The Army is creating a new kind of large unit for a mission that American troops have performed for decades: helping troops of friendly foreign nations train and fight.
One of the Security Force Assistance Brigades, or “SFABs,” is being formed now at Fort Bragg. The very first is based at Fort Benning, Georgia, and is completing its training for a spring deployment to Afghanistan. The brigade that’s being built up at Bragg will be the second, then three more are planned, including one that will be a National Guard unit. Each is expected to have about 800 soldiers.
The United States has long used combat advisors, sending to help foreign militaries for decades, from post-war Germany, to Vietnam-era Southeast Asia and Iraq.
It has been deploying advisors to Afghanistan for much of the 16-year-old war there, but the work has mainly been done by troops pulled temporarily from standard infantry units.
The Army wants to shift away from that, because it disrupts those units.
It also believes that permanent advisor brigades will perform better, partly because they’re being trained specifically for the role, and will have their own, familiar command structure.
And the soldiers in the units are being chosen because they’re willing, and suited for the work.
Training Emphasizes Developing Relationships, Other Cultural Norms
On a recent night during training at Fort Polk, Maj. Jason Moncuse sat at a table in a makeshift headquarters with an Afghan actor playing the role of a commander from his own nation’s army. Through a Dari-speaking interpreter they traded small talk.
“Oh, and if you could, also submit this tourist visa to the U.S.,” the commander said. “Oh, so you want a tourist visa?” said Moncuse.
The chatting wasn’t aimless, though. Through its new, permanent units of combat advisors, the Army is essentially weaponizing chitchat.
It’s part of Afghan culture to spend a significant amount of time developing a relationship before getting down to business.
The U.S. military and its allies began building the Afghan National Army more than a decade ago, but it still isn’t able to stand on its own.
Moncuse’s newly-formed unit hopes to help fix that.
He volunteered in part because of his experiences as a combat advisor on an earlier deployment in Iraq.
“You get to learn what they’re doing, you get to interact with your counterparts on a daily basis and you can actually see changes,” he said. “You see that rapport building, you see them doing things they weren’t doing before and it’s a satisfying experience.”
He expects that being part of a larger unit, integrated at all levels of the Afghan Army, will make him more effective this time.
“What I like about this concept is, now you have higher echelons to report to,” Moncuse said. “In the past you would just go out, you would do your thing and you would just in send a report, and you didn’t have that support network to reach out to.
“But now, with everyone in planning at different echelons, I have a route, an avenue to push forward,” he said. “So if we run into an issue I can reach out, I can go to that next higher command who they’re advising as well and they can help us they can follow through, and if we’re having issues, paperwork or whatever they can reach out to the other teams and see if they’re having the same problems.”
Colonel Scott Jackson is the commander of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, the first of the new advisor brigades, or SFABs.
His soldiers have been getting special foreign language training and learning to work with foreign weapons, and specialized training in advising.
The Army built it mostly with unusually experienced volunteers, most of them combat veterans and many of them with past experience as advisors. And they were essentially handpicked.
"We want personality characteristics of empathy and flexibility and patience,” he said. “This is kind of built into this organization by the age of the people we hire, largely.”
Major Moncuse, for example, is a company commander, a position usually held by captains, one rank lower.
In the SFAB, many roles will performed by someone a rank higher than normal, or with enough experience to be promoted.
And there are no junior enlisted soldiers, only sergeants and above. Jackson said that’s by design.
“I’m five years older than the average brigade commander, because I’ve already done it,” he said. “The battalion commanders are already all older than the average, NCOs are all older. So, with that comes better judgment, more maturity, better patience.”
And they’re looking for something else that’s just as crucial, he said.
“We look for people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable. And that can mean culturally and socially, sometimes."
Expertise at your job as a soldier is crucial, he said, but isn’t enough.
“I’m looking for the technical piece, but I'm looking for that patience and empathy, and you have to be willing to work within a culture this not your own,” he said.
Jackson’s brigade is training specifically for Afghanistan now, but the brigades are being design for flexibility so they can be used wherever in the world they’re needed.
