06 January 2010

Office Politics Mires Afghanistan Advisory Group

(H/T SunJun, Captain Hyphen's Twitter feed and SWJ)

An article in today's New York Times highlights a frustrating, yet inevitable aspect of office politics, particularly in the US military.

Let me start with a hypothetical situation. You are a battalion commander and you have roughly a dozen captains serving in your battalion. You are asked to give up one captain for a very important job on a high-level staff. You look across your formation and see your company commanders--four or five of them. Obviously, you need your company commanders, so you don't yank them out of their commands into a division staff job--that would look eerily too much like relieving someone of command. Additionally, you have a few captains on your staff that might be free to go to this job, but you'll probably want a few of them to take command of a company in your battalion in the near future as well. Then, you realize that you have a captain within your ranks who might have gotten a DUI or fraternized with an enlisted girl.

The perfect choice.

Yes, I know that I said that this was a high-level job with incredible responsibility, but guess what...you want to ensure you organization has the best and brightest to lead your troops. Not to mention, sending someone to serve in a position that's not the traditional platoon leader/company commander/operations officer/battalion commander can sometimes be a kiss of death for a young officer's career. Unfortunately, positions of this nature might be crucial to our efforts in Afghanistan. Let's take a look at the NYT:

WASHINGTON — The military’s effort to build a seasoned corps of expert officers for the Afghan war, one of the highest priorities of top commanders, is off to a slow start, with too few volunteers and a high-level warning to the armed services to steer better candidates into the program, according to some senior officers and participants.

The groundbreaking program is meant to address concerns that the fight inAfghanistan has been hampered by a lack of continuity and expertise in the region among military personnel. But some officers have been reluctant to sign up for an unconventional career path because they fear it will hurt their advancement — a perception that top military leaders are trying to dispel as they tailor new policies for the complex task of taking on resilient insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Each military branch has established career paths, and the type of focus envisioned by the program would take people off those routes.

The difficulties with the program came to light when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in an unusual rebuke within the Pentagon’s uppermost circle, chided the chiefs of the four armed services three weeks ago for not always providing the best people.

The program — which is expected to create a 912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for up to five years — was announced with much fanfare last fall. So far, 172 have signed up, and Admiral Mullen has questioned whether all of them are right for such a critical job...

...In a memo sent last month to the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, Admiral Mullen expressed concern that the services were not consistently providing the “best and the brightest leaders” for the program’s corps, whose members will work in the field and at headquarters.

“In many cases, the volunteers have been the right people for this very critical program,” Admiral Mullen said in the one-page memo, dated Dec. 14. “However, I am concerned that this is not the case across the board.”

Admiral Mullen emphasized to the chiefs that the program was the “military’s number-one manpower priority and requires your constant attention.” He stressed that volunteers should be rewarded for participating, and that their involvement should enhance, not hurt, their careers...

...So far, the Army has provided 69 volunteers for the 363 positions it has been assigned to fill; the Navy, 30 for 183 jobs; the Air Force, 45 for 225 positions; the Marines, 19 for 63 slots; and civilian agencies, 9 for 78 positions, according to a Pentagon tally.

While I understand that we need to place exceptional officers in command fields--our Soldiers deserve nothing less--how do we also ensure that we're sending the best people to these types of jobs without the inaccurate perception that an officer was "kicked upstairs", as often happens with poor performers.

I also need to caveat this by noting that I'm simply going by Admiral Mullen's remarks on the matter. This advisory corps probably has many bright officers filling its ranks. I merely bring up this example to highlight something within military organizational culture: the habit of "kicking someone upstairs".


Eric C said...

I think most officers in the Army would agree that assigning duties often seems incredibly capricious and sometimes just down right cruel. I've seen it at least twice.

courtneyme109 said...

Great analysis

Boss Mongo said...

Don't even know where to start.
Of course young(and old) officers don't believe the chain of command when it says "this time, you can sign up for an unconventional career path and it won't hurt you. No, really, this time we mean it."
Right. Not to sound bitter, jaded or cynical, but look at the Iraqi Advisory Group, and compare promises made to promises kept. 'Nuff said?
More on this in detail later, but the military has no credibility, has made its own bed, and it'll cost our nation dearly.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/04/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.