FORT POLK, La. — The Army has a new tool it hopes will finally tip the scales in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — and potentially other Islamist insurgencies. But can it work?
Meet the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, the first of six units of roughly 1,000 soldiers each that are specially designed to “advise and assist” foreign armies so that they can contain guerrilla movements on their own.
The new brigades are the latest in a string of Pentagon attempts to prepare Afghan, Iraqi and other foreign security forces to secure their nations. They are also the most concrete acknowledgment that all the costly efforts to professionalize such ragtag armies have failed — and the need is as great as ever.
The 1st SFAB is rushing to complete its final rehearsals before deploying to Afghanistan this spring as part of President Donald Trump’s revamped war strategy to push U.S. military advisers back to the front line to train Afghan units and call in air and artillery strikes.
“This is not going to be like previous deployments,” the commander of the brigade, Col. Scott Jackson, told POLITICO during the unit’s recent training here in the Louisiana woods, which included a cast of role players depicting the Afghan police and army units they will be trying to turn into a lasting force to contain the Taliban.
“Our previous experience with [advising]-type work has been ad hoc," explained Jackson, a career infantry officer who previously served as an adviser to a provincial official in Iraq and later commanded a regular combat brigade.
Unlike previous such efforts — which supplemented the Green Berets, the special operations troops designed for such missions, with conventional fighting units ill-prepared for such specialized work — the new brigades are being built from the ground up with the sole purpose of assisting foreign troops in the field.
"The first rule is that everybody in this formation has done their job before," Jackson said.
Indeed, the troops assigned to the 1st SFAB are mostly eager, battle-hardened volunteers — to a surprising degree, given what many veterans of the 17-year-old conflict see as the thankless nature of the task ahead.
“This is a way for us to help shape the fight differently than we have in the past,” one adviser team leader, Capt. Kristopher Farrar, told POLITICO. “The Army’s changing."
But many others are dubious after a decade and a half of mixed results at best.
“Any idea that these teams are going to come in and radically change things is a huge over expectation,” said David Sedney, a former State Department and senior Pentagon official with long experience in Afghanistan who knows Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and supports the effort in theory.
He added: “I think they will make a difference, but what degree of difference — that we won’t know for several years, which is the time frame it takes with an institution as fragile and flawed as the Afghan National Army, which we partially trained, partially abandoned and are now coming back to.”
Almost from the start, the scale of the challenge to prepare local forces in Afghanistan and Iraq has exceeded the capacity of the Green Berets and other special operations troops traditionally assigned the advisory mission.
So for a decade and a half, the Army and Marine Corps pulled together one type of improvised adviser team after another, sent them to war and eventually disbanded them when it seemed like the job was done.
But the mission is considered as urgent as ever, especially if the United States wants to avoid sending thousands of its own troops to fight and die as it did in the earlier phases of these wars.
The new brigades are the brainchild of Milley, who has participated in some of those improvised adviser efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. “We are training, advising and assisting indigenous armies all over the world, and I expect that will increase and not decrease," he said when he unveiled the new advise-and-assist brigades last fall.
In a speech last week, Milley said that the dedicated adviser brigades promised "a better-quality product in terms of our advising."
The 1st SFAB and the other brigades planned like it weren’t designed only with Afghanistan in mind. But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, saw the first unit as a good fit for Trump's so-called Afghan surge announced last fall. Involving some 15,000 troops including the new brigade — up from 11,000 last summer — it places a premium on embedding American military advisers on the front lines with Afghan infantry battalions as they try to regain territory held by the Taliban.
But the first of the new brigades training in Louisiana is being rushed into the fight ahead of schedule, which makes veterans of previous advisory efforts especially wary.
Jackson, the brigade commander, acknowledged that its training for the upcoming deployment “was significantly shortened” after Trump’s August announcement of a new Afghan push. It was originally slated to have a year to get prepared — not just six months. A course on advising that was supposed to last over a month was shortened to two weeks.
By rushing the unit to war, the Army is betraying the promise of the new effort, warned Jason Dempsey, who served as an adviser in Afghanistan under a previous program that was later discontinued and is now affiliated with the Center for a New American Security.
“That’s a strike against it right there,” agreed Sedney, the former State Department and Pentagon official. “Whenever you accelerate something, you reduce the quality.”
Meanwhile, a small number of troops had to be brought in at the last minute from a regular unit, the 10th Mountain Division, to fill shortfalls — not all of them volunteers.
"We grew as fast as we could, but at the end we had a few gaps to fill," said the 1st SFAB's spokesman, Major Matt Fontaine.
But ready or not, the bigger question is whether over the longer term the Army's latest advisory effort can make inroads where others did not.
At the recent training here, Farrar, the team leader, and a fellow officer playing his Afghan counterpart stepped inside a dark room to seek the counsel of a local police official, played by an Afghan-American wearing a vest, scarf and baseball cap.
Outside, other American advisers and their mock Afghan charges waited by armored vehicles, goats milling around, waiting for the order to retake a checkpoint recently seized by the Taliban.
The conversation with the police chief played out much as one might in Afghanistan.
“As far as we know, you guys are just going to stay here for a year and then leave," the police chief remarked dubiously. "Can you promise a company of Afghan National Army or a company of Americans can stay and build an outpost and stay permanently?”
The police chief could tell the answer was no — and he didn’t have enough policemen left to man the checkpoint himself after the Afghan troops and their American advisers wrested it back.
“This operation will be useless," he said.
Yet morale among the American advisers that are training at Fort Polk appears high.
Some non-commissioned officers said they volunteered for the new brigade because they felt invested in the war in Afghanistan or felt affection for the Afghan people.
Staff Sgt. James Elliott, who has fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, had a different motivation. “I like to fight. I grew up fighting,” he said, explaining that advising is just the latest form the war he grew up with has taken.
Staff Sgt. Robert Sumner, who served in the British Army and then as a security contractor in Iraq before joining the U.S. Army and deploying to Afghanistan, said at first he was wary. But after a few months with the brigade, he is convinced the Army is putting the right resources into the adviser mission.
“I haven’t done this much training in a long time,” Sumner said. “I’m looking forward to the deployment.”
Not everyone is so bullish. Retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, a longtime Green Beret, is one of many skeptics in the special operations community that the big Army can do this.
“I always wish the Army the best of luck and success," he said in an interview, "but I don’t think this organizational structure is going to succeed."
Dempsey, the former military adviser, said that while there are promising signs, he doubts the political will exists to keep supporting the Afghan war for as long as it might take for the new strategy — and new advisers — to produce lasting results.
“No matter what the president or Gen. Nicholson says, there are going to be midterms and a reelection campaign here," he said. "So are we really there for the long term?
“How do you avoid the pressure to show success that will justify withdrawal?" he posed. "It’s going to have to pass the smell test with the American people, because how many times can you be promise that this time’s different?"