Army Special Forces Major Scott Stagner has deployed to Afghanistan four times since 9/11 on a variety of hunting and training missions. Like many soldiers, he takes issue with some of the key ways his Army is waging that war.
In this October interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Stagner discusses his third tour, in 2006 and 2007, when he was an Operational Detachment–Alpha commander for the 7th Special Forces Group. Highlights:
We had numerous [pre-deployment] exercises at Fort Bragg. We had a driving school that we went to for off-road Humvee driving. We had a shooting school that we went through, for both close quarters and medium-distance range engagements. We had a culmination of our battalion going out to Fort Bliss, Texas, but all of our training area was New Mexico, because it was White Sands Missile Range area. That was where we culminated and did a couple week-long exercises out in the desert there…
I was in charge of my Operational Detachment–Alpha (ODA). We had a partner unit of Afghan military. We also had a partner security force of what transitioned from Afghan militia to Afghan security forces during the deployment. I was given a region, it was Zabol Province, Arghanab District, is where the base was at.
It was Firebase Lane. We were given basically north of Qalat, or north of Highway 1, all of Zabol Provience, so all those districts as our area. Charged with running the base. Charged with training the Afghan Army. Charged with training Afghan Militia Forces, and charged with HVT (high-value target) or MVT (medium-value target) kill/capture missions as well…
Typical days were kind of unique. We would generally get up in the morning and groups of us would do PT together, we would do PT. We would always have a morning meeting with the team about what was going to happen. We had training plans for everybody that we were training. Whoever was training would kind of thrown out in that meeting, whoever had the task at hand, would say, “Hey, I need help going this.” Or, “Can somebody come along for this?” if there was not already a plan in place. The team sergeant, myself, the warrant, and our intel NCO would work more on the longer range plans if you will.
I divided the area into different regions and I had an E7 and an E6 that were in charge of each region that would take an Afghan platoon and patrol that region up to a certain area, which is why just the two of them and their platoon could go a certain distance, where we felt they were safe. If they were to go outside that distance we had a line and block on who they needed to up everything to go out farther than that. Then if we went outside of that secondary zone, it was the entire ODA and a platoon of Afghans. We kind of considered that our red zone if you will.
So daily when we were back on the firebase, the leadership was always planning the next few operations. Planning what we were going to do and continually analyzing and trying to gather information, intelligence, to try to lead us towards the next MVT that could be out there. Or what influencing factors were detracting from our mission and how could we mitigate those.
So, the leadership’s focus every day was that, connected by an intel cell, an operations cell. Intel guys were always just driving the information to give it to the ops guys and the ops guys were always trying to crank out that next CONOP or that next concept of operations and what we were going to do. Then the team was running the day-to-day life and there was a lot of overlap between all that, because there was only twelve guys on a team, and one of them was tasked to go down to Kandahar, so there was eleven of us on the team that were doing things…
We would do anything from going out and just conducting a patrol to meet an elder or the mullah. I was very heaving into embracing the culture and working through the culture to have them accept the Afghan National Army and government of Afghanistan. So, we took a very soft power approach if you will.
I would sit down for hours and discuss things with the mullahs. I would do the whole walk through the orchard with them. Tour their village, sit down, talk to them. We had engagement strategies for every single village that we had laid out and we were not rushed. We knew that was the culture, that was how it worked. We had to get to know them. We had to make them believe in you. Had to make them feel as though you were really there for them. So, we took a lot of time with that. As we did that, that is how we would grow an area and that is how I would show the example to the E7 and the E6 who were in charge of that village. Go through the engagement, set the precedents for how they should be engaging them and then, once I knew I could pass that on, the guys would take that over and they would be able to engage over there.
I would just sporadically go on missions every once in while with them. Those were the kind of the daily events. Then we were setting up smaller bases for the Afghans within a supportable distance where the Afghans would unilaterally live there. We would just go out and live with them. They were supposed to do the same thing – go on daily patrols, interact, and just “be” out there providing security. Well, we would have to go out and, of course, do checks on them, provide quick reaction forces to them. So, we would have to practice and train that. Then if we did get intelligence about certain types of Taliban activity we would do night operations to try to go and kill or capture some of the MVTs that were in our area.
