Small Wars Journal

Risk and Transition in Afghanistan

Tue, 01/24/2012 - 5:40am

Editor's Note: The transition phase of security force assistance brings unique challenges and risks, necessitating a different mindset than during earlier phases of the partnership.  Jeremy Gwinn highlights these.  Is the U.S. military ready to make this leap across more regions of Afghanistan?  Will this present challenges to American and coalition military culture?  The Afghan case will shape America's growing appetite for security cooperation as a force multiplier.

In early 2011, the Afghan National Army’s 2nd Brigade, 203rd Corps commenced a series of operations in Paktika province under the corps’ Omid (hope) campaign plan. The operations focused on disrupting insurgent activity to deny them sanctuary and to protect and win over the population for the Afghan government. Perhaps most significantly, the operations demonstrated the increasing capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to plan and conduct operations with limited coalition support. After several months of such operations, the brigade and battalions had become more accustomed to producing written tactical orders, conducting rehearsals, and being in the lead for execution. Supporting these operations were organic Afghan units such as a route clearance company and an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) platoon. This level of independence was not being demonstrated by 2nd Brigade one year earlier. The increasing independence of this Afghan unit and others across the Afghan Army, as well as the Afghan Police with whom they operate, constitutes a step in the transition toward Afghan security responsibility. That being said, the Omid campaign also served to highlight for advisors and partner units how far they have to go before transition can be considered a success.

The U.S. Army’s security force assistance doctrine describes the SFA framework as five activities which progress the host nation security force (HNSF) from a nascent state towards full independence. The five activities, which are generally sequential but often overlap, are: (1) Plan and Resource, (2) Generate, (3) Employ, (4) Transition, and (5) Sustain. This article focuses on the ‘transition’ activity, that critical space between HNSF being employed with a high degree of input and control from advisors and partners and the ultimate goal of a competent and independent security force.

As agreed upon by coalition members during the November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, military operations are gradually transitioning to Afghan responsibility, with a complete transfer by 2014.  A full transition to Afghan forces means significant, though not unmanageable, additional risk over the coming years; however, failure to assume this risk will make a successful transition by the 2014 deadline less likely. Only a clear-eyed recognition by partnered units and combat advisors of the uncomfortable, yet necessary, actions required to accomplish the transition will allow them to anticipate and mitigate the associated risks and ultimately facilitate a strategic success.


Where We Are Now

Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in March 2011 the first phase of security transition from ISAF to Afghan forces in seven relatively permissive areas of the country, to take effect later in the summer.  As of this writing, security responsibility in most other parts of Afghanistan lies farther back on the transition spectrum. Most coalition partners assess ANSF as reasonably competent at small-unit tasks and drills. At the battalion and higher levels, however, a different picture emerges. Critical staff functions such as the synchronization of operations, efficient allocation of resources, and planning beyond the immediate-term are sorely lacking in most Afghan organizations. To some degree, these shortcomings are due to limitations in technology and human capital, as well as a culture which is less accustomed to information-sharing or planning for the long-term future. Unfortunately, however, some weaknesses observed in ANSF commands may be a result of relationships with partner units and advisors during employment.

As its name implies, the focus during the employment activity of SFA is on putting newly generated units into the field, village, or district center to conduct operations. Generally, partnered units will provide a strong guiding hand at this stage and, as a result, supplant many of the staff functions mentioned above. This tendency may contribute to the commonly-observed contrast between more proficient Afghan small units and less proficient headquarters and staffs. Other factors may include strict, though often justified, operational security (OPSEC) measures which limit Afghan participation in planning combat operations, as well as the relative imbalance of resources brought to the table which places coalition forces, as the providers of the preponderance of assets, squarely in the lead. Dynamics of the external environment are also in play. Specifically, the threat environment is some areas may be such that the impetus to focus on combat operations takes precedence over developing HNSF and the additional time to coach and mentor which that entails. Such considerations are valid and wholly appropriate when the focus of security force assistance is on employment. During transition, however, some short-run costs in the form of degraded effectiveness, perceived inefficiency, or just not doing things ‘the U.S. way’ may need to be accepted as a necessary trade-off for the long-run benefit of independently capable Afghan forces.


Increasing Independence

            Transition requires a deliberate departure from the status quo established during employment. The focus during this activity is on reducing reliance of the HNSF on advisors and partnered units – reliance that quite possibly was developed and reinforced during employment.

