Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Afghanistan Org Chart

I'm not very good at organization charts. As I explained some time ago, they don't always reflect the real relationships in an organization:

I've never been good at organization charts. Usually, the only things I'm really interested in when I'm part of an organization is whom I'm working for, who, if anyone, is working for me, and who's running the show. Beyond that, it's all pretty academic to me. That's what bosses have to know.

The USA Eight: Odds and Ends: Organization Charts

In my experience, it's actually just more useful to observe whose ideas and policies are implemented and whose aren't. Organization charts never show the networks of trust that exist within an organization - who trusts whose opinion, who has the dirt on whom, etc. They also don't usually reflect the real division of responsibilities that result from a particular person being in a place to affect the entire organization's success or failure. Sometimes, someone whose name is in the middle of that org chart in an inconsequential looking box can be the one who makes or breaks an operation.

That latter consideration is something to keep in mind when discussing the seeming demotion of General David Petraeus from CENTCOM commander to commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. In truth, Patraeus is now in a position to affect events more than he was at CENTCOM, and he will be doing the thing that just about any general wants to do - running a war effort. As the Marine Corps Times observed by publishing this Associated Press article:

The Afghanistan job is technically a demotion from Petraeus’ current post, where he oversees U.S. military involvement across the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan and several Central Asian nations.

Yet no one who has worked with him thinks that’s how he’ll see it. “He’s getting another opportunity to step into a war at a critical inflection point,” said [president of the Center for the New American Security John] Nagl, a retired Army officer who worked for Petraeus in drafting the Army’s counterinsurgency manual. “So this is by no means a step down.”

Petraeus readies for new Afghanistan duties

Command of NATO forces has been a position for a four-star general, which is what both Patraeus and McChrystal are. There is no loss of status here, and Patraeus is doing something that every general officer wants to do: run a war.

Thinking of this as a demotion is wrong-headed. I've seen at least a few statements to that effect, both in comments at progressive blogs and articles on some conservative ones, but it's just not so. Rather than assume it was, Talking Points Memo's David Kurtz called an expert for an opinion:

In returning to a battlefield command -- similar to the one he held in Iraq before being promoted to CENTCOM chief-- Petraeus may be the only combatant commander to have made such a move, and certainly the only one in the post-Cold War period when combatant commanders achieved their singular influence, says [Derek] Reveron, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.

But replacing Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan probably should not be seen as a demotion of Petraeus, Reverson told me in a phone interview this morning. Rather the move underscores the signature importance of Afghanistan to U.S. policymakers and its operational significance to the military. "The job that Petraeus has is the most important job that any general or admiral could have," Reveron says.

The Petraeus 'Demotion'

In short, it's more like being transferred laterally to your dream job. At least, I can't imagine a flag officer thinking otherwise. It would be like a software engineer saying "No, I don't want to run that new DBMS design project. I'd rather repair this website." My guess is that President Obama had to do no more persuading than to ask Petraeus "Do you want the job?"

Afterword: Just for the record, I called for President Obama to fire General McChrystal. I have no feelings about the general one way or another, but as many folks have pointed out, we were in dangerous constitutional territory if his remarks and behavior were allowed to stand. McChrystal may have been right in his criticisms of various Obama Administration officials and their policy, but he was clearly wrong to express them publicly. Part of serving in the military is to give up the right to make such criticisms while staying on the job.

Had an infantry captain under McChrystal's command said such things about a superior in a public forum, he would have been lucky to be allowed to resign quietly.

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