March 14, 2011

Monday Morning Open Thread: Wars and the Service Chiefs

Anyone who has been watching the war in Afghanistan for the past two years knows that ISAF, having focused on southern Afghanistan for the past 18 months, now aspires to shift its focus to Afghanistan's east, where the war has been underresourced and where, in contrast to southern Afghanistan, the Taliban has been gaining momentum. Speak to any commanders on the ground, and they will tell you that if they have their way (and on account of its complexity), eastern Afghanistan will be the last place from which conventional western forces will withdraw in 2013 and 2014.

Helmand Province, where the drug trade intersects with both inter-tribal rivalries and a binary conflict between the insurgency and the government, is a wickedly complex place to wage counterinsurgency operations.* Eastern Afghanistan is, in many ways, even more complicated. The conflict -- which one French commander recently described as "a series of mini-wars" -- often differs from valley to valley, making local knowledge and intelligent commanders all the more valuable.

Which is why I do not understand why the U.S. Army is not making better use of two men widely regarded as being among the most talented battalion commanders to have fought in eastern Afghanistan over the past four years. One was just passed over for brigade command, most likely due to his branch (Armor). Another is rotating out of brigade command prior to his unit's deployment to Afghanistan because the U.S. Army does not believe brigade commanders should be in command for too long. (Both of these officers would be mortified to read their names on this blog, so they will go unnamed. And though I know both officers, I have not spoken with either of them about these circumstances, so if you're in the Pentagon and are reading this, know that people are not griping to bloggers.)

In both cases, the U.S. Army might well be making a decision in the best interests of the U.S. Army as an institution.** But neither decision makes sense in terms of the war in Afghanistan, where it makes the most sense to send officers with experience in regions of Afghanistan back to those same regions.

Here's the question for the readership that I hope will kick off an interesting debate: by removing the service chiefs from any responsibility for fighting the nation's wars, have we created a system whereby the incentives and motivations of the service chiefs are different than those of the commanders in the field? A service chief, for example, is by role and responsibility more worried about managing an officer's timeline and ensuring as many people as possible get the chance to command and less worried about winning a war -- not because he is unpatriotic but because that's not how he is graded. A field commander, by contrast, doesn't give a rat's behind about officer timelines and promotion pipelines -- he just wants to get the best team on the field.

Who do you think? Am I right? Wrong? Is there something I am missing?

*For more on Helmand, check out the journalist Tom Coughlan's excellent chapter in Antonio Giustozzi's Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field.

**Although, and despite my initial training as an infantry officer, I
personally think the U.S. Army needs to realize there are other branches
beside the infantry and that the armor and field artillery branches in
particular have been really squeezed for opportunities to command at the
brigade level. I personally do not think an infantry officer needs to command a BCT comprised of mostly infantrymen if the officer selected -- be he an armor or field artillery or, hell, chemical corps officer has proven himself as a combat leader and has attributes that lead his superiors to believe he would be effective in the field.)