In the last five years, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have killed more than 75 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military advisers.(Ed. note: the ANSF are the Afghan security guys being trained by NATO ISAF troops)
In 2012, 1 out of every 4 ISAF casualties has been at the hands of a member of the ANSF.
These deaths present a huge problem to the U.S. exit strategy, which is based on the expectation that the ANSF will be able to provide enough security for Afghanistan that will prevent the reemergence of the Taliban or use Al Qaeda’s unimpeded use of Afghan territory to plan attacks.
But only a very small percentage of Afghan National Army battalions are capable of conducting combat operations on their own, which means ISAF military advisers will be in Afghanistan for a long time. The need for trust is crucial – and may be gone for good.
We can expect these advisers to be dispersed throughout the country on small combat outposts without major American support nearby. How will they simultaneously protect themselves from militants and the Afghans they are advising? How will policymakers ask troops to advise an army that might kill them at a moment’s notice?
Being an adviser can be an incredibly frustrating experience.* Regular military units typically don’t trust you because of your close association with local forces; meanwhile, advisers often see regular units as working at cross-purposes to the advisory mission. Advising local forces can be like herding cats; it requires patience, understanding, and tact—three traits not typically emphasised in American military training.
An adviser must spend hours and hours each day with the men he is advising – even when he’s not advising or assisting with an issue at hand, he’s hanging out, building a relationship. While everyone else is at salsa night or playing Xbox, the adviser is having chai with his counterpart. Actually, a proper campaign plan doesn’t even give the adviser an option to attend salsa night on the FOB – he’s out on an indigenous base living with his counterparts.
Moreover, an adviser must enter his deployment knowing that he will not likely succeed. At the very least, he has to revise his standards for success. My team leader, who served on three different adviser teams, put it like this: “Advising is like pushing a huge boulder up a steep hill. You’re not going to push the boulder to the top; you just have to prevent it from rolling to the bottom.” Making lasting changes to another country’s military cannot be accomplished in a standard 7 or 12-month deployment; the best you can hope for is not to lose ground and hand the unit off to the next adviser team in as good a state as you found it.
An example: the Iraqi Army, which is generations more advanced than the Afghan army, has developed an organizational culture derived from Russian military doctrine and the personality of Saddam Hussein. In American military doctrine, the S-2 intelligence officer is always in communication with the S-3 operations officer. Intelligence drives operations. Operations result in new intelligence, which begins the cycle anew. The Iraqi Army, however, does not subscribe to this doctrine. The S-2 and S-3 officers often do not communicate at all. The S-2 officer runs his own operations based on his own intelligence. The S-3 officer has his own sources through family or tribal connections. S-2 officers are often more concerned with the insider threat.
Altering a culture of separation that ingrained is challenging; advisers may have success at the individual unit level, but they’re not going to change those kinds of behaviours across the entire organisation in 9 months. It would take an entire generation or longer. The adviser must learn to work within the organizational culture of the military he is advising, not necessarily try and force the advisees to conform to American military doctrine. And this is independent of the need for cultural understanding, which, suffice it to say, requires another dose of patience, understanding, and tact.
Traditionally, advising has been almost exclusively the purview of the Army’s Special Forces, the vaunted Green Berets. Historically, regular Army and Marine units do not train for this mission. That’s not to say that conventional forces haven’t done it, it’s just not something that the service chiefs like to do as it impedes on their traditional missions and budgets. Once policymakers recognised that the only way we were going to leave Iraq with any semblance of stability was by [training Iraqi soldiers to be good at their jobs], the advisory mission took on new importance. But the scope of the task was so big that Green Berets alone could not do the job, and the Army and the Marine Corps began organising and training Military Transition Teams (MiTT).
The Marine Corps fashioned its MiTTs out of individual augments, which meant that a team was composed of Marines pulled from their regular units across a range of military occupational specialties. Officers and staff non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) would typically pair up with Iraqis who worked in the appropriate staff section, e.g. an infantry officer would work with the Iraqi S-3 to advise him on planning and conducting operations while an intelligence officer would pair up with the Iraqi S-2 to advise and assist him on intelligence matters. The MiTT team leader would advise the Iraqi battalion commander. This was repeated for the other staff sections as well — logistics, training, administration, etc. Marine MiTTs also had junior Marines to serve as drivers and gunners on MiTT tactical movements, but the Marines also used them as advisers to great effect. My team used their expertise to teach classes on weapons, tactics, maintenance, and communications to enlisted Iraqi soldiers.
My MiTT spent three full months working up together. Our training package emphasised language, culture, and negotiating. We also spent the requisite amount of time patrolling, running convoys, and practicing other team and individual military skills. We spent 3 weeks in Twentynine Palms for a final exercise that included native Iraqis as role players in a full, mock up Iraqi village. There were hundreds of us out there and many of the scenarios in the exercise repeated themselves in Iraq. It was intense.
And it wasn’t nearly enough. I could have used more training. A lot more. We all could.
As a part of our campaign plan in Afghanistan, the US is going to begin transitioning out of the lead for combat operations, just as we did in Iraq. As combat units rotate home, they will be replaced by what the Army is calling Security Force Assistance Teams (SFATs). The good news is that these SFATs will be composed primarily of officers and senior SNCOs pulled from the same brigade staff – they will not be individual augments pulled from disparate units – so there will be a level of familiarity with one another not found on teams like mine. The bad news is that the pre-deployment training is close to worthless. The SFATs will spend five weeks at their home station focusing primarily on individual military skills (land navigation, weapons usage, patrolling techniques, etc.). Afterwards, they will go to the Joint Readiness Training centre at Ft. Polk where they will receive – wait for it – three weeks of adviser specific training. Three weeks. We are taking soldiers and expecting them to absorb at least four months’ worth of training in three weeks.
I don’t know if the trust between American advisers and their ANSF counterparts is broken for good. But I do know that sending teams of “advisers” to Afghanistan with nothing more than three weeks of training is not likely to help get it back. If advising is the backbone of our exit strategy, and we’re not preparing ourselves properly for the challenges, we shouldn’t be surprised if this strategy fails.
*Based on my one-year deployment to Iraq as an adviser. This isn’t meant to be a sweeping proclamation of how the entire Iraqi army behaves, or how all advisers experience their deployments. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.
**If you served on an Army or Marine MiTT in Iraq or Afghanistan, I’d love your assessment and thoughts, especially if I missed anything. Please email me at [email protected]
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