Afghanistan: The Support Driven War

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“What are our goals in Afghanistan?”

What a great question, and at one point it was accompanied with a clear response.  However, as someone who has spent the better part of the eight years in the war torn country, I don’t think I can give you a solid answer. For those of us who have operated in Afghanistan on one level or another since the early stages of the war, this is deeply frustrating.  The old sentiment of “do what it takes to accomplish the mission,” meaning eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and their leadership, has long passed.  The reason: our leadership and policy makers in Washington have failed to assist their people in the field with clear guidance and the freedom to operate. Instead, fear has penetrated the intelligence community and any intelligence operator who is worth his salt understands that operational thinking and tactics that once led to great intelligence and capture/kill operations is now, almost certainly, something that will land him in the front office for a consultation and possibly dismissal.  Aggressive thinking will not be tolerated.  Okay, maybe that’s a strong statement, but the principle is dead on and leaves many of our personnel in the field wondering whether or not we want to win.

So, why all the confusion?  As an intelligence community, where have we gone wrong?  While the answer is not simple, and this particular response will not by any means be comprehensive, I will attempt to explain some critical points of failure.

Most people understand the concept of special operations or special projects, as it pertains to intelligence and the military.  The mass public understands that this indicates small, secretive and specialized units who are well-trained and have a “failure is not an option” mindset.  Such groups are often called upon to solve our nation’s most perilous national security dilemmas.  These “dilemmas” span an extremely wide variety of problems, some of which cannot be handled with force.  Still, the concepts of strategic and precise plans make sense and are almost always more effective.  When the war in Afghanistan first started, this was our approach.  There is plenty of literature to support this, but I suggest reading Gary Schroen’sFirst In, which describes the CIA’s efforts immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Years later, we find ourselves in a completely different phase of the war.  Any operator that is worth a damn will tell you it’s always best to serve in the very beginning of a conflict because folks from headquarters haven’t reared their ugly heads yet.  Simply put, leadership just doesn’t understand the environment as well at the beginning, so there are no clear lines or policies that inhibit operations.  In turn, this allows for more of a “get the job done at all costs” type mentality.  Then, after some time, the inevitable occurs, management gets more involved and ill-trained thrill seekers venture into the war zone hoping for some excitement and even better, a promotion upon returning home.  This phase is soon accompanied by an even more depressing stage, which is where we find ourselves now.  On a political level, the American public grows weary and less patriotic about sending their sons and daughters into battle and subsequently, this pressure causes policy makers to waffle.  God forbid our representatives lose their seats over supporting something worthwhile, because their ill-informed constituents get anxious over the war. Still, this is what happens.  Then, more importantly, on an internal level, many individuals in the field grow frustrated with the conservative approach to the mission and move on to new projects.  After all, why stay if leadership won’t afford you the resources to accomplish the very mission that they assigned you?

This leads to a shortage of personnel in the intelligence community with war zone experience to draw from, creating the necessity for unwritten policies and standards being developed, i.e. “deploy to a war zone or we won’t consider you a strong candidate for promotion.” In fact at one particular organization, this became an actual policy.  So what does that get you?  Simple. A large number of under-qualified officers, who often mean well, but are thrown into an environment that they are not trained to work in.  Most intelligence officers from the civilian sector are trained to operate in more traditional clandestine environments, such as Moscow, Prague, and the like.  The other straining issue is time.  While most tours to traditional locations are several years in length, war zones tours are much shorter for staff officers.  With limited training and expertise in the region, these short stints in a country are nowhere near enough time to learn the problem set and make a difference.  It’s often toward the end of the tour when these officers create a niche for themselves and start producing.

When the surge in Afghanistan occurred, it only further compounded these problems and created what I call a “support-driven environment.”  Essentially, this means that because of an influx of those officers mentioned above, analysts, whom can do their job from home, and the countless support staff that it requires to feed, house, and supply these officers, we have a situation where support personnel far outweigh the operational staff.  This is a significant problem because support personnel are, frankly, less trained and approaching issues from a completely different angle.  Unfortunately, over time their numbers have increased and those who should remain in a support role, now have a voice at the table, which severely impacts operations, oftentimes for the worse.

Consequently, less trained officers create a CYA environment on steroids, as legal offices, in conjunction with security and leadership, fear the injury or death of intelligence personnel and make their policies accordingly. Essentially, most officers in management positions want to ensure that any misfortunes that occur during their deployment don’t leave them responsible.  The attitude is protect yourself and others, if it’s going to impact your career.  Not protect others because it’s the right thing to do.  I will never forget being lectured in a meeting over movement policies in Afghanistan by a member of senior leadership who told me “she was not willing to lose her job over us getting killed.” I was disappointed, but not shocked, by the comments, and the environment has only worsened since.  Too many heads at the table, especially when they are non-operational, has and will continue to lead to failure.  The simple fact is that sometimes throwing more bodies at a problem doesn’t lead to improvement.  Instead, we should consider supporting those who are already in the fight and are passionate about winning.

Drew Berquist is the author of The Maverick Experiment, and a former US intelligence officer with fifteen operational deployments to Afghanistan and the surrounding region.  Visit www.drewberquist.com to read more entries from Drew and learn about the Maverick Series.  Berquist’s second book, The Maverick Protocol, is due out later this year.

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