Forever Train and Advise, Part 1: Introducing the SFAB

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“It’s not forever war, it’s forever train and advise”

-General Mark Milley, US Army

In December 2018, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw half of the US’s 14,000 service members in Afghanistan by the end of 2019.1. This pullout, though, does not include the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), which deployed to Afghanistan last month.2. This advisory brigade’s first deployment is part of a big test of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) ambition to reinforce future overseas commitments with a more expeditionary style of advising.3. Between the increasing fragility of states, the malicious interventions of major powers, and our dying biosphere, it is easy to see why the DoD believes it needs a more independent and deployable advising force.

Security Force Assistance (SFA), with its supposedly light footprint and cheap investment, has become a ubiquitous part of America’s post-9/11 wars. The introduction of permanent SFABs, the discussions of divisional and corps-level SFA commands, and the DoD’s posturing leave us at a potentially important inflection point as the US demonstrates an unprecedented commitment to long-term SFA missions.4. The purpose of this series is to better understand how the nature of US SFA may evolve over the next few decades. This article starts the series by examining how the SFABs may or may not be an effective first step.

‘ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan (July 1, 2018) — An SFAB advisor working alongside their Afghan counterparts during Afghan-led offensive operations in southern Afghanistan. The NATO-led Resolute Support mission soldiers supported the Afghan National Army to ensure all equipment was operational. (NATO photo by Jackie Faye)’ Source:

The Evolution of SFA

The SFABs have been shaped by the victories and failures of the past two decades, drawing from the experiences of the more provisional SFA units previously utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan.5. The SFABs are the only advising concept so far which trains to be a holistic and flexible long-term team.6. They require high fitness standards, utilize high-quality gear, and select only NCO’s or Officers.7. They train extensively throughout the DoD infrastructure, including at the Military Advisor Training Academy (MATA), which was recently set up to train the SFABs.9.

Unlike previous, ad hoc attempts at SFA, the SFABs should not harm overall Army readiness. They don’t pluck the leadership out of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), a policy that rendered BCTs useless for years at a time. And SFABs are supposed to be easily scaled up into BCTs in times of national emergency.10. Furthermore, these officers and NCOs are intended to suffer less of the career stigma that has surrounded advisors in the past.11. Most importantly, with the permanence of their leadership cadres come established lines of communication and responsibility, which fosters a better flow of lessons learned.13.

In the early days of Afghanistan and Iraq, SFA carried out by non-special operations forces was conducted by hastily assembled and deployed Transition Teams.14. The growing insurgencies later spurred an evolution in SFA, but the responses have remained insufficient.16. While advisors form the majority of US service members in Afghanistan since 2015, advising has been focused on the upper echelons of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF). To make matters worse, advisors have often seen their careers set back, their feedback ignored, and their accomplishments reversed.17. All of this left a lasting impression on some of the service members and policymakers involved, but calls for better advising structures were ignored for years.19.

“MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan (August 6, 2018) – U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Hannah Levine, a field artillery officer with 4th Infantry Division, reviews capabilities of the Howitzer with a soldier on an Afghan National Army base Maidan Shahr in Wardak province. (NATO photo taken by U.S. Navy Lt. Aubrey Page)” Source:


Not long after becoming Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley proposed the creation of the SFABs.20. Milley, future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversaw the planning and or standing up of the six SFABs, their command element, and the MATA. Each of the six SFABs has six battalions, along with support, intelligence, signals and command companies.21. An SFAB numbers a little over 800 service members, and when deployed to combat theaters like Afghanistan, “Guardian Angel” security details are supplied, boosting the SFAB’s numbers to around 1,000.22. But that’s thousands of soldiers less than the BCTs that were ripped apart to stand up the earlier SFA units.24.

The six SFABs will be divided amongst the DoD’s geographic combatant commands, but for now most are expected to deploy to Afghanistan.25. All are intended to be staffed by volunteers from the Army, except for one National Guard SFAB.27. The 1st SFAB only had a small portion of 2017 to train together as a unit before deployment to Afghanistan was moved forward and their MATA timelines were cut significantly.28. Currently, the 2nd SFAB is beginning operations in Afghanistan while the 3rd and 4th have stood up, with the other two intending to stand up by the end of 2020.30.

SFABs have been met with skepticism by some of the defense and policy establishment, with some claiming that this is an unnecessary mission to focus on, a mission that will pull much-needed assets away from near-peer threats.32. Still, others worry the SFAB’s mission may clash with the similar but separate mission of Army Special Forces (SF).33. Ultimately, the emphasis on personal interaction, interoperability, high standards, and the far-flung small team deployments points to soldiers trained for a specialized and complex mission. One which demands that they both build the future leaders of their partner forces and fight alongside them as needed.

