Dispatches from FOBistan: The Garrison Problem

by Joshua Foust on 3/20/2009 · 14 comments

FOB SALERNO, AFGHANISTAN — Judah Grunstein is onto something with the “gated community” issue in both Iran and Afghanistan:

[E]ssentially what we’re modelling in Iraq (the Green Zone) and Afghanistan is the most extreme version of the American gated community. But when a gated community is inhabited primartily [sic] by soldiers (yes, I’m exagerrating to make the point), it becomes a garrison. Apparently that’s what’s left of the nation-building approach.

He’s more right than he knows. Last month, I had a really interesting (and, truth be told, depressing) conversation with a Lieutenant Colonel. He was complaining that commanders get investigated for injuries and deaths on their watch, but not for ceding territory or making enormous mistakes that cost Afghan lives. He felt, rightly, that this was the inversion of a desire to actually defeat the insurgency, and indicative of the ridiculous obsession with averting risk currently infecting the Army.

Bagram Air Base, as one example, is illustrative of that garrison mentality. Before I came down to Khost Province, I was walking down Disney Road with a former special forces sargeant who now works as an advisor for the 101st Airborne. He said that the moment Bagram became a so-called “Salute Zone,” he knew we had probably lost the war. The thinking was, when the base became so overloaded with field-grade fobbits—that is, middle and high-ranking officers who are on base and never leave—then the sheer weight of administration would bog down the war effort. I saw one tiny example of this, when I was walking to lunch with a friend who works in the JOC, or Joint Operations Center. We were walking down the street, and every single soldier along the road was saluting this cluster of Army guys walking toward us. When we got close, we saw the group was about a half dozen Lieutenant Colonels with some Majors and a Colonel, all in bright, un-faded, crisp uniforms, giggling as they sauntered down the street.

My friend, who is a retired Army Captain, remarked, “oh man, is that a veritable herd of important fobbits.” The point she was making was that they were officers who, like almost fifteen thousand other soldiers at Bagram, never leave the base during their deployment. Mid-level officers and Sergeant Majors who don’t leave the base crave reasons to feel wanted; at Bagram, the two most important problems they discuss are a) making sure everyone wears their reflective belts (see Vampire06, whose blog should be in everyone’s RSS readers); and b) dealing with Afghans, or “local nationals,” pooping in the showers. (That last topic probably deserves its own post.)

The end result of this mindset is that, at Bagram you have to try to notice that you are, technically, in a war zone. Even when a suicide bomber crashes the main entrace gate (called ECPs, or “Entrance Control Points”), or when a random 107mm rocket lands somewhere out on the airfield, even despite the announcements over the loudspeakers every night telling us the aerial gunnery range is hot or advising civilians to go cower in their bunkers because something bad happened a couple of miles away, there is no urgency. Most damagingly, there is no sense of mission.

Things at Salerno, and this is where we come back to Grunstein’s post, are not nearly that bad. In the ten days I’ve been here we’ve had numerous alerts about rocket attacks; I’ve complained to my parents that the whump of the artillery firing at the hills keeps me up at night; and, most distressingly, during the Transfer of Authority ceremony yesterday between the old and new Brigades, the new commander had to pause his speech because of a base-wide announcement of incoming casualties (“Shamrock Red“). There still exists the garrison issue, to an extent, but it is miniscule—indeed, barely noticeable—when compared to the environment at Bagram. As you go down the chain, so to speak—to smaller and smaller FOBs, Fire Bases, and COPs—the issue matters less. It’s tougher to ignore the exigencies of war at a company-sized base on the Pakistani border.

From a broader perspective, this garrison mindset is infectious and quite damaging. By focusing on garrison rules, like minute uniform details, reflective belts, saluting and other administrative effluvia, people cannot focus on the broader war. That isn’t to deny that a war with tens of thousands of people doesn’t have a significant administrative overhead; rather, that focusing on this overhead (which laughs at the term efficient) ends up seriously degrading our ability to actually achieve victory. We care more about paperwork and minimizing injuries, and lose sight of the fact that, actually war really sucks.