            In Afghanistan, this means a deliberate effort to develop unit leaders and headquarters staffs to perform their required functions throughout the operations process – especially ‘left of execution’. Less emphasis is placed on unit partnering, where Afghan forces tend to reflexively follow the lead of their coalition partners, with increasing emphasis on advising, where small teams coach and mentor commanders and staffs to plan, allocate resources, execute, and sustain their force. For this reason, companies and platoons operating without the benefit of advisor teams, which are typically only assigned at the battalion-level and higher, should be prepared to become de facto advisors, participating less and coaching more. Such a role may also involve significant changes to task organization. In order to build headquarters’ capabilities, ANSF leadership needs to be part of the operations process shohna ba shohna, or shoulder-to-shoulder, with their coalition counterparts from the very beginning of the operations process. The practice of notifying an Afghan commander of an operation twelve hours before execution and informing him of the objective location only after he is standing on it, a method which may have worked well enough during the employment activity of SFA, are at odds with an effective and meaningful transition. In the past, coalition units have emphasized putting local forces out front and in population-facing roles in order to give operations an ‘Afghan face’. In order to successfully transition, however, partners must move beyond simply creating the perception of Afghan-ness and make it a reality. Essentially, transitioning means progressing from ‘ANSF as force provider’ to ‘ANSF leadership’.

Beyond operational planning, advisors and partner units should seek out those systems, formal or informal, which have enabled Afghan dependency on coalition forces. Coalition partners widely cite logistics as a glaring weakness of the ANSF. It is true that the Afghan logistic system is not yet highly effective, but some common coalition practices can further aggravate the problem. For example, partner units may habitually provide fuel to their ANSF counterparts out of a sense of expediency and to prevent a lull in operations. The cause for the Afghan fuel shortage may be a corrupt commander selling fuel on the black market, the unit failing to request the fuel with the expectation of being backstopped by the coalition, or simply unresponsiveness in the system even if the Afghan unit has submitted the necessary requests. In any case, providing fuel in order to fill an immediate need only reinforces the existing problem. Treating the symptom by providing fuel may be necessary in emergencies, but the root cause of the problem must also be addressed: by allowing the mission to be delayed or cancelled so the ANSF commander must answer to his higher headquarters, by following up to ensure the logistics staff understands and uses their own request system, or simply by waiting until the Afghan system comes through, which it often will if allowed to be exercised instead of continuing to atrophy. One can find other relevant examples in nearly every area, from maintenance, to communications, to air movement. In order to transition from coalition-supported systems to Afghan systems, advisors and partners must become experts on the host-nation systems in order to educate their counterparts. The two easiest responses to a request from an Afghan partner are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Effective transitioning requires a third response: ‘no, let me show you how to do it yourself’. 

            In addition to developing ANSF staff skills, partner units should focus during transition on developing those capabilities in Afghan units which may be underdeveloped due to misuse or prior neglect. Examples of such capabilities in the Afghan army are indirect fire, route clearance, and intelligence. Due to operational demands, a poor level of training, or a commanders’ lack of understanding of the units in his formation, it is not uncommon to find an Afghan artillery battery or engineering company used for base security or patrolling tasks. For this reason, advisors need to familiarize themselves with the unit’s tashkil (similar to a Table of Organization and Equipment) and strive to have every unit performing its doctrinal mission, either independently or with a coalition partner unit if it is not yet ready for independent operations. It is certainly easier for coalition forces to keep providing fire support for operations than to train the Afghans to do it themselves, but this only reinforces dependence. Taking Afghan engineer soldiers off of dismounted patrol duty for focused engineer training may temporarily reduce combat power available as well as slow down coalition engineer units who work faster alone. In the long run, however, taking these difficult steps will increase the independent capabilities of Afghan forces, which is what counts in SFA.  


Increasing Risk

            As units conducting security force assistance in Afghanistan transition to ANSF responsibility more aggressively, the level of risk that they must manage will increase in a number of ways.

With coalition forces eventually thinning out and the mix of units conducting operations becoming increasingly Afghan, a degradation of combat power is likely to follow. Advisors and partner units should look for ways to mitigate this risk by providing gap-filling capabilities while avoiding the creation of new dependencies. For example, a small advisor team or element of a partner unit can dramatically, yet unobtrusively, increase the combat power of an Afghan company or battalion just by having the means to request close air support. Capabilities such as this, even if unused, also provide a significant boost to the confidence of ANSF leaders on the ground. As a parallel effort, of course, advisors should work to develop those missing or under-developed capabilities within the Afghan formation with an eye to eventual independence. Note that this is an example of filling a gap which exists in most cases, not replacing an existing Afghan capability with a U.S. or coalition one.  

