News | May 8, 2013

The next approach: 'Over the shoulder' advising

By Sgt. Bryan Peterson , 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Foreward)

SANGIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan – Late last year, Coalition Forces in Regional Command (Southwest) shifted from a “shoulder-to-shoulder” role in which they patrolled alongside Afghan National Security Forces. Now the service members from six contributing nations have taken on an advise and assist strategy.

From foot patrols and clearing operations to supply and logistics operations, the ANSF are in the lead.

The strategy, Security Force Assistance, was developed by International Security Assistance Force and approved by NATO in early 2011. The goal of SFA is that ANSF takes the lead for providing security for the population throughout Afghanistan by 2014.

The SFA mission relies on Security Force Assistance Advisor Teams which vary in size and composition based on location and mission. The teams are made up of 10-18 service members from a variety of military occupational specialties. To help develop the ANSF into a sustainable force, the SFAATS provide information and advice to ANSF.

The teams are embedded with the Afghan National Army as well as police forces including the Afghan Local Police, Afghan Uniformed Police, Afghan Border Police, Afghan National Civil Order Police, Afghan Highway Patrol and the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan.

The SFAAT mission is not solely about advising the ANSF on counter insurgency operations; it’s also about advising them on administration, logistics, medical treatment, intelligence and much more.

The 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps SFAAT team leader, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Jonathan P. Loney, a Sumter, S.C., native, noted the training his team delivers is something Marines are very familiar with. Marines regularly train with forces around the world and have a history of training and advising militaries from other nations, from the Banana Wars to the war in Iraq.

“In terms of exactly what the mission is today, an [SFAAT] is a specially trained team specifically tasked to embed with a unit, whether it be at the kandak [battalion] or higher up to the brigade [regiment] level, and provide specialized experience, interpretation and advice,” Loney explained.

The SFAAT teams advise and teach a decentralized command and control method that allows the ANSF units to make decisions based on a commander’s guidance and intent. The method contrasts with centralized command and control, a method common here since the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Loney acknowledged the transition has been difficult to foster among the ANSF.

He described the advising process as a lot of anecdotes to explain concepts that go into decentralized command and control. He said the process has been a challenging feat, to say the least – getting the ANA to start applying initiative while thinking about different concepts.

The ANA brigade’s executive officer, Col. Abdul Hai Neshat, attested to the difficulties of the transition, as he knows the Soviet system all too well. He joined the Soviet Army in 1985 and graduated from its military academy in 1991. He said the negative, communist view of democracy was all he knew.

The “my way or the highway” idiom is synonymous with the Soviet way of thinking, Neshat said.

Neshat, who has spent three years with 2nd Brigade, said it didn’t take long to realize the methods Coalition forces are teaching are better and more effective.

“[The Soviet] focus was not for our country, it was for them,” said Neshat. “Their mentorship was not like the Americans’ right now.” Now, they have a variety of leaders who make decisions within their brigade. Leaders at the lowest levels can speak openly about what needs to be done.

Security Force Assistance is broken into two levels, Loney said. Level one requires the SFAAT to be co-located with an ANSF unit to allow for daily interaction. Level two is what Loney called the “collapse plan,” in which an SFAAT team checks on their counterparts a few times a week to assess their work.

The 2nd Brigade SFAAT is conducting level one assistance. When they switch to level two assistance, the Coalition forces at the kandak, or battalion, level will move to the higher headquarters, giving those kandaks more autonomy. Each SFAAT team leader, however, works with their ANA counterpart to determine the appropriate level of assistance for each unit.

Loney stressed patience is important to be successful advisors. He and his team make suggestions to the ANA instead of giving them answers to problems, which has helped them learn through trial and error. At the end of the day, he said, success or failure depends on the ANA.

“We’re here to advise them on the best ways to accomplish the mission,” Loney said. “We take the lessons learned from the shoulder to shoulder [method] and apply those concepts by taking a step back and watching them accomplish tasks given to them.”

However, if a situation turns dire and dictates Coalition assistance, battle space owners may offer that assistance to the ANSF.

“If they do fail miserably, we have the battle space owners … that we can call in a relatively short time frame,” said Loney. “But, we’re encouraged to allow failure. That’s going to be the best way [for them] to learn on their own.”

State of the 2nd Brigade SFAAT

Loney and his team applied the “cold turkey” approach with the 2nd Brigade when they arrived in November. He said they stopped doing the tangibles and started providing only some intangibles. They went from providing photocopies, generators and fuel to providing concepts and ideas, as well as positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. Loney described this as cutting the brigade’s “umbilical cord.”

The fighting season has only just begun, but so far the brigade has functioned successfully, he said.

“They’ve conducted a number of operations with minimal number of casualties,” said Loney. “Across their staff sections, such as supply, administration and logistics, we see them calling out to their counterparts the same way we do in our professional networking.”

Loney said the brigade is running its own security meetings and coordinating through the Operations Coordination Center in the district with police units. “They know it’s a team effort to accomplish the tasks levied on them,” he said.

Coordination among the ANSF is imperative for effective communication. At least one Afghan from each entity making up the ANSF, whether at the district, provincial or regional level, mans a billet in each OCC. The purpose is to keep all units and organizations informed of activities taking place within the district.

The brigade’s professionalism has carried over into the Now Zad District’s AUP force, said U.S. Marine Maj. Paul Jarr, the 2nd Brigade SFAAT’s deputy team leader.

Three months ago, the brigade’s 4th Kandak commander, ANA Lt. Col. Shirali Noori, and his soldiers went to the Now Zad District Center to meet with local elders. The professionalism they displayed as they cordoned off the area to provide security served as a type of “big brother” model for the AUP, which has greatly improved the AUP’s presence in the area, said Jarr.

Capt. Kamal, the 2nd Brigade Route Clearance Tolai commander, said the SFAAT’s advising role gave him and his men a sense of autonomy to go out and do the jobs they’ve learned the past three years.

“They came to advise us, but never actually did our job,” said Kamal. “We are able to build our confidence because of the [SFAAT’s] hands-off approach. We appreciate them very much.”

Loney said the fighting season is going to be a “critical time for them and a very exciting time as well.” As expected every fighting season, the Taliban will be aggressive, but this year the SFAAT will sit on the sidelines unless Coalition involvement is absolutely necessary, he said.

“This is a situation where it calls for a lot of tactical patience on the part of our team,” Loney said. “This is probably one of the more challenging times of the level one advisor teams.” He said the 2nd Brigade SFAAT will be the “assistant coaches and cheerleaders” for the brigade, and all they can do is advise. The difference maker this season will be whether or not the ANA applies what they’ve learned.