Small Wars Journal

The Limitations of Security Force Assistance and the Capabilities of the U.S. Army

Tue, 08/13/2013 - 8:21pm

The Limitations of Security Force Assistance and the Capabilities of the U.S. Army

Michael J. Simmering

Our Nation has found itself increasingly involved in Security Force Assistance (SFA) missions throughout the last decade.  In fact, our military aid to other nations has evolved significantly since the end of the Cold War. In supporting the growing militaries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others; the use of the American military to conduct SFA throughout the world has taken root at the tactical level within the US Army.  All the while, senior military leaders continually remind us that the primary job of our military is to fight and win our Nation's wars.  In today's jargon, the military's job is multi-faceted:  to shape the global environment through proactive engagement and partnership with friendly nations, to influence our competitors to avoid challenging our national interests, and, if absolutely necessary, to fight and win the next war decisively.  As applicable as the concept of SFA has been before; and as intriguing as it has become to those discussing the "future of land warfare in the 21st Century", we must accept that SFA has a time, a place, and yes, even limitations to what it can truly accomplish.  As we enter an era of constrained resources, this argument must be echoed throughout the ranks so that we stay mindful of what we do when we embark on a journey to outsource our interests to other nations. 

When we relinquish the responsibility to advance our interests, we trade the capability that got us to this point.  The core capabilities of the US military stand as the primary reason we have been forced onto an asymmetric battlefield.  The competition’s refusal to take us head on forced our transition to modular counterinsurgency focused force.  Loss of those core competencies and loss of strategic overmatch can easily place us at an immediate disadvantage in the first battle of the next war if we do not carefully consider the implications of our current force structure and force employment decisions.

As the operations officer in Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005 responsible for coordinating operations, as the concept of "clear, hold, and build" was re-born in the alleys of the old Ottoman city, I believe we must never forget that although we grew the Iraqi and Afghanistan Security Forces, there are clear limitations to the idea of using another army to advance our national interests.  First, cultural differences and the internal politics of the host nation limit the extent to which SFA operations can succeed.  Secondly, those same nations that we attempt to build up have to balance their internal politics with the external influences threatening their own emerging sovereignty.  Third, building capacity occurs slowly, never quickly.  Our military stands strong because of the institutional capacity behind the Soldier at the tip of the spear.  We must not forget that the power at the tip of the spear comes from the size and weight of the shaft used to project it.  Without a prolonged commitment by all elements of national power to the sovereignty of a friendly nation, our efforts as Soldiers at the tip of the spear will produce temporary results at best.  Finally, and most importantly, we must not be so quick to believe that SFA is the wave of the future.  Often, our Nation looks at what we'd like to do in the immediate, and then builds a strategy to combat our near term problems.  Very rarely, do we step back and think, based upon the emerging strategic environment, whether or not our collective approach is in the best long term interests of our Nation. 

SFA as a tactic can produce immediate results.  SFA at the operational level can buy time and space for a political solution to emerge.  SFA as a strategy to achieve our long term national security objectives fundamentally costs us the capabilities that created the necessity in the first place. 

It's a trade off.  If we trade too much, we risk future aggression by other nations who recognize our ‘weakened’ state resulting from over-emphasis on SFA, peacekeeping, nation building, and other low intensity missions that degrade our combat/decisive edge.  But if we don't trade enough, flailing partners might find themselves overrun in the future.  Our approach must be balanced.  We will continue to help our friends.  And we must oblige.  But we must also maintain within our military, the capacity to confront our adversaries directly with offensive combat power when our decision makers fail to achieve increasingly complicated political solutions in an ever more complicated, globalized world.

In Afghanistan, we find the differences of Pashtu culture clashing with objectives of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who have been largely shaped by American and international norms.  Americans have a difficult time understanding why the Afghan police will not send a criminal or insurgent to jail when he breaks the law.  We fail to understand that within a Pashtu society, placing an eldest son or tribal elder in jail upsets the entire social balance within a country that has already been riddled by 30(+) years of war.  Americans often forget that positions of power are inherited or 'stolen' and that those among the ANSF must not only answer to their chain of command, but they must also answer to the family, political faction, or tribe which allowed them to achieve that position.  Americans are quick to forget that Afghan security force leaders have a difficult time giving others around them the authority to make decisions because those subordinates that "make things happen" are seen as a threat to the power of the unit leader.  Most people forget that within Pashtu culture, a man must seek retribution against those who have wronged him.  Simply ignoring the host nation culture and rationalizing your response with the term "reintegration" has very little meaning in their society.  Overall, the power of culture and their societal norms place limits on what those forces will ever be able to accomplish.  The extent of those limits becomes a point of debate. 

