Trained For the Wrong War

How the Obama administration’s shuffle of combat forces has endangered the troops.

President Obama has made it the policy of his administration to reduce troop deployments in the “bad war” in Iraq while increasing the number of boots on the ground to fight the “good war” in Afghanistan. The President has followed through on the latter, but he has done so in part by diverting troops readied for combat in Iraq to a new battlefield for which they lack the necessary training – and our troops have paid the price for this political sleight of hand.

On February 17, 2009, the Defense Department announced, to great fanfare, that it was deploying an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, including the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The problem with that, which would soon become evident when the 5th Stryker entered combat, is that the Brigade was trained to fight one kind of war and then, apparently for the sake of political expediency, deployed to fight quite another.

One of the 5th Stryker’s units, the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment (1-17) has been particularly hard hit since arriving in Afghanistan last fall. The regiment has suffered twenty-one combat deaths in one battle in the Arghandab district alone. One of the battalion’s company commanders, Capt. Joel Kassulke was replaced after that action, a move that angered some of the Captain’s troops, according to this Army Times article. The problem, some soldiers said, was not their commander, but mismatched training:

The battalion had spent much of the previous two years training for combat, but preparing for the wrong theater — until February, when it got orders for Afghanistan, 1-17 was scheduled to deploy to Iraq.

However, 1-17 soldiers said their training, which had been focused on highly “kinetic” urban warfare drills such as room clearing, did not change much to accommodate the change in mission. “The COIN-intensive fight here … isn’t so much what we trained on,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Turnblom, Charlie Company’s fire support officer.

“We trained [in] urban fighting in Iraq and then they give us Afghanistan,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Hughes, Weapons Squad leader in 1st Platoon, Charlie Company. “The principles are the same but the details are day-and-night different, and we’ve learned that the hard way over the last almost five months.”

The story did not go unnoticed by military bloggers, many of whom expressed disgust over the transfer. Greyhawk, a popular military blogger among veterans and those currently serving in uniform, seethed with contempt:

Those months of training and preparation were scrapped (one example: they don’t speak Arabic in Afghanistan) so the phrase “Barack Obama diverts 17,000 soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan” could appear in newspapers.

Not only was moving the 5th Stryker ill-considered, it was also unnecessary, at least as far as military – as opposed to political – necessity was concerned. On March 2, 2009, the administration announced, much more quietly, that the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry division would be deployed to Iraq several months earlier than planned, replacing the 5th Stryker Brigade. This move, combined with extensions for other units already on the ground in Iraq, meant that the much ballyhooed reduction in forces in Iraq hadn’t occurred at all.

An officer currently serving in Iraq told me that the results of these shell games have had the predictable demoralizing effect on the military, already distressed by the increased politicization of their mission. Training for different theaters, he said, simply doesn’t translate.

“The major difference is the language training, Iraqis speak Arabic and the Afghans speak Pashto or Afghan Persian, but not Arabic,” he said. “Additionally if a unit was training to deploy to Baghdad or another urban center in Iraq the tactics techniques and procedures would differ considerably than those used in the mostly rural Afghanistan.  There are also things like culture classes and theater specific training that wouldn’t be the same because obviously the cultures and lifestyles are different.”

We’ve seen this kind of politically-motivated micromanagement of the military before. Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara frustrated many a commander in Vietnam by their interference in what should have been purely military decisions. In his zeal to end a war he never supported, President Obama seems to be following in their footsteps.