I don’t have any answers for this. As an outsider who has never worn a uniform I’m unfamiliar with the deepest intricacies of Army culture, doctrine, and administration, and thus can’t offer any concrete solutions. What I can say, as a former management consultant (I know, right?), is that the Army at the moment is ludicrously top-heavy. It exemplifies the “too many cooks” problem, and the careerism and promotion-chasing among the officer corps, while normal and actually healthy, has not been directed into healthy channels. The Officer Evaluation and Review process, or OER, that all officers fill out at the end of their tour of duty, does not actually determine whether or not said officer advanced the mission; rather, it asks if they did their jobs well enough to get a pat on the back. Again, that isn’t a bad thing if their jobs are explicity “here are our goals in this theater, and everything you do must be toward advancement of this goal.” At the moment, that is not the case, at least in any concrete way (you can’t say, “yes, I lost three men but I held this ground and denied the Taliban access to a key area”).

Until that fundamental mindset changes—until the mission comes first, as possibly offensive as that sounds—we should probably scale back our expectations of “victory” in Afghanistan.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– 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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


S Casey March 20, 2009 at 8:33 am

I’m so sorry to hear your report such negative things when our son is at a COP just miles away from Salerno. I’m sure you mean well. But it very difficult to know our son is in harms way striving to save lives and accomplish a meaningful goal, to help build a government in a backward nation. As reporters, it would be helpful if you reported on the good that is being done. It would at least aid our soldiers in their hearts that their lives aren’t being wasted as many reports seem to indicate. Every soldier is someones son or daugther, wife or husband, father, etc. They each have tremendous meaning and value to someone.

Sikander Hayat March 20, 2009 at 9:26 am

Afghanistan is not a lost cause yet but by bombing Pakistan it will become one very soon. Let’s talk real politik here and give the responsibility of restoring peace to Pakistan ( they have done that twice before) and curtailing the Indian influence out of Afghnaistan. After all that is what Pakistanis are fighting against in Afghanistan.


michaelhancock March 20, 2009 at 10:39 am

Good to see the India/Pakistan love fest has made it to Registan. On second thought, let’s NOT let Pakistan be in charge of Afghanistan. And I’m they’d ‘curtail Indian influence’ by politely asking them to leave after tea time.

I suppose that makes it easier to imagine Afghanistan in a worse situation that it is in currently.

I appreciate the first commenter asking Josh to report more positively, but I’m also glad to know that he will probably not take that advice and let everyone know exactly what he sees.

David M March 20, 2009 at 1:44 pm

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/20/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Dan March 20, 2009 at 4:29 pm

I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the “fobbits” as they are insultingly called are not deployed overseas by choice. Service members serve at the will of the institution; I think that we should focus any ire, if necessary, at the strategic and institutional/operational level. Though, I would agree that any officer who insists on being saluted is no longer considering themself in a combat environment. Nevertheless, I believe that many of the complaints here are of symptoms and not causes; there is a logical flaw in trying to draw macro-conclusions from the individual level. If everything were perfect in terms of the ratio of bureaucratic administration to forward units, presuming one could identify this, what would change?

I have seen a great deal of criticism of the current strategy’s results in Afghanistan on this website. I happen to be a pessimist on the ability to build nations from without; so, I believe it would be helpful if the author would comment on what changes in force structure, strategy, and assets would lead to which desired outcomes in Afghanistan? To paraphrase a commentator on NPR a little while back, if everything goes well, Afghanistan might be advanced to the 14th century. Is this accurate? What is the goal? This may require more time and reflection; one can not just whip out a detailed, new set of strategic and operational goals on a whim. But, I would be curious to see an approach opposite from the one seen here (i.e. macro to micro instead of vice versa). I have yet to see this in a satisfactory fashion from any corner of the government or academia.

Aside from this request, I would like to see Josh continue to report in his style. It is incisive and intellectually challenging. I learn every time I read Josh’s work. I rarely change my opinion due to my own stubborn attitude, but I do learn. The Army PA folks can take care of the overly positive reports and there are plenty who will continue to focus on the negative reports. I like the evidence as unvarnished as possible. I believe that Josh provides this service to his readers with a great deal of intellectual honesty.

