The SNAFU Effect in Afghanistan


Occasional Reason contributor Chris Bray, currently serving with the U.S. Army in Kuwait, is filing a fascinating series of essays for the group blog Cliopatria. His most recent piece includes this description of one Afghan operation:

Meetings over Operation Anaconda, a single operation planned for three days and thought to be aimed against 200 enemy, involved absurd numbers of competing organizations—and, therefore, competing operational styles and agendas. Here's a typical laundry list for a single meeting: "Representatives from K-Bar, the CIA, Task Force 11, CFLCC, the Coalition and Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force, and Task Force Rakkasan had been invited." And this list is hardly a complete reflection of all the different headquarters involved in Anaconda….Each piece of that stew had its own leadership, with its own agenda and intent. A critical American military effort had become wildly and pointlessly complicated. Four-star generals reviewed plans down to the platoon level.

Second, the coordination of those many different elements and agendas meant that painfully negotiated plans became locked into place simply because they were painfully negotiated. After members of a Delta Force team pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of walking up the side of a mountain in the Afghan winter to get a firsthand look at the valley, operation leaders received reports that there were somewhere around 1000 enemy, not the 200 the American plans had called for—and then they learned further that the enemy was not in the valley, where the plans put them, but were instead on the high ground around it. Leaders of the battle decided to go ahead with the plan as written, reluctant to throw out weeks of hard-fought staff work on the word of Lt. Col. Peter Blaber's Delta operators. The plans trumped reality, because the plans had come with political and institutional costs.

Finally, one of the ways that Army officers managed the problem of ignoring the Delta Force intelligence showing 1000 enemy on the high ground was to regard the special operators who delivered that intelligence as out-of-control and untrustworthy. Leaders ridiculed the Delta team reports, and "mocked the independent role that Blaber had carved out by calling him 'Peter the Great' and 'Colonel Kurtz.'" The enforcement of institutional orthodoxy allowed leaders to ignore realistic bad news.

In case you were wondering: "The battle, by the way, went poorly."

The earlier installments in Bray's Cliopatria series are here and here. And his excellent Reason feature on the military and the media is here.