In Iraq, we witnessed the same dilemma but on a more repressed scale.  After reading interrogation reports and listening to the evidence that Iraqi Security Forces had against many insurgents, many American leaders witnessed, on multiple occasions, the release of an insurgent.  Whether the Iraqi leader did not want to upset the emerging social order or he simply just did not want to create more insurgents, it was never made clear.  But many were freed.  The case of the Iraqi woman who pleads to the local officials for the release of her husband for fear of her family starving because they had no sons was heard throughout Iraq as the insurgency ebbed and flowed.  Overall, the culture of the host nation force has immeasurable impact on what our assistance can ultimately achieve - regardless of our intentions.

Likewise, beyond the cultural tensions, the internal political dynamics of the host nation limit what SFA can ultimately achieve. In Afghanistan, most military officers (including me) will claim that the current Provincial Chief of Police in Kandahar, Afghanistan has greatly increased stability in this province.  What we often forget is that as a member of the Achekzai tribe, his personal interests compete with other international ongoing efforts such as poppy eradication.  His alleged involvement in smuggling operations along the border and his willingness to facilitate or limit this activity pits our national interests against one another.  Similarly, Achekzai tribal disputes over control of the border with the Norzai tribe places security in areas like western Kandahar City and Panjway at odds with our national objectives.  Finally, his alleged methods for maintaining law and order within Kandahar have come under scrutiny in the past and seem to oppose the western style "rule of law" system the international community has attempted to establish in Afghanistan.  Is he effective?  Absolutely.  Is there a tension in the relationship?  There have been at multiple points in the past.  We should anticipate more if we fail to account for these factors in the future because the internal political dynamics of the host nation are not always congruent with our national interests.

We witnessed similar limitations in Iraq even as we 'won' many struggles to re-establish security.  As we frantically attempted to build the police in Shia' controlled areas, those same police were manipulated by Shia extremism sentiment.  Even in Tal Afar as early as 2005, as we executed the 'clear' operation, predominately Shia Iraqi Security Forces coming from Baghdad struck fear into the hearts of the 75% Sunni population and, left unchecked (Iraqi leaders did finally put them in check), limited our ability to actually protect the Sunni population under the control of 'Takfiri' Islamic Extremists.  In Baghdad, many of the same police trained by American forces went on to use the weapons we provided to form death squads and begin the sectarian cleansing that nearly resulted in the collapse of the entire country prior to the surge.  

External politics and the host nation’s interaction with its neighbors, especially in Afghanistan, continue to play a critical role in our SFA efforts.  On the ground, in Kandahar, you could feel the tension with Pakistan in 2012.  Numerous Afghan political leaders state that the problems faced today in Afghanistan are a result of President Karzai’s approach to Pakistan.  In turn, this created at the grass roots level, a murmur among the Security forces that the Afghan Army be re-missioned out of the populated areas in order to take a more proactive stance against their southern neighbor.  It created a minor reluctance on the part of the Afghan security forces to address the problems within – a seemingly unnecessary detractor to the unity of command so critically needed in the fight.  The same can be said of the silent battles fought against Iranian-backed Shias in Iraq from 2006-2009.  The relationship of the host nation with regional actors will contribute or detract from the ability of our nation to conduct SFA missions.

As we look to applaud the efforts of those who executed SFA Operations on the front line, we can never forget the prolonged nature of our commitment.  Since 9/11, little has been fixed or resolved in the single deployment of a lone SFA Team.  Without the billions of dollars in military equipment for the host nation, without the capacity to maintain this equipment; and without the capacity to raise, train, and sustain an Army or police force, very little takes hold over time.  In my first year in Iraq, we spent immense amounts of energy attempting to establish a viable, sustainable police force.  In that time, Tal Afar went from about 250 trained policemen to nearly 1400.  However, that growth only took place because of the recruiting drives executed by the Iraqis, the Police Academy established at the national level, and the equipment provided by the Security Force Assistance Command.  Additionally, many former Security Force Assistance soldiers will tell you that those forces could not have survived over the long term if it weren't for the depots, warehouses, and immense amounts of material used to start up their forces.  In short - it succeeded because the 'institutional base' began to slowly generate the required forces.

