The United States has invested more than $100 billion in training and equipping security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past sixteen years. The result? ISIS swiftly defeated the Iraqi Army in 2014, securing large swaths of land, and requiring international intervention. Since the US presence began decreasing in Afghanistan in 2015, the Taliban have steadily forced the Afghan Security Forces out of rural areas, gaining control of vast portions of the country. An additional 3,500 US service members will soon be en route to reverse this trend. The $100 billion spent to date is a milestone, not a final bill.

Few would argue that US training efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been an unqualified success. But the Army now has an opportunity to shore up this critical capability with the activation of the new Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) this year, and with five more to come. The SFABs are aimed at filling a gap between conventional forces’ partnered operations and Special Forces’ Foreign Internal Defense. To do this, the Army must address lessons learned from more than seven decades of advisory operations—some successful, some not—to make sure the same pitfalls are avoided.

The 1st SFAB was established earlier this year at Fort Benning, Georgia, and will be officially activated this month. Sometime in 2018, it will deploy to Afghanistan as the spear of the US Army’s latest experiment with advisory missions. While the United States has a long history of advisory operations, (post-WWII Europe and Japan, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), the creation of the SFAB marks a significant departure from the traditional US approach to advising. This is the first instance of the US military creating a permanent, US-based organization of conventional force personnel with the sole function of advisory operations in support of partner nations. While the Korean Military Advisor Group and Military Assistance Advisory Corps-Vietnam were each around for several years between the 1950s and 1970s, they were manned by a rotating cast of individual replacements assigned to an organization that was resident in the nation being supported.

The current evolution of the SFAB generally marks the fourth attempt at tackling the advise-and-assist mission set since the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first was the ad hoc, name-changing efforts early on in both countries (MiTT, AST, PATT, etc.) that saw poorly manned and ill-trained teams training host nation forces with negligible results. The crumbling of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, and the general inability of the Afghan security forces to thwart any Taliban attack are solid proof. Poor results came from a combination of the mixed quality of personnel assigned to the mission and the rush to deploy the teams before they were adequately trained or were able to develop any level of cohesion. While many of the advisors were exceptional officers and NCOs, the mission construct did not set them up well for success.

The second advising effort repurposed Brigade Combat Teams as SFABs. This requires units to train core competencies leading up to a deployment, with a late shift to preparing for advisory missions towards the end of a training cycle. At places like the Joint Readiness Training Center and the National Training Center, these repurposed BCTs undergo rigorous training and evaluation on advisory missions during what are known as “mission readiness exercises.” (To date, no BCT has ever “failed” a mission readiness exercise) With the return to “decisive action” training rotations beginning in the 2015–2016 timeframe, mission readiness exercises once again focus on core warfighting skills, with advising taking a back seat to more traditional combined arms maneuver. Using BCTs in the SFAB role sees units stripped of leadership, as there is little need for junior soldiers to participate in a mission that requires more seasoned and experienced leaders. In terms of readiness—the Army’s top priority—this saw huge numbers of underemployed soldiers remaining at home station under the command of a skeleton crew of officer and NCO leadership, unable to effectively train on core collective tasks. The idea of sustained readiness in this model is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Third, running concurrent with the previous two, is the AFPAK Hands program, which sought to assign select personnel for four-year periods, alternating between language and cultural training in the United States followed by one-year deployments to Afghanistan. As a joint force endeavor, the investment in training has been commendable. However, lower than average promotion and command selection rates prevent the program from attracting the right volume of needed talent. Though still around, this program isn’t one that gets much support or emphasis anywhere in the Army.

The Army’s advisory efforts in our recent wars have been inconsistently executed and produced mixed long-term results. The value of the SFAB experiment will be determined by how well the Army understands lessons learned from successful past examples while avoiding the pitfalls that plagued the efforts that did not fare so well. Five lessons in particular must guide the 1st SFAB as it prepares to deploy in less than a year, and should inform planners’ decision making as they stand up the five remaining SFABs.

Lesson 1 – Effective advisory missions rely on high-caliber, well-trained, and committed individuals who demonstrate competence as advisors; furthermore, the advisory mission must endure long enough to ensure success.

The primary hurdles of the advising Army revolve around ensuring the right people are selected and trained adequately to perform the required advisory duties, and committing to the advisory mission long enough to have enduring positive effects. While historical accounts make a strong case for seeking volunteers, achieving full manning will require both volunteers and involuntary assignments. This makes a screening and selection process for advisors critical, because there is little evidence to support the notion that someone who has demonstrated a mastery of their core job will be as successful in a completely unrelated field. Related, a successful service member lacking the disposition or desire to serve as an advisor may have difficulty making the transition to an advising role. This is a quality versus quantity scenario, and as mentioned earlier, the SFAB has a system in place already to address this very important issue. The American experience in El Salvador demonstrates that small numbers of advisors, when well trained and committed to the advisory mission, can have significant and enduring positive effects.

To the same effect, frequent rotation of units and personnel create a “one step forward, two back” scenario as the advised commander is forced into a cycle of continuous rapport building, disrupting the continuum of development progression. As an example, the United States has been performing some manner of advisory missions in Colombia and South Korea since the mid-twentieth century. While the latter relies primarily on conventional forces for partnered operations, in the former, advising is primarily done by Special Forces units on nearly continuous rotations, with the same people often returning for repeat deployments. The success in El Salvador required twelve years of continuous advisory support, again primarily performed by Special Forces personnel conducting repeat deployments. Though time doesn’t guarantee success—as seen in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan to date—it is a critical component when paired with the right advisors.

Through a combination of the early screening to identify the best personnel, the SFAB has an opportunity to get the manning right. For the Army to maintain this system long enough to achieve success will be a significant hurdle moving forward. Without an end strength growth to support the reassignment of over 3,000 officers and NCOs—the total required for all six SFABs—the Army will need to balance talent among competing demands or accept risk in others to best equip the SFAB.

Lesson 2 – The advisory force cannot be general purpose—it must be tailored for the specific environment into which it will deploy.

Lessons from Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan all reinforce the importance of having a deep understanding of the advised nation’s culture and language, indicating that proficiency in cultural understanding is at least equally important to tactical and technical expertise. Achieving this understanding is deeper than just local social customs and courtesies. Advisors must understand the dynamics of formal and informal power structures, be able to grasp the real threats the advised force is facing, and be attuned to the relationships between local, regional, and national military and government leadership. Some of this can only be gained with time on the ground, but hitting the ground knowing the importance of achieving this understanding is paramount.

Beyond the cultural and social dynamics, advisors must understand the nuances of the force with which they will be embedded. Like any military force, quality and capability among advised units will vary as a result of differences in leadership, manning, training, and equipment. This must be taken into account when developing the benchmarks and goals for the advisory mission. Because of the variation between organizations, it is a fallacy to assume a general manner of advising can or should be applied across all forces. The SFAB’s current training model addresses this issue well. The pitfall to avoid is rushing or curtailing the training to support a deployment before the SFAB is ready.

Lesson 3 – The highest degree of competence and effectiveness that an advised force can achieve when operating independently is better than any level of readiness that relies on US assets (to a degree).

At all costs, American advisors must avoid creating the perception (or reality) that they are the dominant or controlling partner, with host nation forces reliant on US presence and support for planning and conducting operations. From T.E. Lawrence’s writings on his experience a hundred years ago, to current lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, a recurring theme is that the advisor must seek to improve operations of the advised unit within the limits of the advised commander’s resources. Trying to create new versions of the American army often leads to temporary and disappointing results—or worse, no results at all. This is a huge hurdle to overcome, since it is no secret that American enablers of all flavors (close air support, logistics, medical, and artillery) have been made readily available, when needed, to ensure Iraqi and Afghan counterpart success.

Ultimately, the aim of the advisor should be to work him or herself out of a job, with continued American assistance unnecessary. By providing solid counsel, reinforcing positive command habits, and limiting the degree of direct US involvement, the advised commander will have the opportunity to develop ways and means to plan and conduct operations more effectively, within the constraints that will remain once US advisors have gone. The advised force need not become a small version of the US military. They are better served, and will serve better, when they maximize their own resources and learn to think through operations within the context of their particular area of assignment.

A balance must be struck here. In Iraq, ISIS would likely have achieved much greater success had the US and international partners not directly intervened on behalf of the Iraqi Army and Government. In Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to gain ground, even with the ongoing advisory effort. This relates directly to staying the course for the right amount of time: American advisors must work within host nation systems and resource constraints, but also know when to call in support to prevent catastrophic failure.

Lesson 4 – On a larger scale, the advisory mission cannot rely solely on military and security forces.

This factor lies beyond the scope of the Army to manage or direct internally, but it should certainly be a matter of discussion at the Department of Defense level. Systemic cronyism, corruption, and criminal behavior across the governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan have stunted the advisory effort at the national levels of each of their governments, and if El Salvador’s example holds true, that behavior trickles down. Military and security forces represent the host nation government, and popular distrust of government in general diminishes trust in the military and security forces in particular. A worse possibility is security forces mimicking such behavior and further eroding trust in security forces leadership. The case of the advisory effort achieving such effective outcomes in El Salvador is impressive, but also a bit misleading. While there was a small group of Special Forces advisors dedicated to the military, a complementary effort by non-military American advisors demonstrated equal commitment to fixing the rampant institutional corruption.

Because Iraq and Afghanistan both face systemic issues across the breadth and depth of their governments—from local police and militaries to regional leadership and the national government—the United States must sustain its commit to a whole-of-government approach to advising. This is no easy task in countries where bribery or tribute payments are cultural norms, viewed locally as forms of respect rather than as illegal or undesirable. Gaining buy-in from other American government agencies should not fall on the SFAB command or Department of Defense.

Lesson 5 – Like all military endeavors, the advisory mission must be undertaken with a clear objective in mind, with consistent and reasonable intermediate metrics to determine effectiveness over time.

A sure way to set any military endeavor up for failure is to send forces out without a clear purpose. While the task to be performed (advising) is surely important, the ultimate goal and reason for the task drives the nature by which the task is performed. Here, the lesson draws from the basic idea of strategy requiring harmony among the ends, ways, and means, and managing the associated risk of one of those three pillars potentially being out of balance. The danger is identifying the means (SFAB) and ways (rotational, dedicated advisory mission) before clearly articulated ends have been established. Perhaps in this case, reverse engineering the end state is the most honest and reasonable method. But regardless of the direction the formula is worked, eventually the SFAB must be given reasonable and clear objectives.

Regarding metrics, Afghanistan demonstrates the folly of using inconclusive data to showcase progress, an issue captured in a report last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. For the past half-dozen years or more, internal US assessments have continually painted a positive picture of progress across the Afghan National Security Forces, but the data never articulated whether the ANSF were actually better able to plan and conduct operations.

In the end, the SFAB has incredible potential to rectify pitfalls of advisory efforts of the past sixteen years. To accomplish this important but daunting task, the Army will need to address several pressing matters that cover everything from the selection and training of the individual advisor, to organizational structure and requirements, as well as the end state or objectives of the advisory mission. The long-term viability and potential for the SFABs, particularly as they branch out to other regions with considerably different security situations, will depend on the whether it can do so.

Maj. Rick Montcalm is a scholar with the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY. An Armor Officer by trade, he has served in Armor, Infantry, and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, with operational experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.

Image credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, US Army


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