Back To The Future – U.S. Mission In Afghanistan

Gregory Keeley National security analyst
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It seems everything old is new again – at least at the Pentagon. This month, Secretary Mattis officially activated the First Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). The 1st SFAB is a new unit, with an old mission; “Train, advise, assist, enable and accompany host-nation conventional forces in infantry, armor, cavalry, engineer, artillery and combined-arms warfare.”

Not surprisingly the SFAB’s first mission is to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and help bring them up to a point where they can act autonomously without the need for ISAF troops. Maybe I missed something. Hasn’t the U.S. and our allies spent billions of dollars in blood and treasure doing just that for the past 17 years in Afghanistan and for decades around the globe?

The historical parallels to the Vietnam War are striking.  In 1962 the Department of Defense stood up the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to support the surge in U.S. military assistance to South Vietnam.  The MACV controlled every advisory and assistance effort in Vietnam.  The combined unit was disbanded disestablished in March 1973 with little to show.

Traditionally the U.S. military has treated the symptom, not the disease.  Like Vietnam, Afghanistan is no different – no matter how well trained the ANA is, and no matter the money, equipment and expertise the U.S. invests.  If the country and the region continue to be actively destabilized by Pakistan and Iran, the Afghan nation and military are unlikely to ever be a stable, formidable fighting force.   

Seventeen years into the war in Afghanistan, is the 1st SFAB lipstick on a pig as critics claim?  The skepticism of the SFAB mission, come particularly from the special forces community.  Is this an attempt by “Big Army” to muscle in on Special Operation’s territory?  Or will the training Brigades add a professional methodology to the Army’s often slapdash, perfunctory and unsystematic, attempts at establishing “allied” armies?  

For 16 years and two U.S. Administrations – G.W. Bush and Obama – the military has seemingly muddled through with obligatory efforts to build the Afghan Army.  With President Trump in the Whitehouse, the military is back in control of waging wars. ISIS has been massively degraded; the Kurds have been armed and contingencies are in place to stop North Korea’s unacceptable nuclear missile program.  

Can the Trump/Mattis Pentagon turn the mission in Afghanistan around, or as critics maintain will the SFAB flounder?  The Green Berets, Army special operations soldiers that focus on building militaries, have been training Afghan troops for nearly two decades.  The mission however has always been overwhelming. The sheer magnitude of the task has necessitated the intervention of units, not trained for advisory work and ill equipped for the role to step into the breach. The results of the Navy, Army, USMC stop gap has at best been spotty.

A key part of the Trump Administration’s overhauled strategy focuses on the revamped SFAB-led training mission.  Another fundamental plank is the tremendously successful surge in strategic air strikes in support of Afghan forces and their U.S. “advisors”.  This massive increase in deployed firepower has served to debilitate ISIS and the Taliban.  The Trump/Mattis plan also involves increasing U.S. troop levels from 11,000 to around 15,000.

Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley is a strong proponent of the SFAB concept: “The SFAB gives us purpose-built formations designed to execute the critical mission of security force assistance without having to rip apart conventional BCTs.”

Essentially, the SFABs are designed to relieve pressure on our overworked special operators, and that is a good thing.  It remains to be seen though if there is the political will after 17 years, to see the mission through.  It is unclear if we will pursue the root cause, Pakistan and Iran, or maintain the status quo.  To quote Marty McFly and Doc in the movie Back to the Future, “Marty: What about all that talk about screwing up the future? Doc: Well, I figured, what the hell?”

Joseph LaFave contributed to this op-ed. He is a defense writer and a former Lockheed Martin engineer.  

Gregory Keeley is a retired Lt Commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as Senior Advisor to the Vice Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee (Rep Jim Saxton) and the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee (Rep Ed Royce) in the US Congress. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller

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Gregory Keeley