects of their subject matter, believing this below their social station. A dramatic example of this occurred during the Gulf War when a severe windstorm blew down the tents of Iraqi officer prisoners of war. For three days they stayed in the wind and rain rather than be observed by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp working with their hands.

A strong NCO corps was and is something that the Iraqi Security Forces haven’t been able to implement despite the best efforts of U.S. trainers.  But the trend in U.S. warfare is going in the wrong direction.  While officers might like to claim that they have the utmost respect for and confidence in their Gunnys, First Sergeants, Sergeant Majors, and in the Army, Command Sergeant Majors, the practice of micromanaging conflicts shows this claim is to some extent wishful thinking.

The U.S. officer corps has unwittingly bought into the Western business and industrial model of high level managers micromanaging their employees, metrics, and even day to day actions.  Officers have become more managers than military leaders, and paradoxically this has driven the U.S. military away from the Western strength of the NCO corps and towards a more Middle Eastern model.

I have recommended chasing the Taliban into their lairs by a combination of tactics, including distributed operations (Force Recon, Scout Snipers, small unit operation, and high confidence in their decision-making).  Based on the micromanagement of the campaign by high level officers, this is a forlorn hope and wasted counsel.  We continue to seek riskless war.




You are currently reading "Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan", entry #4310 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Distributed Operations,NCOs,Rules of Engagement,Weapons and Tactics and was published December 8th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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