Foreign Policy Policy Trump War

Omelets? OMLT: Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams.

by Stephen M. Saideman

In Afghanistan, many (but not all, due to caveats*) NATO members and partners (the latter would be non-members like Australia, Sweden, Georgia, etc) would put small groups of troops into a larger Afghan unit to help mentor them and provide them with critical linkages to air support, artillery support, intel, and other services needed to make the Afghans more effective.  During the high point of the effort, from 2006-2013 or so, these OMET-ed Afghan units would go into battle alongside ISAF forces.  This is key because if the Afghan unit broke and ran, the small numbers of ISAF Omeleteers (yes, they were called omeleteers) would still have the protection of the ISAF battlegroup.

Why is this relevant?  Because these days, there are few places where “advising and assisting” occurs with such backup. Indeed, in Niger, there were not even American planes and helicopters nearby.  As hinted at on the Bombshell podcast, this violated one of the fundamental rules in Afghanistan–that operations were not take place more than a hour from a major alliance medical facility. This meant helos, and if no helos, then no ops unless within a short drive of medical help.  Why? Because if you can get a wounded soldier/marine/whatever to a hospital within an hour, then they have a  high probability of living.  This is important because wounded soldiers don’t count: that they don’t get listed in Killed in Action totals (do you know how many of your country’s military folks were wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq?  Probably not, but KIA, maybe); they don’t make the news as much, and, yes, they don’t semi-require the President or someone else to call/write the relatives. [Ok, overly cynical–golden hour rule is very important for making sure those hurt in harm’s way have the best chance to survive their wounds.]

Anyhow, those rules, like all rules, tend not to apply as strictly to Special Operations types.  Why?  Necessity–they go to places where there is not major allied infrastructure providing heaps of helos and hospitals.  Oh, and SOF means secret so when bad stuff happens, it is less likely to cause trouble back home.  To be clear, unlikely does not mean impossible.  So, things went poorly in Niger and we have little idea what happened, but it is now news.

The US forces were advising and assisting the Nigerians and got ambushed.  One of the tricky things about this stuff is advising and assisting often means combat–killing and being killed, wounding and being wounded.  But they fall short of conventional combat operations, so the public and media and politicians get confused about whether this is combat or not.  Anyhow, because there are few civilians in the proper jobs at State and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, this administration probably didn’t really know who was in Niger and what they were doing.  So, more abdication of responsibility to the military…. and when the military is left alone, they may engage in risky or careless behavior.  Such as falling into rituals and habits that allow the adversaries to plan ambushes, for instance.

Again, we don’t know much.  What we do know is that this US administration needs to staff up and start engaging in oversight.  Instead, they have engaged in blame-casting with a Congresswoman.  Not good.  Did this administration learn from the failed Yemen raid early in their term?  Does not seem so. All we do know is that Congress and the media need to ask tough questions of four star generals, active and retired, to figure out what went wrong, what can be learned, and how will stuff like this be less likely in the future.  To be clear, whenever a country has thousands of troops strewn through the world, advising and assisting militaries in and near conflict zones, bad stuff will occasionally happen.  But we would like to have confidence that much is being done to minimize risks, maximize effectiveness, and perhaps be able to communicate these activities to the democratic public.  And who has such confidence these days?

 

*  Some countries were reluctant to participate in OMLTS due to: higher risks–one’s security still mostly depended on the Afghans or one might be present when Afghans commit war crimes–why the Danes, otherwise fairly aggressive and caveat-free, chose to OMLT only garrison units.  Oh, and many countries had rules about whether OMLTs could accompany their mentees outside the country’s area of operations.

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