Competence and Judgment in Afghanistan

 ""It's lunacy to deploy forces to a location simply because the unseasoned, politically driven host government so requests," said a U.S. diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Bear in mind that this operation in what is undoubtedly one of the most remote and difficult locations in all of Afghanistan occurred at the time of discussion about revising our strategy to concentrate our forces in areas of dense population and strategic importance."

Barg-e Matal is deep in rugged mountains where insurgent snipers were so well dug in that American troops resorted to calling in jet fighters and attack helicopters to silence them, U.S. soldiers based there told a McClatchy reporter in September after he was denied permission to visit Barg-e Matal.

The troops, who originally were told that they'd be in Barg-e Matal for four days, said they were under constant attack.

The outpost of sandbags and concertina wire consisted of a girl's school and wooden homes on one side of a river that bisects the village, and the local administration compound where Afghan troops and Latvian trainers were based on the other.

It could be supplied only by dangerous nighttime helicopter missions, and the nearly constant fire made the reconstruction projects on which American counterinsurgency strategy hinges all but impossible. Local officials distributed some U.S. aid to the few locals who remained there, but they hoarded most of it, the American troops said."  Mcclatchey


There is a depressing sameness about the series of bad incidents involving American outposts in Nuristan.  This article speaks of investigation and punishment for "failure."  I won't try to say what the truth is of the performance of the officers involved in the field.  I was not there.

On the other hand there is a disturbing pattern of simple incompetence in planning and execution in these incidents.   I don't see competence in basic combat operations in defense of position in these small disasters.

At the same time it seems to me that General McChrystal's role in insisting that outposts be maintained under conditions in which they could not be adequately defended is not good.  He likes to say that a professional force must accept a disproportionate share of the risk in order to accomplish the mission.  To illustrate his commitment to that idea he travels about without body armor, a weapon or a helmet.  This is grandstanding.  pl

PS  I note that Petraeus is now making the rounds giving what are essentially political speeches. I presume that he is looking for a political opening for himself post-retirement.  Biden's job might be what he tries for.  Today, on MTP he condemned the use of torture in the Bush Administration. That will not endear him to the Republicans, so…

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14 Responses to Competence and Judgment in Afghanistan

  1. joe brand says:

    My understanding is that the peacetime army has always been fertile ground for mediocrities and what David Hackworth called “perfumed princes,” but that the transition to wartime usually came with a wave of failure as incapable officers revealed themselves and were relieved.
    Do we no longer fire failures? Sure doesn’t look like it.
    Also, Hackworth argued in “About Face” that the draft infused the ranks with men who were not invested in a military career, and so would cheerfully tell bad leaders that they were bad leaders. I wonder how much we’ve lost that in the volunteer army. I’ve certainly seen a good number of E-8/E-9 types who were willing to tell failed leaders that they had failed, but it’s not really the same as what Hackworth was talking about.
    Not sure what Col. Lang thinks of Hackworth, but it feels like we could use his anger right now.

  2. Patrick Lang says:

    joe brand
    Hack called me friend. To say more would be superfluous.
    How do you explain the level of inability after so long a war? pl

  3. joe brand says:

    Adding that militaries reflect the societies they come from, and the failures of accountability in the army just seem like the current American norm to me. Run your bank or car company into the ground, get a bailout and a bonus; run your battalion into the wall, get a promotion and a medal. The whole country needs to relearn command responsibility — it’s like the whole culture turned adolescent all at once.

  4. Arun says:

    FYI, while cleaning up some papers, I found a copy of Radek Sikorski’s article in the National Review from August 23, 1993. An excerpt:
    “Arguably, the main Western goal in Afghanistan – Soviet defeat – has been achieved, and we can go back to treating Afghanistan as the backwater it was before the Soviets invaded. This is the current policy…..What does it matter if a tinpot country is taken over by a tinpot dictator?
    But Afghanistan is not the same country it was before. US satellite images show that a bumper crop from 58,000 acres of poppy fields can be expected this year – an increase of 10,000 acres over last year’s area of cultivation…The world has changed in the last twenty years too. With cheap travel and instant communications, terrorists can base themselves anywhere on the globe. A terrorist with a satellite phone, limitless revenues from the poppy fields, and access to Iran and turbulent Central Asia might be forgiven for preferring a remote Afghan valley to places like the Bekaa valley or the Libyan desert.
    Afghanistan’s potential nuisance value can be measured by a famous recent terrorist incident. Several months ago a lone Pathan gunman opened up on employees at the gate of the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. The might of the CIA, FBI and Pakistani army has been mobilized to try to capture him on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Over 4,000 men were recently used in dawn raids on suspected hideaways. The culprit is still at large, laughing at all the world.”

