According to a 2017 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, the U.S. has invested more than $100 billion in training and equipping security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since operations began there in 2002. To say results are mixed is a severe understatement.
Both countries have required the continued presence—and in Iraq, a return—of thousands of American service members to bolster local military and police forces with training and resources, aimed at regaining lost territory and repelling adversaries. With more troops deploying, the investment continues. According to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, security force assistance—an effort plagued by poor resources and manning for more than a decade—is the key to moving forward.
Enter the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), the Army’s first unit of its kind. While the U.S. has a long history of advisory operations (in post-World War II Europe and Japan, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries), the SFAB marks the first instance of a permanent organization dedicated solely to foreign advisory operations.
Established in 2017 at Fort Benning, Ga., the 1st SFAB was officially activated Feb. 12 ahead of a deployment to Afghanistan. At Fort Bragg, N.C., the 2nd SFAB is being stood up, and four more are scheduled to follow over the coming years.
Responses to this new organization have been equal parts dismissal and praise. Some of the concern is founded on skepticism following years of advisory missteps and perceptions that assignment to these units is an unproven path to promotion and command selection. But there is cause for optimism as well.
Set as a priority by Milley himself, the 1st SFAB is fully staffed with proven leaders at every level, covering all core functions and specialties the Army has to offer. To offset the risks of deploying months ahead of schedule, the 1st SFAB rapidly integrated new people and equipment, and it completed a uniquely tailored certification exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., in January.
The larger issue is not whether the 1st SFAB will succeed during its first deployment, but whether this new type of organization will survive first contact and set conditions for victory in Afghanistan. While no list of requirements and lessons could ever guarantee success, the following are imperatives the Army must take to heart as it embarks on this challenge.
1. Define and Commit to Achieving Success
According to most accounts, the 1st SFAB is the tip of the spear in a newly energized Afghanistan strategy—one expressly committed to seeing Afghan security forces leading the fight on their home turf. To ensure the SFAB is best employed, its deployment should be preceded by a strategy that clearly articulates what success looks like. Thinking in traditional strategic framework terms, the means (SFAB) and ways (advise, assist, accompany) have been clearly communicated time and again. A desired and satisfactory end state—the ends—is more challenging to pin down, and trying to fashion an outcome while the plane is in flight is problematic.
Committing to achieving success is also elusive. The high caliber of people assigned to the 1st SFAB demonstrates institutional commitment and marks a positive shift from the haphazard way advisers were assigned in previous advisory efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That must be paired with adequate time to achieve target outcomes. Frequent unit rotations and personnel turnover force adviser commanders into an exhausting cycle of continuous rapport-building, disrupting the continuum of development. At best, a single deployment achieves intermediate goals, but those goals should follow a logical path to success. To make the SFAB worthwhile, the Army must define success and commit to achieving it.
2. Optimize the SFAB and Its People for Success
It is no surprise that such a niche advise-and-assist capability requires people with the right disposition—patient and able to earn trust, build rapport and communicate effectively—and that may prove more important than demonstrated expertise in their career fields. This makes the screening and selection process for advisers critical. This is a quality-versus-quantity scenario, and the SFABs have a system in place to address this important issue. But screening and selection is just the first step. Once on the team, the players must be developed and trained for success.
Lessons from past U.S. advisory missions point to the importance of preparing advisers specifically for the environment in which they will operate. This means more than just physical environment. It also includes language, culture and social dynamics.
The SFAB’s current training model addresses this issue well, and proponents of the SFAB have touted a deeper commitment to developing adviser expertise through a balanced approach to language, culture and tactical training. The establishment of the Military Advisor Training Academy is proof of that commitment; however, the pitfall to avoid is rushing or curtailing the training to support a deployment before the SFAB is ready. The Army has assumed risk already by significantly reducing 1st SFAB’s training timeline before it deployed in February.
The level of talent, experience and enthusiasm within the 1st SFAB’s ranks will likely balance out some of the risk, but that may not be the case moving forward. The best way for the SFAB proponents to break the cycle of skepticism is to make a real commitment to training and equipping assigned personnel. As the Army builds the 2nd SFAB, and looks to create four more, the best way to generate support and attract more talent is to demonstrate a genuine commitment to providing advisers with the right tools and training for the job.
3. Reduce Dependency on Adviser Capabilities
T.E. Lawrence concluded over 100 years ago that an adviser must seek to improve the advised unit within the limits of the advised commander’s resources. This is no small paradigm shift, since it is no secret that American enablers and advisers have been directly involved in fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq against adversaries such as the Islamic State group and the Taliban. By providing thoughtful counsel, expert training assistance and limiting the degree of direct U.S. 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 U.S. advisers have gone.
To be clear, a balance must be struck. American advisers must work within host-nation systems and resource limitations, but also know when to deliver support to prevent catastrophic failure. Making further development progress is unlikely if the advised force is locked in a battle for survival. However, the SFAB’s ultimate aim should be to develop advised forces to a point where American assistance is no longer needed. Finding the balance requires hard decisions and strong relationships between adviser and advisee. The SFAB’s leaders are uniquely suited for this tough task.
Toward Lasting Advisory Success
There is little reason to doubt the 1st SFAB will be successful in its inaugural advisory run—the unit is full of talented, driven individuals with proven success, and behind them is the full weight and support of the Army’s senior leaders. The advisers have been screened, tested and trained, and the organization is eager to cut its teeth in a place where victory has proven elusive. Many members of the team have a vested interest, as they have covered the terrain before as advisers operating in a different framework.
But one year (or however long the deployment might be) of success stories and localized security gains does not strategic victory make. The value and viability of the SFAB concept in total requires more. The overall strategy must include a potentially long-term commitment and a clear description of victory—the Army’s commitment in talent, time and treasure to bring the SFAB to fruition merits nothing less.