Posted: April 1, 2009
Questions Arise Over Chain of Command in Afghanistan
When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, there's a critical question that has drawn little public attention: Who's in charge? In this Reporter's Podcast by NewsHour deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense Dan Sagalyn, military experts outline the problems with coordinating 41 nations that all have troops in the country.
DAN SAGALYN: When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, there's a critical question that has drawn little public attention: Who's in charge? It's a subject of much study by the military, something they call Command and Control. The secretary of defense says it is a sensitive matter, figuring out how 41 nations that have troops in that South Asian country can work toward a common goal.
Military experts say that a tried and true practice has been ignored.
Canadian Col. Ian Hope served two tours in Afghanistan. He recently wrote an article, "Unity of Command in Afghanistan: A Forsaken Principle of War."
COL. IAN HOPE: In terms of the old American principle of war called unity of command. The philosophy and the definition has always reinforced that there is a singular commander for a particular objective in a particular area. And everybody falls under command of that singular commander. In its application in Afghanistan, we breached that.
DAN SAGALYN: In October a single American four star general, David McKiernan was put in charge of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and those sent by allies. However Gen. McKiernan still has two commanders even more senior to him: one at Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the headquarters for U.S. military forces in the Middle East and South Asia. The other commander he reports to is at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, headquarters in Europe.
Last fall this setup replaced an even more cumbersome chain of command in which multiple U.S., NATO and special force commanders operated inside Afghanistan at cross-purposes. Still, military experts like Colonel Hope say the current chain of command remains a recipe for trouble.
COL. IAN HOPE: Right now we don't have a singular commander. There is a singular American commander but who he works for, above him is problematic. He's actually in a NATO chain of command working for a NATO commander, he's also an American in the American chain of command working for an American commander. And there are other American commanders operating within Afghanistan who don't report to him. So it's convoluted.
DAN SAGALYN: Retired Col. David Lamm was the chief of staff at the coalition headquarters in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2006. He says the current chain of command works to the advantage of the insurgents and Taliban trying to topple the Afghan government.
COL. DAVID LAMM (Ret.): If you handed the Taliban a sheet of paper and said draw a wire diagram and organizational structure that could really, really make General McKiernan's job a hard and difficult one, they would have essentially written this organizational diagram we are operating on now.
DAN SAGALYN: The U.S. military in Afghanistan acknowledges the challenges but says they are manageable. Col. Gregory Julian is the top American spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan.
COL. GREGORY JULIAN: Every commander in Afghanistan works for General McKiernan. He is the commander of all ISAF forces and all U.S. forces. And while he does have two different commanders, the CENTCOM commander and the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander in Europe), the objectives are identical and that is to defeat the insurgency, create a secure environment for the Afghans to prosper.
DAN SAGALYN: But having a fragmented chain of command can lead to confusion on the ground. Col. Ian Hope said at times, all the work his troops did to win the hearts and minds of Afghans was undercut by American special forces, who came into his area while hunting insurgents.
COL. IAN HOPE: I can hark back to my own experiences in 2006, where I would be operating and have responsibility for an area in Kandahar province. I may or may not be told of a special operations operation that would go on in a particular set of villages for a period of time, just say, overnight. And I would find out either just before the operation or sometimes after the operation had occurred that there was collateral damage in those villages.
DAN SAGALYN: "Collateral damage" is a military term for inadvertently injuring or killing civilians or destroying property.
COL. IAN HOPE: Sometimes these operations leading to collateral damage will have the effect where locals will place the blame for collateral damage on my soldiers. And I would have to mitigate those problems without having the benefit of knowledge of what the operation was about, sometimes not even where it was and when it was going to occur.
DAN SAGALYN: Col. Gregory Julian says the military leadership is doing its best to reduce this kind of breakdown in communications between U.S. special forces and allies.
COL. GREGORY JULIAN: There is a really strong effort being made to do the pre-operation coordination and share with what we call the battle space owner as this officer just described, that the special operations community is coordinating with the battle space owner before they conduct operations, letting them know what they are going to do and then synchronizing the handoff after they completed their mission where they are targeting specific individuals -- whether responsible for putting bombs and whatnot out to kill and injure soldiers as well as civilians.
