Blood red tape

The NYT featured a guest editorial from a former US Army officer who described possibly the next revolutionary doctrine in military affairs: counterbureaucracy. Jonathan Vaccaro was going through the checklist as he prepared to helicopter assault into an Afghan village to capture a Taliban leader.


Taliban commander was back in the village. Our base roared to life as we prepared to capture him. Two Chinook helicopters spun their blades in anticipation in the dark. Fifty Afghan commandos brooded outside, pacing in the gravel. I was nearby, yelling into a phone: “Who else do we need approvals from? Another colonel? Why?” …

I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan. Some couldn’t be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. “Where are you?” the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.

At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals.

During Desert Storm, the Air Force had a 72-48 hour OODA Loop. But in the cut and thrust war against terrorism, where targets are fleeting and minutes matter, forty eight hours is no longer a fast enough reaction time for anything. Minutes count. But minutes are elusive because the campaign in Afghanistan is managed through the convoluted lines of authority of a multinational coalition campaign fought on a joint basis. Here authorizations must cross international, interservice and cross-cultural boundaries with legal processes layered over everything. The wonder isn’t that the Army couldn’t catch this Taliban commander. The wonder is how they can catch anyone at all.


Don Vandergriff, who is an instructor at West Point quotes a RAND study to illustrate the sclerotic quality of administrative combat. If the Taliban don’t get you, the red tape will. In a blog post called “Portait of a Broken OODA Loop in Afghanistan”, Vandergriff describes “a horrifying portrait of an inwardly focused OODA loop that is seeing what it wants to see and is so clogged up by its own bureaucratic procedures that it brings to mind the madness of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22.'” The RAND study in question was released in November 2008. Authors Russel Glen and Jamie Gayton describes the painful process of moving information from Point A to Point B in Iraq and Afghanistan. The RAND report was fully cognizant of the sclerosis and recommended that:

  • the lower level, tip of the spear units receive and be allowed to act on intel rather than hoarding at the center (“the full value of these inputs can be lost when they are forwarded to higher echelons for analysis.”). This included the ability to make contact with population and develop information from them
  • maintain a continuity among the intelligence people rather than rotating them around and destroying “habitual relationships”;
  • “Improve database development through better sharing and insistence on compatible technologies and software. Transition intel communities from their need-to-know default to a need-to-share mentality.”
  • develop an alias tagging system so that the intelligence users could see which informants were providing the tips without actually revealing their true names
  • train people at every level to use intelligence and
  • “Strive to retain habitual relationships during COIN deployments just as is done during conventional conflicts.’

In other words, they wanted to give the troops a chance against the bureaucracy.  In that fight, the troop’s main weapon was the “habitual relationship”, a word which apparently signifies the informal networks that soldiers actually use to get around the bureaucracy. If done by the book most everything might actually be impossible. Only by performing continuous expedients is anything accomplished at all. This was the environment in which joint multinatonal and interservice planning, approvals and intelligence flowed — even before the legal people got full into the act. The RAND report cited many instances: here’s one.

Dutch F-16s would go out and fly missions [in Afghanistan], and after the missions they would ask for the BDA [battle-damage assessments], which were classified Secret U.S. They could fly the mission and drop the ordnance, but they couldn’t get the battle-damage assessment.

Attempting to utilize intelligence within multinational PSOs [peace-support operations] has created ludicrous situations, such as when Indian Lieutenant-General Satish Nambiar, commanding the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia was denied North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intelligence being provided to his staff. The intelligence-sharing situation was not particularly improved when the Force Command was transferred to NATO’s Lieutenant-General Bernard Janvier from France, because his senior intelligence officer was Colonel Jan-Inge Svensson, from non-NATO Sweden.


And since the Afghans aren’t in NATO either and may or may not speak English yet be the informers or exercise ultimate authority in action, the problem only gets worse. One way to imagine this problem in IT terms is that that of a polyglot user base, each reporting to different managers, using a dumb terminal to access a mainframe maintained by contractors, and not understanding the output it produced, attempting to catch ruthless serial killers. In the end people just forget the terminal and walk over to the next cubicle to talk things out. But that situation is far easier than one in a battlefield covering vast distances. One wonders what prodigious leaps information made across boundaries of agency, classification, service, language, nationality, command level and education to have finally reached poor Jonathan Vaccaro waiting in his helicopter to catch the Taliban commander sipping tea. Vaccaro describes his experience with red tape.

For some units, ground movement to dislodge the Taliban requires a colonel’s oversight. In eastern Afghanistan, traveling in anything other than a 20-ton mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle requires a written justification, a risk assessment and approval from a colonel, a lieutenant colonel and sometimes a major. … Combat commanders are required to submit reports in PowerPoint with proper fonts, line widths and colors so that the filing system is not derailed. Small aid projects lag because of multimonth authorization procedures. A United States-financed health clinic in Khost Province was built last year, but its opening was delayed for more than eight months while paperwork for erecting its protective fence waited in the approval queue.


Vaccaro’s suggested solutions coincided with RAND’s: delegate to the lower levels; assume the risk, empower the tip of the spear.

Curbing the bureaucracy is possible. Decision-making authority for operations could be returned to battalions and brigades. Staffs that manage the flow of operations could operate on 24-hour schedules like the forces they regulate. Authority to release information could be delegated to units in contact with Afghans. Formatting requirements could be eased. The culture of risk mitigation could be countered with a culture of initiative.

Mid-level leaders win or lose conflicts. Our forces are better than the Taliban’s, but we have leashed them so tightly that they are unable to compete.

Whether this assessment is shared in Washington is another matter. What may be empowered instead of the spear tip is the shaft. Bureaucracy is jealous of authority. If anything, a bureaucrat confronted with a plethora of i’s to dot and t’s to cross will add even more i’s and more t’s. Process will be layered on process; ceremony overlaid on ceremony in an environment where the process is sacred, because that’s how problems are solved inside the temple. The battlefield is a place where a man worries that he will die; the capital is a place where people worry about their careers. For some it is less important whether a war is won or lost than whether something was illegal or irregular in the process. A man might lose his life on poor intelligence but a politician can lose an election if he does something the press can criticize him for. Who will win the battle of counterbureaucracy? The smart money’s on the bureaucrat.


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