Michael van Ginkel
The current conflict in Afghanistan, the United States’ longest lasting war, has defied all attempts by the international community to successfully stabilize the country. The newest attempt to curtail the continued hostilities has been implementation of the specially created Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB). Consisting of experienced volunteers, SFABs fulfill advisory roles throughout the command structures of a partner-state’s military.[i] The Ad-hoc nature of units fulfilling advisory roles in the past significantly curtailed their potential. In contrast, the current SFABs increase Afghanistan’s self-reliance, improve the domestic opinion of US involvement, and restructures the U.S. military to better confront both symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare. While the usefulness of advisory brigades warrants their deployment, the policy still generates significant political and military side-effects. International actors therefore need to preemptively address the ramifications of pursuing an advisory brigade-centric policy.
The SFAB developed from previous attempts at introducing advisory units in contemporary conflicts. The formation builds on recent precedents in Afghanistan, including the Embedded training Teams (ETTS) at the tactical level, Security Force assistance Adviser Teams (SFAATS), and earlier models of the SFAB created from Brigade Combat teams.[ii] The US army leadership, however, “expressed concern over the atrophying of core fighting competencies” within combat units.[iii] Army personnel argues that emphasis of population-centric counter-insurgency detracted from the army’s future capabilities in facing off with peer-state adversaries on the battlefield. The SFABs allow combat units to refocus their attention on kinetic warfighting by shouldering the responsibility of understanding and disseminating the more nuanced approaches of population-centric counter-insurgency. Similarly, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) continued to exhibit serious shortcoming in their counterinsurgency approach. As McChrystal noted in 2009, “ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with challenges inherent to coalition warfare.”[iv] Specialized training focused on cultural awareness and asymmetrical warfare means the SFABs are uniquely positioned to facilitate local efforts in Afghanistan.
The long-term deployment and regenerative capabilities of SFABs creates an opportunity to capitalize on situations short of conflict. According to USAID, premature attempts at democratization resulted mainly from failures to “develop the political and social infrastructure to a level that could absorb (manage, resolve or transform) the conﬂicts that arose” prior to hosting elections.[v] SFABs assist governments in periods short of conflict by taking active roles in local “containment, mitigation, formal negotiated settlements, informal power-sharing, or elections and constitutional charters” to create the correct social and political milieu necessary for democracy.[vi] The strategy builds upon key concepts of the recent Multi-Domain Battle model. Although largely a continuance of existing military theory, the model emphasizes an underappreciated aspect of international politics: Strategic competition will always exist.[vii] Multi-domain Battle consequently stresses a cyclical continuum of conflict, where actors move from competition short of conflict, to conflict, to a return to competition.[viii] The long-term deployment and ability to quickly regenerate into full-scale combat brigades, means SFABs can adjust to Afghanistan’s position on the competition-conflict continuum. If applied correctly, advisory brigades can facilitate Afghanistan’s reconstruction while simultaneously protecting US interests abroad.
Distributing advisors throughout the hierarchy of command sends unintended signals to the Afghan population, both politically and militarily. The advisory role played by SFABs increases the ASF’s agency in field operations. The long-term presence, however, of military personal embedded within the governing system undermines Afghanistan’s image of a sovereign regime. Restrictions on Afghanistan’s autonomy, real or imagined, affects the perceived legitimacy of the government by the local populace. Instead, Afghans believe culpability for security failures continues to fall with the U.S.. Although, as Thomas Barfield and Neomatollah Nojumi summarize, local solidarity groups based on kinship, ethnicity, and locality factor strongly in Afghan communities, Afghans continue to expect the federal government to contend with internal security, foreign diplomacy, and financial stability.[ix] Increases in future security issues would strongly impact public opinion on U.S presence and further deteriorate perceptions of foreign interference. Likewise, Vali Nasr warns against assumptions that Afghans will “look more kindly on drone attacks and secret raids than it did on invasion and occupation”.[x] Without concrete results, the SFAB’s signaling effects on the population remain mixed.
