« A Foreign Policy Meet… | Home | A Tale of Two MEDCAPs… »

Who Should We Listen To? The Small Unit Leader

General Stanley McChrystal recently gave a report to Defense Secretary Gates about the future strategy and policy in Afghanistan; an assesment of how the war is going. As the new commander, his opinions will influence the entire country and the outcome of the war. But he never asked me my opinion.

If I could give him one piece of advice, and advice to every general, colonel and lieutenant colonel beneath him, it would be this: forget what you know and start asking the people on the ground. The best source for new solutions and answers to winning in a counter-insurgency battle comes from the Soldiers closest to the situation, the Platoon Leaders (PL) and the Company Commanders (CO) on the ground. Our small unit leaders should guide our future actions and provide the solutions to win in the future.

Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders conduct daily patrols out in their area of operations. In my unit, we pushed out into forward bases remote from Brigade and Battalion headquarters. We were the closest to the people. We conducted numerous patrols to both influence the population and to deny the enemy freedom of movement. We gathered intelligence, worked with local security forces and helped build the government. We knew our ground much better than higher headquarters ever could.

Brigade Commanders and Battalion Commanders are used to a life of (comparative) luxury at larger Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Even small battalion and brigade headquarters feel like paradise compared to remote COPs and smaller FOBs. With this distinct separation comes a distinct lack of context to make operational decisions.

Compared to PLs and COs, Majors, Lieutenant Colonels, Colonels and particularly Generals, simply do not patrol that frequently. They live in the tactical operations center (TOC). ISAF (International Security Forces Afghanistan, the body General McChrystal runs) lives in the relative isolation of Bagram Air Field (BAF). BAF is a super-FOB with Pizza Hut, rare attacks and salsa night. To believe that the officers living in BAF could understand counter-insurgency like the company commanders and platoon leaders on the ground begs incredulity. When the Generals leave BAF they leave on helicopters, how can they understand the grind of daily foot and vehicle patrols?

Only now do we have field grade officers who have deployed as company commanders. Unfortunately, these field grades were usually in the initial invasion of Iraq, a war completely different than our own. As this conflict has evolved in Afghanistan, and as it has evolved in Iraq, the only people who can truly grasp the situation on the ground are those leaders closest to it, the platoon leader and the company commander.

The gap between soldiers on the ground and the theorists at the top means commanders will not have the best information. Gen. McChrystal and all commanders need to not just tour the battlefield intermittently, but try to live in platoon and company bases. They should send their staffs to live on remote COPs and FOBs and force them to patrol for a week to understand the life. Innovation at the platoon and company level should be encouraged, not forced from higher. Finally, if at all possible, PLs and COs recently in the battlefield should be invited to BAF to debrief what they know directly to the Generals and Colonels running the show. Our Generals, starting with Gen. McChrystal, should embrace their knowledge.

One comment

Thats the Ivory Tower. Camp Victory has a Pizza Hut, a Subways, 2$ haircuts by Iraqis, and free Baskin Robbin´s served by TCN´s at the dfac. It also housed MNC-I HQ in Al Faw palace, and while it was within earshot of the explosions and you could see the smoke rising from Baghdad it was removed from the sporadic mortar attacks adjacent bases faced. VIP´s such as coalition commanders and the CSM of the theater etc. lived in actual houses, not air conditioned tents, not trailers but actual houses that were formerly used by Saddam Hussein´s old bodyguards that were on a road called “General´s Row” by Al Faw palace. Between the DFAC and work my arm was tired from a ridiculous amount of salutes inbetween. There was no connection between what was going on in Camp Victory and what was going on in Baghdad and I think the officers prefered it that way, which was a stark contrast to what was going on on adjacent bases like Liberty and Slayer.