Less than a month after announcing the upcoming deployments of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan to relieve existing forces ahead of the spring fighting season, the Army says those soldiers will be accompanied by a fresh batch of combat advisors. The coming deployment marks a historic first: On Jan. 11, the branch announced the deployment of roughly 500 specially trained soldiers with the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), to provide training and advisory functions for the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces.
The cream of the U.S. Army’s conventional forces, the Fort Benning-based brigade’s deployment marks the first part of the branch’s new emphasis on “advise-and-assist” missions articulated by Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley in October 2017. While the Army has stood up training brigades under the SFAB moniker before, the new unit marks a significant investment into a new organizational structure, pre-deployment training, logistics, and readiness. “The need [for advise-and-assist missions] has been there for a long time, and we have met that need,” Milley said, “but we have met it in the last 16 years through ad hoc measures, in my view, and I’ve been a participant in that.”
Now is the time, according to Army leaders, to finally make a real, substantive push to build up regional security forces — and, in turn, finally free the U.S. military from guard duty in Afghanistan. The 1st SFAB’s mission is a critical one: to build the capacity and readiness of Afghan security forces rather than simply annihilate insurgent groups like the Taliban and ISIS. Teaching Afghan security forces to fight means, inevitably, avoiding the brutal, entrenched insurgencies that took root following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011 and the end of NATO combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.
“We’ve leveraged experts across the formations, across DoD, from different branches, from the special operations community, from academia, from former advisors and their battle buddies,” 1st SFAB Deputy Commander Col. Bryan Chivers told Task & Purpose in an interview. “[Advise and assist] is not a new concept, but what SFAB has done is gone out and built infrastructure for a long-term and enduring requirement that we’re probably gonna have —and that shows commitment right there, that shows how serious we are about this.”
“When it comes to train, advise, and assist, the Army clearly considers us to be a very important mission in order to build an entirely new organization and force structure to support that,” 1st SFAB spokesman Maj. Matthew Fontaine told Task & Purpose. “We’re excited to be the first one out of the gate.”
After decades of problematic training efforts abroad, the performance of the SFAB downrange will prove a moment of truth for whether the United States can advise and assist its way out of a forever war against global terror and instability. But several seasoned combat advisors who deployed to Afghanistan on such training missions during the drawdown of U.S. forces aren’t holding their breath.
“If you ask anyone about whether they think this is a good idea, some will be optimistic, some will reserve comments, and others will say this isn’t going to work, but none of us want this to fail,” said one active-duty combat advisor who spoke to Task & Purpose under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the matter. “Regardless of how little we think it will succeed, we still want it to work. Everybody wants it to work.”
Meet the SFAB
The SFABs represent the first stand-alone training-and-advisory brigades in modern U.S. history. While the new brigades have been in development since June 2016 and Milley stood up the 1st SFAB at Fort Benning in February 2017, the branch quickly accelerated the fielding of the assistance brigades the following October, just six weeks after President Donald Trump unveiled a “conditions-based” Afghanistan strategy that rejected a set time constraint on the U.S. troop presence there.,
“Since activating, we’ve been conducting individual and small-unit training on advisor skills like building relationships, leader engagement, managing and communicating through interpreters, developing training plans, and planning a partnered operation,” Fontaine said. “Currently, we are at the Joint Readiness Training Center for our collective mission readiness exercise.”
Ranging 400 to 500 senior officers and noncommissioned officers — a Jan. 21 Washington Post report indicates the 1st SFAB is composed of 36 teams of 12 soldiers apiece — SFAB soldiers are plucked from the best in the Army’s infantry and armor branches and selected along similar criteria to U.S. Special Operations Command personnel and evaluated based on Ranger regimental physical fitness requirements. “In a brigade combat team commanded by a colonel, you have infantry, armor, logistics, engineering, artillery,” Chivers told Task & Purpose. “We’re just the headquarters of those. It’s much smaller, but with all the leadership and expertise that’s resident to a BCT.”
The SFAB itself is designed on the brigade combat team model and organized in the same vein as the 75th Ranger Regiment, with its own staff, support, and intelligence elements. Soldiers complete special training at a brand new Military Advisor Training Academy, including “language, foreign weapons and the Joint Fires Observer course.” Those who join the new SFABs receive “the best, most advanced military equipment available,” the branch said in a statement, and the SFAB has its own logistics apparatus ready to prep them for deployment.
By Chivers’ description, the SFAB training has been part tactical and part philosophical. “In training, we’re looking at an individual component: What makes a good advisor?” he told Task & Purpose. “There are academic and practical exercises, negotiations, language elements, a collective component that includes medical training and lethality for force protection. But then there’s subject-matter expertise depending on individual rank and specialty, and we’re trained to operate in field environments and academic environments. And when I say academic, I mean literally: In some cases, we’re sitting together in small groups figuring out how to solve certain problems.”
But apart from advanced training and extra resources, the dedicated logistics and support structures are essential: The Army wants to stand up SFABs without mixing and matching soldiers from larger combat teams — and, in turn, sacrificing the readiness of both units. Indeed, the Washington Post indicates that each 12-man team deploys with a dedicated medic, intelligence officer, and joint terminal attack controller to call in close air support.
“I want to stop ripping apart conventional brigade combat teams, which is what we have been doing for 16 years,” Milley said. “We only have X amount of these brigade combat teams and if we take a whole bunch of them and we shred them, take their leadership apart, and they go through an exercise and we call them ‘advisers,’ then you’re essentially reducing your ground combat capability by whatever amount you commit to that task.”
Indeed, combat advisors indicated to Task & Purpose that this standalone organization may be the best hope to overcome not just obstacles regarding capabilities and readiness, but operational issues that crop up well after each SFAB actually deploys downrange. According to the infantry officer, mixed units are hamstrung by their lack of dedicated logistics and force-protection resources — not for lack of supplies, but lack of authority: SFAB training objectives tended to diverge from the battlespace owners who have the ultimate say over U.S. forces in a given area of operations — the brigades were never the top priority when it came assets like close air support, a critical part of the patrols that are an essential metric for the performance of Afghan security forces.
“If the effort will be to train Afghan security forces, then the SFAB should be battlespace owners. Otherwise, if you’re seen as secondary to a two-star general on the ground, he’ll give you housing and security but look you in the eye and say, ‘your mission is to fight the Taliban,’” the infantry officer said, recalling his own experiences from a 2014 deployment with an SFAB team.
When asked about the issue, Chivers responded that battleship ownership “is not one of our fortes” and that the 1st SFAB wasn’t totally postured for it. “We’re prepared to do whatever we’re asked when we’re over there, but the primary purpose for us over there is to train, advise, assist, accompany, and enable, and we’re pretty specific to those five,” he told Task & Purpose, invoking his commanding officer, 1st SFAB Col. Scott Jackson: “We’re not expected to be tacticians. We have to be the good doers, but in this job, we really have to be good teachers.”
The mission continues
Despite over $70 billion spent over 16 years, the Afghan security forces remain as embarrassingly ill-prepared today as they were during the 2014 NATO withdrawal that allowed the Taliban to reassert itself in a majority of the country and effectively wipe out years of military gains made by the U.S.-led coalition. Corruption was so entrenched on the unit and ministerial level that the Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan was unable to even track actual Afghan force numbers, let alone weapons and ammo; Afghan army units faced high desertion rates, and those recruits who actually showed up to U.S.-led training exercises in the early years failed miserably to meet training standards.
“Afghanistan has this extreme bureaucracy, and when you factor in corruption and literacy rates, you get a situation where ghost soldiers and bad equipment accountability are just inevitable,” one former Army infantry officer and combat advisor who deployed twice to Afghanistan before separating in 2015 told Task & Purpose. “It was just tolerated because, well, a cultural difference and therefore somebody else’s problem. But now it’s actually causing problems because the local populace sees the U.S. supporting these predatory commanders.”
While Chivers said that there’s accountability enforced “at all levels,” he added that the 1st SFAB plans on approaching the endemic corruption of Afghan security forces with a “culturally minded” approach. “We’re trying to be culturally sensitive and culturally aware,” he told Task & Purpose, invoking Jackson again: “Whenever we see an issue, we should try, as my boss says, to ‘reach into my toolbag and pull out the Afghan tool for that challenge.’ Hopefully, we’ll give them the tools to allow them to fix stuff themselves.”
