Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

How to get kicked out of Afghanistan without really trying — too hard

Tom: I’m no fan of PowerPoint, which I think undermines clear thinking. But in this case I think the colonel’s gripe really was with mindless military bureaucracy. But let him speak for himself: By Col. Lawrence Sellin (U.S. Army Reserve) Best Defense guest columnist I was assigned to the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul ...

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

Tom: I'm no fan of PowerPoint, which I think undermines clear thinking. But in this case I think the colonel's gripe really was with mindless military bureaucracy. But let him speak for himself:

By Col. Lawrence Sellin (U.S. Army Reserve)
Best Defense guest columnist

I was assigned to the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul for the last two months. Since arriving in Afghanistan my job had changed twice and in both cases I had no clear duties. Twice I asked my superiors for a more substantive assignment. Once I provided a high-level overview of proven management methodologies that I offered to the command as a means to address the quite apparent organizational issues at IJC. Nothing happened.

Tom: I’m no fan of PowerPoint, which I think undermines clear thinking. But in this case I think the colonel’s gripe really was with mindless military bureaucracy. But let him speak for himself:

By Col. Lawrence Sellin (U.S. Army Reserve)
Best Defense guest columnist

I was assigned to the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul for the last two months. Since arriving in Afghanistan my job had changed twice and in both cases I had no clear duties. Twice I asked my superiors for a more substantive assignment. Once I provided a high-level overview of proven management methodologies that I offered to the command as a means to address the quite apparent organizational issues at IJC. Nothing happened.

That frustrating situation was one of the triggers for writing my now infamous article "ISAF Joint Command — Power Points ‘R’ Us."

The second trigger was more serious. Last autumn the US government announced that after 8 years and $27 billion, the Afghan Army training program was being declared a failure. Despite the fact that symptoms of failure were already appearing in the press years earlier, apparently no one in the chain of command spoke up. I wondered how much American, coalition and Afghan blood was shed while the program was heading toward failure. I wonder how much blood will be shed before the Afghan Army is ready.

With that in mind and after two months of observing the IJC function and speaking with people from all the sections, I decided to write a tongue-in-cheek description, an obviously over-the-top and sarcastic article hopefully containing threads of constructive criticism woven into the text. I largely succeeded in those aims with the very slight exception of how my superiors might react.

One of the main themes of the article involved the use of PowerPoint. I don’t hate PowerPoint. In fact, I use it often. I do object to its use as a crutch or a replacement for serious thinking. Also, the overuse of PowerPoint can give the illusion of progress, when it is really only motion in the form of busy work. It can confuse the volume of information with the quality of information.

A second theme was the way in which organizations function and why they don’t e.g. stovepipes, ad hoc or absent processes, run-away egos or adding bodies as a solution to every problem.

My favorite IJC "idea" was a senior officer’s recommendation to install steel girders in the Joint Operations Center (JOC) so he could build a booth 10 feet off the floor where he could oversee operations on the JOC floor. Of course, the JOC floor is already supervised by the JOC director. So, there is nothing to oversee. It sounded more like he was building a throne room.

In any case, after the article was published and after a helpful colleague slipped a yellow-highlighted copy under his door, my major general supervisor politely and professionally asked me to leave Afghanistan. Another major general, who I had never met, but who had a previous unpleasant experience with an article-writer, ordered me behind closed doors so he could call me names. A case of projected anger, I suppose.

Seriously though, I think it is time for the American people to hold the senior military leaderships’ (colonels and up) feet to the fire. When they make their reports to Congress, one can be sure that it is the best possible scenario that they can justify without lying. The phrase "progress is being made" should not be accepted as an answer. It is like saying "the check is in the mail."

Everyone should remember that these are military careerists. War provides the opportunity for testing their skills, getting medals and promotions. A compromise peace without their definition of "victory" might be considered a failure. They all want to march down Pennsylvania Avenue like General Norman Schwarzkopf. Likewise, the contractors want to continue making their huge profits. It is the common soldiers, however, who are providing the sweat and shedding the blood.

We must stop treating the Afghans like children. They are not. It is their country and for better or worse, they should start taking responsibility for it. There is little reason not to begin turning over responsibility now. Regional Command West is possible because it is the most peaceful part of the country. That could be followed by Regional Command North. Between now and next July, the coalition can concentrate on Regional Commands East, South and Southwest.

After that no more blank checks. In my opinion, time’s up.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Until recently he was serving his second deployment to Afghanistan. The views expressed are his own and definitely do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or U.S. government. He was not compensated for this article.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.