Dan March 20, 2009 at 9:01 pm

A quick follow up to my previous post-it appears the Obama administration is about to release its new strategy based on decentralizing the military presence and increasing the civilian role in Afghanistan. I can’t wait to hear Registan’s collective take on the plan.

Jim March 22, 2009 at 5:32 am

Great Story. As someone who is stationed near the border of Pakistan, I have to agree with you 100%! If we got all the folks out of Bagram and actually out to the undermanned FOB’s, our mission would be a whole lot easier to accomplish. After living on the “tip of the spear”, the last thing I want to be reminded of when I travel through Bagram for my R&R, is to wear a reflective belt or to learn how to salute!

T March 22, 2009 at 12:20 pm

My heart goes to the parent S Casey above, and there is a point regarding getting the good news out – and there is good news. But this forum is what it is, as Dan mentioned. That said, there’s an interesting thread between this post and some of the comments following the above-linked “conversation with a lieutenant colonel ” (the lower case usage reflects identity … protection?): what is the mission? “Traditional” war bred all sorts of success models, from the informal (such as Josh alludes to as “garrison mentality,” which is well-represented in the character of Capt. Sobel in “Band of Brothers”), to the highly disciplined (see “Patton” where George C. Scott depicted regs-centricity, i.e., clean uniforms and leggings, as a harbinger of battlefield success, where a multiple of moving parts must execute with highly-disciplined precision to achieve the tactical victory). (Note: sorry for movie references as examples, but no one movie captures it all, but many capture some element of reality, and most civs have no frame of reference for the military other than TV and the big screen).

The mission. Toujours la mission. Until we define our mission in Afghanistan such that commanders, NCOs, and riflemen all know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish, then “reflective belt syndrome” will characterize this “garrison mentality” as well as any. Do we impose a high level of discipline so that everyone is on their edgy-best-attentiveness to be able to discern those subtle indicators (black cat in “Matrix) that something is amiss? Would that it were. But that needs to come from a command culture that grooms battlefield attentiveness and professionalism above all, and has all officers out amongst the troops every single day, most of the day, while also taking care of their admin, planning, and other duties. Battlefield professionalism vs promotability … there’s a topic.

While deployed off the coast of Vietnam the waning days of “Vietnamization” (now there’s a term for vast … abuse these days), I and my shipmates found ourselves in a somewhat lazy, drift-off-the-coast routine where we supported forward observers on the southern boundary of the DMZ who were trying to interdict the NVA infiltrators from the north, who mostly plied their trade at night. We would respond to a call-for-fire for about 5-10 rounds per 8-10 hours of darkness, with very little feedback from the observers, since there was no BDA attempted in the DMZ, and we were still devolving from the body-count mentality (sound familiar from today’s headlines?). We had a semblance of “garrison mentality,” Navy edition.

On Good Friday the NV “Easter Offensive” started, with our ship – the only one present – engaging in the following dialogue that evening:
Observer: give me one round at coordinates xxx-yyy (i.e., business-as-usual)
Us; shot
Observer, several minutes later: give me another round there
Us: shot
Observer, several minutes later: give me another round there
Us: shot
Observer, several minutes later: give me three rounds there
Us: shot
Observer, about one minute later, probably before seeing any effect from the previous shots: give me 10 rounds, same
Us: shot
Observer, almost immediately while we were still firing our last salvo, in a very high-pitch: keep firing ‘till I tell you to stop!
Thus started the invasion, which eventually caused us to pursue “Peace with Honor” and got Henry Kissinger the Nobel … for letting South Vietnam get destroyed in the end, and millions slaughtered.

But during the days following the invasion, our entire demeanor aboard ship shifted from getting through your watch and filling out maintenance reports, to virtually everyone on board, officers up through the XO included, handling ammo re-supply, needed repairs to operating machinery, and essentially 4-on, 4-off watch-standing for days upon days at a time, such that almost everyone was going 18, 24 and sometimes 36 hours at a stretch. We became very acutely aware, with an almost survivalist mindset, of the need to watch everything going on around us, from safety issues onboard, to the identity of each and every small fishing craft up and down the coast. But we acknowledged military protocol, just didn’t dress down those who slipped … we in the officer ranks tried to do things by example, albeit imperfectly. We got hit by the NVA while doing full speed naval gunfire runs against the coast – including Haiphong Harbor – and were successful in minimizing damage, getting repaired, and returning to the fight in almost record time. The edge was there. You knew to salute where it was appropriate but didn’t become anal when it was missed, because you knew the guy who just missed that “obligation” was coming off 20 hours straight of busting his butt. We were a team.

