Over the weekend, news broke that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has recommended General Joseph Dunford, currently Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, to replace General John Allen as Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Although this recommendation must be approved by both Congress and President Obama, it has already drawn fire since General Dunford has yet to serve in Afghanistan. Doug Ollivant pointed this out in Time’s Battleland blog. Andrew Exum, also known as Abu Muqawama, contrasted the appointment with Julius Caesar’s eight year tenure as governor of the Roman provinces of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum, and Transalpine Gaul where he faced a Gallic insurgency for much of those eight years.
But the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the following:
a. Caesar was the commander for eight full years, and he enjoyed similar continuity among his subordinate commanders.
b. Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth--that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul. With Caesar's commentaries in mind, I read Doug Ollivant's lament about Gen. Joe Dunford. Gen. Dunford will be the fifteenth commander of NATO-ISAF in eleven years of combat in Afghanistan and the ninth U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Each of his subordinate commanders have rotated on an annual basis. Gen. Dunford -- who is, by all accounts, an excellent officer and highly respected by his peers--has never served in Afghanistan.Caesar’s long tenure in command of Roman legions in command was due more to his own political machinations than any insightful policy of the Roman Senate, but the point is still well made. The knowledge of Gaul and its people gained by Caesar over those eight years was certainly instrumental in his eventual success.
But the idea that the outcome of Operation Enduring Freedom rests on the local knowledge of COMISAF does not hold water. The overall operational concept that governs operations in Afghanistan, population-centric counterinsurgency, is not up to COMISAF. The billet calls for an entirely different skill set than was required by Caesar. COMISAF must run a ponderous bureaucracy, manage an immense joint and multinational staff, and work at the policy level with high-level Afghan leaders. General Dunford is as well qualified as any four-star general to do these jobs. His knowledge of how tribal dynamics affect irrigation practices along the Helmand River is frankly not that important. If there is an issue with the tribal leaders and their irrigation system and only COMISAF can make a decision on the matter, we’ve got far bigger problems. It should be handled by subordinate leaders.
Which brings me to Abu M’s other point: That those subordinate commanders that do need a deep knowledge of Afghanistan are rotated too frequently. Even those that do return may not go back to the same area of Afghanistan on subsequent deployments. It is commanders on the ground that will make decision that ultimately win, or lose, Afghanistan. In 2009, General Peter Chiarelli, then Vice Chief of Staff, said that, “It’s no longer realistic to assume all- or even the majority- of “game-changing” decisions will be made at senior levels of command. To the contrary, those decisions are more often made by the individual Soldier on the ground.” [Quoted in this Small Wars Journal post.] He’s right of course, and we’ve known this for years. This is a “squad leaders’ war.” Yet, we continue to rotate forces in and out of Afghanistan in an a strategic manner without any plan or overarching strategy. To be sure, units must be rotated out to ensure continued readiness and to rest and refit. However, we can do this while balancing tactical and troop welfare requirements. We are currently far too skewed towards force preservation at the expense of mission accomplishment. A better way can be planned and executed, but it has thus far been easier to keep on keeping on. This force generation dilemma is a far larger problem than COMISAF’s pedigree.