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Army hopes new units will help break Afghanistan stalemate

Soldiers patrolling in Afghanistan. (Free Use/Flickr)

Seventeen years in the infantry have turned Army 1st Sgt. Shaun Morgan into a hard-charging grunt, but the veteran of five combat tours who recently deployed to Afghanistan is prepared to take a back seat and let that nation’s forces lead the fight.

It won’t be easy, said Morgan, a company senior enlisted leader with the Army’s new 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade. The unit is charged with advising Afghan soldiers closer to the front lines than conventional U.S. troops have operated in several years. But he believes his unit — the Army’s first brigade of specially trained combat advisers — is the right formation to take the lead in the mission that top Pentagon brass hope will break a long stalemate in the 16-year fight against the Taliban.

“So, we’ve been kind of going about it wrong for a while, I think,” Morgan told Stars and Stripes during pre-deployment training recently at the Joint Readiness Training Center at this central Louisiana Army post, noting the U.S. spent years fighting the Taliban before handing the mission off to the Afghans while training them primarily at their military’s senior levels. “Maybe this is an opportunity to get on the right foot toward getting it right. Like, we couldn’t get it through our heads that we weren’t the fighters, right? Especially in the infantry – I think the bosses decided maybe this is the right shot, and it just makes sense to me.”

The 1st SFAB arrived in Afghanistan last month as part of the Pentagon’s increase in strength from 11,000 to 14,500 troops. It has moved much of its formation to locations across the country to partner with Afghan Army kandaks — units of several hundred soldiers similar to U.S. battalions — as those units prepare for a multi-front offensive against the Taliban. The move to partner at unit levels was an instrumental element of President Donald Trump’s strategy announced in August to turn the tide of the war and draw the Taliban into peace negotiations.

The SFAB unit has a deep stable of soldiers selected by their leaders for advanced skill sets and combat and advising experience. Those attributes, the brigade’s commander said, made the 1st SFAB ideal to embed with Afghan front-line forces. Their mission has been described as more dangerous than that of American forces — outside the special operations community — since 2014.

“It’s not business as usual for the United States Army,” said Col. Scott Jackson, the Ranger-tabbed infantry officer picked by top generals to command the first of six planned SFABs. “This organization is purpose-built to be advisers. We have built a group of people that has got the right skill set — specially selected, specially trained, specially equipped.”

This is not the first time the United States military has built teams of combat advisers to aid partner militaries in operations against an American enemy. U.S. advisers have trained Afghan units for more than a decade and, more recently, aided Iraqi security forces as they pummeled the Islamic State group.

But past programs have been “ad hoc,” Jackson said, relying on leaders torn away from their units, or teams cobbled together just weeks ahead of a deployment or once soldiers have arrived in a war zone.

Not so with Jackson’s unit.

The bulk of his team spent several months training together at Fort Benning, Ga., once the unit began taking shape last summer.

Timing is now

The SFAB unit consists of officers and noncommissioned officers who have served in their current job at other units – Jackson, for example, commanded the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Stewart, Ga. That model, based on formations in Army Special Operations Command, grabbed the attention of the Pentagon’s top brass and field commanders, who were struck by the SFAB soldiers’ advanced training.

Jackson told Stars and Stripes that he initially anticipated at least a year of prep time before heading overseas.

That was not to be.

Army Gen. John Nicholson, the American general running the Afghanistan war from Kabul, requested Jackson’s unit deploy in time to aid Afghan security forces as they prepare their springtime operations, according to defense officials. Nicholson believes the unit’s soldiers, with their advanced training and completion of a new specialized combat advising course, are needed to train and advise Afghan army kandaks.

Despite the shortened training time, Jackson – and dozens of his soldiers who spoke to Stars and Stripes – said the unit is well-prepared for the mission.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who visited the unit at Fort Benning before it deployed, told reporters he has “a lot of confidence” that its soldiers are fully prepared.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief who oversees U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, said he believes the 1st SFAB will “set a great example” during its tour.

“They are going to help us make a really big difference during an important time in Afghanistan,” he said.

Training to advise

On a wooded live-fire range along a ridge on northern Fort Polk, a platoon-size team of the 1st SFAB’s advisers moved swiftly through pine trees alongside a larger unit of soldiers posing as Afghan National Army troops.