DAN SAGALYN: The disjointed chain of command can also produce tragic results for American soldiers. Retired Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen was a counter-insurgency adviser to General Petraeus in Iraq, and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He's the author of a new book, "The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One."
Even though General McKiernan is the top commander, Kilcullen says different NATO countries operate in Afghanistan under their own rules and can determine for themselves what they will or will not do, and that can create disastrous consequences.
LT. COL. DAVID KILCULLEN (Ret.): There was an incident last year in March when an American captain was shot in the ankle at 10 in the morning in Farah province, in the western part of the country. If he had been in an American-run province, he would have been in hospital in about 45 minutes and his wound probably would have taken him out of the fight for about seven days.
And then he'd be back on full duty after that. He was in a part of the country run by different NATO ally. The American commander that was in charge of this guy called the NATO ally and said we need a helicopter to come pick the guy up and take him to hospital. They said yep, that's fine, we are very willing to do that, we just have to call our capitol and get their approval.
So they call the capital city, it takes four hours to get an answer back. By the time they get the answer they say listen, we can come and pick the guy up, but it's too dangerous for us to pick him up there. We have to go pick him up at your PRT location, your Provincial Reconstruction Team location.
So then they had to drive the poor wounded guy another three hours or so across broken terrain to get back to a supposedly safe area. By the time they got the guy back it's now more than eight hours since he's been wounded. His leg got gangrene and they had to amputate his leg.
DAN SAGALYN: American military spokesman Colonel Julian:
COL. GREGORY JULIAN: There are lots of complications in a combat environment. And it's easy to point out the things that don't go well. When you consider the number of international troops here putting their lives on the line and working against an insurgency there are going to be instances of less than desirable results.
But when you take a look at the big picture and look at the benefits and improvements, the progress that's being made in Afghanistan, their improved security in various parts of the country, the number of students, including young school girls who never had access to education before who now do, the fact that they're having their second go at democratic elections, it's just really easy to point out certain specific instances where things don't go well. But I think it's more beneficial to everyone to look at the big picture and improvements that are being made here.
DAN SAGALYN: Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch says while the change in command structure last October did lead to some improvements, some of the disconnects still continue today between U.S. forces and allied troops operating in the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
RACHEL REID: There are still problems in terms of the way in which special forces connect and share their activities with the rest of ISAF. There have been some moves to try and improve the visibility that ISAF has and every so on these operations. But there is still a significant degree of autonomy, in particular some of these special forces groups, have and operate with.
Through November, December, January, we've seen a series of night raids in which there have been attempts to detain people with special forces, combined with some local Afghan special forces, knocking down doors and trying to arrest people. And reports of civilian casualties, you know, one or two deaths here or there, that cause huge amounts of anger among the local population and taking place completely independently of the ISAF operations.
DAN SAGALYN: At today's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and one of General McKiernan's bosses, received critical questions about the chain of command.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The first step, frankly to achieve greater unity of effort and a cleaner command structure, if you will, was the step that we took a few months ago to dual-hat General McKiernan as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan as well as the NATO ISAF commander. That was very important. There are other areas as well, senator, if I could, in which we need to make some additional changes. We need -- we think we need to achieve greater unity of effort in the Special Operations arena.
DAN SAGALYN: According to Colonel Hope, establishing a real unity of command in Afghanistan will be critical to winning the war.
COL. IAN HOPE: I cannot see having a successful outcome without addressing the issues of command and control.
DAN SAGALYN: But at a recent press conference, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he was content.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Well, nothing will solve all the problems, but I am satisfied with the change in the chain of command arrangements in Afghanistan. I think the arrangements that we've changed have brought a considerable improvement and unity of command in Afghanistan.
DAN SAGALYN: Afghanistan will be the major item on the agenda at the upcoming NATO summit the first week in April. But whether they will tackle the issue of command and control is unclear at this point.
For the Online NewsHour, this is Dan Sagalyn.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|