Study Weighs Mission Command Effectiveness

Study Weighs Mission Command Effectiveness

Photo by: U.S. Forces Afghanistan

A new Institute of Land Warfare paper looks at the effectiveness of Mission Command—the issuance of command orders that enable disciplined initiative—by comparing two battles in Afghanistan that were 16 years apart.

The Landpower Essay, written by Maj. Chaveso Cook and Capts. Awbrey Lowe and Matthew Perovich, looks at how the Mission Command concept worked or didn’t work in the 1986 Second Battle of Zhawar fought by the Soviets and Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against the Mujahideen, and a 2002 battle in the nearby Shahikot Valley involving a U.S. Special Forces unit, led Maj. Gen. Franklin Hagenback of the 10th Mountain Division, and Afghan Military Forces fighting Taliban forces.

In the 1986 battle, which happened as the Soviets were planning a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was a very brief victory because the Soviet and Afghan national forces drove the Mujahideen from the Zhawar cave complex. They “only managed to occupy the complex for five hours,” the authors say. “The sappers who were tasked to hastily mine cave entrances were the final troops to withdraw while still under fire from a small Mujahideen counterattack. With 48 hours, the Mujahideen could access Zhawar again.”

Part of the command problem was there was a distrust between the Afghan and Soviet forces. There also had not been enough practice or drills before launching the assault, the paper says.

In 2002’s Operation Anaconda, U.S. and Afghan Military Forces simultaneously steered Taliban fighters toward U.S. light infantry forces that had been inserted by helicopter. Like the 1986 battle, multiple units and task forces were used in a battle in Shahikot Valley.

The authors cite a Delta Force operations officer, Lt. Col. Pete Blaber, as an example of someone effectively using the Mission Command concept. Responsible for placing three- to five-member teams along a ridge where they could see and guide the main assault, the paper says he challenged his soldiers to learn the history of the valley and talk with Afghans in developing the plan. He also asked them to think how they would defend the valley if sides were reversed.

“His desire was to gain as great an understanding of the operational environment as was possible,” the paper says. “This understanding was fueled by the team’s practice of mission command in an effort to comprehend the security environment.”

It worked, the paper says. Blaber’s teams verified intelligence reports that the enemy was hidden in larger numbers than expected in well-fortified positions. “Blaber’s audacious plan to accept risk and infiltrate his teams over land saved countless lives on the first day of Anaconda,” the paper says. “It would save many more in the days to come.”

The full paper is available here: