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Unity of Command and the "Surge"
Posted by: McQ on Monday, January 29, 2007

There was a very important, but little noticed exchange in the Senate Armed Forces Committee confirmation hearing between Sen. John McCain and LTG Petraeus:
SEN. MCCAIN: Do you understand the command and control relationships between the American and Iraqi forces in this new plan? I'm very concerned about unity of command.

GEN. PETRAEUS: Sir, I share your concern. Again, on the one hand, though, we have pushed the Iraqis to do more, to take charge in many cases, and so we have in fact almost a good news-bad news story. The good news is that the Iraqis are willing to take command in many cases; the bad news is that that makes us have to achieve unity of effort rather than unity of command, and that's why we have to have those relationships all the way up and down with command posts co- located and so forth to assure that.

SEN. MCCAIN: You need to get that sorted out, General.

GEN. PETRAEUS: Yes, sir.

SEN. MCCAIN: I know of no successful military operation where you have dual command.
Now I'm not going to take the time to plumb the depths of military history to find an exception to McCain's point. Let's just agree that for the vast majority of successful military operations, unity of command has been one of the key reasons for that success.

In fact, our military thinks so highly of that principle that it has been incorporated in our doctrine and is listed among our "principles of war".
Unity of Command - For every objective, there must be a unified effort and one person responsible for command decisions.
Gen. Petraeus notes that they have defacto "unity of effort" essentially by being generally pointed in the same direction. However, there is no "unity of command". And the structure Petraeus describes (command posts which are co-located) is certainly not the ideal nor likely to lend to accomplishing unity of command. Frankly, the only way to achieve such a thing is to put either the Iraqis or the American's in command and let whoever is the senior guy in that situation take charge.

Our history says that's not going to happen (we don't normally put Americans under foreign command since we believe that the possibility of the foreign command to fight to the last drop of American blood isn't at all out of the realm of possibility, given the lethality of American troops).

So while this point was quickly covered in the hearing with McCain warning Petraeus he'd better get this straightened out, the real options Petraeus has aren't many. As mentioned, our history says we normally don't put US troops under foreign command, but our current politics are demanding the Iraqis how take the lead in this upcoming counterinsurgency battle. Given the history and the politics in this case, that means we may never be able to achieve unity of command.

Isaac Choitiner, over at The Plank notes that the architects of this plan aren't real thrilled with this lack of unity of command either and it is enough to see them back away from associating themselves with the administration's new plan:
These days, Kagan, in particular, has been careful to differentiate the AEI plan from what Bush actually proposed. The AEI blueprint advocated that American and Iraqi forces should work together — with the more competent Americans in the lead and in control. The units would operate "within a single command structure," Kagan's written plan for a surge states. "Unity of effort is essential for success in this kind of endeavor." Small wonder that Kagan said about Bush's ideas in an interview, "This is not our plan. The White House is not briefing our plan."
Unity of command isn't a principle of war for nothing. It provides a command structure in which, assuming competence, decisions are made quickly and efficiently. It allows the command to control the op tempo of the effort. It provides the basis for the critical step of getting inside the enemy's decision cycle. Once your enemy is dancing to your tempo, his defeat isn't too far off. He is, essentially, doing your bidding just as you've planned it.

Without this streamlined unity of command, in which a single individual is essentially guiding the effort, the required coordination, not to mention the natural and inevitable conflicts between the commands and competing plans is going to work at cross purposes. Most likely the ability to achieve a unified op tempo which gets inside the decision cycle of the bad guy will never be achieved. The efficiency of the effort (although still unified and despite the desire of both to succeed) will be badly downgraded.

So when Sen. McCain said "You need to get that sorted out, General," he wasn't making a minor point. He was quietly pointing to a real landmine in the plan. I hope Petraeus has a plan to unify the command, because if he doesn't the consequences could be dire.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

maybe i’m missing something more subtle than you posted, but if core capabilities at each appropriate command level cannot be compromised (due to agreed-upon structure), what’s the worry? i guess i’m asking for a previous or realistic future example which could demonstrate the disconnect.
Written By: window licker
URL: http://
Vietnam and "check fire" (or no fire) zones. Because we weren’t in command or in charge of the battle space, we had to go through a labyrinth of clearances before we could engage the enemy even if he’d shot at us. Obviously that delay cost us the ability to engage and destroy that enemy (this wasn’t true in free fire zones).

Had there been a single source of command and clearance, that would never have been a question. We’d have cleared any mission we sent into such an area previous to their departure and allowed them to fire when fired upon (or whatever the ROE we chose to establish). We’d have then not suffered the delay in obtaining clearance and for the most part the ability to engage and defeat the enemy.

In those zones, a US unit would request clearance through the US headquarters which would then forward the request to the appropriate province headquarters (or, sometimes even higher) who would process it and relay the decision back down that chain. Unwieldy, inefficient and costly in terms of time and the ability to engage the enemy (and, more importantly dictate the op tempo). In most cases, by the time clearance was given the enemy was gone (this pertains mostly to indirect and aviation assets).

The organization that is being talked about here is similar in structure.

The bottom line is someone has to take charge of the battle space and manage it. Someone has to decide who has what role in that space. Etc. Two co-equal command structures aren’t going to do that job very efficiently or well. That is the concern.
Written By: McQ
thanks mcq; i was definitely pollyanna in my expectations of our current ROE.

as an aside, did you just equate vietnam to iraq? (yes, i’m trolling on behalf the moonbats)
Written By: window licker
URL: http://
as an aside, did you just equate vietnam to iraq? (yes, i’m trolling on behalf the moonbats)
Yes if they maintain two separate but equal command structures. No if they manage to fix it.
Written By: McQ
Another fly in the ointment.....hopefully not on the scale of ... Iraqis welcoming their liberators with open arms.

Written By: darohu
URL: http://
Good find, MQ. The problem we have now is that there are no easy answers here. As you know, no matter how good a battle plan is, events on the ground and political realities (because wars are always fought against a political backdrop)rear their ugly heads.

Is there a better man than Petraeus that we know of that can handle this? That is the question the President must answer. Apparently he thinks not.

War is often a choice between imperfect options.

Written By: vnjagvet

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