Small Wars Journal

The Trump Administration Wants to Send More Military Advisers to Afghanistan

The Trump Administration Wants to Send More Military Advisers to Afghanistan by Stephen Biddle, Julia Macdonald and Ryan Baker, Washington Post

Senior Trump administration officials have proposed sending 3,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Their mission? Advise and assist Afghan security forces.

The Obama administration’s plan was much the same. So is the U.S. strategy for Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Ukraine, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mauritania and many other locations around the world. In all these places, U.S. strategy relies on Security Force Assistance (SFA): using a small U.S. force to advise, train, equip and assist local allies to do the difficult ground fighting that Americans would rather avoid.

There’s a reason Security Force Assistance is so common. But it rarely works…

Why Security Force Assistance often goes to waste…

Security Force Assistance can work, but only if the stars align and the conditions are right…

Sending more usually isn’t the answer…

Read on.


While we appear to:

a. "Know ourselves and our political objective" -- which is to gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world by transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines and incorporating same more into the Western sphere of influence. And, likewise, appear to:

b. "Know our enemies" -- which are, accordingly, those state and non-state actors that seek, via various strategies and various ways and means, to prevent us from achieving our such goals,

What we do not appear to know is:

a. How to achieve this exact such political objective; this,

b. In the "non-welcoming," "actively resisting" and, indeed, "backwards moving" (as to market-democracy) world that we seem to find ourselves in today.

(Herein, such things as "universal western values," "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life," etc., and the western version of "the end of history" having recently -- and dramatically -- been disproved.)

Thus, such things as Security Force Assistance and Foreign Internal Defense today (and, accordingly, the "send more military advisers" question of this article); these need to be considered in the light of their being something of a stop-gap measure? This, so as to allow us time to decide:

a. How (and, indeed, if) we will continue to pursue our political objective -- outlined in my first paragraph "a" above -- this,

b. In the non-welcoming/actively resisting/backwards moving world that I have noted here?

(A big decision indeed? This, given that "expansion"/"advancing market-democracy" -- in one way or another -- has been our nation's political objective since at least World War I/for at least the last 100 years?)

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 4:18pm

Of course Security Force Assistance (SFA) in its present form was not invented until 2008 when the wheel of FID was reinvented.

The one lesson that we should learn is that SFA or FID does not work unless there is a strategy that it supports (a strategy with balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means) and this must include the political objectives to be achieved. We think that if we simply train security forces that they will somehow magically succeed for us. We pay lip service to "through, with, and by" and treat it as a silver bullet because we have no idea how hard it really is to accomplish political objectives indirectly when by definition you are not in complete control and dependent on indigenous forces that are not the equivalent of US forces despite us trying to create them in our image through SFA.

Below this comment I have pasted my Eight Points of Special Warfare, LTG Cleveland's comments about indigenous forces and my description of Frank Hoffman's principle of understanding.

Regarding the discussion of Korea in the article: We should remember that our FID/SFA security assistance efforts prior to 1950 likely contributed to the failure of the ROK Army on June 25, 1950. Based on poor assessment and erroneous assumptions we refused to allow the ROK military to develop a combat capable force capable of both combined arms defense and maneuver. We allowed only a constabulary force to be established to defend against north Korea subversion. We allowed this force to restrict the ROK from being able to attack the north to achieve unification. And of course the Soviets and the Chinese placed no such restrictions on the north and when 100,000 combat hardened soldiers returned from the Chinese Civil War they were provided with Soviet T-34 tanks and the rest is history. We of course learned our lesson and help the ROK to develop a military that is optimized for combined operations (ROK and US) with interoperability and not necessarily completely independent operations.

Eight Points of Special Warfare:

If there is an indigenous contribution to the solution of a complex political-military problem apply the Eight Points of Special Warfare (which apply to both UW and FID).

1. Must determine the acceptable, durable, political arrangement that can achieved. Without this clearly articulated and understood there is no way to achieve unity of effort or to judge mission success. I think Congress must demand this from the Administration.

