Tags: Afghanistan, Doug Robb
America’s “longest war”—now in its eleventh year in Afghanistan—has proved a source of frustration to policymakers, military strategists, and academics alike. Hypotheses abound about why American progress appears sluggish. Everything from failed tactical objectives, fractured civil-military relations, and an unbridgeable cultural divide have been scrutinized.
One theory, postulated by Thomas Ricks, an author and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, suggests that “serially rotat[ing] our top war commanders” on an almost-annual basis has contributed to this stagnation. Writing in a New York Times op-ed article, Ricks notes that there have been 11 officers to lead the war effort in 11 years. “Rotating troops is appropriate,” he observes, “especially when entire units are moved in and out.” However, replacing commanders is inefficient and counterproductive.
Ricks may have it backwards: Perhaps the reason why the U.S. has not fully met its operational goals in Afghanistan is precisely because the military is not rotating its top commanders through the country with sufficient frequency. One need only look at U.S. naval operations during the latter part of WWII to find a useful case study for how pragmatically swapping theater commanders yielded myriad benefits in prosecuting the war.
During the Spring of 1944, two and a half years into the war, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, decided to split planning and execution duties between his two three-star fleet commanders—Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey and Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance. Spruance had, to that point, shouldered a lion’s share of the theater’s operational planning and was exhausted, and Nimitz and Admiral Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations, worried that as a result, the Navy would not be able to maintain its grueling offensive pace.
Nimitz created what came to be known as the “Two-Platoon System,” which entailed shuttling Spruance and Halsey—two disparate personalities—between the front lines in the western Pacific and his headquarters in Hawaii on opposing schedules. In short, individual ships, squadrons, and crews remained forward deployed to places like the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf while Halsey and Spruance moved in and out (when Halsey was in charge, the command was designated the Third Fleet; when Spruance rotated in, the command became the Fifth Fleet). While one was fighting, the other was back in Hawaii at Nimitz’s headquarters drawing up the battle plans for the next major operation. He would then fly out to the western Pacific with a small group of planners and aides (Halsey nicknamed his cadre the “Department of Dirty Tricks”), embark in a flagship, and lead the operation while his counterpart returned to Hawaii to begin the process anew.
Evan Thomas, author of Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945, observes, “For the rest of the war, Halsey and Spruance and their staffs would rotate roughly every six months.” This constant planning enabled the US to maintain unceasing pressure on the enemy by deeming the top commanders interchangeable—rather than indispensable—parts. This is an organizational pattern that is not found in hierarchies that utilize a traditional management model. Since tactical units remained in place, they were better prepared to fight the next battle because of their accumulated experience, knowledge of the enemy, familiarity with the operating area, and tightened unit cohesion. It was good for morale and encouraged cooperation. The unprecedented operational tempo had an added psychological benefit: “The name-switch was confusing to the Japanese, who assumed the Americans had two entirely different fleets.”
The current conflict in Afghanistan, by contrast, has undergone many operational and strategic shifts throughout the course of a decade of fighting. One cannot help but wonder how the strategic outlook would have changed had the commanders in Afghanistan had an opportunity to observe conditions on the ground, return home to plan for the next phase, and head back to the theater.
Ricks also argues that the organizational inefficiencies created by such high-level personnel turnover outweigh any perceived benefits. Keep in mind, however, that the Pacific War lasted roughly from late 1941 to mid-1945. Does Ricks suggest keeping one commander in place for 11 years (or even half that time—five and a half years)? It gives new meaning to the term battle fatigue.
“Imagine,” Ricks posits, “if, at the beginning of 1944, six months before D-Day, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, told Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, that it was time to give someone else a chance.” Not to take anything away from Eisenhower and his great abilities, but if he had been unavailable, there is little doubt the D-Day invasion would still have occurred.
“Imagine trying to run a corporation,” Ricks hypothesizes, “by swapping the senior executives every year.” One need look no further for an example of organizational inefficiency than Apple Inc. to find a corporation less prepared to fill the void left by the death of its longtime chief executive, Steven Jobs. Since his death, Apple has suddenly found itself perilously close to losing its edge in new product development to hungry competitors. One-man rule may seem efficient but it runs the risk of making someone seem indispensable. Ike would be the first to say he was not indispensable.
Corporations are not typically run like military operations, which are mission-centric and are truly not for profit; rather, private-sector businesses must answer to stockholders and the bottom line. The military is hardly analogous to corporate America.
To be sure, Afghanistan in 2012 and the Pacific war in 1944 are very different conflicts: non-state actors versus a nation-state; asymmetric tactics versus conventional war; instant communication versus time-late information. Detractors may also point out that “chopping and rotating” top commanders is an inherently naval concept—one befitting of the maritime domain, which permits mobility and affords decision-makers with the option to choose when to take the offensive. Land battles, by contrast, tend to be of a more permanent nature. But such a sustained pace also makes it less likely that one ground commander can remain at his post—physically or psychologically—indefinitely. The basic tenets of military leadership and operational planning still apply, and have met the tests of time. As Nimitz said, “Hindsight is notably cleverer than foresight.”