Small Wars Journal

On Advisors and Advising

Sat, 08/16/2008 - 5:58pm
America's exit strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan depends upon competent, confident Host Nation Security Forces responsive to the rule of law. In Iraq, years of effort to train and equip the Iraqi Army and Police are beginning to pay dividends, although they will continue to need our advice and assistance for a number of years to come. The Afghan National Army and Police are some years behind the IA and IP's; recent decisions to increase the size of both forces are long overdue, but will demand additional American advisors in a theater that is already under-resourced.

Special Forces are the best US troops at conducting the Foreign Internal Defense mission, but there aren't enough of them to train the IA, IP, ANA, and ANP, so most of the FID mission has fallen on conventional Army soldiers who are not organized, trained, or equipped to conduct the FID mission. Faced with a problem requiring organizational adaptation, the Army has adopted a series of ad hoc measures to select, organize, train, employ, and demobilize its advisors, despite numerous statements from senior Army leaders that testify to the essential nature of the advisory task in enabling our exit strategy in two wars.

I have previously advocated the creation of an Advisory Corps, in which combat troops would be assigned to standing advisory units ("A Team 1st Battalion 1st Advisory Brigade 1st Advisory Division") for a three-year tour of duty just as they now rotate through other line units. I believe that it is even more important to create standing advisory units now that we are increasing the size of the ANA and focusing more on the advisory effort to the IA while drawing down US units in Iraq. Standing units have history, lineage, and traditions; who wants to serve in Unit Rotating Force 1134 (as Transition Teams of Advisors are currently designated), especially if URF 1134 is disbanded four days after redeploying from combat?

If the Army can't or won't build standing units, at the very least it should designate someone below the level of the Chief of Staff of the Army who is responsible for all aspects of the advisory mission. Once named, the head of Advisor Command should establish a permanent advisory schoolhouse, get doctrine written, get the organization of the advisory teams right, be responsible for their training and employment, and ensure that advisors are given proper credit for their service. There are a number of Lieutenant Generals in the Army; I would submit that none has a more important mission than heading up such an Advisor Command with the possible exceptions of the MNC-I and MNSTC-I commanders.

Pete Dawkins wrote his doctoral dissertation at Princeton on the advisory effort in Vietnam; he called it "The Other War." I am confident that some bright and bitter Captain will do the same for the advisory effort in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.


Important to ask, I believe, why such large numbers of advisors are thought to be needed in the 21st Century.

In this regard, let us consider what the advisors will be used for.

For example: Will they be used to more effectively utilize foreign military, police and intelligence forces -- whose job will be to stand against those members of their own population and against those members of other populations -- who do not wish to see their state and society become more "modern" (to wit: more "Western")?

Thus, is the need for additional military, police and intelligence forces -- and the advisors necessary to assist these -- is this based on an understanding that, in the 21st Century:

a. We believe a number of states and societies will be attempting -- with our assistance -- to modernize/Westernize and that

b. We believe that there will be significant and potent resistance to such efforts

c. Thus, the need for many more advisors -- to help address this expected resistance -- and better provide that the desired modernization/Westernization takes place?

Bill M.

Tue, 11/22/2011 - 12:24am

In reply to by Morgan


I wasn't thinking about JUSMAGs, or OPM-SANG, but those are possible options if the situation requires that level of effort. The organization structure for the advisory and training effort should be based on the variables of each situation. However, the challenge for GPF as I understand it is what is the standing organization that the Army can draw advisors and trainers from. That is one approach, but I think you'll get more capable advisors and trainers from the ranks of tactical units that are put through an advisor training pipeline enroute to their mission. I realize there are serious personnel management issues associated with this option, but where do we see a "large" demand globally for GPF advisors? Enough of a demand to support full time advisor units? State and Defense Department contractors can do much of the heavy lifting, and SF can provide a U.S. uniformed presence when that is desired. I just think a standing GPF advisory unit isn't cost effective based on the impact on the Army and the limited demand signal.


Mon, 11/21/2011 - 9:53am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M,

Apparently, I, too, was distracted when writing my response......I did not address that part about looking back past 9/11. Are you suggesting that we (big Army) look at re-establishing somewhat robust MAAGs like those we once had in Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan (which were manned primarily by GPF bubbas) or are you looking more at advisory efforts like El Salavador where we used 55 SF bubbas (I believe that was the number)? Do you think our future GPF advisory efforts/ formations ought to be modeled on OPM-SANG which, since beginning in 1974, has been manned by military and contractors?

Bill M.

