Holding the Government Accountable

U.S. Army Is Trying to Fix Its Afghanistan Trainers’ Career Cul-de-Sac

After 16 long years, it’s finally taking a different path
A U.S. soldier assigned to the 1st Security Assistance Force Brigade teaches his Afghan student how to call in air strikes in Kandahar. (Photo: U.S. Army, 2nd Battlaion, 1st SFAB)

The U.S. military, Pentagon wags will tell you, hasn’t been fighting a 16-year-long war in Afghanistan. Instead, it has fought 16 one-year wars, each chock-a-block full of new strategies and new leaders that last only until a new rotation of fresh troops arrive, who too often start over from scratch.

A key element has been the way the U.S. has staffed its training outfits, with pick-up teams of short-term U.S. trainers unable to build cohesive fighting units capable of prevailing over the Taliban. A key reason for that failure: The unappealing future career prospects for U.S. troops who choose to teach their Afghan allies the ways of war.

That’s ridiculous. Since the war began, U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the only way U.S. troops can come home is if they train enough Afghan troops well enough to defend their country. That’s why American taxpayers have pumped $70 billion into building Afghanistan’s own security forces. Given the high stakes and high costs, it’s amazing that those doing the training view the assignment as dead weight on their promotion prospects.

These so-called Security Sector Assistance (SSA) assignments “are currently not career enhancing for uniformed military personnel, regardless of the importance U.S. military leadership places on the mission,” the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted last fall. “Therefore, experienced and capable military professionals with SSA experience often choose non-SSA assignments later in their careers, resulting in the continual deployment of new and inexperienced forces for SSA missions.” Too often, those Americans have been “forced to learn on-the-job within their 6 to 12-month rotations, which led to many lessons being lost as individuals rotated out of country.”

Hardly a recipe for victory.

Since the war began, U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the only way U.S. troops can come home is if they train enough Afghan troops well enough to defend their country. Given the high stakes and high costs, it’s amazing that those doing the training view the assignment as dead weight on their promotion prospects.

The Army, at least, is finally, at last, agreeing with John Sopko, the special IG. It is now trying to begin turning things around in Afghanistan by deploying a first-ever unit of dedicated trainers. They’re volunteers, armed with cash bonuses and improved career prospects. The tweak is modest and is one of those small things buried deep down in the weeds. But it could have an outsize impact on the course of the conflict.

“By selecting only those willing to teach, these new units also have the potential of becoming an attractive destination for officers and soldiers with pedagogical talent and interest,” says Elisabeth Braw, who has studied the issue as a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. “We'll get better, more motivated instructors teaching partner forces. That, in turn, will lead to better results and make the instructor units a good career choice."

Then again, it may be too little, too late. Afghan security forces have been crippled by rampant casualties, corruption and illiteracy, which have led to annual attrition rates of about a third. “For nearly a decade, top U.S. military leaders have provided wildly optimistic assessments of the capabilities of the Afghan security forces and downplayed the status of the Taliban’s insurgency,” long-time terror-war-watcher Bill Roggio wrote on his Long War Journal website Mar. 30. “Yet the Taliban is stronger today than at any point since the initial U.S. invasion.”

After denouncing the Afghan war as a candidate, President Trump last August ordered reinforcements for the 14,000 U.S. troops there. The Army is responding by pushing these roughly 800 dedicated trainers closer to the front lines.

The Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), which is just beginning operations in Afghanistan, is the tip of this newly-sharpened American spear. The unit, championed by Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, is slated to train Afghan troops at remote outposts across the country on infantry tactics as well as artillery, intelligence, engineering and logistics.

Amazingly, the unit “is the first permanent unit of its kind in the U.S. Army, solely dedicated to advising and assisting partner nations in developing their security force capability from the tactical to ministerial level,” the Army says. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, the U.S. has always acknowledged that indigenous forces are the key to victory (or at least not losing) and that U.S. troops were there to help them prevail. But without dedicated “teacher corps,” that goal has often slipped through the cracks.

