January 8, 2010:
Career and family concerns, and lack of enthusiasm at the top, have crippled an effort to improve the planning and coordination of American operations in Afghanistan. Last year, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan came up with a plan to form a staff of 912 officers and NCOs (the Afghanistan Corps) that would serve for five years, and thus provide continuity at the top for operations there. The 912 personnel would also be selected from the best personnel available in all the services. But, so far, only 19 percent of those positions have been filled. The army has 30 percent of those jobs, but has only filled 19 percent. The navy, with 20 percent of the jobs, has filled only 16 percent of those. The marines, with 7 percent, has filled 30 percent. The air force, with 25 percent, has filled 20 percent. Civilian agencies have 8.5 percent of the jobs, but has filled only 11.5 percent.
The problems are several. The big one is career enhancement. How will that five year assignment weigh on promotions and future assignments? Most officers apparently felt the long Afghanistan tour would not help. So did the many current commanders of potential volunteers, who let it be known that they would not react favorably to anyone signing up for this five year program. Then there is the length of service. Five years is a long time, and few potential volunteers want to take their families to Afghanistan, or have to see them only periodically for five years.
Another problem is that those who have volunteered so far, and been accepted, were not always people with the best skills. In any event, all volunteers go through a 16 week training course, to familiarize them with Afghan culture and the current situation. In order to obtain more, and better, volunteers, the senior commanders of the armed forces have pledged to make sure that those who go, will not suffer careerwise. As for the five year tour, there's nothing that can be done about that. Except, perhaps, to offer families homes in Persian Gulf bases (where many military families already live, while spouses serve in the area), so that the long term staffers in Afghanistan can more easily stay connected.
The five year plan is a good one. Military history has shown that staffs that serve longer together, especially in a foreign land, are much more effective. There's no other way to get this advantage other than to be there, for a long time. All the service chiefs have promised to encourage their best people to step forward. But the way the military is set up, and the bureaucracy itself, is not hospitable to ideas like the Afghanistan Corps.