Best Defense

My time in the rotation helps show why our approach in Afghanistan is doomed

The U.S. military’s way of operating in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure.

U.S. service members walk off a helicopter on the runway at Camp Bost on Sept. 11 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
U.S. service members walk off a helicopter on the runway at Camp Bost on Sept. 11 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

 

By John Ford
Best Defense guest respondent

I am a former enlisted U.S. Army soldier. Between May of 2012 and May of 2013 I was deployed to Kandahar province.

Imagine my surprise when browsing Foreign Policy I stumbled upon this brief piece about how troop rotation is a poor strategic decision. The strain of constant rotation was something I experienced on my own deployment. Somewhat uniquely I was not part of a BCT, but instead deployed as part of a 20-soldier team to fill gaps in intelligence capabilities. I did not do then-standard nine-month deployment, but instead did an off-cycle 12-month deployment.

As a result, I did not see just a single handover, but three different ones. I watched them from the intel perspective. And I saw for myself that constantly cycling soldiers cannot build effectiveness.

My team discussed this, as we saw that at three months in country, the entire mission changed as a new BCT rolled through. Then it changed again six months later as the next handover began. In the last third of my deployment I ended up giving briefings about why the “new” plan hadn’t worked six months prior, the last time it had been tried.

As someone used to filling gaps, I was often sent to work with new platoons and new companies for each mission. Each time I had to prove that I was capable and trustworthy because that is how human relationships work. Each time I wasted precious mission time and goodwill building up a relationship to become effective only to be moved out at the conclusion of a mission — that is, right when my new unit had really begun to trust me. I came away thinking that my individual experience was a microcosm of the entire war in Afghanistan.

This way of operating took a toll on everyone involved, but I think most of all on our Afghan interpreters. These men would spend a year or more integrating themselves into a team, building that essential trust, only to have their friends torn away from them, leaving behind only letters of recommendation or vague promises of future support for a citizenship application. I can’t even imagine the impact on local Afghans, told they can trust the faceless Americans, working hard to build trust and rapport, only to have the soldier mutate into a new, unrecognizable face all over again every six months.

It may be obvious, but I need to say it, in case anyone out there is listening: The U.S. military’s way of operating in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure. Human beings get better by imitating success, and repeating tasks. If soldiers are constantly moved around there are no veterans to imitate. And if they are constantly moved from place to place, the tasks change as well.

After my deployment, when I was back in the US, I volunteered to deploy with the next group. It was denied, of course. I was told I needed to get 12 months of dwell time at home. To do what? Nothing, really. I didn’t even get to work to help the next intel team deploy.

John Ford joined the U.S. Army out of college in 2011, and deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom to Maiwand, Zaray, and Kandahar provinces between May 2012 and May 2013 as a Low Level Voice Intercept Specialist. He was variously attached to elements of the 82nd Airborne, 2nd infantry Division and 1st Armored Division He separated from the Army in 2014 and now lives in Chicago where is studying Arabic in preparation for earning a master’s degree. 

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

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