“Sgt. 1st Class James Mills, right, a combat medic with Combat Advisor Team 1131, shares tips with his Afghan National Army counterparts during an Afghan-led operation near Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 16, 2018. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)” Source:


The 1st SFAB deployed to Afghanistan a year ago and returned home in November 2018, having offered few embeds and few details on the mission’s outcome. What we do know was that they faced a number of unexpected setbacks and suffered two fatalities, but reportedly returned with some positive results. When they deployed in early 2018, they were met early on with issues of logistics and basing, as bases had to meet safety and sustainment standards before the SFA teams could deploy.34.

As the deployment drew on, teams had to be diverted to set up Task Force 5 to help secure Kabul, which faced a sharp increase in terror attacks. Other teams were diverted into a Quick Reaction element to respond to escalating situations across the country.36. One example is the battle for Ghazni, where 1st SFAB teams worked with US Army Special Forces and the ANDSF to take back the city in a vicious battle.38. The 1st SFAB suffered two fatalities, CPL James Maciel on July 7th and CSM Timothy Bolyard on September 3rd, both killed by insider attacks.39.

1st SFAB officers came back reporting many lessons learned. Some lessons enforce the value of their training and unique role, with personal interactions, especially with key leaders being essential.41. Other lessons were not as obvious, such as the need for better logistics support to these far-flung and largely Coalition-abandoned bases, as well as the importance of training the foreign security forces in employing mortar fire and air support at the battalion level.42. Unlike earlier advisor rotations in the war, the 1st SFAB had multiple opportunities to convey lessons learned to the 2nd SFAB before their deployment.44.

“GHAZNI, Afghanistan (July 2, 2018) – U.S. Army Col. Scott Jackson, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade commander and Task Force Southeast senior advisor, center, reviews operational plans with Afghan National Army Maj. Gen. Shur Gul, 203rd Corps commander, left, at the Operational Coordination Center–Provincial in Ghazni city, July 2. The Afghan National Army’s 203rd “Thunder” Corps led an extensive clearing operation in Ghazni province, while accompanied by advisors from June 30 to July 9. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Arnulfo Benitez)” Source:

Measuring Success

The DoD claims the 1st SFAB improved 34 ANDSF battalions in key locations, and that the increased advising “proved extremely effective against the Taliban”.45., page 346. But that doesn’t change the overall issues of corruption and poor governance that leave the ANDSF under-equipped and poorly commanded. Meanwhile, 2019 brings a wavering American administration, multiple peace talks, and a potentially disastrous election.

While the 1st SFAB’s deployment saw no major permanent territorial loss to insurgents, their deployment did see one of Afghanistan’s deadliest years for civilians, and a year that consistently had the ANDSF on the back foot. Meanwhile in Kabul, the large scale, horrific suicide bombings continued despite the efforts of Task Force 5 and its many partners. The soldiers of the 1st SFAB report that they made significant strides, but the DoD and Afghan government have only become more tight-lipped, so it is impossible to verify the overall success of the 1st SFAB’s objectives for now. Ultimately, when objectives are boiled down, we must strive for sustainable results when trying to build foreign security forces. Sustainability means keeping the costs in time, blood and treasure to a minimum, and means that results must be defended long after an SFAB has returned home.47.

When looking at the SFAB, it is quite likely they are having a positive tactical impact, but Milley himself admits that they are not having a significant strategic effect.48. Advisors cannot financially support foreign forces, supply their logistics, or end systemic corruption. The consistently identified cause behind the failures of US-trained troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, or atrocities carried out by US-trained commandos in Cameroon, is not poor SFA but corruption and abuse of power by governments that Washington refuses to address.49. Without a more strategic and holistic advising policy, involving the chronically underfunded civilian sides of US power, US advising efforts are likely marginally effective at best.

One of the greatest dangers of the SFAB is that it will be so good and relatively so cheap that it will become a one-stop-shop for administrations who want to respond to crisis and prop up strongmen but do not care about the greater strategic context. Without a whole of government evolution towards ethical and sustainable advising, countless Americans will continue to lose their lives with little benefit in the coming decades, as the US continues to strike decisively but flail around strategically.


This is part one of a forthcoming series examining the future of the US’s advising strategy, stay tuned for articles on the history of advising before and after 9/11, the theories and ethics of advising, a deep dive into the SFAB’s deployments to Afghanistan, and more.

Adam Brayne

Adam Brayne is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of the International Review. He focusses on the role of the United States in conflict and crisis all over the world.


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