            Operational security is another area in which units conducting security force assistance are required to manage risk during transitions. As previously discussed, partner units may withhold mission details from host-nation security forces during the employment activity of SFA, preventing staffs from having a meaningful role in planning operations. While insurgent infiltration of the Afghan army and police is well-known and justifies serious OPSEC concerns, coalition forces simply have no option but to share information more widely if the ANSF are to achieve independence. This does not mean disseminating every detail of a mission to the lowest ranks as we strive to do in the U.S. military. Advisors can put Afghan forces in the lead for planning while mitigating OPSEC risk by limiting full dissemination to only commanders and key staff members, with critical details such as locations and target names withheld from others. In this way, Afghan staff skills can be exercised by conducting planning and orders production, while sensitive information does not reach the most likely infiltrators. Information should be shared as widely as an insider threat assessment allows to enable planning and troop-leading-procedures. Afghan commanders should be involved in this assessment as they are typically frank with their advisors about whom they can trust and whom they cannot. Of course, no measures can eliminate all additional OPSEC risk when host-nation forces are allowed more access to information. Assuming greater OPSEC risk does mean that some mission targets will be compromised, and at greater risk to coalition soldiers in the short-run. In the long-run, however, the additional risk is smaller than that which we accept by failing to develop Afghan forces’ ability to plan and operate independently.

            As the emphasis of security force assistance in Afghanistan matures and advising is more heavily weighted than unit partnering, the presence of smaller teams living and working with ANSF, possibly not co-located with coalition units, will entail greater force protection risk. Currently, most coalition units have strict regulations on the minimum size of force that may go ‘outside the wire,’ which is usually about a section or platoon with specific enablers. Such regulations were wisely put in place for the safety of soldiers and were uncontroversial when the focus of security force assistance was on employment with coalition forces doing the majority of the heavy lifting. During transition, however, such policies can be an impediment to effective advising by ensuring a highly-visible coalition presence on every mission. An alternative is for advisors to be bound to the base, left coaxing their counterparts to conduct operations but unable to accompany them and share the physical risk. Such a means of advising quite obviously makes building influence and rapport, the currencies of the combat advisor, extremely difficult, and reinforces the common perception among Afghans that coalition forces are overly risk averse and tend to hide behind technology. Either alternative is unattractive, but rather than eliminate minimum force policies, commanders would be well-advised to modify them. Minimum force policies should be tailored to the unique circumstances of transition and take into account the presence of Afghan security forces as part of the force calculation. They would also allow advisors and small-unit leaders more flexibility to use their judgment based on local conditions. In some cases, the presence of several U.S. MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles amid a convoy of smaller Afghan HMMWVs and pick-up trucks may actually increase the overall risk to the mission as compared to allowing the soldiers to ride in the Afghan vehicles. In some areas, more relaxed measures may be foolhardy; however, that determination is best made by the advisor on the ground instead of applying blanket restrictions which will prove to be inappropriate in many circumstances.

            A final form of risk associated with transitions is less tangible than those previously discussed, which this article will term ‘influence risk’ – a loss of that asset most critical to every advisor and partner unit. With the transition to independence necessarily comes less resources brought to the table by coalition units and the waning of the sort of ‘hard influence’ partners often enjoy as the providers of platoons, aircraft, fuel, and other resources sought after by Afghan forces. During employment, quite appropriately and out of necessity, the coalition provided many of these things. Afghan commanders may begrudge their advisors as the tap is gradually turned off, using the oft-heard line, ‘but last year the partners just gave me that.’ For these reasons, as the ‘hard influence’ enjoyed during employment becomes impossible to maintain during transition, advisors and partners must double-down on ‘soft influence’ gained through rapport and personal relationships. Ideally, partners and advisors build and maintain strong relationships with their host-nation counterparts throughout the range of SFA activities. In practice, however, the time required to build these personal relationships is not always invested during the employment activity of SFA. For partner units with soldiers to lead and operations to conduct, endless hours drinking chai with an Afghan counterpart often remain a concept relegated to tired clichés. During transition, on the other hand, when the most valuable resource advisors and partners may be capable of providing is their advice, not hard assets, this resource will only be valued and accepted in the context of a close personal and mutually-respectful relationship. Only by doing so can advisors hope to maintain rapport and their ability to influence Afghan counterparts. Combinations of heavy-handed coaxing and infrequent contact, which may have been tolerated by Afghan security forces when the coalition provided the preponderance of assets, will no longer work and constitute a failure to manage the ‘influence risk’ of transition.


