Battlespace Control and Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 5 months ago

In Reigning in SOF in Afghanistan I addressed the issue of General McChrystal having brought Special Operations Forces under his direct control in Afghanistan, or in other words, putting into place a structure that would ensure unity of command over all U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  The ostensible reason given for this was continuing noncombatant casualties and the need to reduce them by making SOF accountable to someone directly inside Afghanistan.

I demurred, rehearsing the idea once again that the attempt completely to end noncombatant casualties had contributed to the unnecessary deaths of U.S. servicemen.  Pristine, riskless war is a preening moralists dream and a warrior’s nightmare.  But I did support the idea of organizing all troops under a singular command structure.

I support the consolidation of forces because SOF shouldn’t be operating out of the chain of command.  If there is a direct action raid and a father or a son is killed in the middle of the night, the infantry (or those attached to the infantry, i.e., SOF) should have done it, under the direction of the immediate chain of command, and they should all be present the next morning to explain to the village why it happened.  If you don’t harbor insurgents, this won’t happen.  There is nothing like a little time with the villagers by those who did the killing … expending effort policing, teaching and admonishing.

But this isn’t the end of the story, and it appears that the reason given for the reorganization is mere cover.  First, consider what the always interesting and knowledgeable Tim Lynch tells us about Marine Corps operations in the Helmand Province regarding their use of Special Operations Forces.

While the Marines handled the close fight around Marjah they used the varsity Special Operations assets to go deep. Getting those organizations to work for you in a subordinate role is not just hard; it is one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Marine deployment to date. I’ve known General Nicholson and the senior members of his operations staff all my adult life and this last accomplishment impresses me more than anything else they have done since arriving in Afghanistan. That’s how hard it is to get the big boys to play nice.  One of the consistent complaints concerning the Joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan is their penchant for running operations without informing or coordinating or even talking to the battle space commander responsible for the area they were working. Tim of Panjwai once got a call from the Canadian HQ in Kandahar back in the day when he was on active duty and in command of a company deployed deep inside the Panjwai district:

“Why are you currently fighting in the town of XXXX?” he was asked.

“Sir, I’m on my COP and were I not here and engaged in some sort of fight I assure you sir, that you would be the first to know.”

“Then who the hell is in XXXX wearing Canadian uniforms shooting the place up?”

It was the varsity SF guys running their own mission with their own assets for reasons known only to them.  Tim and his troops had to deal with the mess they created after they were long gone.  To this day they have no idea what went on or if the mission which cost them in lost credibility, lost cooperation, and the loss of hard earned good will was worth it.

The Marines made a deal last summer – which went something like this: “We want you guys operating in our AO and we will give you priority on our rotary wing, intelligence and fire support assets, but you have work with us integrating everything you do with our campaign plan.”  It was not an easy sell and at first there was reluctance from the varsity to cooperate.  But they gave it a shot, and they started chalking up success after success and nothing attracts more talent into the game like success.  While the Marine snipers and their recon brothers have been bleeding the Taliban around Marjah, the varsity has been going deep and going deep often.  All the big boys have joined the game now, the SAS, the SEAL’s, The Unit and other organizations who you have never heard of and never will hear about.   It is true that killing lots of fighters is not that relevant in the COIN battle.  Yet you still need to target and kill competent leaders along with any proficient logistic coordinators who pop up on the radar screen.  The varsity SOF guys have been doing that for months.

The Marines handled SOF differently than does Army, Navy or Air Force.  Unity of command is essential to the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) and MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) mission oriented approach.  Having SOF in their battle space without knowing, approving and integrating their efforts into a unity of approach isn’t the Marine way.  And given McChrystal’s appreciation for unity of command in Afghanistan, he surely approves.

Or does he?  First, there was this comment on the Small Wars Journal blog (regarding this Washington Post article about Army complaints concerning Marines’ autonomy in Helmand).

The rumor is that the Commandant, Gen Conway, spoke to Gen Petraeus and McChrystal and asked them, “What are you not getting that you want?” In other words, if you want some other result, tell the Marines what you want and they will change course. But let us handle it our way. The problem is that McChrystal does not respect, appreciate, or want the MAGTF. He wants to use the Marines in piecemeal fashion in suppport of Army forces.

I heard it second hand. Someone should ask this question of the Commandant.

I followed up reading this comment with a letter to General McChrystal’s Public Affairs Officer, asking the following question(s).

I would like to pose a question for General McChrystal.  If he would like to respond, I will post his response without any editorial comment, remarks or redaction.  Here is the question:

As you are no doubt aware, there is apparently a push to exert more control over the Marine Corps operations in the Helmand province.

Furthermore, there are indications – however reliable or not – that the MAGTF concept (philosophy and organization structure) is under-appreciated.

But mission-based, strict Marine Corps chain of command philosophy is the cornerstone of the MEU and MAGTF approach, and it has redounded to significant successes wherever it has been implemented, from the Anbar Province to Helmand (and many engagements prior to those).  Can you give us your perspective on the Marine Corps operations thus far in Helmand, and speak to the issues raised in the subject article?

Thank you.

This letter was written five days ago and to this date there has been no response (and the commitment to post the response in full with no redaction or editorializing still holds).  Still another source tells me that I have missed the real point behind the reorganization of SOF.  Briefly, there is a desire not to have second-guessing going on with CENTCOM when commanders in Afghanistan made a decision to use SOF for some particular purpose or mission.  The reorganization of SOF into the chain of command in Afghanistan moves them out of the chain of command at CENTCOM, and directly into the chain of command of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Furthermore, commanders in a particular battlespace do not have operational control over SOF or their missions.  They may not, in fact, have any knowledge of such actions until they are dealing with the consequences after the missions.  The degree of control and the unity of command that the Marines have exercised in Helmand is seen as a lesser version of the same problem as CENTCOM controlling SOF.

To be sure, there may be reasons that the chain of command in Afghanistan would want direct control over the SOF, given that they are the most timely and responsive units that any military in the world can deploy.  But just as surely, the Marine Corps doesn’t want control over SOF (excluding perhaps MARCENT), as much as it wants them matrixed to their chain of command during missions if and when they participate.

There are several very important issues with which we are faced.  First, while Tim Lynch may be lauding the Marine Corps philosophical approach to warfare – and while I may agree – there are some very powerful commanders who apparently do not have that same appreciation.  Second, there is apparently internecine warfare within the U.S. military, and just as apparently the Army doesn’t appreciate at all the degree of autonomy afforded the Marines in Helmand.  Third, the Marines have been highly successful in Helmand, just as in Anbar.  Success has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.

Fourth and finally, consider how badly the main stream media missed this.  Not a single MSM reporter performed further research into why this reorganization took place or what motivation brought it about.  This speaks poorly about our ability to trust their reports.  A corollary, of course, is that the Milblogs are providing increasingly salient and incisive analysis.

Prior:

Reigning in SOF in Afghanistan

Abolish SOCOM

The Cult of Special Forces



  • MGGodde

    Captain,

    I first want to say thank you for you fantastic analysis of current US military operations. Not only are your articles thought provoking but your desire to link to other forums, sources and more provides accountability second to none. As you said, the reporters failed to perform further research into the matter and as such the various milblogs have taken the helm and are trying to provide what we as Americans should have… the answers to why. Thank you for doing what you do.

    Moving on I would like to address a point you made.

    “Success has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.”

    After reading several articles for further analysis I find this comment mentioned above rather intriguing. More importantly, I think it is the profound success in the Marine Corps that possibly threatens General McCrystal “political stature,” among the nations elite. By not reigning in Marine Corps success into his machine, credit as you mentioned above is not going to be given where its due — “McChrystal does not respect, appreciate, or want the MAGTF. He wants to use the Marines in piecemeal fashion in support of Army forces.”

    Furthermore, I agree in your article about reigning in SOF command though I must applaud the Marines for taking it up the SF community to network and cooperate on the AO level. Good thinking Marines and I’m glad they are getting the results for their efforts.

    Lastly, although i doubt you will receive an answer to your letter above, I would still like the chance to see his answer (if it comes). If it is anything like the letter that Michael Yon reported on regarding the Spanish brass not assisting US soldiers then I hope for all our sakes and the centric strategy of OEF that it doesn’t turn into hugs, kisses, and Marines. Don’t micromanage the machine when it gives you the results.

    Very Respectfully Yours,

    Matthew Godde

  • Warbucks

    “A corollary, of course, is that the Milblogs are providing increasingly salient and incisive analysis.”

    Every news feed I read in the morning papers concerning this war, is at least 1 week and usually several months behind Milbogs …. in some cases perhaps as much as a year.

  • Pingback: » Links To Visit – 03/22/10 NoisyRoom.net: There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword, the other is by debt. John Adams

  • jonesgp1996

    I think that the successes of SOF in the early stages of OEF (i.e. toppling the Taliban government) created the mindset that they were capable of doing anything and that they therefore ought to be granted the autonomy to conduct operations without coordination and basic oversight. As the Captain rightly points out, autonomy has created the conditions in which conventional forces are left picking up the pieces of missions of which they might have had little or no knowledge.

    What we appear to have now is a situation where a lot of SOF effort is expended looking for HVTs. From my perspective, I think it would be more helpful if at least Army SOF (in the form of the ODA) went back to one of its core missions: foreign internal defense (FID). Killing bad guys and their leaders is useful, but if we don’t teach and train the Afghan security forces how to do it themselves, we will perpetually be in the position of “giving the man a fish” instead of “teaching him how to fish.” My position is not intended to take away from the hard work of the ETTs and MiTTs; it is to suggest that we use the most capable elements to conduct the most important mission.