That the conventional Afghan forces are in garbage shape is because, as Marty Skovlund observed in Afghanistan at the end of 2017, “they have not had the benefit of 15 years of the most elite ranks of the American military training them.” Indeed, the September 2017 SIGAR report indicates that the only Afghan security forces to truly mature into a formidable unit are the Afghan special forces, trained by both soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and 3rd Special Forces Group.
“U.S. Army Special Forces has been trained over years for that specific task,” Milley himself even admitted as much during his Jan. 17 remarks. “But that task is bigger than what the United States Army Special Forces’ capacity is and de facto over the last 16 years, the majority — not all — but the majority of our Special Forces for train, advise and assist has been focused on the indigenous special forces.”
Like Milley said, focusing special operations forces on training-and-advisory missions doesn’t scale, especially as SOCOM finds itself stretched thin by multiple and varied deployments worldwide. To that end, 1st SFAB exists not just to fix the Afghan security forces by replicating the few successes building up Afghan commandos, but improving the Army’s own readiness and lethality by allowing conventional units and special operations forces to actually focus on getting their respective jobs done.
Advise and persist
Despite the influx of resources accompanying the SFAB downrange and the enthusiasm of senior branch leaders, combat advisors still have their doubts about the new unit’s success. For a significant population of officers and senior NCOs, especially those who have deployed in similar roles in the past, “advise and assist” is no strategic game-changer despite the hopes of Pentagon planners far from the battlefields. Rather, it’s an “easy button to push,” as a former Army combat advisor with experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan told Task & Purpose. “It sounds low risk and not expensive, even when it is, it’s not going away whether it succeeds or fails.”
For most combat advisors, the next push for a transition to military advisors won’t be unlike the 2011 drawdown: It will depend almost entirely on whether the Afghans themselves are up to the task. “The Afghan government seems unwilling to fix [corruption], I think partly because they have no incentive to,” the infantry officer told Task & Purpose. “We keep pouring money into them regardless of any improvement in ANDSF readiness or results when it comes to combating corruption.”
“There needs to be better oversight of Afghan corruption and better teams embedded with the Afghans, but this has to happen from the Afghan end,” he added. “If there’s no accountability, then there’s no public support for the security forces and the entire mission falls apart.”
In other cases, career concerns actually end up distorting how an SFAB’s impact is actually measured and evaluated — and not on the Afghan side: For senior officers and NCOs who joined SFABs as a stepping stone in their military career, their future is tied to the SFAB’s perceived success downrange. “As an advisor, you have to rate the Afghan forces, and you cannot downgrade them,” the infantry officer told Task & Purpose. “As a result, there’s lots of inaccurate information passed up the chain; hell, if the unit before you fudged the numbers, you’re not allowed to downgrade them back to an accurate assessment.”
Whether or not the first SFAB succeeds, the Army plans on fielding five more brigades by 2024. On Jan. 17, Milley revealed that the branch is in the process of standing up the 3rd SFAB, with the 4th and 5th SFABs aiming for a 2019 arrival. “These units will help us achieve the national security objectives by, with, and through allied and partnered indigenous security forces for the next 25-50 years,” Milley claimed in a statement accompanying the deployment announcement. And that mindset, Chivers says, has been baked into every aspect of the 1st SFAB’s development.
“We don’t feel any pressure or anything,” he told Task & Purpose. “We’re just laser focused on doing our job because we know there could be another partner force waiting for us later on. We’re trying to be good enough for this job and general enough for the job of the future.”
And maybe, just maybe, the SFAB will be different from previous training missions. Despite the lessons learned from Afghanistan, the SFABs are still in new territory.
“We’re the newest and first organization designed from the ground up to conduct this specific type of mission, and we want to break new ground,” he told Task & Purpose. “We don’t want to be like other units. We want to be like the 1st SFAB.”
Task & Purpose Senior Pentagon correspondent Jeff Schogol contributed reporting.