Sun, 11/20/2011 - 12:59pm

In reply to by Morgan

Morgan, I edited my initial response (apparently I was distracted when I wrote it originall) to hopefully clarify some of the points. I agree with you that the Army should maintain BPC/SFA as a core competency, and that will require some restructuring. Lots of smart people looking at various options, but if they're using Iraq and Afghanistan as the justification or model then I think we're missing the boat. I also think technical and tactical skills/experience are the core of being a good advisor, you can be the best people person in the world and loved, but if you are not bringing relevant skills to the game, then we're going to fail (or not do as well as we should). On the other hand, if you're a bull in the china shop and have great skills we will also fail, so obtaining the right blend of skills without distracting the Army too much from its warfighting mission is the challenge. I agree with your points, but I think the DOTMILPF changes we ultimately make need to be based on other than OIF/OEF-A challenges. The lessons learned from OIF/OEF-A should not be forgotten, but put in the category of options for responding to surge emergencies.

Standing up permanent advisor units may not be the way to go as we wind down our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as prepare for looming budget cuts over the next decade. But since building partner capacity (BPC) and security force assistance (SFA) are now core competencies of the conventional Army, maintaining a population of advisors among the general purpose forces (GPF) does make sense.

Bill M says we need to look at lessons learned further back from 9/11 when considering the future of our advisory efforts. If we are not to create/ maintain a corps of GPF advisors organized into advisor units, then we ought to seriously consider establishing a functional area for advisors and, harkening back to the previous method for managing functional area troops, allow the advisor functional area guy to rotate between tours in his branch and in his advisor functional area. This will afford the advisor opportunities to maintain proficiency in his particular branch, which the advisor needs in order to effectively impart relevant information and knowledge to the host-nation counterpart, while allowing the Army to maintain a cadre of trained advisors who can, on short-term deployments, continue building on efforts with host-nation forces we’ve worked with over the last decade; expand current SFA/ BPC efforts; as well augment SF FID/ SFA efforts should we find ourselves in another war which requires advisors beyond what SF can field.

Bill M.

Sun, 11/20/2011 - 12:52pm

Looking at this three years after it was first published one thing that jumps out at me about John Nagl's response is the assumption that we needed to replace U.S. BDEs with Iraqi BDEs. Our knee jerk response is always mass, unsustainable mass in lieu of developing an effective strategy and then the right force structure.

I don't think we need a standing advisory Bde in the Army, but we need to continue to develop technical and tactical experts, and that happens in Army organizations where soldiers learn and practice their trade, not in advisory units. When we need advisors the army selects the right personnel from these MTOE units and sends them to advisor school (preferable back at Bragg, run my SWC) enroute to their assignment. Their real creds will be their subject matter expertise and experience, which takes years to learn and master. An advisor school that tailors their advisor training to their mission requirements, and includes "some" cultural, language and advisor TPPs will give them the advisor skills needed to be effective, but that is the icing on the cake, the cake is having the core technical and tactical competencies. While in the advisor school they should develop their training plan for their upcoming mission and outbrief it prior to deploying via VTC to the security assistance officer and others in the embassy that are interested. That way they arrive in country with the right mind set and with a plan that been socialized.

Iraq and Afghanistan were outlier situations, and while similiar scenarios may be repeated, but we shouldn't plan as though that will be the norm. The military has always surged capacity for outlier situations, and in my opinion building advisory Bdes, Bns, etc. for post Iraq and Afghanistan will be a major drain on an Army pending potentially serious cuts.

Special Forces, contractors, ICITAP and other government agency experts (paid for by State or DOD) can handle many if not most of the advisory missions as they did prior to 9/11 in a cost effective manner. The ACRI/ACOTA training prior to 9/11 produced more effects for less money than many, not all, of our advisory efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. When we're looking at lessons observed, we need to look further back than 9/11.

Perhaps a better use of a percentage of our professional SF advisor corps would be to assign them, instead, to advise conventional US/coalition force units that are tasked to advise ISF/ANSF. That would leverage their expertise while significantly expanding their influence working "by with and through" conventional forces.

If advising is effective fir the Iraqi's and Afghans, then surely is would be effective for our own conventional forces. That may be happening already--I just don't know...

Dip in Kabul

John Nagl

Tue, 08/19/2008 - 8:00am

Great comments, all. I would like to see the Army take lead in what should be an Interagency (and, ultimately, International) Advisory Effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan, under appropriate command structures that have both authority and responsibility.

We have to think through everything from the tactical advisory fight to the Ministry of Defense and Interior. And we must think through how, as we continue to draw down US brigades while creating more IA brigades in Iraq, we properly apportion responsibilities between US units with a primary misison of advising and custom-built "SuperMiTTs"--and how we handle the advisory effort in Afghanistan, where far fewer US units will now have to partner with an ANA and ANP that are doubling in size.

