Academic journal article Military Review

Of Burning Platforms and Champions

Academic journal article Military Review

Of Burning Platforms and Champions

Article excerpt

"The prevailing style of management must undergo transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside."

--W. Edwards Deming

ON 1 FEBRUARY 2012, while speaking to reporters about Afghanistan, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated, "Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013, we'll be; able to make a transition from a combat role to a train, advise, and assist role." (1) Secretary Panetta later retracted some of his comments about this accelerated timeline under political pressure. A Pentagon briefing two weeks later made clear that Operation Enduring Freedom was rapidly transitioning from combat operations to transferring responsibility of this current conflict to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). (2) Subsequent events at the NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012 confirmed this transition. This ongoing attempt at "Afghanization" relies heavily on American military advisors, with five brigades slated to provide hundreds of 18-man advisor teams. (Whether the U.S. military has the depth of talent to meet this requirement for warrior-diplomats is in serious doubt, but that topic is beyond the scope of this paper.)

What is being attempted in the wilds of central Asia will (and has) inevitably led observers to draw parallels with the ultimately failed "Vietnamization" effort of the early 1970s. While this paper does not advance claims of the current conflict in Afghanistan being another Vietnam, much of the language is strikingly familiar. Similarities include talk of halting the spread of alien and hostile ideologies, the need to deny the enemy cross-border sanctuary, and laments about the corrupt, unreliable, lazy nature of local allies, their fecklessness made even more aggravating by the contrast with the bold, imaginative, energetic elan of an enemy with the same cultural and ethnic makeup.

As the aforementioned transition continues (and may possibly extend past the formal withdrawal of combat forces at the end of 2014), it increasingly falls into the lap of the military advisor to comprehend why "those" Afghans are the stuff of a Kipling poem, while "these" Afghans are taking naps in the afternoon between bouts of hashish smoking in the morning and selling their American-issued gear in the evening, punctuated by the occasional murderous outburst. From this understanding it is hoped that a sufficiently robust ANSF can be trained and fielded to achieve the long-term American political goal of a relatively stable Afghanistan that is able to rebuff the encroachments of the odious Taliban and its Al-Qaeda camp followers, while also accomplishing the near-term (and politically more important) objective of withdrawing U.S. forces.

A daunting task to be certain, but fortunately, the advisor does not stride forth into this land of confusion unprepared. The American military has gone to a great deal of effort and expense to train its advisors before sending them abroad (I attended the Combat Advisor course at Fort Polk, La. and can attest to the thoroughness and quality of the training.) These courses typically provided rudimentary instruction in language and culture, counterinsurgency doctrine, negotiation techniques, simulated key leader engagements with native Afghan role players, and combat skills.

However, fine training fails to address the salient question of why, after over two combined decades of advisory involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan (not to mention dozens of less prominent experiences) with countless dollars spent on equipment and countless hours spent on training, the local armies were and are seemingly so incapable of answering the bell.

More simply put, it does not answer the oft-repeated lament of the Vietnam trooper: "Why are their 'gooks' so much better than our 'gooks'?" (3) As expected from the American military, our training regimen presupposes that the answer lies wholly with us and our efforts. …

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