Comparison to Other Conflicts

            As the coalition begins transitioning to Afghan security responsibility, the examination of other recent or ongoing security force assistance endeavors, while warranted, should not be allowed to mask the unique nature of each conflict. Iraq is the most obvious case available for study, as the transition to full Iraqi government control is nearly complete and the total withdrawal of U.S. forces is, as of this writing, rapidly approaching. Despite some recent security gains in Afghanistan, however, the significant decline in violence that accompanied the Sunni Awakening and surge of forces to Iraq may not have a close analog this time around. In such circumstances, a transition to Afghan forces amid relatively higher levels of violence, while still necessary given policy imperatives, will lack the reassurance provided by the dramatic turnabout in Iraq. In such an environment, the tendency for commanders to focus on directly combating the insurgency versus developing Afghan forces to fight it for themselves may be harder to resist. Afghan security institutions’ arguably lower level of development than those in Iraq compound the difficulty. Stark contrasts in the histories, cultures, and physical environments of the two countries also reinforce the fact that the lessons of transitioning in Iraq, while still worth careful study, will not hold all the answers for transition in Afghanistan.

            Another ongoing, yet far less visible, conflict in which the United States military is conducting security force assistance is Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (OEF-P). Following in the wake of the September 11th attacks and an increasingly bold terrorist presence in the islands of the southern Philippines, Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines quickly emerged as an advisory effort to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Restricted in size and scope, however, by Philippine national sensibilities and a constitutional restriction on foreign troops, the effort has remained small, with U.S. servicemen numbering only in the hundreds. Given the relatively high capability level of the AFP at the outset of the operation and strict caveats on the role of U.S. forces, OEF-P may be viewed within the security force assistance framework as a mission straddling transition and sustainable independence. In this manner, it serves as a model of what successful transition in Afghanistan could look like in the future, not with regard to the capability of the forces, per se, but with regard to respective roles and relationships between coalition advisors and their Afghan counterparts. Even more so than with the conflict in Iraq, material differences clearly exist between the situation in the Philippines and that of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the composition of OEF-P, which is almost exclusively special operations forces, adds to the contrast. Despite the dissimilarity, however, the indirect approach necessitated in the Philippines, countering an insurgency not by ourselves, but by, with, and through the host-nation forces, warrants further examination to inform our continuing operations in Afghanistan.



            Now that coalition forces are officially on the clock with respect to transitioning security control to Afghan forces, the time has come to move past employment of ANSF to enabling independent capability at all echelons and at every step of the operations process. With this transition to meaningful Afghan leadership comes additional risks including reduced combat power, operational security risk, force protection risk, and risk to our ability to influence. If anticipated rather than avoided, advisors and partner units can successfully mitigate, but not eliminate, these risks. Worth keeping in mind is the fact that transition in security force assistance from employment to sustainable independence is a gradual process, meaning that between this writing and 2014, units will need to re-evaluate policies and procedures constantly throughout a deployment, not just upon relieving the outgoing unit. Furthermore, the security force assistance effort in Afghanistan can only progress through a successful transition based on recognition of local conditions. Some ANSF units and some districts will be able to transition more rapidly, as is already being done, while others will take more time. This cannot be an excuse, however, to wait until an Afghan battalion is performing flawlessly or an area is considered fully pacified before transitioning control. If this is the case, then transition will never occur. While the risks involved can be managed and reduced, this activity will always be uncomfortable. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, if transition is not uncomfortable, you are probably not transitioning aggressively enough. Focusing on the development of Afghan forces while a bitter fight is ongoing involves serious risk, but is the only way to ensure they will be capable of continuing the fight as the coalition draws down.


About the Author(s)

Major Jeremy Gwinn is an Infantry officer and Operations Officer in 2nd Battalion 506th Infantry, 4th BCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He has served in the 10th Mountain Division, commanding a rifle company in Afghanistan and Iraq, at West Point as an Assistant Professor of Economics, and most recently completed a tour as an advisor to the Afghan National Army.