This is a growth industry, and we don't have all of the answers yet.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Tue, 08/19/2008 - 2:05am

Officers and senior NCOs certainly are necessary, in high concentration, but many CF MTOE units have found ways to leverage those personnel while still fulfilling their duties as the "Operational Environment Owners" (I think that was the jargon we used). In simple terms, while the O's and senior E's were training IA, the rest of the company was pulling security, burning trash and feces, doing maintenance, et cetera.

Having seen the advising effort from both the JSOTF and CF angles, I certainly concede that an ODA does a better job of training ISF. But what the CF lack in their proficiency for training indigenous forces, they make up for in numbers and flexibility.
- Regarding numbers: I have seen IA make mistakes that would have been disastrous if they were only accompanied by a handful of advisors, but those mistakes were quickly mitigated by the presence and firepower of a mech infantry platoon. More importantly, because of overwhelming force on our side, the IA was able to work through its mistakes and learn by doing. We could afford some errors because we had enough American shooters to pick up the slack. I have also seen very well trained IA units make mistakes while on mission with ODA advisors. The ODA, being cautious by necessity, immediately takes over rather than allowing the IA to learn by doing. That is not a knock on any ODA - just an observation on the hazards inherent in operating as such small units.
- Regarding flexibility: Again due to the firepower and numbers available to CF, rolling out on just about any type of mission on short notice is no issue. There is enough organic firepower, generally heavier armor, and it can provide its own QRF. This makes it much easier to do more frequent joint patrols with the IA to get them good OJT. ODAs have a more restrictive set of guidelines and their smaller numbers significantly restrict the number and duration of joint IA-US missions that they can do.

That is why I asked earlier: Why not just issue a change of mission? As early as OIF III, my unit was dedicating the bulk of our efforts toward training IA, doing joint missions with them, integrating their planning with ours, and nudging them into the fight. I suspect many other units had the same experience. That is certainly the case today. We're not clearing Fallujah, Samarra, or surging forces anymore. We're in almost full-up advisor mode. Give a CO the mission of advising and/or augmenting the ISF unit responsible for his battlespace and I don't think he will need long to do a mission analysis and conclude that the company senior leadership is going to be doing lots of coaching and his platoons will be rotating through cycles of 1 platoon doing joint missions, 1 platoon on QRF, and 1 platoon doing maintenance and pulling PB security - or something similar.

Did I leave out mentioning MiTTs? Yes, I did. We had MiTTs with us as well. Once we shifted our focus toward training IA, I had to ask repeatedly, "whose mission is this?" The MiTTs were a great bunch of guys but their mission overlapped ours significantly. We could have done without them and they could have done it with minimal support from us. This situation has since improved dramatically, countrwide. I think we have reached the point where battlespace owners can handle most of the advising, at least in Iraq.

Ken White

Mon, 08/18/2008 - 9:37pm

Let me emphasize up front that the next paragraph is not facetious.

The statement "<i>Advising (and to a lesser extent, training) requires a large number of upper grade NCOs and mid-grade officers. The challenge is how to get the right people, qualify them, employ them and maintain extended readiness.</i>" could also be used to describe overlarge upper level staffs of which we have a plethora of overabundance (obligatory redundancy).

Not that I'd suggest they should be raided before units are. Or anything...

Very seriously, you have valid points, though I'm not convinced the fact that the current process isn't working well does not mean that it is not working or is even inadequate. As I said earlier "Rotating individuals though on an ad-hoc basis is mildly inefficient but it is effective enough. Best, as they say, is the enemy of good enough."

It boils down to priorities, I think.

You are of course absolutely correct on the aspect of manpower allocations -- <b><i>if</i></b> we continue to do the manning, manpower and personnel management businesses the way we have. My question would be; is that what we should do?

Old Eagle

Mon, 08/18/2008 - 6:29pm

I fully agree that the SFA advising mission is with us to stay. It is something we have to do better. Big Green Army needs to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


Looking at the DOTML-PF construction,it's the P and the O that will cause the greatest challenges. Without leaping to a solution immediately, let me help define the itch that we're trying to scratch.

Advising (and to a lesser extent, training) requires a large number of upper grade NCOs and mid-grade officers. The challenge is how to get the right people, qualify them, employ them and maintain extended readiness.

The Advisor Command that John outlines and Ken comments on has the advantage that in addition to doing the functions outlined above, it creates the manpower allocations (spaces) to keep the advisor faces, whether or not they are deployed. This is a huge benefit, because to date, no one has come up with a comprehensive solution.

Taking advisors out of hide guts a unit of key leadership, challenging the commander to either suck up the deficit or short change the advisor effort.

Building overstructure into the maneuver MTOEs also has problems.

Raiding the institutional Army to fill deployment requirements isn't working well now and will likely not improve in the future.

Maybe, just maybe, I'm warming to the organizational solution to the advisor challenge.