They won’t just be advising. In Afghanistan, the work is putting them out with small Afghan units on the front lines. So, advising is in in addition to being a combat-ready soldier, and they are being trained to a higher than normal standard for things like marksmanship, shooting out to distances well behind then normal, and firing more bullets in training than is typical.
"All Good Advisers Are Good Soldiers But Not All Good Soldiers Are Good Advisors”
Military advising has a long history. It’s part of the job description for Special Forces soldiers, and they did some of the earliest advising in Afghanistan.
Mainstream units do most of it now, and the Pentagon wants to rely less on that. It not only takes them out of their normal cycle of training, deploying, and rebuilding for the next mission, the ad hoc approach to advising — using troops pulled from temporarily from standard units — also put units and soldiers into roles they might not want, or be suited for.
“I have a very simple phrase that I have used from day one, which is that all good advisers are good soldiers but not all good soldiers are good advisors,” Jackson said.
His soldiers’ job this time will be to mentor its Afghan counterparts, helping them hone their fighting skills and improve crucial skills like managing supply chains and casualty evacuation.
“As I tell our guys, the objective is not to go bounding after the Taliban,” he said. “I tell my guys flat out, I don't want you chasing them across the valley. I want you to get your Afghan counterpart to go chase them across the valley. Now, we’ll be right along with them and we’ll help them. But the objective is, we’re not the fighters, we help the fighters.”
But before even talking about those things, the Afghan culture dictates that they have to build relationships.
“Can I borrow this?” Jackson said
He grabbed a male reporter’s hand, and held it as he kept talking.
“A lot of times I'll do this I walk up to somebody who's who wants to come into the organization and I'll just grab their hand and I'll start talking to them,” he said. “And after I’ve been talking them awhile I’ll do this a little bit,” he said, and squeezed a little.
“.. and ask ‘how do you feel?’ Usually they’re NCOs. And they're like, ‘A colonel is holding my hand, what’s going on here?,” Jackson said.
“If you ain't good with this. If you're a little uptight and you don’t understand why… If a soldier can't deal with it, that's a vital part of Middle Eastern culture. It means he's your friend.”
When they were planning the new SFABs, Army leaders consulted with advisors who served in various conflicts, and even spoke informally with former Vietnam advisors. They were told that it was crucial to pick people who not only were good soldiers, but interested in working with those from another culture.
The freshly-minted advisors are hoping that building relationships will help things go right in Afghanistan. And they’re hoping that rapport will also help when things don’t go well.
From Relationship Building To Planning A Mission Together
The exercises at Fort Polk started with relationship building. The training is compressed, though, so the actors are trained to require only a token amount of of it before responding positively.
Then they move on to planning a mission together, as Moncuse was doing with the Afghan role players in the cobbled-together headquarters. Then the small American advisor teams go out on those missions with the Afghan soldiers.
In one of the scenarios, the Afghan soldiers entered a village to serve an arrest warrant on a financier with Taliban ties. Across this sprawling base, advisor teams are doing the same things as a prelude to missions the next day in several simulated Afghan villages, staffed with trained role players, and even include tiny markets and even live goats.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum,” said a village elder, greeting the Afghan and American soldiers. “How are you? Please have a seat,” he said, through a translator, adding that he was pleased to meet his visitors.
“I’m very happy to see you too, it’s a very nice village,” the American commander responded.
Then they engaged in chat about the American officer’s family, before eventually discussing the Afghan soldiers’ request to search for the wanted man.
This training scenario then went awry for the soldiers: After they got permission to search, there was an ambush, and the wide range of casualties — American, and Afghan army and civilian — adding layers of complication for the advisors.
The idea behind this kind of training, Jackson said, is to help the advisors learn and practice not just reacting, but helping the Afghan troops they’re mentoring react well, and deal with things like casualty evacuation in ways that will work when Americans aren’t around to help.
“We always say that when you reach in your kitbag for the tool to solve a problem, first tool you pull out as an Afghan tool, not an American tool,” Jackson said.