1st SFAB in Afghanistan – A Successful Deployment?

1st SFAB Afghanistan deployment

The 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade or 1st SFAB has completed its Afghanistan tour. It was in Afghanistan for much of 2018 with the mission to train, advise, and assist (TAA) the Afghan National Defense and Security  Forces (ANDSF). The deployment began in March 2018. The brigade and its many advisor teams redeployed back to their home base at Fort Benning, Georgia during the month of November 2018. The SFAB is a specialized conventional unit built to train, advise, assist, accompany, and enable (TA3E) partner nation forces.

Editorial Note: This article was first published on December 12, 2018. Since that date the Department of Defense released a report on Afghanistan on December 20, 2018 that provided updated information on the 1st SFAB’s deployment. This article has been updated with that new information.

Thus far, the brigade’s deployment has been judged as a success. While there are a lot of news reports about the 1st SFAB there is a distinct lack of details in regards to disposition and employment of the SFAB in Afghanistan. There is very little open source information available (for someone on the outside looking in) to make a realistic assessment. Certainly, the Army has captured a lot of lessons learned over the past year; and in time these will surface and become available to those without access to NIPR and SIPR. There were some bumps along the way. This article takes a close look at the establishment, pre-deployment training, and employment in Afghanistan of the 1st Security Force Assistance Battalion.

Reasons for an SFAB

Professional Advisory Corps. Past advising efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan involved the forming up of temporary advisor teams. A study of the U.S. military’s Security Force Assistance (SFA) efforts would reveal some success and some failures in U.S. advisory efforts; and the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences were not out of the norm. Over the past two decades individuals from different units would be selected to deploy to theater on a ‘put together’ advisory team. Sometimes units would be tasked with providing advisor teams – forming them up from within their organic personnel.

In Iraq the teams were usually called Military Transition Teams (MiTTs); although there were a variety of advisor teams – sometimes with different types of names. Later in the Iraq war standard brigade combat teams (BCTs) – designated as Advise and Assist Brigades or AABs – were tasked with the advisory mission. The AABs were augmented with 48 field grade officers.

In Afghanistan there have been an even larger variety of advisor teams – some tailored for general advising and others for a specific function. Early in the conflict the U.S. Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) of Task Force Phoenix worked with Afghan army and police units at kandak and district level. NATO countries also provided their version of advisor teams as well.  In 2012 – 2014 there was a big push of Security Force Assistance Advisory Teams (SFAATs); and later Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs). The 12- or 18-man SFAATs were working from Army corps and police zone down to kandak and district level.

However, a common denominator was that these advisor teams were mostly ad hoc formations. Many times deployed with no advisor, cultural, or language training. There was a rush to man the advisor teams and to deploy them to theater. Once the teams and advisor brigades completed their mission they returned to home station to carry on with their ‘real mission’.

The SFAB concept adopted by the U.S. Army in 2017 provides advisor teams on a permanent basis; a purpose-built organization designed for advising. The SFAB will be one of the initiatives the U.S. Army will use to build partner nation capacity. A permanent advisory corps is not a new concept – there were many supporters of a unit dedicated to advising, among them – John Nagl, a former infantry officer who served in Iraq. (Read his paper Institutionalizing Adaptation, CNAS, June 2007).

Retaining Experienced Advisors. Members of the advisor brigade will train, deploy, and then redeploy as part of an enduring organization. Ideally, the individuals will remain in the brigade, continue their advisor and language training, and redeploy once again to the same conflict or region of the world. This retains information at the individual and organizational level and eliminates the loss of continuity in the advising effort. Theoretically, the 1st SFAB, now that it is back at Fort Benning, would take a breath, refit, retrain, further develop its cultural, language, advisory skills, and other skills and then re-deploy to Afghanistan again.

Free Up BCTs. With the existence of the SFABs – once they are all up and running (2022) – the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams and divisional staffs will be partly relieved of the requirement to send advising and training teams to locations like Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. When a brigade combat team deployed to Afghanistan in the later stages of the war as an ad hoc SFAB it went with about 1,500 men; mostly officers and senior NCOs. The remainder of the 3,600 to 4,500 personnel (lower ranking Soldiers) stayed home. The SFABs would allow the BCTs to train for their wartime mission.

“The SFAB gives us purpose-built formations designed to execute the critical mission of security force assistance without having to rip apart conventional BCTs.”

Chief of Staff of the Army General Mark Milley, February 8, 2018.

BCT Generation. The SFABs, if necessary, could transition to a full-strength brigade combat team in a time of general war. The officers and senior NCOs are already in place. It would be a matter of flushing out the ranks with more personnel and units with equipment. Although not an easy task to do it certainly provides an expedited means of establishing six more BCTs. Or at least quicker than starting from scratch.

