Afghanistan’s strategic company command posts


By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI Outside View Commentator

WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 (UPI) — According to numerous recent news reports, it is widely expected that U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, will recommend a shift in the operational culture to one requiring greater interaction with the Afghan civilian population.

Although such an approach, at least initially, carries an inherent risk of greater military casualties, it also provides a better way to understand the human terrain, the tribal leaders and the social networks, which could go far toward defeating the Taliban.

The enemy operates within and around non-combatant population centers and presents itself as a large number of dispersed, ever-changing threats to create insecurity and undermine governance efforts and development by local and national officials. The new strategy represents a move away from primarily tracking and attacking Taliban strongholds to one focused on increasing security in more highly populated civilian areas.

The change in focus, together with a significant increase in the number of trained Afghan soldiers and police, is expected to create a web of strong points meant to disrupt the natural lines of operation, supply and support of the Taliban insurgency.

Network Centric Warfare has been one of the latest iterations in attempts by the Department of Defense to devise a coherent framework to transform its military forces and address present and future threats. Largely based on traditional conventional warfare scenarios, it has proved less well-suited to the distributed or diffuse nature of the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a counterinsurgency, the value of Network Centric Warfare resides more in an ability to respond quickly to enemy action with effective countermeasures than in providing a senior commander with better information faster as a decision-making tool.

In his 2002 analysis of special operations in Afghanistan, Air Force Col. John Jogerst has correctly noted that a battle against small, independent and mobile forces like the Taliban may change too rapidly to permit detailed central control at higher echelons. He concluded that, with clear mission orders and appropriate technology, each tactical element can become a command, control and execution node, greatly shortening reaction time while still allowing the passing of tactical information to higher levels for operational and strategic analysis.

The McChrystal plan as envisioned implies that conventional forces will establish small unit operations, often in conjunction with host country forces, thereby requiring infantry companies to assume duties previously only seen at the battalion level or higher. Individual and team insights and observations, derived from daily small unit operations, are vital ingredients of the capacity to protect the local population, defeat the enemy and establish rule of law, thereby permitting the creation of effective governmental institutions and economic development. As is the case for Special Operations units, there is a greater need to focus efforts on enhancing the command and control capabilities at the conventional company and platoon level.

The traditional military vertically integrated paradigm allows only the slow movement of information up and down the individual stovepipes but rarely between them. It tends to inhibit quick reaction to actionable intelligence or the ability to adapt easily to new conditions on the battlefield.

Although not yet sanctioned by military doctrine, the company command post concept represents the new center of gravity for the conventional Army’s counterinsurgency efforts. These new “staffed” company command posts contain their own intelligence support teams sharing information horizontally at the lowest echelons as well as vertically via the normal chain of command. The aim is to leverage the power of information and reduce vertical stovepipes that slow or diminish the ability to share best practices rapidly. It is designed to provide timely knowledge to the soldier to save lives and defeat the Taliban by getting inside the enemy’s own decision cycle.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has taken a big step in supporting the warfighter at the company level and below. Project manager Mari Maeda said the Tactical Ground Reporting system allows military personnel at the company level and below to collect and share information to improve situational awareness and to facilitate collaboration and information analysis among junior officers. In this regard, TIGR is particularly suited to counterinsurgency operations and enables collection and dissemination of fine-grained intelligence on people, places and insurgent activity.

Unfortunately, TIGR isn’t fully interoperable with command-and-control systems at the battalion level and above. Nevertheless, it represents an effort to bring the capabilities and technological edge of Network Centric Warfare from its lofty heights down to where the battle is being waged.

(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Find related stories in the Emerging Threats series.

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