The team that was before us – by all means every unit does things their own way and everybody has their own way about it – but even they self-admitted that they were a very tired team, had been on a very rapid deployment cycle, and gone back and forth multiple times. The team leader explained to me that they had lost one of their teammates in a firefight a month prior to their redeployment and that whole last month they really disengaged and I think it affected the team very deeply, and had really sort of turned off any sort of engagement.
I think the situation was the locals really did not like that team, because they were at that moment a “fire first ask questions later.” I’m not judging anything that they did, just you know, that had had a very serious sets of incidents that had led to the death of one of their Soldiers and I know that it affected the whole team. They had had very rapid turn arounds for two deployments prior to that. Very seasoned, very tired of being there, and just had been in a bad situation. I looked at is as I am going to go overboard trying to engage with everybody, restart having Jirgas, Arabic Shura.
In Afghanistan just getting together the mullahs and the elders and having a big meal, everybody sit together and talk, really hear them out. Then I would have to – this was the painful part of the deployment if you will – think out how to, manipulate always sounds like such a derogatory word, but manipulate the way things are going to try to accomplish things. In the best way possible show how being friendly to the Afghan National Army and the U.S. Forces that were there was a good thing. Would benefit your village and how this was the way forward…
I disagreed with a lot of the strategy and the orders being pushed down from higher, both on my side, the side of the CJSOTF (Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force), and on the Conventional Forces side. I think at that time, the entire military was still struggling with what COIN (counterinsurgency operations) is and what we are supposed to be doing over there.
Iraq was at its high point and was getting very violent and the insurgency was growing like crazy. The strategies that were being used against it were sort of were making their way over to Afghanistan. So thinking, at that time, when they were failing miserable in Iraq, regular, what we call now, combined arms maneuver, just trying to still do traditional patrols and not understanding counterinsurgency was bleeding over. The amount of firefights you were getting in, the amount of HVTs you had captured, were the metric that everyone was trying to measure themselves by.
So rather than look at how much have you grown, have you grown the community, how much you have grown the belief, how unfriendly are the locals to the Taliban, which is hard to quantify in a spreadsheet. Everyone is looking at, “How many guys have you captured? How many firefights have you been in? How many patrols have you been on?”
This sounds cocky, but seeing that higher truly did not understand what we were supposed to be doing there and they were pushing us for metrics that are arbitrary, that do not make a difference was very annoying. That was probably the biggest struggle, was trying to convince my boss that I should be doing what I am doing, because it is working. I have an enormous growth – the metric I could measure was when I started off I had very small numbers of elders and mullahs that were coming. By the end of it we had them from so far out that we would have to actually pull out a map and figure out where they had come from. It was because they had heard about these people who were trying to help. These people who were doing good projects around from the locals.
The Taliban no longer using that area as a route line into the deeper mountains. I would like to believe that was because of our efforts and that was without – a lot of the things that we did, the best accomplishments came without firing anything. We got into our share of firefights in certain valleys and certain places that were just going to be unfriendly no matter what, but the accomplishments that we made when we would hear from the locals about how, “Hey, they left. The packed up. They have taken their supplies. This is where they used to keep it.”
Which is fantastic, because they are telling us, “They left because you guys are always around. You guys were always working with us. They see that we are all coming to you.” Trying to convince higher on both sides of that was a very difficult challenge. Then, working with conventional forces was a very big obstacle, because they looked at it as, “Here’s the map.” It is not that SF (Special Forces) and conventional forces should work together, it’s, “I’ve already got a flag there, so why should I worry about having more conventional forces in the area. I will just put them over here.” They look at us as just another American flag on a map, rather than, “Hey, we can complement each other’s efforts.” Which is something that I have always tried to push, tried to work through…
The IEDs had just started making their way over into Afghanistan and the conventional forces that were located in the area had hit numerous ones. They were driving uparmored and we were still driving light-skinned GMVs (ground mobility vehicle), which had only a thin plate of armor on the doors and so they stood no chance against IEDs. We were trying very hard to conduct the majority of our movements at night, because in the mountains there is only, it is very obvious, but there is no other way to go but the three roads that lead outside of your base.
So, we were trying to conduct a lot of operations at night. A lot of operations dismounted and when conventional forces would come up into our area, they were very slow, deliberate, and methodical and they were getting hit by IEDs quite often. At that time it was the kind of IED that would blow off the front tire of an uparmored Humvee but not destroy the uparmored Humvee.
