Leadership: Outfighting The Loop

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March 13, 2021: In 2019 American military advisors convinced Afghan army leadership that the solution to their problem with growing Taliban attacks on the nearly 10,000 army and police checkpoints was to adopt a proven solution. The Americans had encountered the same problem in Iraq and other nations did so in similar situations. There was a proven solution all these nations adopted. Afghan generals were not so sure.

The problem was that the Afghan checkpoints, despite being little fortresses manned by 10-20 personnel, were often placed in vulnerable locations where the Taliban could launch an overwhelming attack, seize the checkpoint and steal all the weapons and equipment and sometimes kidnap defenders who survived the attack. The American advisors proposed their “consolidation solution” but the Afghan leaders were reluctant to change a tactic that had worked until Taliban commanders realized that, if they analyzed the position and operation of all checkpoints in areas they operated in, they would find some more vulnerable than others. The Taliban had already learned to change their tactics to cope with the growing use of airborne and ground force RRFs (Rapid Reaction Forces) and that any attack had to take into account the fact that within a certain amount of time a warplane or armed helicopter would arrive to attack the Taliban, even if they were retreating from their attack. The ground RRF would take longer, especially if the Taliban were in a position to ambush reinforcements or the RRF was too far away to arrive in time.

The Taliban wanted to replace the government checkpoints with their own for financial reasons. While some army and police checkpoints demanded bribes, that often resulted in those incidents being reported and the guilty troops punished or at least forced to behave. Not so for the Taliban, who wanted to control certain roads so they could demand a bribe for safe passage. The Taliban checkpoints were all temporary, because staying in one place too long made them vulnerable to attack by the security forces.

Afghan senior leaders had problems their American counterparts did not. For one thing there was the culture angle. Afghanistan is a traditional culture and ambitious Afghans do not gain power unless they pay heed the importance of tradition and not making a lot of changes quickly. American military advisors headed overseas are given a briefing on the culture they will be dealing with and how to deal with various types of obstacles. The army maintains a database of lessons learned that can be searched by region as well as situation. A major contributor to this database is army Special Forces troops, whose training concentrates on local customs and traditions and how to work within that. That’s why the Special Forces is organized around regional specialization. Special Forces operators learn the languages and customs of one region and usually spend their entire career working in that region. This Special Forces technique was learned from World War II experience where many of the founding members of Special Forces (in the early 1950s) had worked for OSS (Office of Special Operations), an organization created to deal with contacting, communicating with and supporting local resistance groups in German or Japanese controlled territory. The success of the OSS led to the creation of the CIA and Special Forces to deal with the Cold War. This conflict, which did not end until 1991, began in the late 1940s when it became obvious that Soviet Russian was going to continue taking control of other nations any way it could.

It took decades before the American military and foreign service learned how to use these new intelligence and operational capabilities. Tradition again but by the 1980s the military services cooperated in creating SOCOM (Special Operations Command) so that they all could benefit from what the OSS and Special Forces have developed.

Another factor in the development of more effective tactics was the realization, during World War II, that when the enemy developed a new weapon or tactic, the speed with which you could analyze it and come up with an effective countermeasure was a matter of life or death as well as victory or defeat. The speed of analysis and quickness of response was expressed more vividly in the 1960s by John Boyd, a U.S. Air Force officer. Boyd demonstrated how the speed of assessing a combat situation, developing a plan and executing it was decisive in all forms of combat. Boyd came up with the OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop, which could be applied to air, naval and ground combat. This made sense to World War II veterans who had witnessed the OODA loop in action. It resonated with the Russians as well because superior speed with OODA was a German specialty which the Russians never mastered as well as the Germans did during World War II. But by the 1980s some Russian theorists saw computers as a possible solution. Again, the West had a technological edge and from the end of the Cold War and into the 21st Century it was Westerners who made all this work in combat.

This became a problem for military advisors working overseas, who frequently had solutions for problem foreign commanders they were supporting, but the problem was local culture and resistance to change, especially this American emphasis on high-speed warfare and the need to quickly adopt new tactics to prevail.

Meanwhile Islamic terrorists were on the receiving end of many of these innovations and learned to adapt if they wanted to survive. The impact of high-speed warfare was demonstrated after September 11, 2001 when American forces used computerized data mining and analysis to speed up their OODA during counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and elsewhere. Sunni terrorists quickly learned that if an American raid was accompanied by intelligence specialists carrying biometric tools and comm links (to huge databases of information on known terrorists and their organizations) there would quickly be additional raids. A few new names found on one raid would spawn additional raids and within 24 hours large terrorist operations could be rolled up. Microsoft contributed by developing a thumb drive that could quickly extract useful data from a laptop while rough (but effective) machine translation of many Arabic documents could quickly provide more leads, locations and who or what to look for.

In Afghanistan the Americans finally convinced security forces leaders to consolidate their checkpoint forces into fewer, but larger and more defensible checkpoints staffed by about 40 troops and located in areas that were not excessively vulnerable. While this process began in2019 it wasn’t until late 2020 that it was completed. That was not accomplished without encountering local situations where traditions and tribal loyalties interfered with implementing the consolidation plan. The worst incidence of this was in Kandahar province, long known as the home of many Taliban founders and current leaders. Because of that Kandahar has always been a rough job for army and police commanders. In addition to more popular support for the Taliban in Kandahar, there is more drug money to bribe soldiers and officers to cooperate in attacks on vulnerable checkpoints or carrying out new measures like the checkpoint consolidation. For example, instead of systematically shutting down and dismantling surplus checkpoints, over 200 were simply abandoned, often leaving supplies of ammunition and even some weapons and equipment behind. There is no quick solution for that.

 


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