We face the same challenge in Afghanistan today.  Since 2006, the Afghan Security Forces have grown from a mere 80,000 to over 350,000.  That's an impressive number.  After six months in Afghanistan, I sat at my desk as a Battalion Commander reading the AAR from my predecessor.  I wondered if I had missed anything as we fought the next leg in the counterinsurgency campaign in the Arghandab River Valley.  Nearly 8 months old, the document jumped out at me when the previous battalion stated that the Afghan Army and Police were both capable forces within the valley. They could fight.  However, his primary concern was their ability to sustain themselves.  They couldn't get fuel to where it needed to go.  Their maintenance system resulted in deadline rates that would get the average company commander in the American Army relieved immediately.  Lastly, their system of contracting food, getting winter clothing for their soldiers, and even getting ammunition always resulted in 'too little/too late'.  Amazingly, these were the same concerns that I had faced for months as we tried to create an independent unit that would ultimately work my Soldiers out of a job.  Eighteen months later while preparing for my unit's next rotation back to Afghanistan, the same thoughts float among leader now coming out of theater.  The security forces are ready to assume responsibility for all operations as they continue to move towards independence vice dependence upon external military enablers.

Lastly, insurgencies come from an inability to achieve a political solution. The necessity of our SFA operations sprang from a requirement to consolidate our immediate gains after the standing forces of our enemy were defeated.  Our prolonged assistance to other nations must contribute to sustainable political outcomes consistent with our nation’s vital interests. Each agreement to assist our allies focuses our soldiers on partnering, negotiating, and training others at the lowest levels.  In trade, we lose institutional capability with each deployment to combat an enemy at the high end of the spectrum of conflict.  Yet, today other much more capable threats to our nation exist; well beyond the capability of an insurgent force.  Iran continues to develop a nuclear capability.  China continues to clearly explain its position on US/China relations and makes no bones about what they consider hostile acts.  Syria, even as they falter, continues to possess stockpiles of chemical weapons that could easily upset the balance of power in the Middle East.  While we may think that the possibility of full blown war will go the way of dinosaur, we cannot forget that we live in a competitive world that has grown increasingly complex.  In 1900, if we had told the President of the United States that America would fight two major wars in the next 45 years that would result in the death of 500,000 American Soldiers, few would have believed us.  If we had told Americans in 1987 that the same rebels we were aiding to overthrow the Soviets in Afghanistan would eventually play host to an extremist organization that would kill over 3,000 Americans, destroy the World Trade Center, and the necessitate the deployment of American Soldiers into combat for the first ten years of the 21st Century, most would have called us alarmists.  Without linking our assistance agreements to our vital national interests and sustainable political solutions, we risk trading too much capability to combat emerging or existing threats.  We never know what will happen next - a fact that we have slowly begun to acknowledge.

Given that we do not know what will happen, we must maintain the capability to deter those who would engage us directly.  Every SFA mission costs us that capability in some respect.  In today's environment of shrinking budgets, the cost grows as a percentage of the military's overall budget.  Just this year, the Army has stated that we WILL meet fiscal year 2013 mission requirements, which heavily rely on SFA.  Yet, we have also stated that in doing so, we will maintain the military's equipment at a lower level, not train our forces as much as we have in the past, and if not deploying, minimally train our formations.  Simultaneously, North Korea took this same timeframe to test another nuclear device, threatened to break the armistice with South Korea, and has published propaganda videos that show the White House and Congress being destroyed. 

To counter our SFA tendencies over the next decade, we must consistently ask ourselves, “Could the Army of today do what the Army of 2001 did?”  Do we possess the strategic overmatch to decisively destroy anyone who stands in our path?  Some senior leaders in today’s force will quietly whisper, “no – we do not”.  I’m not so sure, but it’s a question worth pondering.  At the current pace of deployments and given the breadth of missions being executed by the Army, some will agree that we would have trouble accomplishing on short notice what we accomplished in 2003.  That’s not a stretch if you think about it.  How much time would it take the Army of 2013 to pull 1 x Corps Headquarters, 2 x Division Headquarters, 6 x Brigade Combat Teams, 2 x Combat Aviation Brigades and a myriad of support assets off line and create a force capable of moving nearly 300 miles in a short amount of time against a determined enemy?  What if that enemy had no qualms about using chemical weapons?  What if that enemy had a force quadruple the size of anything we could muster in a three month period?  That’s the challenge we face…not losing, but instead decisively winning the first battle of the next war.  The symmetrical overmatch capability we possessed in 2001 has been slowly traded for asymmetrical capability in 2013.  Our power in 2001 necessitated the US Army of 2013.  Without maintaining that core capability to some level at a time of reduced funding, we must question the assumptions that forced us to re-structure the force in the first place. 

There are no easy answers.  Our Army has accomplished some of the most impressive feats the world has seen in the last ten years:  completely transforming for the modern era, fighting two insurgencies simultaneously, growing to meet the demands of the time, leading a nation intent on bringing about enduring change in the Middle East, and deploying Soldiers throughout the world to train other armies.  As proud as we should be of our young Soldiers and leaders, those results come at a cost.  The cost is our ability to combat those who would seek to engage us directly.  The cost will continue to grow in terms of our ability to maintain the war fighting focused edge that others have sacrificed to achieve.  Maybe we won't maintain that edge.  Maybe we don’t need to.  Maybe we do.  Maybe it is too late to reverse our politically charted course. 

Our Army finds strength in each other and our collective ability to provide the nation with professional Soldiers who understand the business of war...not just the business of the last war.  However, we find the equipment and resources in the halls of Congress and with the American people.  Our Army is only as big as the cost the American people are willing to pay.  If SFA is now considered a primary role of the U.S. Army, then how do we simultaneously focus on maintaining an edge to conduct secondary and contingency missions?  We must craft a strategy that balances – and ‘balance’ is the operative word – our requirement to shape, deter, and win.  The strength of our Nation is our Army.  The Strength of our Army is our Soldiers.  The Strength of our Soldiers is our Families.  That IS what makes us Army Strong.  However, "strong enough to do what?" remains the question.  Balancing requirements and our strategic approach consistently – and getting it right routinely - becomes the theme that each of us must echo in order to maintain an Army that America will continue to applaud as we roll into the next decade.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel (Promotable) Michael J. Simmering is currently a student at the Joint Forces Staff College, National Defense University at Norfolk, VA.  He most recently served serves as the G3 for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.  He served as the Commander of 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment while deployed to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2011-2012.  Prior to command, Lieutenant Colonel Simmering served with the 3d ACR in Mosul, Iraq in 2007-2008 and in Tal Afar, Iraq from 2005-2006 as a Squadron Operations Office during OPERATION RESTORING RIGHTS. 



Sat, 02/01/2014 - 8:48am

This article makes a couple good points. However as adept we have and may become at COIN, it is a failed strategy... Nor can we predict the future. Which begs the question of the current schemes to reduce troop strength. Nostradamus might have been able to, but the US Military has history of failure and unpreparedness. As have the intelligence folks, And though we try, we will never be able to predict it.

SFA sounds good, briefs well, and in theory, should work. But I struggle to think of where it has, in any meaningful way. We have had to prop up everyplace it was used or abandoned it. Which is what we did in Iraq, will probably do in Afghanistan, unless we continue to prop up Afghanistan for awhile.

SFA when combined with other nonsense like nation building, police actions, etc. that draw resources, etc. from it, it will never succeed without continued large commitments of support, treasure and blood.

With Dempsey and Odierno trying to trying to figure out how many Soldiers to get rid of so that more toys can be kept, bought or explored... Is SFA something that we should be putting our time effort and resources into?

The answer is probably not, especially in any large way. Limited to advisors and minimal equipment some value and limited gains may be possible.

It seems that our politicians tend to view the military as a large working party. I suppose this is partly due to our own resourcefulness and versatility, but it is taking a huge toll on our overall capability and it is apparent at a large scale. Even the traditional roles of the services have been blurred. While all services across the board have, arguably, become adept at COIN, each service’s unique capabilities have been diminished. The same rule applies as you go down the echelons and into specialized units. We have a whole new brood of young leaders with little appreciation for maneuver warfare (or doctrine), a SOF community with a lost identity, and a huge airborne ISR apparatus completely reliant on permissive airspace.