SFAB Concept

Need for Professional Advisors. The establishment of the SFABs was the brainchild of General Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff of the Army. In October of 2015 he began to vocalize the need for a professional advisory corps. In May 2016 the Army announced it would form up six Security Force Assistance Brigades. The new units would institutionalize the train, advise, and assist mission.  In February 2017 the Army provided more information on the six SFABs and stated that an academy would stand up to train the members of these specialized units. Initial plans called for a 529-man SFAB but this was later increased to 800.

Critics. Many critics of this concept believe that conventional forces were already trained up sufficiently and could easily flex to an advisory mission. However, Milley had first-hand experience of the ad hoc SFAATs and SFABs at work in Afghanistan during his tour as commander of ISAF Joint Command and was on solid ground with his proposed plan.

SFAC and 6 SFABS. The Army plans to have a Security Force Assistance Command (SFAC) and six Security Force Assistance Brigades. This will allow the regular BCTs to concentrate on the ‘near peer’ competition and the ‘big fight’. [1]

Doctrine and TTPs

The SFAB is a new organization and the Army needed a pub for it. In November 2017 it published a draft pub for the SFAB entitled ATP 3-96.1, Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). In May 2018 the final version was published. There is no shortage of publications, reports, and lessons learned on the Security Force Assistance mission in Afghanistan. See Annotated Bibliography for Resolute Support.

Establishment of 1st SFAB

Photo: 1st SFAB Activation, February 2, 2018.

The 1st SFAB was formed up in 2017 on Kelley Hill at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was officially activated on February 8, 2018. Throughout 2017 the Army recruited personnel to fill in the ranks of the SFAB. Before joining the unit the Soldiers had to undergo a two-day candidate assessment process or SFAB selection. Once joining the unit the personnel were integrated into the ongoing unit training program.

Leadership. The command team of the 1st SFAB has a lot of experience. The commander, BG Scott Jackson (he was promoted while in Afghanistan) had already served as a brigade commander at Fort Stewart, Georgia. The Command Sergeant Major Christopher Gunn is a former BCT CSM. The battalion commanders and staff were selected by a panel of general officers and had already served in similar positions within a brigade. Many of the senior NCOs have had multiple combat deployments and previous advisor experience. There are a sprinkling of SF and Ranger officers and NCOs in the SFAB as well.

Photo. Newly promoted BG Scott Jackson, 1st SFAB commander, Aug 2018.

Recruitment. There was and still is a big effort to recruit for the SFABs. A number of incentives are being offered to include bonuses, accelerated promotions, and choice of assignments for post-SFAB duty. Most of the positions within the SFAB are for officers and senior NCOs; it is definitely a rank-heavy unit. Army news releases would tell you that everyone within the SFAB was a volunteer. And for the most part that is likely true, but an earlier deployment of the 1st SFAB prompted some ‘non-volunteer’ assignments to the unit – as some Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division discovered.

Logistics and Equipment. The SFAB had to set up house in a new compound on Fort Benning, receive incoming personnel, and develop and implement a training plan. In addition, it had to receive and process the brigade’s equipment and vehicles. It is estimated that the SFAB received more than 22,000 pieces of equipment. Some equipment was the standard Army stuff that the Soldiers had seen before; however, the SFAB was also given some ‘new stuff’. The new stuff – like off-the-shelf radios and networking equipment (SNAP and GRRIP) – required additional training. New radios (AN/PRC 148 and AN/PRC-152A) had to be issued and trained on by the Soldiers.

Initial Hiccups at Startup

But Isn’t Advising an SF Mission? Some critics – both within Special Forces and the conventional Army at large – felt that the advisory function was covered by U.S. Army Special Forces and that an SFAB unit was not needed. U.S. Army Special Forces has several primary missions – COIN, UW, DA, FID, SR, and SFA. Foreign Internal Defense (FID) and Security Force Assistance (SFA) are missions SF teams are ideally trained and equipped for.

Some SF officers worried that the SFABs would ‘steal’ the FID mission; but other SF officers said that it was an idea whose time has come. It would appear, however, that many senior leaders within the Special Forces community are on board with the SFAB concept. [2]

“There is no intent to replace Special Forces, or to compete with Special Forces.”

Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, October 2017.

Stealing the Heritage of SF? The SFAB concept suffered a temporary setback in acceptance by some in the Special Forces community when the ‘beret flap‘ transpired. [3] This unfortunate incident didn’t need to happen. Certainly there were some missteps on the part of big Army in this respect; but quick action by General Milley and the 1st SFAB was able to put that fire out (sort of). The Army put out a press release in February 2018 to try and dampen the angst in the SF community. 

“The SFABs are not designed for irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism or any of the other missions that are unique to Special Forces. Only Special Forces have the capability to do those missions. Foreign Internal Defense (FID) and Security Force Assistance are the only mission areas that overlap. SFABs and Special Forces will be complementary. SFABs provide training in certain key competencies of conventional forces such as armor, artillery, or aviation for which Special Forces are too engaged with other missions to do on a large scale.”

