In the course of researching NATO and Afghanistan, I was surprised to see so much variation in how long any contingent stayed on the ground, as some countries would rotate their troops out after four months, others six, and only the US troops would have a year in country. Why is this important? Because Afghanistan was/is a particularly challenging place to operate, that COIN is all about development relationships, and having very short-term focus is a bad idea.
Commanders would want to be able to show that they made a mark in a very short time frame, which means a temptation to opt for the visible but not the sustainable.
I got to thinking about this issue this morning thanks to the end of General Allen's tour in Afghanistan, and folks on twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/joshuafoust/) pointing out that none of the last four American Generals did an entire tour. McKiernan was replaced by McChrystal because McK was not seen as being as COIN-focused/skilled. McC got fired for his Rolling Stone fiasco. Petraeus got shifted to head CIA (I spent part of this morning arguing with Josh about whether this was a promotion or just a slick political move--I tend to think of it as the former, Josh not so much). Now, Allen is being promoted to head US forces in Europe--EUCOM and ... head of NATO's miltary as SACEUR. Perhaps one is most likely to get promoted if one facilitates cutting back rather than ramping up?
This all points to a larger issue--even if each general served their full tour in Afghanistan, the job seemed to have a one year term in practice even if formally it was supposed to be two years (still perhaps too short?). While it is an exhausting job, generals in previous wars served longer than one year. The turnover meant a new strategy and a new style every year, which made it hard to have cumulative progress.
Allen, for instance, had a different interpretation of transition than Petraeus. When Petraeus started the transition process in Afghanistan, the idea was to turn over the most fit parts of Afghanistan to Afghan control. For Allen, perhaps because the clock has been sped up, advocates turning over the more problematic places to the Afghans earlier so that the Afghans will have back up as they work through it. If those spots were transitioned later, the Afghans might be facing challenges with little outside support.
The length of tours is not something that will probably get much attention at the Chicago Summit or in the future, but the constant spin cycle of modern military deployments obviously does not facilitate efficiency, efficacy, effectiveness or any other relevant e-word. It would be nice if NATO tries to develop more compatible schedules, but NATO has other, bigger fish to fry so don't expect any progress on this.
And, yes, Happy Days inspired the title to this post: