A Chain of Command No-Go on the New Afghanistan Strategy

[promoted from the diaries because anyone who commanded the second best rifle company in the same battalion I was in can always get a slot on the front page.


Although I have been registered with Redstate for over three years, I don’t normally post here because I am afflicted with nigh terminal cases of laziness and procrastination; and I have a great regard for Steven Pressfield’s admonition that “no one wants to read your s***”.”

This time I have come across something so egregious and so little remarked elsewhere that I will at least give a howl to the wind about it.

In my previous life; one of my jobs was to teach leadership and tactics to students at the US Army Ranger School.  In this course students are placed in a simulated combat scenario, given a mission to complete and then graded on their units actions to carry out the mission.  In a platoon size scenario, there are several graded positions.  If the student makes one or more major mistakes they fail the mission.  If they fail too many missions they don’t pass the phase and are either dropped from the course or recycled through that particular phase or through the whole course.  

None of these are fun, and in some cases failing the course can be a career threatening event.  Mindful that the Army needs Ranger School graduates, and that a failed student is a loss in training resources, and trying to be fair, the instructors try (even if former Ranger students don’t believe it) to be judicious when assigning a “No-Go” to a student. But, occasionally something would happen (or not happen) that was so bad, so utterly unacceptable, that instructors would fail the entire chain of command for a patrol.  This was a serious event.  The battalion commander for that Phase of Ranger School would have to be informed and the entire instructor chain of command would be involved in a review of the reasoning behind the grade and the facts of the case.  It was not a casual action.

I thought of that when I read a Washington Post article dated December 6, that described the process of creating the new Afghanistan strategy.  In it, there was this account:

In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a slide: “Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population.”

“Is that really what you think your mission is?” one of those in the Situation Room asked.

On the face of it, it was impossible — the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a significant part of the population. “We don’t need to do that,” Gates said, according to a participant. “That’s an open-ended, forever commitment.”

But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, and it was enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan — the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.

“I wouldn’t say there was quite a ‘whoa’ moment,” a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. “It was just sort of a recognition that, ‘Duh, that’s what, in effect, the commander understands he’s been told to do.’ Everybody said, ‘He’s right.’ “

It seems that for 6 months (March – Oct) the Operational Commander (GEN McCrystal) had one understanding of the mission he had been given and the Sec Def and Nat Security Advisor and Commander in Chief had a completely different understanding of the mission. 6 Months!

This is not trivial stuff.  Everything starts with the mission. Unless the mission is correctly understood by all involved, there is no chance of a successful outcome, barring a fortunate accident.  It is like pulling out of your driveway and driving your car for a couple hours before someone tells you what your destination is. By that time you may not be able to get there from here.  Except that in this case you are not driving your car, you are leading tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians in a life or death enterprise that will have a major impact for good or ill on dozens of countries.

Think about it this way.  What if President Roosevelt, via GEN Marshall, had given this directive prior to D-Day:

“Hey Eisenhower, Take half a million guys, Go swan around in Europe for 6 months, start sometime in June, let us know how it goes, we’ll get back to you after the holidays.”

Not good, right?

That is why this is the type of thing that would earn a “Chain of Command No-Go” for Ranger students and indeed, it is something that the military expects young soldiers two years out of high school to be able to master before before becoming Corporals or Sergeants, let alone Generals.  Leaders are expected to communicate the unit’s mission to their troops clearly and to take steps such as brief-backs of their subordinates and informal sampling of the unit to make sure that everyone understands it.

I am shocked and worried that something like this could happen.  I hope that the Washington Post account is wrong.  I hope that it some sort of face saving spin, or a clever ploy of some kind.  Heck, I hope it is the cover story for some grand nefarious alien plan to usurp control of the National Command Authority.  At least then I would know that someone had a clue!

What scares me even more is that the general tone of the article is that this is a “good” thing!  You know, we finally found that pesky fuze that caused the warning light to come on.  Now, she runs like a top! Again, I hope this is just spin, but I fear it is not.

Now, understand that I do not blame President Obama or GEN McChrystal.  As the article points out, McChrystal had written orders signed by the National Security Advisor (and presumably reviewed by everyone in the chain of command) telling him what his mission was.  He was correct.  And while I am not a fan of  President Obama, and he is ultimately responsible as Commander in Chief, I do not expect him to be a master of the military command and staff process.

That is what all the Generals and Secretaries and Advisors are supposed to do.  The fact that they didn’t, tells me that something is seriously wrong.  And fixing that is President Obama’s responsibility and it is the responsibility of the relevant oversight committees in Congress.

The rest of us should watch and see if it happens.

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