A new command structure in Afghanistan

NATO operations are notorious among the personnel assigned to them for their internal incoherence. Overhanging byzantine structures and layers are the Alliance’s organizational hallmarks, compounded by the usual array of local dysfunctions: variable staff language skills, high turnover rates, untrained personnel assigned to jobs they’re not qualified to perform, lowest common denominator politics, continually changing ...

MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

NATO operations are notorious among the personnel assigned to them for their internal incoherence. Overhanging byzantine structures and layers are the Alliance's organizational hallmarks, compounded by the usual array of local dysfunctions: variable staff language skills, high turnover rates, untrained personnel assigned to jobs they're not qualified to perform, lowest common denominator politics, continually changing political goals, and resources under a perpetual state of review or flux. That's not to suggest that NATO is any different from other, similarly sprawling bureaucratic creatures -- but in a world of guns, bombs, and civilian casualties, those qualities all too frequently channel assumptions about who does what, how, and why -- and how well and how badly they do it.

Military staff who find themselves in the singularly challenging position of having to coordinate multinational personnel and units in field operations will sometimes quietly curse their assignments, longing for the day -- usually only a few months down the road anyway -- when they can return home, to glory in the simplicity and clarity of their respective national systems.  Every once in a while, though, they catch a glimpse of sanity and order: a senior staff officer owns an initiative and sees it through to fruition before leaving, or slices through bureaucratic inertia to force change, like top commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal has, or manages to achieve consensus on an issue of contention among Allies.

Despite all the cynicism, change, as the old saying goes, also provides the illusion of progress, and nothing spells relief quite like a good old-fashioned shuffling of the decks. Most U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to statements made earlier this week, are to be formally placed under NATO command. That's about 20,000 troops -- the bulk of Operation Enduring Freedom (a non-NATO mission) minus a unit of prison guards and some Special Forces elements. The move doesn't appear to change much, given that McChrystal already commands both missions. According to spokesman Vice Admiral Greg Smith, "It's just a matter of moving things from one account in the ledger to another."

NATO operations are notorious among the personnel assigned to them for their internal incoherence. Overhanging byzantine structures and layers are the Alliance’s organizational hallmarks, compounded by the usual array of local dysfunctions: variable staff language skills, high turnover rates, untrained personnel assigned to jobs they’re not qualified to perform, lowest common denominator politics, continually changing political goals, and resources under a perpetual state of review or flux. That’s not to suggest that NATO is any different from other, similarly sprawling bureaucratic creatures — but in a world of guns, bombs, and civilian casualties, those qualities all too frequently channel assumptions about who does what, how, and why — and how well and how badly they do it.

Military staff who find themselves in the singularly challenging position of having to coordinate multinational personnel and units in field operations will sometimes quietly curse their assignments, longing for the day — usually only a few months down the road anyway — when they can return home, to glory in the simplicity and clarity of their respective national systems.  Every once in a while, though, they catch a glimpse of sanity and order: a senior staff officer owns an initiative and sees it through to fruition before leaving, or slices through bureaucratic inertia to force change, like top commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal has, or manages to achieve consensus on an issue of contention among Allies.

Despite all the cynicism, change, as the old saying goes, also provides the illusion of progress, and nothing spells relief quite like a good old-fashioned shuffling of the decks. Most U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to statements made earlier this week, are to be formally placed under NATO command. That’s about 20,000 troops — the bulk of Operation Enduring Freedom (a non-NATO mission) minus a unit of prison guards and some Special Forces elements. The move doesn’t appear to change much, given that McChrystal already commands both missions. According to spokesman Vice Admiral Greg Smith, "It’s just a matter of moving things from one account in the ledger to another."

Smith denied that the move was about imposing tighter controls on Special Forces operations, but the New York Times’ Richard A. Oppel and Rod Nordland suggest in their own reporting that that’s exactly what this reorganization about. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan have come under increased public scrutiny over allegations that their actions have resulted in unnecessary civilian casualties. McChrystal has already placed a premium on protecting the population and minimizing non-combatant deaths, taking steps — including curbing the use of airpower in support of combat operations — to ensure that civilian casualties become a thing of the past. McChrystal, according to sources cited in the NYT report, has agonized over continued civilian deaths, and remains committed to preventing more from happening.

So while the new unified command structure is consistent with McChrystal’s prior efforts to bring various capabilities under a centralized command, it also has the knock-on effect of imposing control on elements , like SF and airpower, whose difficult missions sometimes result in mistakes — thereby generating additional costs to the mission in terms of loss of credibility and local good will. The larger question is whether it will work: restructuring might make for cleaner organizational lines, but will it make for more streamlined and effective communications? One doesn’t necessarily equal the other. According to Smith, "We clearly need unity of command so that elements on the battlefield are not working at cross-purposes with each other."

NATO’s high command and men on the battlefield breathe completely different air, however, even in the "high-speed, low-drag" universe that McChrystal is seeking to cultivate. NATO is complex, and Afghanistan is immense; disconnects will persist between headquarters and units. More, most of the forces being reassigned to the NATO mission are American. So it’s a little unclear whether this is just meant to improve McChrystal’s control over forces he already commands, or to streamline administrative and communication channels between the U.S. and everyone else in ISAF. Ideally, both will happen, and all will be well. In theory, NATO and its missions provide "interoperability frameworks," umbrellas of common standards and resources that enable different nations to work together. In practice, though, the mechanisms are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Ultimately, NATO’s greatest strength is simply presence — its ability to endure over the long term — not the minutiae of individual commanders’ decisions or the tactical details of specific operations. A more consolidated mission speaks well to that strength.

Michael A. Innes is a U.K.-based journalist and academic affiliated with the University of Leeds and University College London, as well as Syracuse University. He served as a civilian staff officer with NATO from 2003 to 2009, living and working in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Belgium. He is the editor of the forthcoming book Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates and the Use of Force and editor in chief of Current Intelligence Magazine.

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