Best Defense

‘Red Team’: A tale of how a general didn’t listen to internal criticism in Afghanistan

In 2009, a Marine Corps colonel with an infantry background and two Army majors — both graduates of the elite School of Advanced Military Studies — were brought to Afghanistan to serve as a small red team, known as the 'effects cell.'

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This is excerpted from Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, by FP’s Micah Zenko:

In 2009, a Marine Corps colonel with an infantry background and two Army majors — both graduates of the elite School of Advanced Military Studies — were brought to Afghanistan to serve as a small red team, known as the “effects cell.” The three officers operated independently from the chain of command and traveled into the field to assess the robustness of partnerships between NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units and those of the Afghan National Army (ANA). At the time, “partnering” in the field was the primary approach toward building a professional Afghan military, which would presumably then begin to take the lead in independently securing areas where they operated. In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during a House Committee hearing, “Making this transition possible requires accelerating the development of a significantly larger and more capable Afghan army and police through intensive partnering with ISAF forces, especially in combat.” If the partnering mission was not working on the ground, then the overall campaign strategy would not be either.

The effects-cell officers were deeply disturbed by what they witnessed — with little variation — at more than a dozen combat outposts. They found that ISAF troops were living completely separately from the ANA forces that they were supposed to be training. This was even before the outbreak of so-called green-on-blue attacks that began in 2012 — violent attacks by actual or disguised Afghan security forces against ISAF personnel. The effects cell noticed, in particular, that ISAF perimeter machine-gun nests were perched high above their Afghanistan counterparts, with the heavy weapons pointed directly toward where their Afghan colleagues slept and ate. Moreover, the daily security patrols conducted by both forces were poorly coordinated and integrated. Also, on some days, literally no training or advising events took place. The Marine colonel recalled how the company and platoon leaders had developed a “FOB mentality” — a derogatory reference to ISAF forces hunkering down in their forward operating bases — and were “just counting the days until the next guys came in to replace them.”

The Marine colonel briefed the effects cell’s findings, first to senior ISAF staffers and eventually in front of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of all US and international forces in Afghanistan. The Marine colonel was, and is, a gruff and brutally honest person, which an ISAF staff officer contended “couldn’t have been more different than how the general [McChrystal] liked to run things.” The colonel described in detail instances where the effects cell found that ISAF units were not implementing the commander’s strategic guidance. To drive his point home, the colonel graphically stated, “Sir, if they aren’t shitting together, they aren’t partnering together.” Aides to McChrystal contend that the commander objected to both the tone and content of what he was being told, and, at one point, he berated the colonel, saying, “It sounds like you’re telling me how to run my war.”

The briefing ended soon after, and the impact of McChrystal’s vocalized opposition was soon echoing throughout other staff sections. Ultimately, the ISAF’s plans and operations staffs did not accept what the Marine colonel had revealed, nor did they adjust their campaign plans to reflect the findings. Moreover, the effects cell had difficulty getting traction in the remaining few months that it operated in Afghanistan. This 2009 effects cell study exemplifies an instance when red teaming was rigorously conducted to independently evaluate a plan, but then was ignored by senior leaders and their staffs. It was pointless red teaming, and its assessment was disregarded in part because it conflicted with how the ISAF command hoped things would be going. But, unfortunately, the blunt manner in which the Marine colonel delivered the effects cell’s recommendations undoubtedly made the ISAF command’s senior leadership even less receptive to the bad news. Shooting the messenger accomplishes nothing other than signaling to the entire staff that dissenting viewpoints are neither wanted nor welcomed. The red team is there for a reason, to help improve the targeted institution’s performance, and the boss, general, or leader, whoever they are, should be open-minded toward the red team’s purpose and message.

Micah Zenko is author of the new book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Voice columnist for Foreign Policy


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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