Our Own Tribal Mess in Afghanistan

I was reading Joseph Trevithick’s piece on Afghanistan war command and control arrangements in Tom Ricks’ Best Defense blog, and it made me think about all of the organizations that I’ve tried to figure out over the years and why it’s so difficult.

Ricks’ readers provide erudite references to military histories and recommendations to read joint doctrinal manuals, suggesting if one just mastered the war college reading list one would get it all.   It also seems a subtle message that war should be left to the professionals.

Afghanistan is a particularly acute example of dysfunction though, one that reflects the nature of that country, our world, and the so-called war against terrorism.

First and foremost, everything about Afghanistan is tribal, which is to say, that the society is intensely tribal, split along family, ethnic, geographic, religious, and class lines.  We could learn something from the nation: It is both the reason why our e pluribus unum mission is so foolhardy and why our own organization there is so screwy.

Second, there is secrecy involved, not just the secrecy of military operational security to keep the enemy off balance and guessing but also the secrecy of competing bureaucracies and an evasive executive branch (military and intelligence community) trying to keep others out of its business.

Third, 9/11 spawned a very bad habit, predicated on the Rumsfeld assumption that the uniformed military was antique, brain dead and didn’t work.  So from day one in Afghanistan, the practice was to muscle aside the existing in favor of the ad hoc.  Of course this also benefited secrecy and evasion of oversight.  The price has been profound (and obscenely expensive).  Just look at how the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) has created its own army, its own air force, its own special ops, its own intelligence establishment, its own task forces, even procured its own equipment, and you get a flavor.

We are ourselves intensely tribal, but we are also amazingly rich, so not only do we start every endeavor well-endowed with diverse organizations but we keep building on them, unable it seems to let anything go or say no to anyone.  That’s why our Department of Homeland Security even has a unit in Afghanistan, advising local border authorities, with its own chain of command, budget, support structure, etc.

One look at the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI) Advisor Guide, May 2011 and you get an idea of the mess.  A manual is needed to explain what-the-hell to all of those war college graduates.   I particularly chuckled at the list of countries from Australia to Tonga that were part of the ISAF Joint Command (IJC), there to “conduct population‐centric comprehensive operations to neutralize the insurgency in specified areas, and supports improved governance and development in order to protect the Afghan people and provide a secure environment for sustainable peace.”

According to the manual, they are:

  • “NATO Members: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America.
  • Euro‐Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC): Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kyrghz Republic, Malta, Republic of Maldova [sic], Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.
  • NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Tonga, Tunisia
  • Istanbul Cooperation Initiative: Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates
  • Contact Countries: Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand”

We tend to blame coalitions or NATO or those Europeans or Washington or even the command in Florida for mucking about in sacrosanct military business, as if some literal interpretation of the manuals is the answer.  What an evasion.  No wonder the war is endless, expensive, and has no chance of achieving any publicly-understood outcome.

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