Afghanistan: A Historical Analysis of Mission Command and its Effect on our Current Security Environment

Afghanistan: A Historical Analysis of Mission Command and its Effect on our Current Security Environment by Major Chaveso Cook, Captain Awbrey Lowe and Captain Matthew Perovich - AUSA Institute of Land Warfare

In “Afghanistan: A Historical Analysis of Mission Command and its Effect on our Current Security Environment” (Landpower Essay 17-2, September 2017) the authors examine the use of mission command—and the failure to use it—in two battles in the adjacent provinces of Paktia and Khost in Afghanistan. While the details of the Second Battle of Zwahar in the 1980s provide ample evidence of the catastrophes and embarrassments that occur when the principles of mission command are ignored, events that occurred in 2002 in the Shahikot Valley point to the contrasting phenomenal successes that can be gained when mission command is actual put into cooperative practice. The potential for overall military success in this region of the world and the details of what that would look like remain uncertain, even after decades of conflict over the same lands. What is certain, however, is that if U.S. Army is to persist and win, it must heed the lessons of the past in implementing mission command as an essential component of any engagement.

Afghanistan: A Historical Analysis of Mission Command and its Effect on our Current Security Environment

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I read this essay with considerable interest both as an advocate of Mission Command and as a participant in the defense of Zwahar all those years ago. The author’s obviously had to rely on historical accounts as most of the defenders were killed at the time or were killed over the ensuing 30 years of conflict. Unfortunately the events as depicted in this account vary considerably from the reality on the ground during both the assault by DRA troops and the second much larger assault spearheaded by Soviet troops.

The ‘fortress’ at Zwahar was no such thing. It was a façade created by the ISI in order to propagate a myth that this essay faithfully follows (no fault of the author’s there). At its most ‘formidable’ Zwahar was held by no more than two hundred fighters. More often that not it was manned by considerably fewer.

There was no perimeter, no defensive wire, no minefields, berms, watch-towers nothing. Patrols of any nature were few and far between and when they were attempted they often got disorientated and wandered into Soviet minefields/fields of fire with inevitable deaths and injury.

When a VIP visited or a self-promoting journalist came thru, the whole raft of weapon systems we’d been supplying over the years - ATGMs, SAMS, HMGs, 20mm cannon, recoiless guns etc were rolled out. The VIPs would be photographed in heroic poses with some sullen Muj standing in their midst.

Everyone finally shook hands, smiled, a few Allah Akbar and zindaabaars were parrotted up and the circus lurched back across the Pak border a few kms away, the assortment of Wilson’s Wonder Weapons bringing up the rear.

The video imagery of Wilson firing a 12.7mm HMG at the ‘commie bastards’ in revenge for the Vietnam KIA from his home state constituency failed to reveal that the nearest ‘commie bastard’ was dug in around Khwost Airfield some 10 kms distant. You can imagine how this went down with the Muj defenders of Zwahar who were bombed and/or shelled seven days a week 52 weeks of the year.

I’ll give Wilson the benefit of the doubt, his heart seemed in the right place, but the event has always personified in my mind's eye,the farcical nature of our efforts in Afghanistan, and how easily we are played – both then and ever since.

Zwahar's defense relied on 20 or so HMG positions (12.7mm and 14.5mm) positioned on the hilltops surrounding a complex of caves dug in a canyon several hundred metres below. The positioning of the HMGs meant only a direct hit could knock them out. Manning one position I actually read the Cyrillic script on a bomb casing as it flew a few feet by my head on its way to an impact point a km away and harmlessly below.

Any ground assault against the dozen or so former shepherd caves that formed the central hub of the Base would have been cut to pieces as long as the HMGs were in the fight. Needless to say a determined assault by Mi 24 and especially Mi-17 rocket ships would have soon knocked out such exposed (there is no vegetation) empacemnts. This is in fact what finally happened when the position eventually fell.

With the exception of the cave used as a mosque the caves were not buttressed or lined – essentially left in the state they had been used for centuries by goat-herders, as of means of shelter for them and their livestock. Anyone who reached OBL’s Fortress Tora Bora would get the drift.

The biggest loss of life occurred a week prior to the final assault when a heavy bomb hit high above the main cave entrance and the whole side of the cliff-face collapsed entombing those sitting out the bombardment – many of them my friends.

This heavy loss included all of the senior leadership who were permanently stationed at the base.

The authors correctly point out the enemy occupied the position for a mere six hours. However, rather than several thousand assault troops - backed by dozens of attack helicopters, armor, heavy artillery and unlimited CAS - being forced out by lightly armed survivor’s mounting a desperate counter-attack, the Soviets were completely stunned to realize there was nothing to Fortress Zwahar - much-a-muchness as those capturing 'Fortress Tora Bora' 30 years later.

In a somewhat backhanded victory the lack of substance, to what was thought to be a major enemy stronghold, reaffirmed to the Soviet leadership; up to and including the Politboro, that the ‘international threat’ posed by the,'CIA’s ‘ running dog capitialist banditry’ to ‘the peace-loving workers of the world’ was a horse long, long flogged to death.

However the Mission Command intrigues offered up by the ‘Battle/s of Zwahar' are there, but I would respectfully suggest somewhat different in character and nature than presented in this essay.

