The PRT Kunduz: An Unsuccessful Command Structure

By: LTC Lars Werner, German Army

Stability operations, such as the current campaign of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, differ from offensive or defensive operations in their purpose. According to U.S. Field Manual 3-0, Operations, the purpose of stability operations is to provide a secure environment, secure land areas, meet the critical needs of the populace, gain support for the host-nation government, and shape the environment for interagency and host-nation success.1 Stability operations focus on construction rather than destruction. But current armed forces are not well trained to conduct such operations.

I have seen different approaches and experiments in how to achieve a stability operation's purpose. After being in Afghanistan for three years, I believe that unity of command, just as in conventional battle (i.e., offensive or defensive operations), is necessary for the success of any stability mission. This article reflects my personal experience with the mission command of a stability operation in the Kunduz area, ISAF Afghanistan, in 2011.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz

Until October 2013, a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) operated in Kunduz, a province in the north of Afghanistan. The PRT's overall tasks were to improve security, extend the authority of the Afghan government, and facilitate reconstruction. To fulfill these tasks, the PRT consisted of several construction teams and provided a home for several German, U.S., and multinational units to enforce security, stability, and partnering.

The PRT in Kunduz belonged to the ISAF Regional Command North (RC North), a German-led headquarters based in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, located 100 miles (161 km) west of Kunduz. The commander of the PRT, a German colonel, was the official battlespace commander of the Kunduz area. Despite the fact that all units operated within his battlespace, however, the PRT commander had little command authority over these units. This often led to friction, not only between Afghans and ISAF but also among the different multinational units.

Forces Located in and around the PRT

At least 13 different forces from various countries operated in the Kunduz area. First, the PRT had civilian-military teams that were responsible for rebuilding Afghan infrastructure, public authority, education systems, and medical support. The PRT also had its own security company, military police, medical center, maintenance company, support and supply company, and on-post staff. The PRT commander was in charge of these troops.

Several forces not under the PRT commander's authority were also placed in, or close to, the PRT camp. One such force was Task Force Kunduz (TF KDZ), a battalion-sized unit tasked to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and enforce security in the Kunduz area. Led by a lieutenant colonel and consisting of two infantry companies, reconnaissance teams, and supporters, TF KDZ was constantly in the field to enforce security. The TF KDZ leader established his own tactical operating center (TOC) away from the PRT's headquarters. He received his orders from and reported directly back to the operations center in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Another force was Task Force Mazar-e-Sharif (TF MeS). Structured similarly to TF KDZ, TF MeS was sent to Kunduz because of the highly insecure situation in the Kunduz area. Its TOC remained in Mazar-e-Sharif, and its commander likewise reported directly to the joint operations center RC North.

A reinforced paratroop company of the operational mentoring and liaison team (OMLT) had its place inside the PRT as well. Despite its task to mentor and train an ANA company in Kunduz, the company reported directly to the OMLT senior mentor, a colonel who had his chair in Mazar-e-Sharif. German special operations forces and intelligence maintained their own compounds within the PRT camp, and used their own chain of command. An American infantry battalion had its camp nearby; it had its own TOC and reported to its U.S. higher headquarters, not to the PRT. U.S. SOF had camps close to the PRT, but they reported to their headquarters in Bagram, Afghanistan. Furthermore, the U.S. and German aviation units received their orders from and reported to their aviation operations centers in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Additional multinational police units who mentored and trained Afghan national civil order police had their camps close to the PRT. Multinational military and police units located near and inside the PRT were subordinate to the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan and/or to Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan. They partnered with ANA and the Afghan National Police in Kunduz.

DYNCORP, a private American corporation, trained Afghan National Police personnel in its compound next to the PRT. Because of its civilian character, DYNCORP did not follow any military orders at all. To round out the picture, many nongovernmental organizations also operated in the Kunduz area.

Common Goals, Fragmented Command

All of the units operating in Kunduz had common objectives: to improve security, extend the authority of the Afghan government, and facilitate reconstruction. That called for unity of effort. Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, defines unity of effort as the "coordination and cooperation toward common objectives, even if the participants are not necessarily part of the same command or organization, which is the product of successful unified action."2 Unified action, then, is "the synchronization, coordination, and/or integration of the activities of governmental and nongovernmental entities with military operations to achieve unity of effort."3 Unfortunately, despite their common goals, the many different chains of command in and around the PRT presented a fragmented patchwork of decision makers rather than a clear and unambiguous mission command.

How did this fragmented command structure work? Designated as the battlespace commander, the PRT commander was the first point of contact for high-ranking Afghan officials in Kunduz. He routinely called in all the chiefs of the different units to synchronize courses of actions. But coordination and synchronization of efforts and actions became difficult because the chiefs led their forces in the fields, and their staffs and TOCs were all in separate locations. Initially, for better coordination, different units operated in different, defined areas (called "boxes") within the Kunduz area. But it turned out that all units focused only on their own "box," rather than looking at the bigger picture. Commanders did not need to think outside their unit's responsibilities because they were not subordinate to the PRT commander. It turned out that this kind of fragmented mission command depended highly on commanders' personalities and whether they were willing to work together. As a result, individual commanders were able to jeopardize a common strategy because of personal incentives. That in turn sometimes caused major setbacks in achieving common goals.

As an example, a specific Afghan village was damaged in several local firefights, and the village population turned to ISAF forces for help. TF KDZ promised to help provide reconstruction. The reconstruction teams of the PRT, however, supported another village and thus did not have sufficient resources to back up TF KDZ's promise. The village that did have the PRT's reconstruction support was a well-known supporter of insurgency, but the reconstruction teams knew practically nothing of any insurgents inside the village because they received different information from their (PRT) TOC. The PRT's TOC had no incentives to support TF KDZ because it followed its own priority list and did not share TF KDZ's counterinsurgency priorities.

Results of an Unsynchronized Command

Based on my personal experience, many of the different units operating in the Kunduz area followed their own purposes. The PRT was not able to synchronize military actions with reconstruction and intelligence. It was not able to focus effort on the work that most needed doing. It seemed that all units concentrated their efforts on something that made sense to them but did not contribute to a common strategy. There was no concept of how to coordinate all of these goals and activities. Eventually, such unsynchronized actions aroused negative attitudes among Afghans toward ISAF. Sometimes within only a few days or even hours, all previous efforts to secure, convince, and help the people were wasted due to these kinds of uncoordinated efforts and the negative propaganda spread by insurgents. Over time, there were many setbacks for the PRT in Kunduz.

Unsynchronized command also caused shortcomings in combat support, decreased situational awareness, and, even worse, blue-on-blue contacts. In Kunduz, each of the different multinational forces designated its own quick-reaction force in case of emergency. If such forces were not organically inherent to the unit or already specially designated, further combat support or combat service support had to be requested from other forces. But the ambiguous chain of command caused friction among those requesting and employing such required support. As a consequence, the PRT's TOC often did not know which assets were requested from which of the different forces and how the different available assets were being used. For example, if some forces requested immediate support after being ambushed, they called their own TOC (wherever it was located). That TOC then tried to figure out who could provide help with available assets and who could issue immediate orders. This lack of unity of command often led to time delays that caused fighting troops to remain longer in a dangerous area without quick support.4

Even when it came to supporting one's own troops, situational awareness differed among the various forces. For example, in one situation, German helicopters received the order to pick up a wounded soldier. The chain was as follows: The troops called their TOC in Kunduz. The TOC called the personal evacuation coordination center (PECC) in Mazar-e-Sharif. The PECC in Mazar-e-Sharif had to figure out which medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) helicopters were available and then issued orders to the Air-MEDEVAC TOC in Kunduz. The Air- MEDEVAC TOC launched the helicopters more than one hour after the ground troops requested MEDEVAC support. After a further 25 minutes' "notes to move"—the time it took after getting the call to be ready to act—the helicopters overflew an insurgent hotspot and were hit by small-arms fire. Based on a debrief of the pilots, it turned out that the crew had no clue what was happening on the ground because they received all of their information from their TOC in Mazar-e-Sharif. That TOC had a completely different situational picture than one from the Kunduz area would have had. Sadly, the helicopter was only five flight-minutes away from the wounded soldier, but it took nearly an hour and a half to pick him up—even though the MEDEVAC crew did not have any parallel ongoing missions that day.

A second, much worse example involved a PRT patrol that had the task of speaking with elders of an Afghan village regarding the progress of reconstruction. Not knowing where ISAF forces were operating, the patrol, with its civilian cars, moved into the box of an American infantry unit without telling them. The patrol was ambushed by insurgents and returned fire, not knowing that they were firing in the direction of a company of TF KDZ that had their position in the vicinity of the ambush site, just outside of the American box. TF KDZ returned fire, not knowing that they aimed toward the PRT patrol instead of the insurgents. It took a long time for the PRT patrol to solve the tricky situation and link up with the Americans because of different chains of command, different information about the situation on the ground, different procedures, and different radio frequencies and unknown call signs. Luckily, nobody was injured in the event.

As a further example, SOF conducted many night raids within the Kunduz area. They did not share their activities and plans with other forces, including the PRT, for security reasons. However, if someone was captured or killed, Afghan officials turned for information to the commander of the PRT, who could not respond immediately because of limited knowledge of the situation.

These kinds of issues did not contribute to unity of effort. In Kunduz, command relationships have tended to rely on commanders' personalities rather than on common objectives. A fragmented mission command produced friction that jeopardized long-term goals. Eventually, Afghans came to mistrust ISAF's ability to stabilize the region, which made it more likely that the Afghan population and their leaders would turn toward the insurgency.

What Can We Learn?

The question is, what can we learn from this? There are two simple lessons from Kunduz regarding leadership that are well-known but still important to reiterate. First, if there is one battlespace, the commander of that area should have command authority over all forces operating in his battlespace. Unity of command, according to Joint Publication 1-02, is the "operation of all forces under a single responsible commander who has the requisite authority to direct and employ those forces in pursuit of a common purpose."5 Thus, there should be only one unified mission command that is responsible for coordinating and controlling actions toward common goals. Synchronized efforts contribute to a "leader's responsibility to understand, visualize, describe, lead, and assess."6 Such a unified mission command "provides commanders and staff with a philosophy for operating in an uncertain environment as opposed to trying to create certainty and imposing order and control over a situation."7 With unity of command, the personal motivations of subordinates become less important than the coordination of authority among different commanders.

A second lesson is providing liaison elements. If time matters during ongoing missions, quick reaction is most important. Often, leaders of different task forces establish their movable TOCs in the fields, or far away from the PRT's TOC. Only a direct link to all different forces, however, can adequately provide sufficient information and process requests. This is especially true if assembled forces come from different countries or units. Direct links, such as liaison elements, contribute to shared information and to a shared understanding in both directions.

In conclusion, the command structure in Kunduz was a mess. Without a clear and unambiguous chain of command, things went awry. Unity of effort was just barely achieved, and it was only the common threat that forced all of those different units to work together. The remedy for this situation is simple and not really new: create unity of command and establish liaison elements. Sometimes doctrines, often based on bloody lessons, are worth using. In cases of emergency and to achieve common goals devoid of personal motivations, a clear, single-headed chain of command is the way to success.

About the Author(s): Lieutenant Colonel Lars Werner is a member of the German Army Special Forces (KSK). He joined the German Army in 1994 and received his commission in 1997. He served as a paratroop platoon leader and successfully passed the selection course for the KSK in 2002, where he has since served in several positions. LTC Werner received his bachelor's degree in business management from Munich University in 2001 and an MA in Special Operations from NPS in 2013.


1. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Operations, Field Manual 3-0 (Washington, D.C.: HQ, Dept. of the Army, February 2008), 3-6.

2. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02 (Washington, D.C.: Dept. of Defense, 15 October 2013), 286.

3. Ibid., 284.

4. The PRT itself was mainly responsible for reconstruction rather than for security and combat support in the Kunduz area. The PRT TOC had no authority to launch forces for combat support other than those that directly belonged to the PRT commander, nor did it have access to the best intelligence that would allow it to effectively coordinate forces. Thus, despite being the nominal commander responsible for the battlespace, the PRT commander was not in the chain of command of most combat forces operating in the area and had no authority over them.

5. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Dictionary, 286.

6. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Operations, 4-4.

7. Ibid.

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