Introduction and Background
Several months ago upon following our commentary on the Afghanistan campaign, a field grade officer, and someone who is definitely in a position to know, contacted The Captain’s Journal and recommended that we focus our attention on the ongoing lethargy of the campaign due to NATO incompetence and inability to formulate a coherent and sensible strategy.
Soon after this we published NATO Intransigence in Afghanistan and The Marines, Afghanistan and Strategic Malaise. We have also pointed out that however bad a shadow NATO casts over the campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda have no such incoherence, and have settled on a comprehensive approach to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now from the Baltimore Sun, we learn just how bad the strategic malaise is and how prescient were our warnings.
From the Baltimore Sun:
Multinational force has multiple leaders
By David Wood
April 11, 2008
KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan
Disagreements and coordination problems high within the international military command are delaying combat operations for 2,500 Marines who arrived here last month to help root out Taliban forces, according to military officers here.
For weeks the Marines — with their light armor, infantry, artillery and a squadron of transport and attack helicopters and Harrier strike fighters — have been virtually quarantined at the international air base here, unable to operate beyond the base perimeter.
Within immediate striking distance are radical Islamist Taliban forces that are entrenched around major towns in southern Afghanistan, where they control the lucrative narcotics trade and are consolidating their position as an alternative to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
But disputes among the many layers of international command here — an ungainly conglomeration of 40 nations ranging from Albania and Iceland to the U.S. and Britain — have forced a series of delays.
Unlike most U.S. military operations, even the small details of operations here — such as the radio frequency used to evacuate a soldier for medical care — must first be coordinated with multiple military commands.
Then, there have been larger disputes over strategy. Some commanders here want more emphasis on civic action in conjunction with local Afghans. Others believe security must take precedence.
For Marines, who are accustomed to landing in a war zone and immediately going into action with their own plans, the holdup has been frustrating.
Frequent changes among command leaders and unclear lines of authority have made it difficult for the Marines to win general approval for the timing, goals and extent of proposed operations.
Marine operations planning, which is routinely completed in hours or days, has gone on for weeks while they await agreement and approval from above.
“They invite us here … and they don’t know how to use us?” said Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. “We are trying to keep our frustration in check … but we have to wait for the elephants to stop dancing,” Henderson said, referring to the brass-heavy international command.
“The clash is between the tactical reality on the ground and political perceptions held elsewhere,” Marine Maj. Heath Henderson, deputy operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told his staff. “You can make your own judgments about which you think will prevail.”
Including the Marines, there are 17,522 allied troops in southern Afghanistan, including British, Dutch, Canadians, Danes, Estonians, Australians, Romanians and representatives of nine other nations, according to the high command.
These coalition military forces are assembled under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, headquartered in Kabul with an international staff.
Beneath McNeill are five regional commands and numerous national military commands. Henderson’s Marine battalion and its parent task force, the 24th MEU, officially are under the command of ISAF and McNeill. But they are assigned to work in conjunction with the regional command here and other coalition forces.
Coordination on long-term strategy is complex, staff officers here said, because the commanders and staffs at each level regularly rotate. Regional command south here, for instance, changes every nine months between British, Canadian and Dutch officers.
With one proposed operation temporarily blocked, Henderson told his planners to consider a scaled-back option.
“I think it’s a stretch, but let’s look at it,” he said, adding glumly, “as the sound of desperation seeps into my voice.”
The regional command here, RC-South, declined to comment on any command issues. In Kabul, Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, a senior spokesman for the ISAF, said the Marines “answer to” ISAF but are under the “tactical control” of RC-South. He said ISAF was satisfied that this is the best arrangement to “coordinate and synchronize” combat operations.
In case of a disagreement, McNeill would make the final decision, said Branco, a Portuguese officer.
The problems are magnified when Afghan government officials at the national and provincial level weigh in with their own judgments. The result, some say, is that the counterinsurgency campaign, which is inherently difficult enough, suffers from the lack of a clear vision and strategy.
“We don’t understand where we are going here,” said Lt. Col. Brian Mennes, commander of Task Force Fury, a battalion of paratroopers just leaving Kandahar after 15 months of counterinsurgency operations here. “We desperately want to see a strategy in front of us,” he said in an interview …
Bigger problems run afoul of conflicting strategies and easily bruised national pride.
