Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Recognizing Systems in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned and New Approaches to Operational Assessments

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Recognizing Systems in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned and New Approaches to Operational Assessments

Article excerpt

Until it was overhauled in 2011, the assessments process in Afghanistan's Regional Command South was mired in 240 metrics and indicators - some of which were uncollectable while others were entirely irrelevant. It lacked focus, failed to define the problem, and was divorced from decisionmaking cycles. That is to say, it was representative of how operational assessments are usually conducted. There was a general understanding that measuring the conflict environment was vital to the mission and to operational success. But what that was supposed to look like and how it was supposed to be accomplished were never articulated. What resulted was a frenetic approach that tried to measure the universe - attempting to analyze everything and accomplishing little.

The years 2009 and 2010 brought a sense that the soon-to-be decade-long war in South Asia needed a new and better defined focus. The campaign in Afghanistan had evolved to a universal, all-encompassing mission, a set of tasks for which the term mission creep is euphemistic. These tasks included counterinsurgency with all its associated complexities, counterterrorism, stability operations, developing rural and urban economies, improving governance, countering corruption, improving the rule of law, promoting female empowerment, building government institutions as well as Afghan military and police organizations, and countering the growth and movement of narcotics - to name but a few. In Afghanistan, there is nothing we were not doing because everything could be justified as necessary to accomplish what was in reality a vague notion of success. There can be little wonder that operational assessments processes reflected the ambiguity of the mission - it is hard for any metrics system to be more precise than the goals it is designed to measure progress against.

Back in Washington, graduate schools, think tanks, and policy circles had been consumed by the debate about how to apply new focus - whether to shift U.S. presence in Afghanistan to a light footprint and focus on counterterrorism operations, or surge forces forward to replicate what was by then starting to be seen as victory in Iraq. In December 2009, the United States decided to surge its troops by 30,000, bringing the total to 100,000 - with many of those troops headed for the south of Afghanistan. For the first time in the nearly decade-long conflict, the President directed that the United States would begin its drawdown in July 201 1.

After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Lisbon Conference agreed on a coalition withdrawal date of 2014, the headquarters element of 10th Mountain Division deployed to Kandahar Province to take command of international forces in Regional Command South. Kandahar and its environs were, and continue to be, some of the most violent territory in the country.

The war had now acquired a new focus and urgency. The United States had pegged itself to a timeline, even in an environment as violent as southern Afghanistan. Transitioning security responsibility to Afghans became an overarching imperative.

Despite the widespread intellectual understanding of such realities, bureaucracies are ships that do not easily turn course. Organizations (and individuals) at war are fixated on what they know. Like mountain climbers halfway up a difficult rock face, people in war zones respond negatively to new and untried ideas, preferring for safety's sake to stick to what they know. Missions, projects, and endeavors develop staunch political and emotional constituencies. Sunk costs are difficult to rationalize when the ground becomes hallowed by blood already shed.

These dynamics play out on the battlefield as much as in the operational and strategic commands that develop campaign plans and then seek to measure progress in an intensely complex environment. Civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations are subject to the same conditions.

Theoretical and Practical Problems of Assessments

Within this context, the Assessments Group of 10th Mountain Division, based in Kandahar, engaged throughout its tour in a constant struggle to make sense of the environment, understand changes in it, and communicate judgments about it, clearly and usefully, to the division's command group under Major General James Terry, USA. …

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