Jeremy Gwinn

Tue, 01/24/2012 - 10:36pm

In reply to by G Martin

Appreciate the comments G Martin. I could not agree more regarding the difficulties of conducting SFA in an environment where the HN forces' interest are not perfectly aligned with ours - in fact this is probably a consistent feature of SFA (although perhaps worse in AFG). All that advisors can do is create the conditions whereby the HNSF interests bend slightly closer to ours instead of continuing practices which inadvertently do the opposite - this is why I use the example of providing fuel to HNSF. In the short run, this gets the job done by letting the HN trucks roll on a mission, but in the long run it causes their interests to diverge from ours because the lesson learned by the HNSF is "if I sell my fuel on the black market and therefore have none for my trucks, the Americans will give me more, ensuring that I can keep selling fuel..." This is Econ 101 stuff: people respond to incentives. Generally, I believe most ANSF want us to stick around because it is fully in their interests (probably obvious to most readers). That is not going to change; however, what can change is their behavior if we demonstrate that we are serious about transition. That is definitely in line with our interests.

G Martin

Tue, 01/24/2012 - 12:49pm

This makes me wonder why transition wasn't our goal from the start- but at least we're being honest that it wasn't (else why run de facto unilateral ops for a decade?).

The bigger issue IMO, unstated here and practically ignored throughout, is how one does COIN/FID when the host nation doesn't necessarily agree with your vision of how to prosecute operations/strategy-? You can lead a horse to a trough of water- but if the horse doesn't like the water in that trough, measuring your's and his success in terms of how much water he drinks is naive and self-defeating: you'll never be able to "transition" and walk away from the horse.

We need some different guidelines for conducting COIN and/or FID that apply to when the host nation doesn't support us and our own nation doesn't support a sustained and heavy presence. These guidelines would be based more on the reality of the specific scenario instead of on the generically, relatively "perfect" instance wherein we are supporting the host nation's efforts and narrative. I submit we didn't work on transition until forced to because we assumed (probably correctly) that our security interests didn't merge well with the Afghans' and therefore transition was actually against our perceived, at-the-time interests!

These guidelines would stress a more limited presence, more unilateral ops, and the building of an internal host nation force that could continue executing along the lines of our security interest efforts if we are pulled unexpectedly due to loss of domestic/political support and/or money. We can then stop being Pollyanish about building internal host nation capacity across the board every time we do COIN and/or FID when we all assume that could be or would be against our own interests in the short and/or long-term (or simply be unsustainable politically).

Being forced into a one-size-fits-all solution in an unconventional environment does not allow us the flexibility of dealing with realities, instead forcing us to pretend we are doing some things and then get caught up in our own "STRATCOM" and backed into a corner doing those pretend things at some point that we really don't want to do.

"They would also allow advisors and small-unit leaders more flexibility to use their judgment based on local conditions. In some cases, the presence of several U.S. MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles amid a convoy of smaller Afghan HMMWVs and pick-up trucks may actually increase the overall risk to the mission as compared to allowing the soldiers to ride in the Afghan vehicles. In some areas, more relaxed measures may be foolhardy; however, that determination is best made by the advisor on the ground instead of applying blanket restrictions which will prove to be inappropriate in many circumstances." J. Gwinn

As we move into the transition phase with greater emphasis on the advisory mission, the lead advisor on the ground operating with the ANSF unit must be given far greater leeway in determining how best to accomplish his mission, not the BN or BDE CDR sitting back on a FOB looking at endless PowerPoint storyboards about the activities of any given day.

Continuing to manage the advisory mission with leaders who are often hyper risk-averse (not allowing advisors to ride in ANSF pick-up truck, for instance) degrades the ability of advisors to use their "soft influence" skills . Without material items to give to ANSF to gain their compliance (hard influence), gaining their trust by sharing their risks and showing that WE trust them (soft influence) will be the key to progress as we transition. The advisor on the ground is best positioned to make that call.

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 01/24/2012 - 6:13am

Just as an aside and whether you agree with the analysis and opinions that are published, it is amazing what our Captains, and Majors and NCOs are writing and saying on Small Wars Journal. Again, whether you agree or disagree, these men and women are willing to put their thoughts out there for all to criticize or embrace. I think that makes a statement about them personally and professionally as well as about our military as an institution.

(on the disagreement side, in the penultimate paragraph of the article, I do not know why people persist in calling the mission in the Philippines Security Force Assistance (SFA). It remains a classic Foreign Internal Defense mission but some persist in hijacking it to justify the new but very redundant concept of SFA. But of course I do know the answer to my rhetorical question and I hope everyone on SWJ know the reasons).