Jim is probably that guy too, with his team, because he and his comrades need to stay a bit more alert since they’re a bit closer to danger. That edge saves lives because their actions are tied to consequences, no mere compliance for compliance sake. Thanks, Jim. And Josh.

Sorry for the ramble – this is a key subject. Hope ADM Mullen reads these posts.

Edmond March 23, 2009 at 1:38 am

Earlier I thought you lacked perspective. Now I believe you’re simply ignorant – ignorant of the facts of the military heritage and tradition.

Discipline is the hallmark of the US Military – unfortunately there has been a persistent mindset shift since the beginning of the GWOT. That mindset shift has created a split in the military – those that feel that standards are standards, whether at homestation or forward deployed, and those that believe there is such a thing as a “garrison standard,” and a “war standard.” There is no set of regulations, no pamphlet or doctrine, no established set of orders which identifies two standards – one for war and one for home. There is the Army standard. To be practiced in peacetime and at war. Those that desire to see a change need only recommend their changes to the proponent to have it effected.

“By focusing on garrison rules, like minute uniform details, reflective belts, saluting and other administrative effluvia, people cannot focus on the broader war.” It is insulting to think that a young Soldier cannot both maintain the discipline of our time honored corps and focus on the broader war. Should one Soldier (or…dare I say, civilian) not be struck by a MRAP because the driver of the vehicle saw the glare of the reflective belt, then the intent behind the policy has served its purpose.

The salute is a tradition of honor and a symbol of respect. At remote FOBs where snipers could forseeably target an officer as a result of a salute, I could understand there being an enforced, “No Salute Zone.” On Bagram, where there is no real threat of assasination by salute, I cannot see a reason to NOT salute. I cannot recall any instance where an officer has been targeted as a result of a salute on Bagram.

Uniformity is a fact of military life – the establishment of standard operating procedures (like uniform standards) saves lives, not to mention contributing to a professional appearance. I know where the individual first aid kit is located on the Soldiers and officers in my unit and they know where mine is located – and it is a direct result of uniformity. Soldiers (and NCO’s/officers) should take pride in the uniform they wear. Those who don’t routinely “leave the wire” and “get dirty” should look professional. In truth, even those who do “leave the wire” should do their best to look clean and professional, where practicable. We are representatives of the United States – we should look and act as such.

While there are those that would disagree with my opinion, the US military is made great because of its expertise at the fundamentals – the basics executed to perfection. Anyone who argues that the military is not mission focused, clearly does not have an appreciation, or an understanding of that mission.

That is not to say there is not waste, particularly at Bagram. There are plenty there (military and civilian) who contribute little to the mission. Besides the musings of an obviously disaffected Bafghan, what do you contribute? Perhaps a little more focus on “the mission” is in order.

“He said that the moment Bagram became a so-called “Salute Zone,” he knew we had probably lost the war…” This is a ridiculous statement which no one should take seriously. It does not follow that the war is lost as a result of Bagram being designated a “salute zone” – nor as a result of the “garrison mindset” it alludes to. Those that have fought have a real appreciation for what wins wars, and a deeper understanding of what loses them.

Joshua Foust March 23, 2009 at 3:02 am

Edmond, I don’t know where you may have served or what you might have done, but your comment reflects a lack of knowledge and understanding of the ground-level operations of the Army in Afghanistan. The fact that people who serve alongside and before I arrived — off Bagram, mind you — find the state there either as or more appalling than I do says volumes more than your petty lecture on traditions and “those that have fought”. You assume a great deal about my actions, background, experiences, and mission here when you do that — and you do so without any basis.

Dan March 23, 2009 at 12:11 pm

What’s that old saying? No combat ready unit has ever passed inspection and no inspection ready unit is in combat.

