The Adviser's Dilemma: Endemic Challenges and Unrealized Opportunities in the Training Mission in Afghanistan

The Adviser's Dilemma: Endemic Challenges and Unrealized Opportunities in the Training Mission in Afghanistan by Adam Maisel, Modern War Institute

As the Trump Administration prepares to roll out its Afghanistan policy, much remains unclear on one of the most critical functions: advising of Afghan defense and security personnel. Though preliminary plans recommended to the president call for an increase of between 3,000 and 5,000 US troops and loosening of Obama-era restrictions on military advisers’ proximity to the frontlines, little has been said to address the incoherence of advising efforts across the country.

Between 2014 and 2017, I spent a total of twenty months deployed to Afghanistan—much of the time in a direct advising capacity to Afghan security forces. Teaching and mentoring field-grade intelligence officers and senior NCOs in the Afghan National Army, I was often asked questions I didn’t have the answers to. “When will the United States come back to help us?” and “Will we win?” In a sense, the United States and NATO have failed them. This is not for a lack of effort. I have seen exceptional men and women instruct and advise in Afghanistan, achieving tangible results at the brigade level and below. Where we have failed is in the incoherence and inability to translate tactical advising successes into strategic ones. Our overall policies in Afghanistan have been amorphous and shifting for over fifteen years and have been aptly described by Vanda Felbab-Brown as “largely a sequence of reflexive reactions in search of a strategy.” And where this dysfunction and disconnected policy has manifested itself most is within the advising mission, one of the most critical efforts by NATO forces, yet consistently marginalized in execution.

Current conventional advising efforts tend to fall into three types of mission sets: classroom instruction on NATO or Afghan-adjacent bases; ground movement to Afghan corps-level bases, provincial police and security headquarters for garrison advising; and Expeditionary Advising Packages (EAPs), a fly-to-advise effort to provide immediate and tailored over-the-shoulder advising to brigade-sized elements conducting strategic operations in areas such as Uruzgan, Farah, Helmand, and Nangarhar Provinces.

I have personally participated in all three mission sets and see the inherent value of each of them. But the frustration comes from the seeming inability for each of these efforts to be properly coordinated into a coherent advising policy. Each type of advising offers a minimal amount of time to interact with Afghan counterparts, creating a repeating game of “Twenty-One Questions.”

Furthermore, each of the three advising mission sets have critical weaknesses. Classroom instruction provides much-needed skill development, but lacks the ability to assess whether the concepts taught are effectively implemented in real-world operations. Transport for Afghans to NATO bases is often a tedious process, and security measures at entry control points often lead to delays in getting students to their place of instruction. Ground movements to nearby Afghan bases help to fill this gap, but missions are often canceled due to weather, security concerns and VIP visits. Additionally, the reliance on local nationals as linguists results in the awkward situation of arriving to advise Afghan personnel with no linguist available (it happened to me more times than I care to admit). Often, the three sets are mixed with counterproductive results (such as attempting to provide classroom instruction during an EAP that focused on brigade clear-and-hold operations)…

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Mr. Maisel is another is a long series of advisors/ former advisors who, over many years, have pointed out what we have been doing wrong in Afghanistan regarding the advisory mission, from the stupidity of “drive-by” advising from far-away FOBs to attempting to shove US/ NATO doctrine down their throats (conventional as well as SOF elements are guilty of this) to the hyper-risk-aversion that chips away at any success an advisor may have with his counter-part.

When will those in charge actually start to pay attention to what these folks are saying/ have been saying? What don’t the military brass understand about the feedback received from those who’ve been on the ground doing this? Does becoming a senior military leader (O6 and above) mean giving up an understanding of your own language in order justify not listening to those around you? How many times and in how many different ways does the same thing need to be said regarding the advisory mission before someone in charge pays attention? WTF?

During my time as an ANA advisor it wasn't so much of an issue of rank/grade/level as to where the dissonance occurred; there was a sharp contrast in priorities, problems, solutions, and methods between NTM-A/CSTC-A staff/command groups and the actual MOD/MOI advisor engaged daily with their Afghan counterparts. As a matter of fact, four O6 advisors (two SJAs, a Surgeon, and the IG) testified in front of Congress concerning the disconnect. In my experience, it really comes down to leadership and who they listen to (or not), and what they hear (or not).

I saw a mixed bag of experiences, backgrounds, and approaches to advising; some better than others. What I didn't see was much experience or first-hand, consistent involvement from the GO ranks. That is where I saw a lot of the "drive-by-advising" philosophy.

Without meaning to stereotype, US GOs, for the most part, couldn't negotiate, or really even hold a conversation without advisor-provided ghost notes or talking points. Personal engagement methods seemed to mirror what I observed as their normal interactions with their own staffs - they were the most important person in the room, and their issues came first. Not exactly an approach that breeds decent relationships, particularly with Afghans. I enjoyed watching a Brit GO have a conversation with a senior ANA GO. No notes. No cards. No glances at a watch. I could tell by following the conversation that the Brit was working his topics into the discussion, but none were forced, and I'm sure that he didn't even touch all of the topics he had on his mind. I didn't see many US GOs (or O6s) who managed a similar approach.

If you don't know people....what you know probably doesn't matter much.

M. Red