Small Wars Journal

Afghan Sitrep: A Grunt from the Front Sounds Off

Afghan Sitrep: A Grunt from the Front Sounds Off by Chuck Spinney of Time Magazine's Battleland Blog. BLUF: "Why doesn't anyone listen to the guys that know? Ivory-tower intellectuals in think tanks get listened to, but they are not walking the ground as a grunt or a combat arms dude."


G Martin

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 1:53pm

The alternative supply routes would not sustain the force we currently have nor most of a fighting force's requirements. Other routes are being used- but they are limited in terms of what and how much they will support. It's too bad SECSTATE screwed our chance to use the China route...

In other words- Pakistan has us over a barrel and they know it. Although, I'd argue they wouldn't be able to do what we want anyway- the government is precarious and doesn't have control of their agencies.

Bad guys have control of nukes now- why we are fixated on Pakistan's falling into the "wrong" hands has never made sense to me. Nukes are a red herring IMO. If they were used the gloves would come off- and everyone knows that. We should be worried about real things like our debt, better Chinese influence and strategic planning, Internet security, and our economic structure supporting (or not) our lifestyle/populace's expectations. Healthcare is now considered a "right" by many, but we can't afford it nor we do have an economy that can afford it. We can't keep sustaining the current model of what our populace wants and what they produce.


Tue, 06/14/2011 - 11:55pm

I'm not sure why the US doesn't have some redundant supply routes. Is that why the screws aren't applied to Pakistan? I don't know.

As for Mexico - I'm all for some military intervention, at least to shore up the US border.

My worry, and I guess the root of my apprehension to leave Afghanistan is the carving out of spheres by Iran and Pakistan. More precisely, I fear that Iran will influence Afghanistan and that elements in Afghanistan will carve out spheres within Pakistan. Maybe I'm wrong but I fear that nukes will quickly fall into the possession of some bad people and we'll be held hostage as a result.

Dan (not verified)

Tue, 06/14/2011 - 1:57pm

If it wasn't for bin Laden we would never have gone to Afghanistan. Now that he is dead, we have no need to be in Afghanistan...all the theoretical GWOT/COIN/FID baloney aside. Why spend another nickel on a failed state 10,000 miles away when we have one on our southern border. Iran and Pakistan are going to carve out spheres of influence in Afghanistan and things will go back to being the Wild West. We can't lean on Pakistan until we are out of Afghanistan (a logistics vulnerability that a good BNOC grad could point out). Let's get our priorities squared away!


Sat, 06/11/2011 - 10:46pm

Good and informed comments above.'s time for us to either take a dump or get off the pot...let's publish a damn mission statement & intent and get after it and finish this already.

Bill M.

Sat, 06/11/2011 - 10:10pm

Grant, it appears that the coalition is not setting conditions for Afghanistan, but for itself. I don't see any indication that we would allow Afghanistan to broker a deal at this point. Instead some U.S. AMB or U.S. General will attempt to do so, and of course it will fail. We are in no position to be the non-bias mediator. I often wonder if it is our intent to build militaries that are dependent upon on us for continued funding, parts, etc., so we can use that as leverage in the future, but that would imply we actually think strategically, which I doubt. Also think that is a bad policy to pursue, will definitely make military aid from other emerging powers with limited strings attached more appealing in the future.

Grant: could not agree more regarding. I would posit most strategic failures can be traced back to poor or just plain wrong assumptions. I think this is one of the key things about the utility of design and the focus on problem understanding vice problem solving without understanding the nature of the problem (and the conditions, environment, threats, population, etc). Unfortunately like the old Power Point adage once briefed it is impossible to change. But we have to constantly challenge the underlying assumptions we make an not be afraid to change them based on better understanding of the problem.

G Martin

Sat, 06/11/2011 - 11:43am

My own "Vietnam" comparison has to do with building up a force that relies on invalid assumptions. The force we built in SVN was unable to sustain, support, and operate on its own after Congress pulled the funding and support. We never considered that our assumptions of "forever" support were invalid.

In Afghanistan we are again building a force that is reliant on future streams of U.S. funding, U.S. contractor support, and U.S. combat and service support for the foreseeable future. If Congress and our people decide this is not in our interests (which the signs now are that they don't), then we will again have built a force that cannot last under the conditions of our political reality. Iraq and Afghanistan are very different in these ways, and so I personally would not make the same comparison between Iraq and Vietnam.

As far as SOF and Conventional withdrawing, I have in mind the endstate being that Afghanistan is relatively stable and doing most things on their own. The Taliban are not defeated or disrupted, but co-opted- but that is an Afghan endstate as opposed to a Coalition endstate. The Coalition just needs to set the conditions for Afghanistan to develop on its own. The conventional forces that are conducting combat, IMO, are wasting their time- GIRoA will not continue to take advantage of the gains they make because they disagree with our COIN concept. Does it matter if we leave today or in 20 years if GIRoA doesn't pick up where we leave off?


Sat, 06/11/2011 - 10:57am

I see, again, talk of yanking out all the conventional and leaving behind the SOF communities. Well, the USMC considers itself SOF, so do they stay? The Army top brass will have a stroke if that happens - and rightfully so - such an event would relegate the Army to has been status.

