Don’t Just Stand There –  Take Charge!

Adapted from SECRETS OF SPECIAL OPS LEADERSHIP: DARE THE IMPOSSIBLE – ACHIEVE THE EXTRAORDINARY  (AMACOM, 2006)

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2006 William A. Cohen, PhD

 

Captain Jason Amerine, a young West Pointer, led Operational Detachment Alpha 574, an “A-team” of himself plus eleven Special Forces commandos including an Air Force combat controller, part of the U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group in Afghanistan. The mission of his small unit was to link up with and support and protect Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, who was later elected to become the first President of Afghanistan.

Amerine was not only to advise Karzai on military matters, but to train his Pashtun fighters in order assist in the destabilization of the Taliban regime in Northern Afghanistan. Amerine went to the scene of action. He didn’t sit on his hands. He took charge and did a lot more. Along the way to accomplishing his mission, his small command led the effort that defeated a major Al Qaeda – Taliban command.

Towards the end of October 2001, Amerine with his commandos infiltrated into Oruzgan province in northern Afghanistan and made contact with Karzai. Karzai was a popular leader, but did not consider himself a military man. With little time to get acquainted, Amerine met Karzai and was briefed by him.

Karzai explained that the key to controlling the province was the village of Tarin Kowt. If Karzai’s Pashtuns could capture it, it would be a major psychological victory. “Tarin Kowt represents the Taliban’s heart,” he told Amerine. “Crush that heart and we kill the Taliban.” 1, 2  Karzai felt this wouldn’t be too difficult because most of the people of Tarin Kowt were opposed to Taliban rule and he thought they would probably surrender, even to a small show of force.   

However, there was one problem, and it was a big one. Tarin Kowt was in striking distance from Kandahar, a major Taliban stronghold. The Taliban and Al Qaeda had about 500 well-armed and well-trained fighters there and plenty of vehicles. They outnumbered both Karzai’s men and the Americans. Captain Amerine calculated that with his small command and a handful of untrained, poorly armed Pashtun guerillas, they could not hold the town even if they could capture it. He felt that arming as many Pashtuns as he could attract to his cause was his first priority, and getting them trained a close second.  Without delay he had arms flown in and began this process.

Unfortunately, many of the villagers he armed didn’t stick around. They rushed off to defend their own villages from Taliban harassment. As a result, despite his plans, Amerine never got to train anyone. Then, long before he was ready, the people of Tarin Kowt rebelled and overthrew their Taliban masters on their own. Karzai asked Captain Amerine to take his command into the city along with Karzai’s 30-man Pashtun guerilla “army,” and then to defend the town against the expected counterstrike from Kandahar.

Amerine knew he was taking a great risk. However, by then it was known that Hamid Karzai would play a major role in the new Afghanistan. Amerine’s orders were to protect Karzai at all costs. Amerine also knew if the Taliban retook the city now that their rule had been overthrown, there would be a bloodbath. Militarily it made no sense, and Amerine would have probably failed a classroom exercise at West Point with a solution that recommended defending the town with the small force at his disposal. However, Amerine’s instincts told him to take charge and do it despite the odds. However, he did have one ace up his sleeve: the ability to call on American airpower to help him.

Once he made his decision, Amerine wasted no time. He commandeered what vehicles he could get hold of, including touring vans, pickup trucks and beat-up former UN-owned cars, and drove all night to get to Tarin Kowt with Hamid Karzai, his government officials, all their military equipment and his eleven commandos. On arrival, Karzai was immediately hustled to government house with Karzai to meet the Pashtun tribal leaders. As Karzai’s military advisor, the young captain was invited to come along. 

Amerine was in the midst of enjoying the thick sweet coffee of the Middle East courtesy of Afghani hospitality when one of the Pashtuns off-handedly mentioned that approximately 100 Taliban vehicles with 300-500 fighters were on the way from Kandahar to attack Tarin Kowt! Amerine almost spilled his coffee. He quickly excused himself saying, “Well, it was nice meeting all of you. I think we need to organize a force now and do what we can to defend this town.”3

Captain Amerine identified the Taliban’s most likely mountain pass approach, got his communicators on the radio calling for immediate air support, and with a group of 20-30 of Karzai’s untrained fighters, moved out on trucks to an observation point where the pass could be observed. These Pashtun fighters were willing, but they were untrained and spoke little English. Some had never even fired their weapons. The Taliban were both well-trained and well-armed. However, Amerine had to work with what he had.

Air support arrived almost immediately. Amerine watched their approach. As the Taliban convoy entered the valley entrance to the pass, the aircraft began their attack. Amerine’s plan was to bottle the enemy up in the pass.  However, while Amerine and his men were focused on directing the aircraft strikes, his untrained Pashtuns, alarmed at the sheer numbers of the enemy relative to their own limited numbers, and panic stricken, jumped into their vehicles to flee to the town.

Not only were these vehicles critical to Amerine’s mobility to move around as the fighting progressed, but allowing the Pashtuns, untrained or not, to retreat pell-mell at the first sign of fighting would do little to maintain the confidence in either Karzai or the Americans among the villagers. So preventing their retreat assumed priority even as the enemy vehicles fought their way through the aircraft strikes.

Amerine followed his instincts again. He ordered his men into the remaining vehicles, and they tried to block the other vehicles from departing. It was to no avail. He couldn’t stop the Pashtuns in their flight to return to the relative safety of the town. Amerine realized he would have no choice but to withdraw the entire force to Tarin Kowt. Arriving in town, he told Karzai what had happened and asked him to gather together all the men he could muster who could fire a weapon, or thought they could. By then, the Taliban had broken through the pass and had moved into the observation position he had just abandoned.

If the main Taliban force got into the town, their overwhelming numbers could spell the difference, so Amerine ordered his troops into a blocking perimeter in front of the town in the main direction of potential danger. There they could not only prevent Taliban troops from entering the town from this direction, but could continue to direct friendly aircraft support. The armed men Karzai collected would stay in the town to deal with any enemy vehicles that got through or somehow infiltrated from another direction.

Meanwhile, Amerine had every commando either directing aircraft or fighting. At last, the leading vehicles were stopped and some of the enemy force began to retreat. But then they heard gunfire from the town. A number of Taliban had broken through and entered the town from another direction. However, a miracle was occurring. Karzai’s forces, many now fighting on their home turf, were driving them off. Finally it was over. The Taliban forces retreated back to towards their base, U.S. aircraft harassing them all the way. They had suffered a major defeat.

This battle broke the back of the Taliban in the area, and they never attacked again in decisive numbers. This small Special Forces team and small number of untrained Pashtuns had won a huge victory against an experienced, well-armed and well-trained enemy that was vastly superior in numbers. Karzai’s prestige soared. Everywhere villagers tore down the Taliban flag and raised the flag of a free Afghanistan.

A few weeks later in a tragic case of “friendly fire” bombing, Jason Amerine was severely wounded and several of his Special Forces unit were killed along with 27 of his guerillas, by now a far more experienced and effective force. Three days later, Kandahar surrendered.

It was ironic, but the very day Amerine’s unit was struck, Kandahar was sending a delegation to negotiate surrender terms. Probably only friendly bombs prevented the entire Taliban command from surrendering to this one Special Forces officer, who given his orders, and confronted with a difficult situation, took charge and not only carried them out, but led his commandos and his Pashtun allies to victory.

Challenging situations like this in battle or in the boardroom demand a leader who takes charge and gets things done.  To be this kind of leader, experience you must:

1.      Dominate the situation

2.      Establish your objectives quickly

3.      Communicate With Those You Lead

4.      Act boldly and decisively

5.       Lead by example

6.       Follow your instincts

Amerine’s Actions: an Analysis

Let’s look at what Captain Amerine did in exercising commando-type leadership. Clearly it was his ability to take charge that led to his success.  First, he dominated a difficult situation. He may have thought that he would have a larger number of guerrillas to work with and that they would at least have had some basic training or experience. Neither of these expectations came true. Nor were the fighters he had available well armed.

Tragically, some who want to lead commandos become immobilized by environmental variables over which they may have little control and which while no fault of theirs, must still be dealt with. The fact is, things rarely go completely as planned, and not infrequently the situation is bad through no fault of the leader. However this is irrelevant. You, the leader must still take action, and take action at once to gain control. This is what I mean about dominating the situation.

Captain Amerine took action at once to attract more guerrillas and to arm them as his initial objectives.  Even though he was not given the time to train them, or in some cases even to retain them under his own control, since they were needed to defend their own villages, this had a positive effect on stiffening resistance against the Taliban.

Amerine understood Karzai’s need to occupy Tarin Kowt, but he also knew he would have to defend the town once it was under Karzai’s control. He successfully communicated the problems with occupying Tarin Kowt immediately, even if this could be done easily, and convinced Karzai to delay until they were better prepared to defend the town.  For a 27 year-old to persuade an older man of much more experience and of national stature to a different course of action in his own country is no small thing. To do so despite differences in language and culture speaks volumes of Amerine’s training and ability in take-charge communication.

 Going to Tarin Kowt under these conditions represented one giant risk. Amerine may have   gotten advice from others, but he was the one actually on the spot. It was his decision. He followed his instincts, as he did later in order the retreat from his initial observation position overlooking the pass when his Pashtun allies began to flee.

Amerine’s final defense of Tarin Kowt was masterful. In every case he acted boldly and decisively. Moreover, he was right up front where the action was, taking the same risks as those who followed him. He did not try to lead from behind a desk or to make his decisions from afar. He led by example. And this provides us with an outstanding example of how a real leader takes charge.


1 John Hendren and Richard T. Cooper, “Fragile Forces in a Hostile Land,” Los Angeles Times (May 5, 2002) Accessed May 22, 2004 at http://www.why-war.com/news/2002/05/05/fragilea.html

2 No author listed, “Interview with Captain Jason Amerine,” PBS Front Line, July 9 and 12, 2002. Accessed May 22, 2004 at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/amerine.html ,.

3 Ibid.

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THIS MONTH’S THOUGHT FOR LEADERS

 

“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” – Will Rogers