A brigade of seasoned American soldiers has arrived in Afghanistan in recent days on a much-trumpeted mission to offer a new type of training—as well as motivation—to beleaguered Afghan partners.
Pentagon officials hope the deployment of hundreds of battle-hardened, expert troops across the country will help turn the tide in the war, but Afghanistan watchers are skeptical about how much difference they can make in the 16-year-old conflict. Most of the troops in the so-called Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, have multiple Afghanistan combat deployments under their belts, speak some level of Pashto or Dari and—after having themselves undergone special training—have now volunteered to return.
“They are coming here because they are passionate about the mission,” Navy Captain Tom Gresback, a spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Kabul, told AFP.
The United States and NATO have already tried various training models for Afghan security forces, but even after all these years many units remain beset by corruption and desertions and are suffering horrendous casualty rates. U.S. officials have also tracked dozens of cases of reported human rights violations in Afghan security units, including several involving child sexual assault.
The Pentagon has been training partner forces in various conflicts for decades, and the approach has been buoyed in recent years by local forces’ successes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. What differentiates the SFAB from other Afghan missions is not just the U.S. soldiers’ experience, but the fact they will be patrolling closer to the conflict’s front lines than trainers have done in recent years—putting them at greater risk.
They will help Afghans hone a variety of skills including marksmanship and weapons training, and combat medics will teach Afghan partners how to better handle battlefield trauma. And, vitally, the Afghans will learn how to call in airstrikes and how to conduct ground-clearing operations.
“The goal is to not fight for the Afghans, but to train these proud soldiers to see that they can fight for themselves,” Gresback said.
Squads of about 10 U.S. soldiers will embed at the “kandak” level—an Afghan term for battalions typically made up of 300-400 men—and they will deploy across Afghanistan, including in volatile southern Helmand province and in eastern Nangarhar province, where the Taliban and Islamic State are fighting.
The NATO and U.S. training of Afghan troops has recently been largely conducted by commandos and focused on Afghanistan’s special forces, rather than on its conventional units.
Up until the end of 2014, NATO troops provided most of the security in Afghanistan, but in 2015, after the drawdown of Western forces, Afghan troops were tasked with the job themselves. The results were disastrous, with thousands killed each year as the Taliban resurged. Officials have acknowledged training has sometimes fallen short.
A U.S. government watchdog last year blasted the military as being woefully unprepared to take on the challenge of creating security forces of the size and scope needed in Afghanistan.
Bill Roggio, an Afghanistan expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the SFAB deployment is a step in the right direction but may ultimately have limited impact. “Does it improve things on the margins, or does it actually make a real difference in that [the Afghans] are either going to be able to stop the Taliban’s gains or beat them back? I am skeptical,” he said.
U.S. commanders say the SFAB, along with an increased tempo of airstrikes and a broader strategy for the region including Pakistan, will help the Afghans push back the Taliban. Officials say 64 percent of the Afghan population lives in areas currently controlled by the Afghan government, with 12 percent in Taliban-controlled areas and the rest living in “contested areas.”
They have set the seemingly modest goal of increasing those under government control to 80 percent within two years. “I’ve looked at the training regime,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said recently. “First of all, the quality of these troops, in terms of their experience and their selection, and second, the training, gives me a lot of confidence.”