At another planning session, a question arose about the capabilities of a British combat unit. “I can tell you they have killed more people than anybody else in this room,” a British major declared hotly. There was shocked silence from the roomful of Marines, most of whom have done two or three combat tours in Iraq and don’t boast about battlefield exploits.
Meantime, the 2,500 Marines here train, clean their weapons yet again, take long conditioning runs along the dust-choked perimeter roads, and wonder when they’re going to begin what they came for.
“This is killing us,” says a staff sergeant. “There’s only so much training you can do, especially considering that most of my Marines just got back from Iraq.”
Analysis and Commentary
Of the campaign we previously said of the deployment of the Marines that “The current institutional and strategic malaise in the NATO project in Afghanistan is about to be stirred up with the presence of 3200 warrior-hunters who want to make contact with the enemy. The real re-examination of the campaign won’t come as a result of the addition of 3200 troops. It will come with the addition of a completely different ethos than has previously been in theater. Re-examination should be a healthy process, even if a difficult one.”
It appears as if the re-examination that was so badly needed to occur has failed, and the most powerful fighting force on earth, the U.S. Marines, is sitting in tents without being utilized. Some of this is due to strategic differences: “Some commanders here want more emphasis on civic action in conjunction with local Afghans. Others believe security must take precedence.”
Take particular note of the doctrinal confusion that this bit of truth-telling reveals. It succumbs to the most prevelant and powerful temptation that a field grade officer can face - that of setting one prong of the strategy over against another prong. It is the devil’s game, the great temptation of having to find a center of gravity – that is, a single center of gravity- in order to strategize against that center, and it holds many commanders in intellectual bondage.
We have dealt with this in Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN. It is not only not necessary to find a single focus in our counterinsurgency efforts, it is counterproductive. There is no reason that the troops who wish to focus more on civic involvement (e.g., the European and British troops) cannot do so while the Marines hunt the Taliban. We have already noted that along much of the terrain outside of the cities, the Taliban control the high ground and it has been recommended by knowledgeable locals that if we wish to counter the efforts of the enemy, we will focus efforts on chasing them and gaining control of the more mountainous areas.
But the problems run even deeper than strategy. The current NATO engagement is being run by committee, and the committee must settle everything from strategy to radio communications. This failure can only be laid at the feet of General McNeill. The Marines are deployed as a MEU, i.e., a Marine Expeditionary Unit. They are self sufficient, and are by design not intended to need much if any support from the balance of forces in theater. To require the Marines to work under the headship of a NATO committee not only has wasted time thus far, but the remainder of their time in Afghanistan is in jeopardy. Literally, the deployment of 3200 Marines to Afghanistan is in danger of redounding to no significant gains due to lack of leadership and NATO intransigence.
It might not get any better any time soon. Canadian Brigadier General Denis Thompson is preparing to take over the head of NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Captain’s Journal will not opine either way on Thompson’s leadership, except to say that he references what the Canadians refer to as the Manley Report. He says that the recommendations of the Manley panel should help Afghanistan’s war torn country. The only problem with this is that outside of providing a few helicopters to specific troops here and there, the report mainly describes the Canadian attempt to convince its population that Canada should be involved in Afghanistan. The Manley panel is no gold mine of strategic doctrine. It will be of no help to Thompson as he attempts to deal with recalcitrant field grade officers who chest butt other officers over battle experience and argue over radio frequencies.
The concept of an MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) is that it is in little or no need of assistance. It is self sufficient in every way, and the only need of the 24th MEU is to be given the green light to hunt al Qaeda and Taliban. British officers who want to save face over the erstwhile lazy performance of the NATO forces will only slow the Marines and render their contribution void – and perhaps this is the intent.
Resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda
The Taliban and Snake Oil Salesmen
The Marines, Afghanistan and Strategic Malaise
Everyone Thought the Taliban Would Not Fight!
NATO Intrasigence in Afghanistan
Discussions in Counterinsurgency
More on Suicide Bomber Kill Ratio
Taking the High Ground in Afghanistan
Taliban and al Qaeda Strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan
No Spring Offensive in Afghanistan?
The Taliban and Distributed Operations
Talks with the Taliban: Clinging to False Hopes
The Khyber Pass