Dispatches from FOBistan: Fixing Afghanistan Starts With Fixing Ourselves

by Joshua Foust on 2/12/2009 · 7 comments

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — I had dinner tonight with a Lieutenant Colonel, and we were chit chatting about the various institutional barriers the Army faces in fighting this war. He brought up the idea that, indeed, the Army remains what he calls a “Peace Time Army,” that is one still geared toward long deployments home, an obsession with low casualties to the detriment of all else, and an obsessive garrison-like preoccupation with minor rules (like wearing reflector belts at night, oh how I hate that one) rather than accomplishing the larger mission.

See, every time a soldier dies, the Army must conduct what’s called a 15-6 investigation (pdf). While AR 15-6 investigations come in a variety of shapes and sizes, when a death is involved a 15-6 is ordered by a general court-marshal authority. It is a very big deal. Even if the investigation not only clears but lauds the investigated, it is such an enormous hassle, and such a distraction from doing anything else for a very long time, that it is understandable to want to avoid them whenever possible (this is ignoring the moral and ethical side of having a soldier die under one’s watch). While discussing this, the LTC got a bit agitated.

“You know what, though?” He said, his voice rising a bit. “People die in war. It sucks, but it has to happen to get things done.” I was a bit taken aback. Even though I’ve spent years in military contracting, I’m not used to hearing people talk like this. He was right—basic tenets of counterinsurgency, like what I call “the lie of force protection” (i.e. force protection makes you less safe), actually do put people at risk and make them more likely to die. Effective counterinsurgency is a dangerous business. But then the LTC dropped a bombshell that got me to thinking.

“No one has ever gotten a 15-6 for losing a village in Afghanistan,” he said. “But if he loses a soldier defending that village from the Taliban, he gets investigated.”

As soon as he said it, we both paused for a second and looked at each other.

“I think you just explained why we’re losing,” I said, meaning every word. As of late, I’ve been fighting this nagging feeling that, from command on down, there is no concerted desire to accomplish the mission, just a desire to finish one’s tour and head home and screw whoever has to pick up the pieces later.

After another pause, he looked at me and said, his mouth twisting ever so slightly, “You know, I think you’re right.”

We didn’t say much for the rest of dinner.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dan February 12, 2009 at 1:59 pm

My response may sound harsher than I intend, but I have little sympathy for commanders’ complaints about investigations. Investigations, while cumbersome, are important for accountability. People have a general tendency to want to avoid being held accountable for actions that they deem outside of their ability to control (e.g. the enormous complexity of war leads to perceptions of uncontrollable events). This is a normal reaction and should be expected. The problem with this mindset is that there is no democracy without accountability of the government agencies. Investigations are the backbone of this, particularly when lives are at stake. If commanders don’t see this then I question their understanding of their role in a civilian led government.

I would propose that the investigation process be streamlined in with the After Action Reviews that occur after every engagement. We can give commanders the benefit of the doubt on questions under consideration; or, we can position full time people to take this burden off the hands of commanders in war zones. Another option is to reserve the most routine investigations for after the deployment. Commanders can complete them as they redeploy. Only the most extreme cases need immediate attention; even routine combat casualties or injuries can have streamlined investigations as part of standard debriefing following incidents.

Not for one second do I buy that the drive for accountability is a reason for lack of success in Afghanistan or anywhere. If commanders don’t like it, they shouldn’t be managing the people’s assets. Blaming reflective safety gear as representative of a garrison mindset is a way of avoiding digging down to the true problems facing the military in Afghanistan in my view; people long for a “wartime” army that gets them away from the burdens of bureaucracy. This is a pipe dream-the Army is a bureaucracy and always has been during both war and peace going back to Valley Forge.

My alternative answer to the lack of success is a failure of understanding of the historical and cultural context, a failure to define success in a reasonable fashion, a failure to articulate this definition to the public and the global community, and a failure to operationalize the definition of success into sound strategic and tactical decisions. More than any of this, perhaps the biggest reason for lack of success is that given all of these failures, the resources have in no way been up to the (ill-defined and ill-understood) task. Take away all the investigations and all the marginal safety countermeasures and you will not have success (by any definition) in Afghanistan under current circumstances. This tells me that those aren’t the ultimate causes of the problems at hand.

Keep up the excellent work. I greatly appreciate all your first person reporting.

Joshua Foust February 12, 2009 at 2:13 pm


Point well taken. I don’t LTC was complaining about accountability, but more where it is focused. People are held accountable for losing their men. That makes sense. But they are not held accountable for losing fights to the Taliban. They are not held responsible for failing to advance the mission. They are not held responsible for disrespecting village elders in a sensitive area and putting outreach efforts back by months-to-years. People are held responsible for wearing reflective belts at night.

It is the bigger picture I’m talking about here. As a wartime Army we care about the mission; as a peace time Army we care about regs. It is focus, not the concept of accountability he’s critiquing.

T February 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Haven’t posted here before as I’m out of my element with the details of Central Asian affairs. But as retired military, and one who has ruminated on the philosophy of war and associated issues, I think there is extreme merit to all of the above comments, and commend you both. One of the endearing characteristics of the Marines, and their culture, is the concept that every Marine is a rifleman. Whether in IT, supply, or even the Navy corpsmen who support the Marines: every Marine is a rifleman. And the Marines train and train and train on the mission such that if, during an engagement, all Marines but one are taken out, the one remaining Marine, however junior, still knows the mission, and can pursue its completion. Sounds a bit romantic, and in practice probably has many examples of incompleteness or lack of success, but the culture is there. And every Marine leader know it’s incumbent on him to express and define the missions for his Marines.