  5. walrus says:

    Col. Lang:
    “How do you explain the level of inability after so long a war? pl ”
    May I suggest that maybe it’s because is because its not a Nine year long war…’s a one year war, Nine times over?
    I’m not sure how much, or where, learning has been going on.

  6. anna missed says:

    joe brand makes a salient point, on what appears to be a problem endemic in American society. In the 1961 book “The Evolution of Civilizations” by Carroll Quigley, there are some possible and very likely explanations for our current predicament.
    The central thesis of the book is that people form human networks or “instruments” to fulfill and answer to the full range of human needs (security, commerce, spiritual,etc). The problem is that as these “instruments” grow and become powerful they become “institutions” that develop their own “vested interests”, that can overwhelm and degrade their original purpose in favor of its own purpose. This inevitably creates a drag on society which can be seen in the level of confusion it produces. The remedy to this state offer 3 possible outcomes which will define the eventual trajectory of the society; 1) the institution will reform itself back into its original instrument function, 2) the institution will be circumvented by an entirely new instrument, or 3) the institution will have become so powerful that it is able to withstand the demands to reform or be circumvented. And if the third option is chosen, society will be left with the net effects of corrupt institutions and will predictably evolve toward decay with greater rapidity – and is indicative in the “fall” of all major civilizations.
    Many of the incidentals being pointed out in this thread are the results of our major institutions having become entrenched into the service of their own self interests, but more importantly, these self interests have become so powerful that they are able to resist all attempts at reform or circumvention.
    What appears to have happened is that the various large networks of power hav managed to collude in such a fashon that the economic institutions have managed to co-opt the political, military, and ideological institutions in a reciprocal closed loop of reinforcement – where on various fronts, the military is enabled to define its own course by it’s own (self serving) political agenda, the financial institutions that precipitated its own economic crisis are given the political power to recover its lost revenues from the tax base in order to evade any demands toward reform, or how the insurance/health industry is able to prevent all attempts to circumvent their monopoly in favor of a system that delivers half the care for twice the costs.
    All of this is, of course, encased (or is it entombed?) in a cacophony of cultural cartoon narratives and neologisms that pretty much guarantee that all rational attempts to isolate the problems and solve them, will never see the light of day.
    All of which has the net effect of locking us into a fixed and unseemly if not tragic trajectory. In this sense, the recent Greenberg admission that his general theory that the markets, in their own self interest and survival, would regulate themselves – was wrong – was right. It’s just too bad that this kind of realization seems to only happen in hindsight.

  7. Patrick Lang says:

    I said the same thing in my essay, “Artists and Bureaucrats.” pl

  8. Pat! Not just curiosity but do you have some data on hits on your blog?
    By the way the “Artists and Bureacrats” article should be read at mandatory dawn formations throughout the US military. Just as the FRG Bundeswher had and still has mandatory formations to dicuss the 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life.

  9. fasteddies says:

    ana missed:
    These Institutions (FIRE Sector, Military, etc) you mention; are they not then what are called “self licking ice cream cones?”

  10. Patrick Lang says:

    “Not just curiosity.” No, then what? 4.5 million life time page views. pl

  11. joe brand says:

    “How do you explain the level of inability after so long a war?”
    A very telling experience for me was to see the reporting from Baghdad in 2005 and 2006 and compare it to the political debate over whether or not there was a civil war in Iraq. We were all skipping through fantasyland.
    Then there was the period when Rumsfeld moved the corrections and letters of rebuke to the top of the Early Bird, moving snide attacks on the press above the vital news of the day. A real sense of what’s important, there.
    To get better, you have to say, “We need to get better.” You have to acknowledge failure and see problems. Diagnosis can’t precede the acknowledgment of symptoms.

  12. Bodo says:

    How about a link to “Artists and Bureaucrats”? Thanks.

  13. Thanks Pat and number of hits sparks some hopefulness in me that some still care and want to know rather than be told.

  14. jonst says:

    Col wrote: “How do you explain the level of inability after so long a war?”
    As other readers have commented on, you’ve asked the million dollar question here?
    I have my own ideas but want to read “Artists and Bureaucrats”.
    One question, rhetorical. As what point does prolonged, tactical, incompetent (malfeasance?)fundamental change, and restrict, strategic options?
    You know, Kasserine Pass? We just kept going, brought in new people, new equipment, and kept going forward. At what point, if at all, does CIC abandoned hope of improvement, and move on to the next, more realistic, option?

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