  • Warbucks

    The elections in Iraq are proving to be much like the George Bush – Al Gore down-to-the-wire affair. Iraq’s Supreme Court must ratify the outcome of Sunni-supported favorite and current winner (a former prime minister) Allawi if a recount is called for by existing al-Maliki government as he has already demanded. With luck, the certification process should take months keeping the same horses on the team as Obama crosses the Rubicon.

    “Sunni Muslims are likely to be angered if Allawi is excluded from the government. A minority in Iraq, they dominated the nation under Hussein and formed the backbone of an insurgency against U.S.-led forces after the 2003 invasion.” (By Kadhim Ajrash and Caroline Alexander – Bloomberg)

    But Pres. Obama professes the US will draw down starting in August, 5 months from now. In case all these foreign sounding names and parliamentary processes tend to run together in a fuzzy blur of …. Yah, whatever… let me simplify.

    (A) It’s important to keep in focus our National Interests and not succumb to brazen, unsupported conspiratorial theory – much like I am writing now. Keep in mind the difference between corruption and commerce is to what extent the product is officially taxed by recognized authority. Changing leadership of Iraq while we are still at “war-with-a-small-“w” means everyone on our team has to quickly relearn all the lines of corruption in Iraq and who gets their split-off-the-top before the official count (much like Las Vegas). Not only must we know the linkages, we must then work to insure processes that will keep the opium fields in bloom, the poppy nectar harvested, and the black markets functioning as usual, and conceal all pathways leading back to US markets and allied drug black markets so as not to topple powerful families everywhere in the world. The WTO need not be brought into this. As for oil black marketing skimming off the top before the official count, as best we can tell oil markets have all been sanctified. Every dollar is Holy, although timely placed future-contracts in oil futures sometimes seem a little suspicious if not prescient, as certain buyers seem to go long on their holdings right before oil market instabilities occur, sometimes just hours before such instabilities. Ignore the man behind the curtain. Is all this clear now? Let’s move on…

    (B) WWII was a “War-with-a-big-“W”. The US Congress followed the constitution and “Declared War.” It was one of those clear, rare, moments of life when the flow of emotion of all living beings in the Congress fervently glimpsed reality and its consequences. The number of times we have fought a “Big-W” war can be counted on one hand, The War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. The US has had about 250 undeclared small-w-wars. The beauty of a BIG-W WAR (BWW) is we know how to officially declare peace: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcnH_kF1zXc , We get some 5-star Big Brass types, dig out some parchment paper, write down on the paper, “You agree to stop killing and we agree to be fair and merciful.” The big guys on both sides sign off and an amazing thing then happens. Peace. But we are fighting another War-with-a-little-“w”, undeclared by Congress. In a BWW the graph of violence seems to be hyperbolic and conclusive, abrupt and short; in a small-w-war (SWW) the violence seems to be mostly a bell shaped graph over a long term period growing then subsiding. Is all this now clear? Let’s move on….

    (C) (You will recall, this writer often plays the intended role as stand-by romantic fool naively chasing and field testing alternatives he thinks might help lead to peace.) There is one personality type that is never seen in the news in any official capacity within Iraq as well as the rest of the Muslim World, the Sufi Muslim. Why? Is it that they are too weak a political force being a tiny minority they can not capture and hold political power? Or, is it that they do not seek political power? Why not? What if we all turned our attention on finding a Sufi Muslim or even a representative collective body of Sufi Muslim’s to be temporary holders of power while we draw-down our forces in the months ahead. Could the Sufi’s bridged the perceived 7th-Century dispute between Shia and Sunni assignation of a relative of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and somehow bring a new element to the civil society? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shi'a–Sunni_relations).

    (D) In the meantime it remains hard to argue with the logic of war, that we must kill Al Qaeda, the bell shaped curve of the SWW requires persistence in order to prevail. Now that we are in a SWW, it may be necessary to change our leaders not the enemy’s, if we are to see the true end of the violence.

  • Warbucks

    Correction: draw down starts July 2011.

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  • http://www.op-for.com Slab

    Herschel,
    Interesting comments regarding SOF, they’ve always been tricky to work with. We had many of these same issues in Iraq. If BGen Nicholson finally found a way to get those guys to play along as part of the team, that is indeed huge.

    @jonesGP1996: SOF has a variety of missions. Quite a few of them are doing the FID mission, but focused on higher tier host nation units than MiTTs or ETTs. There aren’t enough of them to cover host nation GPF, hence the MiTT and ETT mission.

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Funny, I thought I was talking about something else …


You are currently reading "Battlespace Control and Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan", entry #4713 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,General McChrystal,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand,Special Forces and was published March 21st, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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