The SFAB advisers, in combat gear toting M4 carbines, accompanied the mock-Afghan soldiers, stopping occasionally to advise leaders on the best routes and proper techniques as the soldiers trudged toward their objective – a cluster of makeshift buildings in a clearing on high ground, representing a remote Afghan village.

“Don’t bunch up,” an SFAB adviser warned the role players as three of the soldiers moved to within an arm’s length of each other.

Moments later, as the patrol neared the mock village, the shooting started.

The 1st SFAB soldiers remained hidden within the trees, watching attentively and communicating via radio as the role players sprinted forward and took aim at the buildings that housed the enemy firing at them.

About 30 minutes after the shooting began, as Afghan role-player casualties began to pile up, the SFAB advisers made their first move into the fight – calling in a helicopter to evacuate the wounded and aiding the role players as they worked to clear the enemies.

The exercise, on a rare frigid and snowy day at Fort Polk, offered a glimpse of what the SFAB soldiers anticipate once they join their Afghan partners.

“We let them handle it,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Lionell Williams, a mortarman with the SFAB’s 4th Battalion, who advised the patrol. “If and when they needed us, then we stepped in. But the key is we want to see how they operate, let them do their job and only help if it’s needed.”

The 1st SFAB is modeled after the special operations advisory forces who have worked alongside Afghan commando units for several years. Those U.S. forces have proven themselves on the battlefields against the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic State fighters, top U.S. military officials have said.

Pentagon leaders are often quick to tout those Afghan commanders as “undefeated” on the battlefield when they are advised by U.S. special operators.

“The Afghan special forces that have had mentors basically always win when they’re in the fights,” Mattis said in December. “They always win — to the point they’ve been probably … overused. So our point is to make their general-purpose force more capable.”

Creating a stronger force

Critics of the new unit’s mission in Afghanistan point to the U.S. military’s experiments with advisory teams and their failures, including in Afghanistan.

The new model risks building an overreliance on the American advisers, warned Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer with experience advising in Afghanistan.

In theory, Dempsey said, the SFAB represents a progressive step in the train-and-advise mission, but he questioned how much a unit that is expected to spend nine to 12 months in Afghanistan can really accomplish.

“These guys are going to get over there, they’re going to teach the basics – the same [tactics] we’ve been teaching for years – and then they’re going to leave,” he said. “No one has time to build real, meaningful personal relationships and help [the Afghans] find a real, true solution to their problems.”

Dempsey predicted that the Afghans will benefit most from the access to combat assets the SFAB will bring.

“They’re going to deliver airpower and firepower,” said Dempsey, a military analyst with the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “If you give the Afghans airpower you can suppress the Taliban, so it’s going to look like a smashing success.”

The Pentagon has already increased the tempo of its bombing campaign in Afghanistan since Trump’s strategy was revealed last year. In 2017, the United States dropped 4,361 bombs on Afghanistan, nearly equaling the 4,649 bombs it dropped in the country in 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined.

Jackson, the 1st SFAB commander, agreed that his unit would increase front-line Afghan forces’ access to American airpower, but he wants his soldiers to push the Afghans to use their own capabilities, which include attack aircraft and medical evacuation airlift.

“Our first tool of choice is an Afghan tool,” the colonel said. “We want to pull out the Afghan wrench whenever possible to solve an Afghan problem.”

At times, that will mean denying Afghan requests for American help, he said.

“Don’t get out there and become decisively engaged or become the main effort,” Army Lt. Col. Jason Sabat, the commander of the 1st SFAB’s 2nd Battalion, said. “That’s not helping anybody. We don’t want to get there and create a new dependency that doesn’t already exist.”

The SFAB soldiers should put the Afghans in a position to succeed without the need for American advisers in the future, Sabat said.

The Afghans “are ready and willing and they are ready to mix it up,” he said. “Their culture has been one of conflict for centuries, so it’s not like they haven’t been around it before. So, I think that’s where it forces us as American to really take a step back and let them have the opportunity to learn.”

Morgan, the first sergeant on his sixth combat rotation, described “a buzz of excitement” among the soldiers who volunteered for the unit’s first tour.

“We’re going out there to do something different, to make a change,” he said. “But this group – I think if you came here you’re probably someone who embraces that, who sees that this different approach is proba-bly a positive.

“I think this is how you win,” Morgan added. “I like to win.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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