Afghanistan and the Culture of Military Leadership

Not long after I left Afghanistan in September 2010, a young Lieutenant and a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point wrote to me concerned that the Army has yet to grasp all of the elements of leadership needed for the challenges of the 21st century. She wrote:

“I think that there are serious problems with the culture of Army leadership: close-mindedness, careerism, an aversion to innovation or creativity born of the fallacy that everything can fit into a step-by-step procedure, and a task-oriented mindset that creates an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism…and not only those who can think, but those who possess the moral courage to stand up for the hard truths that their bosses are unwilling to accept. I think this is going to be especially important as we transition away from Iraq and Afghanistan and attempt to prepare for unknown future conflicts.”


It has always seemed odd to me that the US military spends billions of dollars on service academies, war colleges, graduate programs and other forms of education in order to train people to think, but then places them inside a bureaucracy that prevents them from doing so.

The step-by-step procedures and task orientation methods like the
Military Decision Making Process can create a mindless group mentality that inhibits discussion and stifles innovation. Although intelligent people may be embedded within such a system, all can be dragged downstream by the same aimless bureaucratic current.

The systemic misuse of PowerPoint as an intellectual crutch and the
Pavlovian briefing culture are now endemic in the military bureaucracy and function as substitutes for honest thinking and logical analysis. Both provide little, if any, authentic situational awareness, but offer the illusion of understanding and progress.

During my 2010 tenure at ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Afghanistan, the twice daily Commanders Update Assessments were not much more than the recitation of new numbers on old slides to which little attention was paid by the audience. Most of the comments made by the senior officers were about the delivery rather than the meaning of the data or information presented.

Bureaucracies are both self-perpetuating and self-absorbed. They change course with the agility of an oil tanker and can crush smaller vessels in their path. Although oppressive and inefficient in peacetime, bureaucracies in a war setting can be hazardous for the common soldiers who are providing the sweat and shedding the blood.

IJC is now undergoing a transition from a version 2.1 to a version 3.0 structure. This will actually increase the size of the bureaucracy at a time when the opposite is needed.

Many of the military organizations and processes already functioning in Afghanistan are complicated and convoluted. There are numerous stove-piped and redundant programs operating in parallel, which provide little more than a collection of simultaneous arguments. The information being generated and shared is far greater than any organization can absorb, let alone analyze and understand. It confuses the volume of information with the quality of information. Such organizations ooze inefficiency and limit effectiveness.

In a situation where a selective application of counterinsurgency doctrine can easily balloon into nation building, adding bodies becomes a solution to every problem and there is a temptation to simply do more of everything rather than executing a few critical tasks effectively.

There can be, quite literally, “too much going on.” With so many people doing so much with so little organizational comprehension, motion becomes the equivalent of progress and a smooth process can be mistaken for an effective process. More information is not necessarily better information and knowledge is no substitute for wisdom.

Last autumn the US government announced that after eight years and $27 billion, the results of the Afghan Army and Police training program were so bad that it was declared a failure. If the effectiveness of the training was ever questioned internally, it had no obvious effect.

It was a program on automatic pilot, where everyone was being reassured that everything was going according to plan and “progress was being made.” Despite the fact that symptoms of failure were already appearing in the press years earlier, no one in the chain of command spoke up and hence, no one should be surprised. The pressure to conform is enormous.

One wonders how much American, Coalition, and Afghan blood was shed while the program was heading toward failure and how much more will be shed before the Afghan security forces are ready to defend their country.

According to a recent report of the Special Inspector General for
Afghanistan Reconstruction, more than eight years into the war, the
U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on the “build” component of the “clear, hold, and build” counterinsurgency strategy, but no one knows what that money has bought and there remains no clear way to track the spending.

The ugly truth is that often mistakes will only be detected, if ever, long after the senior officers responsible for the fiascos have been promoted and have moved on. There is little incentive for doing better as long as the money keeps flowing, fresh troops keep arriving, and there is little demand for genuine accountability.

Many reach high rank in the military through a combination of political acumen, a finely-tuned sense of risk aversion, and a laissez-faire attitude toward demonstrable progress, where the appearance, rather than the substance of success, is a satisfactory outcome. The longer you are in a system, the more the bureaucracy can shape your thinking and behavior. You become a stakeholder both in terms of maintaining the status quo and protecting your own career aspirations.

As one moves up the bureaucratic ladder, the tendency to give and accept happy talk increases. Negative views can only be expressed as whispers in private conversations. Public criticism is suicide and, contrary to popular belief, changing the system from within is at best serendipity or at worst urban myth. In a system highly resistant to change, innovation can be a risky proposition.

There are quiet and unpublicized acts of courage in the ranks, which sadly, often lead to frustration, admonition, and early departure. A cynic might conclude that many of the best in the military are weeded out when they are ultimately confronted by a definitive choice between principle and politics, between innovation and playing it safe, between embracing command responsibility or finding scapegoats among subordinates when operations fail and soldiers die.

The time is long overdue to take a serious, comprehensive look at the manner in which wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq are conducted. No program is sacred. Only the lives of our soldiers are.
It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.

In the end, it is less about absolute troop levels than how an agreed upon strategy is being executed. More precisely, is there a realistic probability that the expected results will fulfill that strategy within a reasonable time frame?

That includes the manner in which counterinsurgency theory is applied.

They don’t call it the “long war” for nothing. In the context of a protracted conflict, soldiers’ lives and scarce resources should not be used merely as experimental materials to confirm a hypothesis.

Counterinsurgency is a strategy based on control, which is complicated, difficult and troop intensive. Like insurgency, counterterrorism is based on disruption and can provide an appropriate transition in support of a prudent withdrawal strategy. In fact, special operations may be the single most important factor driving the Taliban toward the bargaining table.

As Afghan expert Steve Coll wrote, the US still faces the same challenges that eventually defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan:

“Partly they just ran out of time, as often happens in expeditionary wars. Their other problems included their inability to control the insurgents’ sanctuary in Pakistan; their inability to stop infiltration across the Pakistan-Afghan border; their inability to build Afghan political unity, even at the local level; their inability to develop a successful reconciliation strategy to divide the Islamist insurgents they faced; and their inability to create successful international diplomacy to reinforce a stable Afghanistan and region.”

Solving those issues effectively could take a very long time. We simply cannot afford not to learn from our past mistakes in Iraq and

Our approach to warfighting is in dire need of a surge in simplicity, critical thinking, focus, and cost-effectiveness. If we are to be successful now and in future conflicts, it will require more individuals willing to ask tough questions, tell the unvarnished truth, and lead from the front.