Ken White

Sat, 08/16/2008 - 8:34pm

Having served as an adviser in Viet Nam and in Iran during both war and peace, I am afraid I take issue with the Advisory Corps concept as LTC Nagl envisions it. My objections are three:

First, I do not think the Army can afford the manpower cost on an organized and continuing basis. Organizations take on a life of their own and become self perpetuating even if there is no real need for their services. Today there is a need for the service; five years from now that may not be the case. Rotating individuals though on an ad-hoc basis is mildly inefficient but it is effective enough. Best, as they say, is the enemy of good enough.

Secondly, the benefit of an adviser is not the knowledge and capability he brings to host nation forces; it is the knowledge and abilities he can impart to the host nation. I agree with LTC Nagl that, thus far, we have not run the Advisory effort as well as we might have. I agree someone needs to be in charge -- and I submit that the Viet Nam era Military Assistance Training Advisor course (which I was not fortunate enough to attend, having my advisory tour early in the war) after a few false starts produced quite competent advisers with enough language skill to produce results without having to rely totally on an interpreter (other than the Viet Namese speaking Advisers who got assigned to Montagnard Provinces and Districts...).

As he points out, SF has the FID role down pretty well. During the Viet Nam war, they trained the bulk of the Advisers. We simply forgot that and allowed the SOCOM umbrella get in the way. That is easily rectified by the SecDef if the Army make a coherent case. What's required is the designation of USARSOC as the proponent for FID training, proper resourcing of a school at Bragg and continued streaming of personnel to ad-hoc teams in country. That school and system should stay in place post iraq and post Afghanistan.

One other thing is critical. The Army, that is units in the field in the theaters, must be tasked to provide liaison, interface and support to Advisory Teams. That failure on the part of many -- not all -- US units in Viet Nam was a major problem and it appears that shortfall still exists. That's a culture thing that can and should be turned around.

Lastly, I seriously doubt that membership in "A Team, 1st Battalion, 1st Advisory Brigade, 1st Advisory Division" will develop one ounce more pride or loyalty than will being in URF 1134 or the 231st MiTT. Nor will it improve job satisfaction. There are a few people who for various reasons truly like the advisory role and who excel at it. My observation is that for most, it's the job they have to do and they will do it to the best of their ability -- while retaining little enthusiasm for it. Cosmetic attempts to dress it up will not succeed in changing that.

The Army and the people in the Army are more than capable of doing the Advisory job on a mission or task -- or assignment -- basis. A culture change to better do that is needed. That culture change is occurring, albeit entirely too slowly -- that's a senior leader failure, not an organizational flaw. A new organization is not required, we have more than enough bureaucracy already. Plus, past the current efforts, the last thing the Army and the Nation need is a Force looking for a mission.


Sat, 08/16/2008 - 8:07pm

<i>If the Army can't or won't build standing units, at the very least it should designate someone below the level of the Chief of Staff of the Army who is responsible for all aspects of the advisory mission. Once named, the head of Advisor Command should establish a permanent advisory schoolhouse, get doctrine written, get the organization of the advisory teams right, be responsible for their training and employment, and ensure that advisors are given proper credit for their service.</i>

John, not the best alternative (though I am in support) - but the best alternative short of establishing an Advisory Corps. Thanks for keeping on about a critical issue that most prefer to punt... We have to come to terms on this now - it is an enduring issue - not a onetime experience...

Schmedlap (not verified)

Sat, 08/16/2008 - 7:23pm

I would assert that the reason we have an inadequate number of USSF is the same reason that standing up a sufficiently well selected and well trained advisory corps will continue to be a non-starter. Selection is the key and that is a tedious and expensive process. There are already grumblings at Fort Bragg about lower standards and greater pressure to push candidates through selection. The attitude of "it was tougher when I went through" is timeless, but there is a genuine push on the school house to push candidates through selection. Where is this pool of talent that we will draw advisors from? It seems to already have been diluted.

There is also the question of the marginal benefit. Definitely, SF is better at FID than CF. But that competency comes at an enormous cost. Does standing up a competent advisory corps justify the enormous expenditure necessary to select, train, and support the personnel and units? To those of us passionate about proper training, sure. To those who cast votes in Congress or those more worried about the price of filling up their gas tanks, probably not.

<I>"If the Army can't or won't build standing units, at the very least it should designate someone below the level of the Chief of Staff of the Army who is responsible for all aspects of the advisory mission."</I>

Why not just issue a change of mission? The MNC-I Commander could, and perhaps should, declare the mission of MNC-I to be that of advising ISF. It seems to encompass most of the tasks before us already.

KFarver (not verified)

Sat, 08/16/2008 - 6:39pm

Dr. Nagl,

What do you foresee your Advisory Corps' relationship to be with other government agencies, specifically the Department of State? Where do you see the other services fitting into the equation?

Kyle Farver