This Week at War, No. 20

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

June 12, 2009

June 12, 2009

Is the U.S. Army the slowest student in Afghanistan?

A June 7 New York Times story raised troubling questions about the quality of Afghanistan’s soldiers and policemen. After years of effort with little to show for it, one might wonder why it is taking so long to train a competent Afghan security force. Are Afghans just slow learners? Or is the slowest student in Afghanistan actually the U.S. Army?

That is the harsh judgment of Sergeant First Class Morgan Sheeran, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army and Ohio National Guard who recently returned from a long tour as an advisor to the Afghan National Police. In a scathing essay for Small Wars Journal, Sheeran accuses many (though not all) of the Army leaders and units he associated with in Afghanistan of either failing to understand basic counterinsurgency (COIN) principles or of deliberately neglecting to implement them. Sheeran says those who criticize COIN’s effectiveness in Afghanistan are premature since, after more than seven years in the country, much of the Army continues to resist actually implementing a COIN strategy. Here, Sheeran sums up his experience:

The Army makes a considerable amount of noise about COIN, but fails in the actual implementation of it … Advisors were thinly resourced and I saw the inefficiency and counterproductive behaviors and practices implemented by some maneuver units. There were certainly those who got it, while a neighboring battlespace would be under the sway of someone who recoiled at any reference to COIN … I worked with small unit leaders in Afghanistan who were making the most basic of COIN errors on a daily basis because they had absolutely no idea what they were doing from a doctrinal perspective. They were conventionally trained warriors in a COIN fight doing the best that they could without any formal training in the doctrine whatsoever … These were Soldiers of elite units, not [Individual Ready Reserve] augmentees ripped from civilian pursuits.

To Sheeran, the blame for this failure lies mostly with the Army’s training and education system, which has not caught up with realities on the ground.

But Sheeran’s complaints don’t end there. Last week I discussed General James Mattis’s insistence that the U.S. military will only be able to prevail in future wars if it pushes autonomy, authority, and responsibility down to the lowest ranking officers in the field. Alas, according to Sheeran, the risk-averse and micromanaging Army leadership in Afghanistan is as far as could be from this goal:

There was recently an acknowledgment by a Command Sergeant Major that he used surveillance assets to monitor the wear of the uniform in remote locations … The military is fielding the best sensors that the world has ever seen, eclipsing the gee-whiz gadgetry of the Gulf War in sophistication. This should be used to empower and inform the Soldier on the ground downrange, not be another level of control for an [lieutenant colonel] in a well heated or air-conditioned [command post]. As implementers of a distributed methodology the Army is an abject failure on the whole. Far too much central command and control is being exerted by battlespace owners.

One hopes that Generals Mattis, Petraeus, and McChrystal are reading Sergeant First Class Sheeran’s essay.

How to recover from failure

No one would dispute the assertion that the U.S. military has suffered more than a few failures this decade. But what has been learned from these setbacks is the crucial question, both to recover from their consequences and to avoid more major mistakes in the future.

Writing at the Foreign Policy Research Institute website, Frank Hoffman, a senior fellow at FPRI, discusses some of the U.S. military’s recent failures.

First, says Hoffman, was the failure to anticipate how adversaries would adapt to the U.S. military’s overwhelming conventional superiority. In retrospect, the U.S. military’s failure to anticipate this decade’s irregular warfare environment is baffling. The fight against the Viet Cong, the rise of Middle East terrorism in the 1970s, the U.S. government’s own support for insurgencies in Afghanistan and Central America in the 1980s, and the small wars in the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1990s should have provided Pentagon planners with a clue of what was to come. Instead, these planners seem to have been intoxicated by their overwhelming success in the one notable exception to this four-decade pattern, the 1991 Gulf War.

Next, Hoffman discusses the failure to learn. When a military institution realizes it has a problem, as the Pentagon finally did by 2004, Hoffman recommends first turning to history for help. Another source of learning is allies who have suffered through similar circumstances. Finally, the Army’s traditional practice, extending back to at least the Civil War, is to dismiss failed generals and rapidly promote those who have achieved local success. This is how General David Petraeus was able rise from an outpost in Mosul, Iraq, to command of the Middle East and Central Asia in a relatively short amount of time.

Finally, there is the failure to adapt. After learning what needs to change, a military commander must compel a risk-averse and rules-based institution to actually change its ways. As Sergeant First Class Sheeran’s essay illustrates, in Afghanistan the Army’s adaptation could charitably be described as incomplete. Hoffman points to some other late adapters to the national security demands of this decade including the U.S. Air Force and much of U.S. civilian government.

Ideally, good institutional anticipation would preclude the need to later learn and adapt. But relying on forecasts is a foolish strategy, not only because forecasting is so prone to error but also because those whose forecasts require a change in the status quo are typically rewarded with mockery rather than attention.

Thus, organizations like the U.S. military are left with the need to learn and adapt as quickly as possible. It will not be easy to keep up with dispersed and autonomous enemy structures who have themselves demonstrated remarkable abilities to anticipate, learn, and adapt.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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