The 1st SFAB is slated to get its hands dirty. “Instead of advising high-ranking Afghan commanders, as is done now, the new brigade will work with battalion-level personnel,” Stars and Stripes reported Feb. 22. “U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have often cited this as a vital, missing component of their advising efforts.”

The Army has tried to sell its soldiers, many of whom were toddlers when the war began, on the scheme. “The plan recognizes the new reality of America at war: Army soldiers are more often training and building local security forces rather than doing the fighting for them on foreign soil,” the Army told them as it put together the force. “It replaces what has been a hodgepodge of programs over the past dozen years with projections for five new, permanent, fully-trained brigades that can be deployed around the world as professional advisers.”

Fine. But how do you convince skeptical GIs to sign up for the mission? Like any rational actor, those assignments that yield promotions attract the best people for extended and repeated tours. In the military—where troops spend hours trying to figure out what assignments will lead to their next promotion—a career-killing assignment is one that no one wants, which has hurt training efforts in Afghanistan.

So the Army enticed non-commissioned officers into the unit with $5,000 bonuses. It established a Military Training Adviser Academy at Fort Benning, Ga., to prepare them for their new assignments, which are supposed to stretch to two years or more. (Fort Benning, historically known as “The Home of the Infantry,” has a new, additional name, according to an internal briefing: “Home of the Combat Adviser”.)

The service has accelerated promotions and postponed education requirements for soldiers who sign up. The Army also plans to make permanent note of academy graduates in their personnel files. That gives the service “the ability to give special guidance to a promotion board, that we want to select those officers,” the Army’s top personnel officer told the independent Army Times newspaper last fall.

“Soldiers in SFABs are combat advisors, not nation builders,” one Army re-enlistment website said, echoing Trump’s pledge when he decided to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It sweetened the deal with the promise of language, cultural and “special weapons” training. The Army’s NCO Journal reported on the “automatic” promotions for young soldiers joining the brigade.

But soldiers are skeptics. "There is natural apprehension in the field: 'Is this a flash in the pan?' It's not a flash in the pan," Gen. Robert Abrams, chief of the U.S. Army Forces Command, said as the new unit came together. “This is going to be an enduring capability.”

And soldiers, like the rest of us, like to be singled out as special. So these dedicated advisers sport a new shoulder patch and what the Army initially called, vaguely, a “distinctive colored beret.”

Army patches
The Army’s newest trainers, now in Afghanistan, wear patches modeled after those worn by U.S. advisers in Vietnam a half-century ago. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The patch “is modeled after the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V) insignia to convey a similar mission and heritage,” according to the Army. The colorless beret reference sparked a rumor that they’d be green—always fighting words for the hallowed Green Berets. That forced Milley to issue a statement declaring the new beret “will be brown and will not be green or any shade of green…there was no intent to dishonor or misappropriate the Green Beret of U.S. Army Special Forces and all it stands for."

Special inspector general Sopko sees the new unit as “a positive first step.” But it’s also “a long-overdue step,” says John Nagl, a retired Army officer who literally co-wrote the Army’s counter-insurgency manual. “It will take dedicated leadership over decades to change our culture and build, not the military required to fight the big wars that thrill our imagination, but the advisory forces we need to win the wars that we are actually tasked to fight.”

Back in Afghanistan, the 1st SFAB is getting to work just as the spring fighting season opens, well ahead of schedule. A year ago this week, Col. Scott Jackson, the brigade commander, told his incoming soldiers that they wouldn’t be ready for action until at least November 2018. But in its speed to salute Trump’s push for a new Afghan strategy, the Pentagon has cut the not-fully-staffed Army unit’s training by six months to rush it into the fight.

Seems somehow fitting that after 16 years of fits-and-starts training efforts, that the U.S. would deploy its first-ever dedicated training unit six months before it completed its own training on how to train.