Where is the line drawn? And, when does this uber-employment of SOF end? From what I've been told, they're pretty much maxed out on their commitments. What happens if we "break" our SOF community? Why in the hell can't we get our conventional side to pick up some of this slack? Am I to believe our SAMS graduates and all these self-proclaimed strategists coming out of the war colleges can't figure this out? Are they not adaptive, flexible, and smart? Someone mentioned previously a "MATA" program of instruction. Bring it back, or something similar. Perhaps we just need to pair up the O-4 & below from the conventional and SOF communities and let them figure this out, because we don't get solutions from our senior leaders on this issue.

As to the main point of this Time piece: well, I don't know what the ground truth is but I suspect the thinktanks will win out. And to be honest, I'm not sure they're altogether wrong. Misguided a bit, perhaps. Though we obviously and rightly extend credit to the man or woman on the ground, we can't assume they see the whole picture - even if he or she happens to be a COL. As I've stated before, my relatively uninformed opinion is that a rapid withdrawal or a stepped down withdrawal by 2014 is a bad idea.

The magic bullet here is something that keeps getting mentioned but never answered: what's the official end state? The POTUS can't just give it lip service. Neither can ISAF. Develop our end state, attain it, and move on.

My final point is this: we've heard since 2003 that OIF and now OEF are new Vietnams waiting to happen. Well, it didn't happen with OIF. Why should we believe it will happen in OEF? Additionally, some cite the erroneous cautions from Vietnam about the fall of Asia should the US withdrawal. Of course that never took place. Now they use that as evidence that nothing will happen should we withdrawal from Afghanistan. Where's the logic in that? Where's the logic in applying lessons from a different theater with different players at a different time, to this one? Isn't this one of the lessons we've beaten into our collective head over the past few years: each situation is unique and stands alone, demanding its own unique analysis?

G Martin

Thu, 06/09/2011 - 1:49pm

The President was given one option from DoD: lots more troops and 3-24 Lines of effort. The President asked for more options and was given 3 levels of troops (none, some, lots) with possible implications- and the same lines of effort. His decision was somewhere between none and some. The real issue was that each level of troops should have come with its own lines of effort. The President was sold a bill of goods by CNAS and their followers that 3-24 will get you there, no matter the level of the troops- that only the risks and timeline will be different.

The deadline for withdrawal comes from the people and the politicians. If war is an extension of politics, then the military has really missed the boat on this war: we've totally neglected our own political will- thinking we can shape it as opposed to taking it into account when we shape our strategy (or lack thereof). This war was "lost" when we failed to develop a coherent plan back in 2002. Chasing good money after bad isn't much of a strategy IMO.

As for the Kagans- totally agree with the author. They swing into country and sit down with only those who already back-up their views and they either discount or totally ignore anyone who offers an alternative viewpoint. They hang out with those military HQ types attempting to shape public opinion to support more $ and people towards the war effort.

In terms of the strategy they offer up- it mirrors the top commanders' assumptions there. In 2007 the same commander argued for shifting focus from RC-S to RC-E (where he was). COMISAF agreed. Now that the attention has shifted back to RC-S, amazing that we're talking about shifting to RC-E again! I think that is called the "water-balloon effect" in the hallways of ISAF while the official name is the "Anaconda"...

The dream of "momentum" and sustainability in RC-S has been undermined recently by exhortations that, alas, even 2014 won't be time enough- now we need until 2017. Anyone want to bet that when 2014 rolls around "2017" turns into "2020"? But, by that time all the colonels and generals who were counting on the extra one-hundred G.O. positions the war has created will have been promoted and retired- so their job will have been completed. I'd rather think that is their motivation versus total delusion...

As for "having the momentum"- their article reads like similar pronouncements I've read over the years from CNAS clones to OEF commanders. We're always close to winning, if we pull out anytime soon Pakistan and India will trade nuke strikes and the Taliban will overthrow GIRoA and we'll have another 9-11, and if we just had more troops and more time everything will be hunky-dory. At some point we'll have to be diagnosed as having a delusional disorder. And we're setting ourselves up for a "Tet-like" event...

The solution- if that is the right word- is to pull 99% of all conventional fighting forces out of country TODAY. Keep some SOF and some conventional forces in to train ANSF and do limited CT/intel collection. Handover control of districts, ANSF, "the COIN fight", and all lines of COIN effort (development, governance, security) to GIRoA and get out of their way. Stop building systems that GIRoA cannot support until 2061. Stop doing development and governance efforts. Start enabling diplomats and intel types to play as dirty and savvy as the rest of the region's players- and stop being so wedded to our limited, short-term, Western-centric interests. Have a politically-viable and strategically effective scheduled draw-down of our trainers and SOF. Stop building temporary bases/facilities for ourselves and only build permanent, Afghan-sustainable facilities that we can plan on handing over to them shortly. Decide on a sustainable funding strategy for the next 25 years, articulate it to the politicians, get buy-in- and if we don't get the political support- come up with alternatives until we do- and then adjust the strategy based on political realities as opposed to what we in the military would like.

Steve (not verified)

Thu, 06/09/2011 - 1:30pm

I also think it's kind of silly in that only certain residents of "ivory towers" get listened to...mainly those whose pronouncements agree with the viewpoint of whoever decides to use them. Selective listening/quoting is very common, and has been for many years.

Joe (not verified)

Thu, 06/09/2011 - 11:28am

I wouldn't exactly call him a grunt. I wonder what his solution would be? The problem with the current strategy is that the president didn't send the higher troop totals General McChrystal asked for in 2009 and the deadline for withdrawal is really killing us. You can't be halfway in and halfway out and expect to prevail.