Top-Down Management in Afghanistan

This Rolling Stone profile of General McChrystal has recently led to his downfall. But the really troubling thing about the article isn’t what McChrystal thinks of his civilian superiors (although that is troubling) but the picture it paints of the war effort itself:

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any fucking sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”

The rules handed out here are not what McChrystal intended – they’ve been distorted as they passed through the chain of command – but knowing that does nothing to lessen the anger of troops on the ground. “Fuck, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our fucking gun on,” says Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. “I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they’re all fucked up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don’t understand it themselves. But we’re fucking losing this thing.”

The fundamental problem here is the mismatch between the top-down strategy that Gen. McChrystal sold to Pres. Obama and the way that strategy has translated into the orders given to men on the ground. It’s hard to know from the outside whether the problem is that the orders got garbled as they went down the chain of command, or if the orders were incoherent to start with. But in a sense it doesn’t matter: if your strategy is too complex or subtle to be implemented correctly by Big Army, then it’s not a good strategy no matter how good it might have looked on a PowerPoint slide.

Pres. Obama has announced that Gen. Patraeus will be taking over for Gen. McChrystal, and he says that “This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.” Which is a shame, because the most important lesson I draw from the Rolling Stone article is that the people actually charged with carrying out the policy don’t think it’s working.

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6 Responses to Top-Down Management in Afghanistan

  1. Rhayader says:

    Just curious Tim — in what ways could defense policy change to allow for more bottom-up thinking throughout the different military institutions? The limitations on central planning are clear, but what is the alternative in a military setting? The whole thing seems designed for exactly the sort of top-down organization that leads to so many problems.

  2. I don’t think there’s anything the military can do to avoid the problems of top-down organization. We obviously wouldn’t want a “bottom-up military” where mid-level commanders are free to start wars on a freelance basis. The policy conclusion I draw is that we should be a lot more careful about getting ourselves into wars in the first place, since policymakers routinely overestimate how much control they’ll have over the course of the war once it’s started. In this specific case, I’d like to see us get out of Afghanistan relatively soon.

  3. Brian Moore says:

    If you’re interested in something that could be described as bottom-up military strategy (while of course implementing an overall strategic directive), I’ve found everything below:

    Coram, Robert. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. New York: Little, Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-316-88146-5 and ISBN 0-316-79688-3. Biography; contains “Destruction & Creation”.

    OODA loop

    maneuver warfare

    4th generation warfare

    Unfortunately there’s some crazy, stupid politics wrapped up in some of the guys associated with these ideas, but from a “bottom-up” perspective, they have a similar message: that you have to be able to react quickly, and that even with modern communications, you can’t talk to your generals (or Presidents) fast enough to make the necessary decisions — so you need to give general priorities and let subordinate officers figure out the best way to achieve them.

    The concept of micromanaging orders like the one you outline above would be anathema to this concept, and probably helps contribute to the reason that the marine corp seems to outperform the army in situations like this. You know, that’s probably not a bad one sentence reply to “in what ways could defense policy change to allow for more bottom-up thinking throughout the different military institutions?” — “have the army act more like the marines.”

  4. Brian Moore says:

    In the above, I meant to put “… to be interesting” before the links.

    Also, here’s an absolutely perfect “top-down = bad” example, from WW2:

    In this vein, this guy is pretty interesting, if also totally nuts:

  5. Ridge Runner says:

    @ Brian Moore
    Martin van Creveld, at least in some of his work, seems pretty sensible to me, e.g.,
    The State: Its Rise and Decline

    Maybe he just sees some things more clearly than you, and you see the sharper images as “crazy” because of your unfamiliarity with them.

  6. Brian Moore says:

    No, I certainly agree with some of his stuff, that’s why I linked him; and I’ve certainly advocated for some of his conclusions in public forums. I think guys like him and Bill Lind are very good on a certain subset of topics, but I don’t approve of everything they say, for example from his wikipedia article:

    “We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force…. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.[4]”

    Things like that… are, in fact, “totally nuts,” you have to agree. You can pretend that I’m trying to slander him and his ideas, when in fact I’m trying to get them a favorable hearing.

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