2. Eliot Cohen & John Gooch: Military Misfortune: All military failures are a result of a failure learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate.
 Look at Mali and Yemen. Did we anticipate the Turegs and the Houthis? I would submit that SOF on the ground reported on the growing threats to Mali and Yemen yet our myopic focus on CT blinded us at the strategic level.

3. Larry Cable (the discredited COIN theorist who wrote Conflict of Myths) The three P’s: Presence, Patience, Persistence. You have to be present to make a difference. You have to be patient because it takes a long time to influence indigenous forces and develop indigenous capabilities. It takes persistence because mistakes will be made, every operation will include discovery learning and we will have to learn and adapt.

4. Assessment - must conduct continuous assessment to gain understanding - tactical, operational, and strategic. Assessments are key to developing strategy and campaign plans and anticipating potential conflict. Assessments allow you to challenge assumptions and determine is a rebalance of ends, ways, and means is required.

5. Assure US and indigenous interests are sufficiently aligned. If indigenous and US interests are not sufficiently aligned the mission will fail. If the US has stronger interest than the indigenous forces we can create an “assistance paradox” - if the indigenous forces believe the US mission is "no fail” then the US forces will not allow them to fail and therefore they do not need to try too hard. They may very well benefit from long term US aid and support.

6. Employ the right forces for the right mission. US SOF, conventional, civilian agency, indigenous forces. Always based on assessment and thorough understanding of the problem and available resources and capabilities. Cannot over rely on one force to do everything.

7. Learn how to operate without being in charge. If we usurp the mission indigenous forces will never be successful on their own. You cannot pay lip service to advising and assisting. This is why operations in Colombia and the Philippines achieve some level of success.
 This is not “leading from behind.” This is the appropriate understanding of the relationship between USSF/SOF and indigenous forces in a sovereign nation or with indigenous forces seeking self determination of government.

8. Campaigning - we have to develop the campaign plan to determine the resources and authorities - and then execute the campaign - we have to get good at campaigning and it has to be more than a military campaign. While disrupting terrorist attacks and attacking terrorist networks, finances and auxiliaries are important they are not a strategy. They can be part of a strategy and campaign but they are not sufficient. We have to campaign beyond counter-terrorism with a campaign focused on attacking the enemy’s strategy. This requires deep understanding to include especially understanding the enemy’s political objectives. Once we understand the enemy ways and means can be employed to counter the enemy’s strategy and his political objectives. Campaigning is important because it will orchestrate all the activities to achieve the strategic objectives or the acceptable, durable political arrangement we seek. Campaigns identify the resources necessary (forces, bases, funding). Campaigns identify the authorities necessary. Although many in the military and government desire blanket authorities that is not the right way to operate. However, establishing programs and funding lines such as 1206, 1207, 1208, and 1209 are not effective either. Authorities need to be specifically applied to each campaign. And with an approved campaign plan Congress can more effectively provide oversight rather than managing funding programs. Focusing on effective campaigning can discipline the application of the military instrument of power. Of course it would useful for other elements of national power to be able to “campaign” as well. (As an aside, we perhaps need to take another look at the 1997 PDD 56 which was for the management of complex contingency operations in the interagency – a disciplined process to orchestrate US government agencies and harmonize the instruments of power.)

· A Principle of Special Warfare: "Go early, go small, go local, go long” LTG(R) Charles T. Cleveland remarks at NDU November 30, 2015

· Understanding indigenous forces: ”Potential allies always start as at least unproven. It is hard work that starts with assessments and making the best of who you have, seeking to improve your position (and your partners’) over time.” LTG (R) Charles T. Cleveland, email January 18, 2016 (Note: This can apply to resistance in nK)

· Frank Hoffman's Principle of Understanding. I am a supporter of Dr. Frank Hoffman’s idea that we need a new principle of war called understanding. Although that seems like a no-brainer – as far back as Sun Tzu we have be told that we must know our enemies and know ourselves to be victorious. We all know we need to understand war and warfare, the conditions that give rise to conflict, and the politics that lead to and end conflict. Yet even though the need for understanding is so obvious that we think we do not need to even mention it, it is surprising how so many of our failures can be traced to our lack of understanding. SOF, through its various assessment capabilities and engagement with indigenous populations can make a key contribution to understanding.