Brian Cloughley March 23, 2009 at 4:29 pm

“From a broader perspective, this garrison mindset is infectious and quite damaging. By focusing on garrison rules, like minute uniform details, reflective belts, saluting and other administrative effluvia, people cannot focus on the broader war.”

While I agree about the futility of the war in Afghanistan (see my current piece at CounterPunch

( http://www.counterpunch.org/cloughley03232009.html )

it is, oddly enough, things like saluting that maintain discipline and the sense of service. Remember — the person who salutes is not saluting the individual. He or she is saluting the Head of State, the country, in final essence. It’s got nothing to do with individuals, although of course unpopular and inefficient officers get sloppy salutes, or are avoided, saluting-wise, just because soldiers want to make a point.

I was a soldier for 35 years, and could always tell a sloppy unit because it was a sloppy-saluting unit.

We always despised “base-wallahs” . (‘Fobbits’; what a wonderful description. Wish I’d though of it.) But it was ever thus. In the Roman army it was just the same; it’s been so for thousands of years. (Even Caesar had little time for some of his garrison commanders in Gaul, for example.) But what matters is the experience of the fobbits. When I was a young officer I looked down on fobbits, not knowing that they had, in their time, been keen young go-getters.

The real problem is that many modern fobbits appear to have had no combat experience. They’ve gone onwards and upwards on the staff net.

You can’t command respect if you have avoided combat experience.

The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. The deaths of all soldiers, at the command of Western politicians, are terrible and diminish us all.

I salute their memory. But I wish I didn’t have to.

Brian Cloughley

Edmond March 24, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Not only have I served for a tour in Iraq during the height of the surge on a 15 month deployment, I currently serve in Afghanistan, and off Bagram at a remote and austere FOB, much like Salerno. My comment does not reflect a lack of knowledge or understanding – I acknowledge that there has been a mindset shift. I merely imply that those people who are in favor of that mindset shift (to two standards) and those people, like yourself, who perpetuate it, are ignorant of what makes our military great.

As a person who has never served, you are in NO position to either discredit myself, or my service. You should be ashamed of the comments you made. However, I am certain, you are not.

I have fought. I have been wounded and I have had friends die in combat. I do not expect you to understand. And my friend, I do not assume a great deal about your actions – in fact, I actually know you, not well and though only through a mutual friend on Bagram, we have in fact met before. I assume nothing about you. What I really know, I have in fact only gleaned from your writing. Being as disparaging as it is, I admit I don’t have a high opinion of you.

Dan March 25, 2009 at 10:33 am

I think we could ask ten different servicemembers or veterans and we’d get ten different answers as to what exemplifies discipline and makes the military great. This comes to mind because I find myself agreeing with much said by fellow vets and disagreeing with much said by fellow vets on this site. I never really cared about salutes or pressed uniforms as a measure of discipline. People can look great on the outside and be absolutely terrible representatives of an institution. At the same time, I used to go crazy over safety violations, particularly those that threatened soldiers’ lives and limbs. I’ve seen that mentality disparaged on this website through a straw man argument that somehow we must choose between risk mitigation and fighting a war. Risk mitigation is a continuum, not a dichotomous variable.

I find the negative connotation attached to the “fobbit” term an example of ignorance and insulting to their service. One’s MOS doesn’t by itself make one a good human being or a good soldier. At the same time, I have seen too many OER checkers do crooked things to protect themselves at the expense of others and have callous disregard for those over whom they have authority.

I have seen servicemembers insult civilians by saying they don’t know what they are discussing because they haven’t worn the uniform and that should lesson their influence; and, there are in fact too many armchair generals and PowerPoint Rangers out there costing other people their lives because they lack the understanding of how so-called grand strategy plays out at the tactical level. On the converse, I have seen too many servicemembers not know their role in a democratic society as responsible and accountable to civilian leadership that has a genuine need to cultivate civilian expertise on defense related affairs.

The bottom line is that our military establishment (uniformed and civilian) reflects the diversity of our society for better and worse. Individual experiences do not necessarily translate automatically to those of others or from the individual level up to the group and institutional level. We don’t need shame; we need critical analysis of our own words and ideas-this includes and starts with myself.

Previous post:

Next post: