Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Annals of command and control (IV): Untangling the structure in Afghanistan

Read Command and Control Parts I and II and III. By Joseph Trevithick Best Defense special program for untangling Afghan War command arrangements For those of us outside the U.S. government and the U.S. military who try to keep tabs on just who is who and what is what in Afghanistan it can sometimes be ...


Read Command and Control Parts I and II and III.

By Joseph Trevithick

Best Defense special program for untangling Afghan War command arrangements

Read Command and Control Parts I and II and III.

By Joseph Trevithick

Best Defense special program for untangling Afghan War command arrangements

For those of us outside the U.S. government and the U.S. military who try to keep tabs on just who is who and what is what in Afghanistan it can sometimes be a tough slog. For the casual observer, who is rarely versed in the unique lexicon and standard operating procedures of the organizations involved, it can be impenetrable. The most comprehensive organization charts show a maze of lines, dotted or not, in various colors, leading to symbols and acronyms that make it like reading a foreign language. It is worthwhile trying to get to the bottom of all of it, because the setup in Afghanistan is important both in understanding the history of U.S. military expeditions and the future of such endeavors.

U.S. command relationships in Afghanistan have to be understood first in the context of broader U.S. history. When it gets down to it, the majority of U.S. military history is still dominated by action in our hemisphere, and within that space much of the attention has been in our immediate quadrant of the globe. Only in the last century or so has the United States really looked at its interests globally and looked to its military to be more prepared for involvement far from home. Though foreign military expeditions are a core component of the history of the U.S. military, starting with the Barbary Wars in the early 1800s, up until relatively recently they were decidedly limited affairs. They were the sort of conflicts that gave rise to the U.S. Marine Corps "Small Wars Manual." To emphasize the point, while Europe geared up for a war that would change a generation, the U.S. was busy essentially looking to settle an outstanding border dispute along the Rio Grande.

When called upon to serve overseas the U.S. military has never hesitated, but it has generally had to rely on being able to put a command structure in place at a moment’s notice to manage those forces. It is not to say that the resulting entities have not been functional or impressive, and in many cases they have been both. Things began to get more permanent with the establishment of the precursors to the current Unified Command Plan following the Second World War started to change all of this. The onset of the Cold War meant that the U.S. and its military were suddenly on watch all over the world against the threat of Communist aggression.

The new structures still largely divided the world into "East of the U.S." and "West of the U.S." For instance, responsibility for the Middle East was placed with commanders in Europe until the creation of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in 1983. U.S. European Command held on to responsibilities for Africa for almost a full decade into the Twenty-First Century. U.S. Pacific Command continues to have responsibility over a huge chunk of the globe. As convoluted as these regional responsibilities might be to the uninitiated, it is worth noting that no other country has really attempted to establish such a global command structure like the Unified Command Plan. The Russians only recently announced their intention to try.

Now that we are in the era of the Global War on Terrorism and Overseas Contingency Operations, an era of persistent conflict, the existing command structures have been placed under inordinate strain. Until January of this year, the U.S. posture was intended to allow the fighting of two major theater wars. It appears clear from how things have evolved in the last decade that the structures were not necessarily intended to allow effective command and control over two major conflicts in the same theater. It may well be proven as more information becomes available, that whatever one thinks about the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the subsequent neglect of Afghanistan may simply have been the result of a command structure incapable of effectively exercising authority in both places at once.

This in a long, round-about way brings us to the case of Afghanistan, which as noted is hard to understand entirely independent of that in Iraq. Definitions are also required as a sort of micro-glossary to help in understanding the various command titles. The three most important words to know are "combined," "joint," and "interagency," though the last one is rarely used in command structure titles. Combined refers to U.S. forces paired with those of another country. Joint refers to U.S. forces from multiple services brought together. Interagency refers to elements of the Department of Defense, to include the services, paired with elements from other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or Department of Justice. A task force is just a grouping of elements not organic to each other, and a Combined Joint Interagency Task Force (CJIATF; this is the standard order for the order of these terms too) would be one that brings together all of the elements described.

Following the attacks on September 11th, 2001 and the decision to proceed with Operation Enduring Freedom (known as Operation Infinite Justice until September 25th), CENTCOM, the "combatant command" for the part of the world Afghanistan was in, designated its Army, Navy, Air Force, and Special Operations components as Combined Force Component Commands for upcoming operations in Afghanistan (Land, Maritime, Air, and Special Operations respectively; abbreviated CFLCC, CFMCC, CFACC, and CFSOCC). This was per the standard procedure for a conflict situation at the time and put assigned regional service commanders at the head of their respective elements for the coming fight. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit was placed under the operational control of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, which then reported initially to the CFMCC. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) deployed the covert Task Force 11 (really a JIATF), with the mission to hunt for "high value targets, independent of the CFSOCC. The CIA also deployed a team to hunt for high value targets, codenamed "Jawbreaker," which did not fall under the military command structure. Further confusing things is that foreign powers participating in a U.S.-led mission are generally referred to as a "coalition." Even in official publications, the CFLCC was defined as "Coalition Forces Land Component Command," though at least by 2003 it was clear that the first letter should have stood for "Combined."

