A general who wins
If President Trump wants a winning general for Afghanistan, he can do no better than General Stephen Townsend, who is leading the fight against ISIS in Syria.
Townsend's leadership style has several elements: decisive plans, no-drama teambuilding, leading from the front, leveraging support, and working with local allies.
When then-colonel Townsend attacked the west side of Baqubah in the summer of 2007, he tried to maximize the element of surprise. Battalions first moved in one direction, before doubling back at nightfall to assault. Helicopters landed assaulting soldiers in the dark of night. The enemy was overwhelmed, surrounded, and attacked from all sides.
The plans and mission that Townsend gave his staff were clear. He wanted to drive the Islamic State from the town. He was not interested in the perception of success – he wanted the reality of success. During the battle, some bombs went off course and killed civilians. While investigations were launched into what happened, air strikes continued without a moment of second-guessing. He expected his staff to work professionally and do their jobs creatively. He did not micro-manage his staff, and he did not sweat the small stuff. They in turn gave 100%.
He was effective because he led from the front. His operations center was delegated to his second-in-command. He was not there. Wherever the main effort was, he was there. This was very different from the norm in the Iraqi theater. Most senior officers fly to outposts and talk to troops inside the walls of the outpost. Very few will stay in the field, day after day. The importance of this cannot be understated.
Townsend also knows how to work in the military halls of power. When given the mission to retake the city, he went to the top commanders to demand the maximum available support. He wanted and received essentially 24 hours of available on-call air and electronic warfare support. He placed firebases strategically around the battlefield so that the then-new precision-guided artillery could support each assault. His staff created some of the theater's simplest and quickest processes to coordinate rapid air and artillery strikes.
This battle also showed the power of local allies. Each battle group was partnered with a group of local fighters, "the Sons of Iraq." They were the secret weapon – they knew what houses were rigged to explode, where the enemy fighters were most likely to hide, and who was probably a foreign fighter instead of a local civilian.
The parallels between that decade-old battle and today are striking. It is the Syrian Defense Forces and Iraqi forces doing most of the fighting, with U.S. artillery firebases and air support providing needed firepower. The elements of surprise and audacity shown a decade ago are paralleled in the aerial assault of Syrian Democratic Forces at Tabqa dam. When the moment was right, Townsend surprised ISIS by rapidly moving Syrian allies via U.S. aircraft, something that had not been done before.
General Townsend is willing to take calculated risks and to apply overwhelming force in order to win. That is why we are winning in Syria and Iraq.