In a recent Slate "Today's Papers" column, Eric Umansky drew attention to a Wall Street Journal item reporting the impending arrival of 1700 British troops in Afghanistan at the U.S. military's request. Quite rightly, Umansky was most interested not in what was included in the dispatch, but what wasn't. "Given that the US presumably still has plenty of troops available," he wrote, "it would have been helpful if the paper had asked why the US requested the deployment."
While I can't report the official American rationale -- the Pentagon doesn't seem to be in any hurry to return my calls -- there are some points worth examining in order to answer Umansky's very worthy question. The tentative summation? The United States asked for the British because the United States doesn't have adequately-trained forces (or, at least, ones ready to go), and because the bulk of the forces we used in Operation Anaconda weren't the right ones in the first place. And this highlights some real shortcomings in the U.S. Army.
That's not to dis the troops who fought at Shahikot in recent weeks; they got their orders and did their duty. But before we get to the British, let's take a closer look at who saw action around Gardez in recent weeks. While some Special Forces were involved, the majority of U.S. combatants were troops from the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade -- which hasn't seen a lot of action since the Gulf War -- and the 10th Mountain Division. In a previously posted Prospect article, I characterized the 10th Mountain Division as "ostensibly" a specialist unit in mountain operations. Space didn't permit me to expound on this further, so I'll do it here: Despite the presence of the word "mountain," the 10th does not, in fact, have any particular expertise in mountain warfare.
It is true that at its Fort Drum home in upstate New York, there are two "Mountain Leader Combat" courses open to individuals: one that runs two weeks with a four-day field training exercise, another that goes ten days focusing on weaponry and clearing rooms. But when the 10th was reactivated in 1985, it was not as a mountaineering or altitude combat force, but as a general light-infantry unit. Many in the Army believe the "mountain" designator was, in fact, an attempt to endear the service to then-Senator Bob Dole, who'd served in the original 10th during World War II. While elements of the 10th have seen combat most notably (and tragically) in support of the 1993 Task Force Ranger retreat in Mogadishu, others have spent most of the past decade in support or peacekeeping missions in Kuwait, Iraq, Haiti and Bosnia.
(Aside to loyal Chicago Tribune readers: The entire 10th Mountain Division was not "in the gulf [war]" and has not "had substantial training in this kind of mountainous terrain," as Lexington Institute analyst Daniel Goure was quoted as saying in the October 4, 2001 edition of the paper. Only the 548th Corps Support Battalion, which specializes in supply and services, went.)
It does bear mentioning that the U.S. Army maintains an advanced mountain warfare school in Jerico, Vermont, where some individual members of the 10th Mountain have trained. And that it's not an easy course. There are, however, some important caveats to bear in mind. In my previous Prospect piece, I mentioned a recent article in the Army-published Military Review, co-authored by retired Lieutenant Colonel Lester Grau and Lieutenant Colonel Hernan Vazquez, titled "Ground Combat at High Altitude," which made some serious systemic criticisms of the U.S. Army's mountain warfare training regimen. Aside from the fact that the Army doesn't really train for high-altitude combat (maximum elevation at Jerico is 4,393 feet; high-altitude combat is defined as over 10,000 feet, and Anaconda took place at elevations ranging from 8,500 to 13,000 feet), it's noteworthy that the mountain school does not train entire units, but only individuals -- 30 soldiers in two classes, twice a year, for two weeks.
Or, to put it another way, it's not exactly reflective of Grau and Vazquez's point that in mountain warfare, "experience counts and is not gained in two months of training," or their admonition -- based on the standards of other nations' mountain warfare units -- that a fundamental of mountain combat is giving soldiers at least 10 days to acclimate -- and that "an acclimated soldier is not an experienced mountaineer."
Now let's take a closer look at the composition, experience, and training regimen of the key players in the British force specifically requested by the U.S. military: the 650-man 45 Royal Marine Commando, also known as the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre. True specialists in high-mountain and extreme cold weather warfare since the 1970's, the unit was training late last year in the mountains and deserts of Oman, which are almost identical to the topography of Afghanistan. A key force in the Falklands War of 1982 (it famously marched 80 miles in a day and won a key battle), the group has also devised some effective and innovative tactics during combat tours in Northern Ireland and the high ranges of Northern Iraq and Kosovo, and, for versatility's sake, jungle work in Belize and Sierra Leone.
But what really sets it apart from the American 101st and 10th is how it's structured and how it trains -- much closer to the standard espoused by Grau and Vazquez. Passing basic training isn't easy: A recruit has to traverse 30 miles of Dartmoor crags with full back gear in seven hours. And the group trains together, eschewing the individual approach favored by their U.S. counterparts. What's more, they're serious about their training. Every year, the 45 Commando spends 10 weeks at the Royal Marine Arctic Warfare Course, 215 miles inside the arctic circle at Elvigardsmond, Norway, enduring some of the most deadly conditions a soldier can face. According to U.S. Army Major Donald Vandergriff, a scholar who's made a detailed study of various military personnel systems, part of what enables the 45 Commando to survive its annual Norway stint and do well in combat is that its organizational principles simply aren't the U.S. Army's.
"They train the entire unit, not individuals; their NCOs [non-commissioned officers] are empowered or trusted to do more, and a battalion or brigade has half the officers of a similar U..S unit, which is significant, because officers and NCOs acquire more responsibility earlier in their careers, which translates into more experience at their profession," Vandergriff said. "And their officer selection and promotion systems are different; the criteria is tougher and more strenuous than ours. And they also use an 'up and stay' promotion system versus our 'up and out' system, which allows competent officers to stay longer at a place where they perform well."
But why stop and contemplate any of this? Seemingly mundane, unsexy matters like training and personnel just don't seem like that big of a deal, especially when General Tommy Franks has deemed Operation Anaconda an "unqualified and absolute success." Even though some of his Afghan allies beg to differ, and even though no one is entirely sure just how many of the enemy were a) there in the first place, b) slipped through the airtight cordon that was Anaconda to reinforce those already there, and/or c) escaped through the airtight cordon.
But, then, it's probably asking too much of anyone to dwell on any of these particulars. After all, days before "success" was declared, The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan had all but declared the conflict triumphantly over, declaring the real story was how the Army units "battling al-Qaeda fighters at close range and Army commanders improvising as they went along" all worked in the service of "banishing" Vietnam and emboldening casualty-averse commanders to field Army troops and fight. So what if aspects of Anaconda might highlight systemic failures in readiness and doctrine that are yet to be corrected? Apparently it's more pleasant to be enveloped in the fog of war.