Although it’s probably depicted somewhere, I’m not sure, from a military standpoint, of our definition of the mission in Afghanistan. Certainly we all like the ideal of a free and stable Afghanistan. We’d all like a free and stable Iraq too. We’d all like a free and stable Massachusetts too. Nice objective, but the details of the path to get there are the crux of the challenge. If this is war, then wartime objectives – like taking and holding ground, which is fundamental von Clausewitz – should be a mission. The problems inevitably arise when we simulateously overlay political objectives at the same time, the classic dilemma in a COIN environment.

Accountability is never negotiable. Defining what to be held accountable for is. So maybe everyone’s right, although I frequently fall back – when challenged by a seemingly unwinnable situation – on the Admiral Arleigh Burke adage of better to ask for forgiveness than permission. But I doubt our Army commanders even have the option for creative, wartime military excusions in pursuit of this, er, ” mission …” where such thoughtful, creative, pro-active action is doable.

Dan February 12, 2009 at 4:02 pm

The definition of success and the relationship between this goal and the consequent strategic, operational, and tactical planning are all under review right now with the transition in the administration. That certainly adds to the ambiguity facing all commanders in the field. Ambiguity is frustrating and when the stakes are so high, can be frightening. This directly translates to wondering what in the world we’re going to hold each other accountable for.

I’ve done several investigations during my brief couple years as an officer. They can be time consuming when done thoroughly. I definitely believe that there are better ways of conducting the process. That said, I don’t feel bad that they have to be done. It’s the price you pay to be in charge.

I don’t think that one sentry acting like a tool is anything more than that. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I remember being livid whenever I saw a vehicle guide saluting me in a busy motor pool. They shouldn’t be focusing on me; they needed to be doing their job and not get run over by gigantic trucks. The solution was the stroke of a pen by the commander, ending a silly practice. One memo can stop a sentry from wasting time annoying someone about a reflective belt in a tactical environment. At the same time, if a soldier is hit by a truck (happens too often), this should be investigated by a safety officer. It is the least we owe the family and the taxpayers, to know that common sense factors were in place that could have prevented a death or injury.

I think many of us who either work for the people, or used to, need to be reminded regularly who the boss is (myself included as I still work for the state). There are missions and these missions are always balanced with a recognition of the human costs. This doesn’t change from a tactical to garrison situation.

I must say that I find the responses here extremely thoughtful and nuanced. I am much appreciative.

TCHe February 12, 2009 at 4:30 pm

T, as I’m musing about Clausewitz almost regularly, I have to comment on this, though maybe I’ve gotten you all wrong, in which case I apologise in advance.

Quote: “If this is war, then wartime objectives – like taking and holding ground, which is fundamental von Clausewitz – should be a mission. The problems inevitably arise when we simulateously overlay political objectives at the same time, the classic dilemma in a COIN environment.”

That’s wrong, force is nothing but yet another tool of the political leadership to accomplish its goals, that is, political goals. There is no separation here, the military cannot claim a sphere in which politics have to remain silent.
This has been the reading of Clausewitz by various German officers in later years, however, the still got it wrong.

Even in war the military will not be independent of politics, there’s no reign of military objectives with the political objectives entering the stage again after the war has ended.

The political objectives are the overarching principles and the permeate everything else. This is why I consider COIN to be Clausewitz in the purest form.

David M February 13, 2009 at 11:22 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

T February 13, 2009 at 11:34 am

TCHe – an interesting semantics issue regarding mindset. Coming from being retired military, and continuing in the requirements, flag/general wargaming, and modeling/simulation consulting business, my perspective acknowledges the civilian/political/military relationships you allude to. But consider for a moment the difference between a WWII scenario, post-D-Day: taking and holding ground, with essentially no consideration of “interacting” with the locals, but focusing (at the tactical level) on the next military objective … versus a team on the ground in Afghanistan. I think they are different. And our senior NCO and junior officer training today does not do a good job in providing for ultimate military success in either scenario, because we have watered down the warrior ethic both in society, and inside the military, due to the reality of today’s conflicts, and our political will is so … politically correct … that confusion is inevitable. And confusion on the ground is fatal.
Compare the difference in mindset – and the respective luxury thus afforded the trainers – for submariners. Not a whole lot of asymmetry here, at least relatively speaking. In the purest sense, we need our submariners to be able to sink other vessels. Period. How we train the officer corps to then mature into leadership at higher levels which transcend their specialty is a separate issue. But up to the ship command point, there is little doubt, from a warfighting standpoint, what the objective of that fighting unit must be.
A similar scenario probably exists for the strategic air folks – they don’t have a lot of irregular warfare in their upbringing.
Which brings me back to the only point I was trying to express, with no brilliant recommendations for effecting large scale improvements: we are going to define our mission, and if it be “war,” then that’s what it is. Then do what’s needed to win that war (Tom Hanks had a poignant monologue in “Saving Private Ryan” about this). If it is not “war,” then we need to be very specific – with political/civilian leadership – to define what that alternative mission is. And we have not done a good job of that, which leads to the closing original point in the dinner scenario that Josh described.

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