By Andrew Person
Best Defense department of personnel-as-policy affairs
After over a decade spent fighting in Afghanistan, American officers are still having their first cups of tea with key Afghan leaders in government, tribes, and villages. As I argue in a piece I wrote for the Small Wars Journal titled "Getting Past the First Cup of Tea" (available on page 10 at this link), the Lazy Susan style rotation of American leadership in Afghanistan makes our mission impossible.
What would an alternative model look like? If the U.S. had established a permanent cadre of military leaders on the ground in Afghanistan from the outset, with the understanding that they would serve there for the duration of the war, these leaders could have built the personal relationships and knowledge required to effectively wage a counterinsurgency campaign. Viewing the past ten years of the war with 20/20 hindsight, it seems clear that such an approach would have dramatically improved our chances of success.
A permanent cadre of American leaders would enjoy a number of advantages over officers serving on year-long rotations through Afghanistan. Those who have waged counterinsurgency in Afghanistan know that every village and valley has its own cast of characters whom it would take years to truly understand. The cadre could come to understand this complex and foreign human terrain. To hand over security responsibility to the Afghan government, you have to know who can be trusted to use their power wisely and effectively. And if you're building up a security force or constructing a road without the intimate understanding of how such actions are impacting the human terrain, you can't really know whether such actions are advancing or undermining your mission. This knowledge takes years to develop, and thus most American leaders rotating on a yearly basis have not achieved a sufficient familiarity with the human terrain to effectively execute their mission.
It takes trust for an Afghan to risk Taliban retribution by working with U.S. forces -- a trust that is nearly impossible to establish over the course of a year-long tour. Over the years, Afghan leaders could come to know and trust the permanent cadre. A deeper relationship of trust would open up communication between Americans and Afghans, improving intelligence sharing and helping Americans protect Afghan villages from Taliban reprisals. Further, Afghans would know that cheating or lying to permanent cadre could risk poisoning a valuable relationship over the long term. As it is now, some duplicitous Afghans have a fresh crop of Americans to tee-off on every year.
The men and women who volunteer to serve in such a permanent cadre would by definition be an exceptional and unusual breed. They would have few commitments back home and could immerse themselves completely in the mission. The cadre would develop strong language skills and not be dependent on contracted translators. They would not worry about getting back to base to Skype with their loved ones and wouldn't be marking time until their year-long rotation is over. Unlike the current system, there would be no incentive to kick problems down the road.
Now, on to the mechanics of how the permanent leadership cadre would function. The cadre would have a loose internal hierarchical structure with the highest echelon reporting directly to the top military commander in Afghanistan. It would have absolute command over military operations in Afghanistan, down to the battalion level. No U.S. entity -- special operations and CIA included -- could operate in the cadre's area of responsibility without its complete knowledge and approval.
Battalions would fall in under the cadre's command for year-long rotations. A non-cadre garrison commander would train and equip battalions to ready them for battle and a change of command would be carried out upon approved inspection in Afghanistan. The cadre would have authority to hire and fire company, platoon, and squad leadership and could send an entire battalion back to garrison if not up to standard. Platoon and company leadership would compete to take the limited number of cadre positions that opened up.
While on patrol, the cadre would enjoy easy access to a variety of key combat enablers which would demonstrate their authority to the Afghans with whom they work. An AC-130 gunship would escort every night patrol. A-10s would escort day patrols. The cadre would have helicopter gunships available on any moment's notice. It would have lift at all times. If there were not enough lift to satisfy the cadre's demand, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan would immediately proceed to Congress to testify that more damn helicopters are needed in Afghanistan. These enablers are expensive but they're worth the price. When Afghans see them, they would know that cadre members can come and go as they please on a moment's notice, and that they can call massive fire support to come raining in from the sky. The cadre would be the personification of American power.
Could America really find men and women interested in such a brutally long assignment? By offering certain incentives we could attract a number of military leaders for such duty. Members of the cadre would have the peace of mind knowing they never have to command in a garrison environment and never have to do a battalion fun run or worry about where their PT reflector belt is. Cadre leadership could be shielded from paperwork and random one-star generals "circulating the battlefield." The cadre could be offered generous compensation based on this general rule of thumb: Double the pay of any general in garrison who can't pass a PT test. A special IG for overpaid and overweight Pentagon Generals could monitor and enforce the rule. Of course, the cadre would be offered periodic vacations from theater to rest and recover.
The draw of prestige and power would also attract volunteers for the cadre. It's remarkable what young men go through to earn a ranger tab or join the Navy SEALs. A cadre post could conceivably grow to become much more coveted by ambitious and dedicated young leaders.
There are countless details required to implement such a proposal that I have yet to consider, particularly how this structure would work with an international force. The risk of cadre leaders going off the rails Colonel Kurtz-style must be acknowledged and mitigated. But one fact is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever served in Afghanistan: The annual rotation of leaders in Afghanistan is fatal to our mission. If we ever try to do this again, we should give serious consideration to an alternative model.
J. Andrew Person served as a U.S. Army officer and paratrooper from 2001-2006, including year-long tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and works on Capitol Hill. This essay is intended as a thoughtful piece and has no connection to his day job.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.