That would completely disintegrate a regular light-skinned Humvee, so that made us nervous to the point where, just through normal reporting, without even requesting it, we got one of three explosives dogs that was country. There was only three in Afghanistan at the time and one comes off of a helicopter resupply unexpectedly. We did not even know that it was coming to us.
We receive an MP and his dog and they get off of the helicopter. We started talking to him and he said, “Yeah, hey. They said I had to come here.” We had not even requested it. Anyway, subsequent to that, he and the dog found plenty of IEDs and that type of thing. Always made for a unique pucker factor whenever you were out driving through small channels or very tight areas.
It made us think through all of our operations and make sure that, I had sort of, these campaigns I was talking about. Saying, “Lets view the Taliban’s S2 or intel guy and think of how we can mess him up. We need to think in terms of how do we make sure that he’s not tracking us the same way we are trying to track him.” So, we would have these little techniques for trying to confuse people, because we knew they’re reporting on us and it was very easy for them to report on us.
We would do a lot of fake patrols if you would will. We would just call it up and just jump in the trucks and head out towards a village until we heard it on the Icom radios that they were reporting on us. Then we would just turn around and come back. Or we would always start off one direction and go completely around a mountain, when we meant to go the other direction just to try to keep people guessing. Just to try to make as many reports as possible.
It was great, because my interpreter finally got to the point where he would laugh and say, “They called us, kind of, the crazy lost guys.” Because we would always go one way, turn one way, go out the gate like we had somewhere to be, we’d go just flying out the gate, then we would stop and turn back around. That was the intent we wanted to raise their radar as much as possible so that hopefully they could not pattern us and think of ways to set up on us…
I knew that I grew the Afghan National Army and the government of Afghanistan’s representative legitimacy in the area. I knew that I grew the confidence of the Afghan National Army to conduct operations on their own, in small pieces. I knew that we had done that because, I think it was six days after we left, they caught the number one guy in our area. It was because of one of those smaller bases that was within twenty minute QRF (quick reaction force) supportability of it.
I had fought really hard to have that. My boss actually was against it completely. Because of just one of their normal patrols they captured the number one guy in our area. Just drove in and they just sort of, the saw the signs in the village, and they decided to question a few people. Somebody stuck out, they grabbed him and it turned out to be the number one guy. Which was fantastic. Because everyone knew that was because of the work that we had done with them. Pushing through a concept that everybody didn’t want us to and that people had said was a waste of effort. I would say that that was our success.
The Afghan National Army was a little more confident, baby steps, a little more confident operating on their own. I knew that a lot of the locals believed in us being there and were coming and trying to participate in the school, participate in the medical clinic, and participate in the Jirga whenever we would have leadership there and not openly resistant to us…
I think that one of our biggest issues is time. Time to be mentored. Time to learn the job. Time to be in the job. We are so rushed as officers to get through and check blocks. In my opinion, everyone is looking more toward their next job than they are at their current job. I fault our system for that. I fault our systems view of, you know, as soon as you’re a good platoon leader, you don’t need to learn anymore, so let’s move you out. As soon as you are a good company commander, you do not need to learn anymore, so let’s move you out. We rush people through because we are stuck on this system of trying to get everyone through all the jobs that we can possibly get them exposed to.
So, 1) they are never held accountable for truly their actions. You have to really mess up to get relieved and it does not happen very often. And 2) you don’t ever get to operate in the job that you are training for. You are always getting trained to move on to the next position, so rather than employing the best person for that job. The best person is the guy that gets pulled out immediately to go and do something else. I do not know if that is necessarily a lesson learned, but if you think about the work that could be accomplished by people who are experienced and know what they are doing, versus always having new people.
You hear the classic cliché that, you know, “We are still fighting the next one-year war.” The next one-year in Afghanistan or the next one-year wars in Iraq. I would say that that’s due to we do not have anyone who repeats themselves. There is no battalion commander who goes back and is a battalion commander in the same area. There is not even any company commander who goes back and is the same company commander in the same area.
We always have to rotate somebody new in. There is no experience truly that gets back in that same position. Every position, there is a new guy to that, because that guys moved on. People will say that, “Oh well. There is a lot of experience. He was a platoon leader over there. Then he got to be a company commander and go over there.” I would submit that those are drastically different positions and I guarantee you that you would be hard pressed to find anyone that is in the same place, you know, even the same region.
Yes, you are experienced in combat, but you are not going back to the same place and doing the same thing and working in that same area. I have issues with that whole concept in the Army and how fast we push everybody through everything.