My last action at Zwahar involved an encounter with ISI. I stumbled across at least two ISI operatives (the language, longer shawal-kameese , tall stature and Punjabi complexion marking them out) hastily attempting to remove some elaborate pieces of equipment from one of the caves. A listening device perhaps?, a Stinger training simulator one might hope ?, a ballistic radar would be handy for sure?, radio broadcasting for psyops anyone?. Unfortunately none of the above. It was a collection of equipment used for refining opium paste into heroin base.

I was fortunate enough to emerged unscathed but any suggestion that these men were rogue officers soon ‘left the building’ when we crossed back into Pak. We bumped into a regular Pak Army company ambush just west of the Miram Shah airfield. We ‘ghosted’ thru the ambush as dumbluck would have it, by brazenly/accidently driving straight down the middle of the landing strip, off the eastern end of the airfield and into the night.

The degree of effort exerted by ISI/Pak Army to maintain the deception as to their intentions in Afghanistan only increased after the Battles of Zwahar. It became more and more difficult to pass across the Durrand Line and the LoC as the ISI became more and more ruthless in their efforts to conceal the truth. It becme so dangerous that in the last fighting season my Pakistani and Afghan guides refused to accompany us and we were left to cross back and forth alone.

I have returned several times to the region and I have to give it to the Pak Army, they have stuck to their guns and achieved all that they intended. From a feat of arms POV they saw of the Soviet Army, the Soviet Union, succeeded getting their proxies to lay waste to Afghanistan and fought NATO to a standstill.

Economically they have managed to extract billions of dollars from us and overseen a heroin program that now has 2 million (yes that’s 2 million) Afghan households growing 90 % of the world’s heroin.

So what?

Currently there is a fundamental change in the nature of the support that drives what some choose to call the Global War on Terror. As much as it pains me to say it, the 9/11 attacks and the creation of the Daesh Caliphate have achieved their objectives. The House of Saud has finally caved in to the demands of the lesser royals and the Gulf elites and instigated a reform program that will slacken the HoS’s grip on Gulf political and economic power. In Saudi Arabia it is called the Saudi Vision 2030.

If the 2030 reforms satisfy those desiring a greater share of the Gulf oil revenues the funds supporting ALQ,ISIL and the other Fruitcake will dry up. As in most things – but especially so in war – money talks and bullshit walks.

Unfortunately for us, a withdrawal/decrease in funding for Gulf inspired Fruitcakery will have no/little effect on those sponsoring the Taliban, IRGC, Boko Hara, Little Green Men and many others who wish us harm.

Whilst we have little trouble accepting the vulgarity that drives the Little Green Men we fail to appreciate how similar the prime motivators driving the GWOT are to that obsessing the goons in the Kremlin.

We are plagued by perfumed vain-glorious military and political leaders who are forever offering up excuses citing the supernatural, clash of civilizations, the internet, political cycles etc. etc. to explain away there failures. It is as if Thucydides, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz hadn’t heard it all before.

Perhaps every commander's reading list should include Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote as their first and foremost book to provide some much needed initial anti-hubris grounding at the get-go.

Having bored everyone rigid (again) I would like applaud the author’s efforts to tie the events surrounding the Battle’s of Zwahar and in an attempt to shine a light on the consequences when a commander fails to respect the principles of Mission Command and I vehemently agree the Battle of Zwahar did offer lessons to be learned regards Mission Command . Unfortunately the authors are focusing on the wrong commanders and the wrong intent.

So what?

We need to give more weight to the veracity of a trusted Mark One Eye-ball. Ground-truth is the bedrock of Mission Command. Needless to say evidence based on tactical reality is the foundation of any military engagement. Clausewitz believed strategy was the use of the engagements for the object of the war. Accordingly the utility of Mission Command is especially vulnerable if the evidence borne out of tactical events (engagements) is compromised in any way as it passes up and down the chain of command. By a fluke of history I can testify that this essay is a perfect example of that corruption and provides a perfect example when, despite the most honorable intentions, if you are not privy to ground-truth you will always end up screwing the pooch.

The Punjabi have been fighting UW for 5000 years and they are masters at it. I imagine they have always used Mission Command to execute the defense of the Five Rivers - a broad understanding of the commanders intent down to the tactical engagement. For the last 1000 years they probably have called it Jihad - merely to give it a name rather than any supernatural conigtition, but I imagine it has had many other names over the past 5 millennia. Whatever they call it in UW they are masterful in its application. An approach to warfighting utilizing a loose but clear understanding of the commander’s intent has served them well since the dawn of civilization.

We would do well to study them much, much more closely.

RC.

Thanks for commenting, RC. This is one of the things I enjoy most about SWJ, reading a variety opinions and perspectives from different experiences and backgrounds. I find the commentary as enlightening and educational as the articles.

One thing that bothers me about "our" view of the Afghan mujahideen is our apparent tendency to not give them credit as savvy and intelligent. It grates me to hear terms such as "complex attack", as if expertise, planning, and preparation miraculously exists outside of Western ideals of professionalism. Why is it surprising for other humans to plan and execute fundamentally sound attacks against enemies? That mindset, to me, exemplifies our problem as we head into our 17th year engaged in Afghanistan. It seems that we still do not understand or respect our adversary. We probably do not know ourselves as well as we think we do either, if we are honest.

As you suggested, we would benefit from studying our adversaries much more closely. Thanks for taking the time to write your comment.