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Best Defense

Tales of war: Getting 12 approvals for a relatively minor mission in Afghanistan

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on November 24, 2014.

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Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on November 24, 2014.

Here’s a striking excerpt from a new book by Michael G. Waltz titled Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan. In this passage, Waltz is briefing Michael Vickers, a visiting Pentagon official, and himself a former Special Forces soldier.

“Okay, what’s the issue? Get after them,” Vickers said.

I explained that for the more complex missions, such as a mission to search for a weapons cache or to kill or capture a Haqqani commander, my Special Forces teams had to assemble a forty-slide conop for briefing and approval by a dozen higher headquarters if the team wanted to use helicopters.

“A dozen command approvals?” Vickers asked me incredulously. “Name them.” The lieutenant colonel who was accompanying him glared at me over Vickers’ shoulder.

“Absolutely. Now, assuming that the targeted Taliban commander has gone through all the hoops to verify that he is indeed bad, which is a painstaking process in itself, my ODAs then have to put together a full mission brief and get it approved by”-I ticked them off on my fingers-“one, the Special Forces company commander; two, the Special Operations Task Force commander at Bagram; three, the Special Forces group commander at Bagram; four, the Special Forces general in Kabul in charge of all Special Operations Forces; five, the local battle space owner [conventional battalion commander]; six, the battle space owner’s brigade commander [the conventional brigade commander]; and seven, the regional commanding general at Bagram for eastern Afghanistan.”

Vickers’ brow was furrowed. I continued. “Then, if the mission is using helicopters that belong to the conventional units, as most of them do, we also would have to brief, eight, the aviation battalion commander, and nine, the aviation brigade commander.” If the mission was going after Taliban leadership, I said, then the ISAF commander or one of his deputies had to provide his approval. “That’s ten briefs.

“Finally, sir, as you know,” I continued, “we are proud of the fact that we always conduct our missions with our partnered Afghan Army units. But that also means their leadership should be informed. So we also brief the ANA battalion commander; who in turn needs to brief his boss, the ANA brigade commander. That’s numbers eleven and twelve.” I had run out of fingers.

The staff at each of these levels always had a wide variety of questions, and each of these levels had veto power.

I also explained that before the conop got to step three, some poor staff officer in our headquarters had to make sure it conformed to a 102-item checklist that was focused on the formatting of the Power-Point so that the myriad mission requests coming in from ODAs sprinkled across Afghanistan were uniform in appearance when briefing the various commanders.

For these reasons, the conop had to be submitted over a week in advance in order to get staffed and briefed at all of these levels. The higher the level of mission, the further in advance the conop had to be submitted.

“Keep in mind, sir, this is just to do a search or target one midlevel Taliban commander.”

“What the hell are we doing here?” Vickers snapped to the lieutenant colonel.

Michael G. Waltz is a lieutenant colonel in the Special Forces (reserve component), president of Metis Solutions, and senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation. Formerly, he was commander of a Special Forces company, counterterrorism advisor to the vice president, and director for Afghanistan policy, Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy. He will be speaking next Thursday, Dec. 4, at 12:15 at New American in Washington, D.C.

Spc. Steven Young/U.S. Army

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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