In 2003, the U.S. also made the decision to initiate Operation Iraqi Freedom, separate from Operation Enduring Freedom and its various sub-operations around the globe (including in Afghanistan). CENTCOM suddenly found itself having to prepare for another major conflict. Initially, the ground invasion was just added to the missions already being overseen by CENTCOM’s CFLCC. Similarly, the air campaign would just be managed by the CFACC and special operations forces would be managed through the CFSOCC. As in Afghanistan, JSOC deployed a task force to hunt for high value targets separate from the CFSOCC.

By June 2003, it became clear that this did not provide enough dedicated attention for the mission in Iraq and a temporary subordinate command structure was established. Combined Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7) was led by the headquarters of V Corps, deployed from Germany. In 2004, it was determined that this command structure too was ineffective to oversea everything that was going on in Iraq and CJTF-7 was replaced by Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I), which in turn was re-designated U.S. Forces-Iraq (U.S.F-I) in 2010. The same conclusions were arrived at with regards to Afghanistan and a command for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan (U.S.FOR-A) was also created. Both MNF-I and U.S.FOR-A were then to report straight to CENTCOM, rather than through any of the component commanders, who were effectively removed from the chain of command with regards to operations within those two countries.

The creation and subsequent expansion of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which also began in 2003, can be seen to have initially been a help and a hindrance for existing U.S. command structures. NATO’s ISAF command is parallel with the U.S.FOR-A command structure in Afghanistan, and is controlled by the same dual-hatted individual. This was necessitated by the fact that not all U.S. Forces in Afghanistan were under the control of ISAF. In addition to its operation in Afghanistan, ISAF created parallel structures to those of the U.S. in other countries, like Kyrgyzstan. Other U.S. forces operating in support of OEF-Afghanistan, but not deployed to Afghanistan were not under the control of either ISAF or U.S.FOR-A.

Even now it remains the case that not all of the elements operating under the operational control of U.S.FOR-A are also operating under the operational control of ISAF. Not all relationships of the same type are the same in Afghanistan either. Only in the ISAF regional commands where the U.S. is in charge do U.S. units report only to the regional commander (who is then dual hated as their higher command to U.S.FOR-A). In Regional Command North (RC[N]), where the Germans are in charge, a separate one-star command, U.S.FOR-A (North) provides the linkage back to U.S.FOR-A, though U.S. units are under the tactical control of the RC(N) commander. In addition, nations contributing to ISAF, including both NATO and non-NATO member states, have often placed significant restrictions on what their forces can and cannot do. Like the U.S., they also have their own parallel national command structures.

In short, between 2004 and 2006, the command and control structures in both Iraq and Afghanistan dramatically changed and were significantly streamlined. While they remain complicated to outsiders looking in, they are decidedly easier to understand then they might have been initially. They also indicate that, at least when the Global War on Terror started, established U.S. wartime command and control structures were overly useful. It is likely that one of the biggest lessons learned from the last decade of persistent conflict will be how to rapidly establish efficient command and control structures in the future. Or perhaps not. The command and control structure for the intervention in Libya, Operation Odyssey Dawn, mirrored that established initially with regards to Afghanistan. That AFRICOM still shares physical facilities with the EUCOM, previously responsible for operations in Africa, meant that EUCOM provided important command and control resources for the Libya operations. With a much smaller deployment, the lack of a ground component, and no other major operation in Africa at the time, this all turned out to be effective. The decision to hand over authority entirely to NATO, rather than to merge their new command structures with existing U.S. ones, does probably show a certain influence of lessons learned from Afghanistan.

I’d like to say that I am still not sure I was the best person to tackle this part of such a complicated question. It has, however, been a large part of my job description over the past four years to untangle such things for Afghanistan and other places where U.S. forces are deployed. It can be especially hard to piece things together in situations where it must seem painfully obvious to those who interact with the command structures every day. Critical details for those of us looking in from the outside are often left out because they are believed to be implied. I’m sure, in turn, that I left out some details myself or flipped some things around. I hope that this will prove useful to other outsiders and will prompt corrections by those in the know.

Joseph Trevithick , a research associate at, holds a master’s degree from the Georgetown University in conflict resolution.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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