The long-term deployment of the SFABs affects the U.S.’s regional politics, particularly with relation to Pakistan. The regenerative capabilities and long-term presence of SFABs means Afghanistan can serve as a launching point for counter-terrorism operations within the region. The presence of several brigades, however, places renewed importance on supply lines from Pakistan.[xi] The supply lines remain vulnerable to raiding and taxation by Taliban and criminal forces as they pass through their territory, inadvertently financing insurgency movements. In addition, the dependency hampers hardline diplomacy with Pakistan regarding their alleged support of the Taliban and their al-Queda allies, which materializes in the form of sanctuary, provisions, and training.[xii] The reliance on supplies provides added leverage for Pakistan in upcoming negotiations, offsetting the threat posed by the SFAB’s ability to adopt an aggressive regional force posture.
Relinquishing the lead in field operations increases the reliance on Private Military Contractors (PMC). The SFABs advisory role requires the Afghanistan Security Forces (ASF), with limited support from the ISAF, to provide the first line of security for the population.[xiii] Although attributed with significant strength, the ASF is “declining as a result of attrition and recruiting problems, and Afghan units are wildly divergent in terms of quality.”[xiv] The lack of sufficient numbers and training results in an increased dependence on PMC’s to fill the security vacuum. Both domestic and foreign actors working in Afghanistan have recognized the unfavorable repercussions of providing PMC’s with too much influence. As Elke Krahman points out, PMC’s contribute to “negative externalities for third parties; they also actively avoid accountability for agent misdemeanors towards third parties” through strategies such as blame-shifting, forming mutually supportive coalitions, and morphing into identical institutions or agents.[xv] Given the levels of corruption already rampant in the Afghan government, local exploitation by PMC’s for personal or institutional reasons contributes significantly to regional destabilization and discontent.
Although an imperfect solution, SFABs mark a conceptual step forward by the United States armed forces. The implantation of advisory brigades acknowledges the inadequacies of applying short-term policy solutions to resolve Afghanistan’s complex problems. As Michael Waltz points out, “obtaining political resolutions from insurgent leaders requires significant time to suitably weaken their military and ideological platforms.”[xvi] The SFAB’s specialized recruitment, training, and organization builds on the experiences and inadequacies of previous policy initiatives. The resulting effects, however, on U.S. signaling, regional diplomacy, and domestic security requires preemptive action. By taking into consideration both political and military ramifications a unified and flexible response can be orchestrated to contend with the inevitable ripple effect. While concentrating on an advisory-centric policy in Afghanistan addresses several major military and political issues, the situation will remain far from resolved.
[i] Phillip Wellman, “First troops among new front-line adviser brigade arrive in Afghanistan,” Stars and Stripes, February 22, 2018,
[iii] Gian Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” USArmy, December 29, 2009,
[iv] “COMISAF initial Assessment (unclassified),” Washington Post, September 21, 2009, .
[v] Matthew Hill, “International Actors and Democratization: Can USAID Deliver a Democratic Culture to Afghanistan?” Sage Journals, June 10, 2010. .
[vi] James Linder, Eric Wesley, and Elliot Grant, “Security Force Assistance Brigades to Collaborate with Special Operations Forces” June 19, 2017, .
[vii]United States Army, Multi-Domain Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, U.S Army Training and Doctrine Command, October 2017.
[viii] Kelly McCoy, “Competition, Conflict, and Mental Models of War: What you Need to Know About Multi-Domain Battle,” January 26, 2018, .
[ix] Thomas Barfield and Neomatollah Nojumi, “Bringing more effective governance to Afghanistan: 10 pathways to stability,” Middle East Policy (vol 17, No 4), Winter 2010, .
[x] Vali Nasr, “The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan,” Foreign Policy March 4, 2013, .
[xi] Christine Fair, “Pakistan’s Anxieties Are Incurable, So Stop Trying To Cure Them,” War on the Rocks, June 21, 2017, .
[xii] Barry Posen, “It’s Time to Make Afghanistan Someone Else’s Problem,” The Atlantic, August 18, 2017, .
[xiii] Michael O’Hanlon, “Staying Power: The U.S Mission in Afghanistan Beyond 2011,”Brookings, August 25, 2010, .
[xiv] James Kitfield, “The Great Afghan Paradox,” Breaking Defense, May 28, 2018, .
[xv] Elke Krahmann, “NATO contracting in Afghanistan: The Problem of Principal-agent Networks,” International Affairs, November 4, 2016, .
[xvi] “Michael Waltz, “No Retreat: The American Legacy in Afghanistan Does Not Have to be Defeat,” War on the Rocks, May 12, 2017.