As the Trump Administration prepares to roll out its Afghanistan policy, much remains unclear on one of the most critical functions: advising of Afghan defense and security personnel. Though preliminary plans recommended to the president call for an increase of between 3,000 and 5,000 US troops and loosening of Obama-era restrictions on military advisers’ proximity to the frontlines, little has been said to address the incoherence of advising efforts across the country.
Between 2014 and 2017, I spent a total of twenty months deployed to Afghanistan—much of the time in a direct advising capacity to Afghan security forces. Teaching and mentoring field-grade intelligence officers and senior NCOs in the Afghan National Army, I was often asked questions I didn’t have the answers to. “When will the United States come back to help us?” and “Will we win?” In a sense, the United States and NATO have failed them. This is not for a lack of effort. I have seen exceptional men and women instruct and advise in Afghanistan, achieving tangible results at the brigade level and below. Where we have failed is in the incoherence and inability to translate tactical advising successes into strategic ones. Our overall policies in Afghanistan have been amorphous and shifting for over fifteen years and have been aptly described by Vanda Felbab-Brown as “largely a sequence of reflexive reactions in search of a strategy.” And where this dysfunction and disconnected policy has manifested itself most is within the advising mission, one of the most critical efforts by NATO forces, yet consistently marginalized in execution.
Why Current Advising Efforts Fall Short
Current conventional advising efforts tend to fall into three types of mission sets: classroom instruction on NATO or Afghan-adjacent bases; ground movement to Afghan corps-level bases, provincial police and security headquarters for garrison advising; and Expeditionary Advising Packages (EAPs), a fly-to-advise effort to provide immediate and tailored over-the-shoulder advising to brigade-sized elements conducting strategic operations in areas such as Uruzgan, Farah, Helmand, and Nangarhar Provinces.
I have personally participated in all three mission sets and see the inherent value of each of them. But the frustration comes from the seeming inability for each of these efforts to be properly coordinated into a coherent advising policy. Each type of advising offers a minimal amount of time to interact with Afghan counterparts, creating a repeating game of “Twenty-One Questions.”
Furthermore, each of the three advising mission sets have critical weaknesses. Classroom instruction provides much-needed skill development, but lacks the ability to assess whether the concepts taught are effectively implemented in real-world operations. Transport for Afghans to NATO bases is often a tedious process, and security measures at entry control points often lead to delays in getting students to their place of instruction. Ground movements to nearby Afghan bases help to fill this gap, but missions are often canceled due to weather, security concerns and VIP visits. Additionally, the reliance on local nationals as linguists results in the awkward situation of arriving to advise Afghan personnel with no linguist available (it happened to me more times than I care to admit). Often, the three sets are mixed with counterproductive results (such as attempting to provide classroom instruction during an EAP that focused on brigade clear-and-hold operations).
The Intelligence Problem
Much of my advising time was spent working with intelligence personnel. The challenges the US and NATO advising efforts faced in this field are substantial. Other advisers surely confronted their own unique obstacles, but intelligence-specific problems give a sense of the endemic issues the advising mission has struggled to overcome.
Within the Afghan security forces, intelligence remains more of a coveted item than a critical process and product for dissemination. Information is power, and can often lead to critical intelligence deliberately withheld in order to further an individual’s career. Furthermore, HUMINT source operations are not seen as solely the purview of military and police intelligence personnel.
Afghan National Defense and Security Forces tend to collect intelligence passively, often relying on sources whose motivations are purely financial. These sources are seldom vetted. I have witnessed brigade and corps G3s, unit commanders, and district and provincial chiefs of police operate extensive source networks, often receiving information in meetings via mobile phone. While the abundance of intelligence sources is apparent, the vast majority of them are not cross-queued, validated, or corroborated. The S2 and G2 sections have little oversight of these personally cultivated sources, and typically will not challenge what a senior officer says is the truth.
Complicating matters further is the lack of a robust central repository for intelligence reporting. The National Information Management System (NIMS) was supposed to be an answer to this, serving as an Afghan version of the US Army’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). NIMS would allow for real-time intelligence sharing and a suite of basic intelligence tools for Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior personnel. In the two Afghan Army Corps that I worked with the most, NIMS utilization was minimal, with printed reports hand carried from the G2 to the other staff sections. Additionally, the corps G2 directorate was quick to blame subordinate intelligence sections for not properly updating NIMS with timely reporting. The lack of reliable data connections also hampered the G2 staff from inputting reports into NIMS. In one of the G2 analysis sections I advised, there were three computers for ten intelligence personnel. In order to send emails or access NIMS or web-based geospatial software, the Afghan personnel had to plug and unplug the sole functioning data cable in the office to the workstation that required it.
Despite serious challenges, there has been some progress in improving Afghan intelligence. The National Directorate of Security has demonstrated itself a viable partner to NATO forces, maintaining extensive human intelligence networks and generally receptive to advising efforts. Younger ANA personnel are quick to grasp the fundamentals of intelligence analysis, though they are often stymied by a senior officer corps of former mujahedeen and Soviet-educated personnel. The Afghan National Army is slowly expanding its intelligence collection capabilities, with, for example, the fielding of the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial system and Wolfhound low-level voice interception systems, and broader use of the PC-12 manned surveillance platform. Effective utilization of these assets will require intensive effort by NATO advisers to ensure that there are effective processes in place to process, exploit and disseminate the output from these platforms and create effective intelligence products to support Afghan commanders.
The Poor Man’s Pillars of Wisdom
Advising Afghan security forces has been one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences of my military career. Comparatively speaking, eight months is not a long time to get a firm understanding of the advising mission, but I have learned my fair share of lessons firsthand, many of them the hard way. With that, below are a collection of the lessons I feel are most important for the next wave of advisers supporting Afghan forces:
Humility is an absolute necessity. Many of the Afghan officers, NCOs, and soldiers I worked with rotated in and out of frontline operations on a weekly basis. Many more had taken great personal risk to remain in the security forces, frequently receiving threats to themselves and their families. There are plenty of Afghan intelligence personnel who are military professionals—talented and qualified to practice their tradecraft, though it may not comport with Western conceptions.
Advisers shouldn’t fear “going primitive” in their assistance efforts. I have watched Resolute Support advisers attempt to ram US and NATO intelligence doctrine down the throats of Afghans. The last thing we need is to create another Death by PowerPoint military. Develop products in conjunction with Afghans, not in a vacuum. Observe their current tactics, techniques and procedures and work within them where applicable. Sometimes, this may require breaking out the grease pencils and acetate rather than pushing PowerPoint products. “Afghan good enough” has become a pejorative term in foreign policy and national security circles, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can create a carbon-copy staff section within the Afghan security forces, especially when most military advisers are deployed for nine-month rotations.
Think small, not grand. Advisers have a tendency to get caught up in sweeping “briefs well” projects. These have included establishing intelligence fusion centers and joint targeting cells. The proof of concepts look great in the comforts of a TAAC briefing room, but little account is taken for the realities on the ground. Many of these initiatives presuppose capabilities that are nonexistent. The single data connection in the corps intelligence analysis cell I mentioned earlier has tended to be the rule rather than the exception when it came to the availability of connectivity and communication between an ANA corps and its lower and higher echelons. Rather than present a sweeping project to reconfigure the Afghan intelligence enterprise, securing additional network connections through the Afghan G6 or working to develop a 24-hour capability for Afghan persistent surveillance systems (the latter proving to be a significant issue whenever the FOB I was advising at was mortared by insurgents) would receive more immediate and long-lasting return on investment for Afghan intelligence efforts.
Between Graveyard of Empires and Central Asian Valhalla: The Long-Term Way Ahead
Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is correct in asserting that more troops are necessary to effect a positive outcome, and equally correct in having their focus be on the Train, Advise, and Assist mission. But how many of the 5,000 requested soldiers would be used explicitly in this capacity? When I conducted advising missions, I was required to have two to four Guardian Angels present. I traveled in a multi-vehicle convoy of MRAPs just to visit the regional ANA headquarters. Advisers are lucky to get out three times a week to instruct or work with their counterparts, though this can be reduced to only once weekly depending on other circumstances (weather, holidays and VIP visits).
If the advising effort is expeditionary (that is, not within convoy distance from a large FOB), the adviser–to–non-adviser ratio in the advising mission becomes even more skewed. Aviation assets, logistics and sustainment personnel, and even field-deployable surgical teams are thrown into the advising package, on top of soldiers for force protection, creating an element that’s 95 percent sustainment and support and 5 percent advising. We have gone from catchy phrases translated into Dari and Pashto such as “shoulder to shoulder” or “all together” to “you go ahead, I’ll stay out of harm’s way.” It’s not an inspiring way to advise, and the Afghans can sense it.
If “train, advise, and assist” is the driving mission, the personnel deployed should reflect this—by increasing the number of actual advisers and instructors, from the battalion level to the Ministry of Defense. With this influx of advisers, risk aversion surrounding their missions must be loosened. An Australian officer once relayed to me that he should be living with his Afghan counterpart, building trust and demonstrating the “shoulder to shoulder” commitment we still preach emptily. A new Afghanistan strategy should consider establishing more permanent presences at corps- and brigade-level headquarters to provide continuity in advising and reassure Afghan security forces that our efforts don’t just amount to a “drive by” engagement during the fighting seasons or other crisis points.
Additionally, a plus-up of civilian personnel to augment any troop increase is an absolute necessity. The Afghan Army remains a well-trusted institution and force for good in the minds of the Afghan people; in my experience, they hold less favorable views of Afghan political leadership. That means that every step forward by Afghan military forces is prone to being dragged two steps back by incompetent leaders, rampant corruption, and opportunistic warlords masquerading as government officials. Sitting on the “politics by other means” bench, it’s not for me to say what sort of policies need to be implemented to further good governance. But the diplomatic and civilian advising support to the Afghan government is skeletal at best (and mostly absent from some Train, Advise, Assist Commands). That civilian effort is also vital to protecting military advances from backsliding. Security can be achieved by soldiers, but governance and rule of law is best set by civilians. State Department and USAID employees can fill the role in advising district, provincial, and national level figures far better than their military counterparts.
Speaking before Congress in 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that if the objective of operations in Afghanistan centered on “creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose.” Continuing down a path of overly ambitious and unrealistic advising initiatives, coupled with restricted advising divorced from tactical realities will guarantee that his prophecy comes true: we will lose. But the commencement in earnest of the annual Afghan fighting season offers an appropriate time to recognize that we still have an opportunity. With serious commitment to the advise/assist mission, tempered by practical expectations, NATO can effectively give Afghan security forces the support needed to make real security gains—an absolute necessity if the longest war in American history is to achieve lasting success.
Image credit: Kay M. Nissen, NATO