Mark Collins – How the US Army Went Wrong in Afghanistan

One simple thing: a personnel promotion system for officers that undermined effectiveness locally. Is the Canadian Army any different? Excerpts from a must-read post by a retired US Army officer at Tom Ricks’ blog The Best Defense:

Our generals failed in Afghanistan


The United States military failed America in Afghanistan. It wasn’t a tactical failure. It was a failure of leadership.

The ascent of David Petraeus and the Army’s rediscovery of counterinsurgency doctrine led many to believe that the military had dramatically adapted itself for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately the transformation was only skin deep. Petraeus was a myth, and the intellectual father of the Army only in the eyes of the national media. The institutional inertia of the military bureaucracy never caught up with the press releases. The result was a never-ending series of public pronouncements by senior leaders about the importance of counterinsurgency, accompanied by a continuation of Cold War-era personnel and rotation policies that explicitly short-changed the effort…

Taking the lessons of unit cohesion from Vietnam, the military has followed a policy in Afghanistan where entire units rotate in and out of country every seven, nine, or 12 months. This model, more than the policy of individual rotation in Vietnam, ensures both tactical proficiency and unit cohesion at the soldier level. But it also is completely ill-suited for a counterinsurgency campaign. It makes sense to limit the time soldiers spend conducting tactical operations, but leaders attempting to establish the kind of relationships and understanding necessary to be effective in counterinsurgency must be kept in place much longer. By changing out entire units so frequently, our policy has guaranteed that military leaders rotating through Afghanistan have never had more than a superficial understanding of the political environment they are trying to shape.

The shortcomings of this rotation policy in counterinsurgency have been further reinforced by an institutional culture and personnel management system that places a low priority on the advisory mission. From the beginning of our efforts in Afghanistan the advisory mission was promoted publicly but given a low priority in execution.

The premier example of this mismatch between what military leadership said we were doing, and what the bureaucracy was actually prioritizing, can be found in the story of the AfPak hands program. The program was launched by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, and lauded as the key to shaping Afghanistan by creating a cohort of expert officers from across the services that would have the language skills and experience to build the kind of long-term relationships needed to build an effective Afghan security apparatus. While a priority for the Chairman, the effort was never embraced by the services.

Despite the fanfare and stated importance of the program, mismanagement and mis-utilization were rampant as this specialized cadre encountered personnel systems unable to support non-traditional career paths. Caught between career managers that saw the program as a deviation from what officers “should” be doing – leading tactical units – and a deployment system that often led to random staff assignments instead of partnered roles with Afghan leaders, the program quickly became known as an assignment to be “survived” if not avoided altogether.

A leaked briefing from the Army G-1, the service’s head personnel officer, to the Chief of Staff of the Army in 2014 confirmed that the AfPak Hands program had become a dead end for military careers…

In discussing what the Afghans need to be ready to fight the Taliban, a senior Pentagon official recently said, “The local forces need air support, intelligence and help with logistics.” Yet, unaddressed by this official, and largely unasked by anyone, is why the Afghan military needs these capabilities when the Taliban have been able to achieve such success without them [WHY ARE THEIR AFGHANS BETTER THAN OUR AFGHANS?]?..

Our current exit strategy entails the creation of a massive security force designed for a nation with neither the effective bureaucracies nor functioning civil society that are required to sustain and control such a force…

Jason Dempsey retired from the Army in 2015, last serving as special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as the operations officer to an infantry brigade and again in 2012-2013 as a combat advisor to the Afghan Border Police. He returned again briefly in 2014 to assess the advisory mission. He is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations. He currently serves as an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security and Director of the Military and Veterans Initiative at Columbia University.

One wishes retired Canadian Forces’ personnel might engage is such institutional soul-searching. We had similar rotational policies in Afghanistan and one imagines promotional practices are not dis-similar. How many officers were fluent, or even somewhat competent, in Pushtu or Dari?

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s