“1st SFAB hosts activation ceremony: Heraldry announced”, U.S. Army, February 8, 2018.

Advising Capacity. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soon exceeded the advising capacity of U.S. Army Special Forces and conventional ad hoc advisor teams were sent into the fray. The bottom line is that in order to keep U.S. combat forces from fighting other nations wars the foreign military forces need to be trained, advised, and assisted. There are just not enough SF ‘A teams’ to do this large-scale advising mission with indigenous forces.

What About the RAFs? Army BCTs have been implementing the Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) concept for a few years now. Where does the SFAB fit in? The BCTs doing the RAF mission in Asia and Europe are more focused on “larger-scale combined maneuver training with conventional forces of allies and partners”; although the BCT with the Africa RAF mission is doing more small-team advisory missions. So, it is possible that one of the six SFABs will have an Africa orientation. 

Photo. 1st SFAB soldier on rifle range at Fort Benning, Ga. Photo by Markeith Horace.


Home Station Training. Every unit that deploys to a combat zone has a checklist of pre-deployment training that has to be accomplished. This is usually done at home station (in this case Fort Benning). The usual events include range firing, medevac procedures, call for fire, small unit tactics, etc. Some unit members went through the Close Combat Tactical Training at the Clark Simulation Center at Ft. Benning. In addition to the ‘battlefield survival training’, some members of the SFAB received weeks of language, culture, and foreign weapons training.

Equipment Training. The SFAB was provided with new communications radios, UAVs, along with a variety of other equipment that had to be tested and for which training had to be conducted. Select members of the advisory teams trained on the RQ-11B Raven and RQ-20 Puma unmanned aircraft systems for 15 days at Ft. Benning.

Unit FTX. In October 2017 the 1st SFAB conducted a combined field training exercise at Fort Benning, Georgia that included all six battalions and the brigade headquarters. The exercise gave the SFAB the opportunity to focus on advise and assist tasks as members of advisory teams.

MATA. Some SFAB Soldiers attended the Combat Advisor Training Course (CATC) at the Military Advisor Training Academy (MATA) that was stood up in 2017 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Although the combat advisor course was intended to be six weeks long, the 1st SFAB Soldiers are reported to have attended an abbreviated two-week long course. The first course appears to have taken place in August with subsequent courses conducted through the remainder of the year. Two weeks just doesn’t seem like a long time to learn how to become an advisor. This is especially true when it comes to understanding the more complex aspects of human interaction (Kauffman, 2018) or how to leverage resources to persuade a counterpart into a specific course of action (Loidolt and Ballanco, 2018).

Photo. 1st SFAB personnel in training at MATA. Photo by SPC Noelle Wiehe, October 23, 2018.

JRTC. The SFAB conducted a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk in January 2018. Usually JRTC rotations involve training in conventional warfighting tactics and functions that sharpen the skills of BCTs – with a focus on either counterinsurgency or ‘near-peer’ conflict. The conventional BCTs usually execute a decisive action training exercise that integrates forcible entry, defensive, and offensive operations.

Tailored Rotation. However, the 1st SFAB rotation (18-03) was specifically tailored for their Afghan deployment through various training, advising, assisting, accompanying, and enabling scenarios.  The month-long event was geared for advisors and it put the advisor teams through several event lanes with different situational training events. A major training topic was the use of interpreters and interaction with Afghan counterparts. Other training activities provided opportunities to ‘negotiate’ with Afghan counterparts. About 1,000 Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York assisted the 1st SFAB with their mission readiness exercise. They served as exercise support and ANA role players.

Photo: B Co 3rd Bn 1st SFAB attends class at JRTC, January 2018.

CPX. While at JRTC the brigade and battalion staffs took part in a four-day Command Post Exercise designed to train the staffs on mission command as well as advising Afghan partners. The CPX exercised the SFAB’s staff on internal staff processes required for planning and preparing for current and future operations.

SFA Academy. Part of the JRTC training included the Security Force Assistance Academy – focused on Afghan culture and language. The course can be tailored for the unit attending. It is usually 8-10 days long.

Camp Buehring, Kuwait. The combat advisor teams of the 1st SFAB began their deployment in February and March 2018 – some of the personnel passing through Camp Buehring, Kuwait first. While in Kuwait selected personnel trained on the Egress Rollover Mine Resistant Ambush Protector (MRAP) Simulator and on Small Unmanned Arial Systems (SUAS) and Counter Unmanned Arial Systems (CUAS).

Force Disposition in Afghanistan

Once arriving in country in March 2018 the teams were spread across Afghanistan. The SFAB brigade headquarters was at FOB Lightening in Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. FOB Lightening is also the home base for NATO’s Task Force Southeast. Adjacent to FOB Lightening is FOB Thunder, the base of the ANA’s 203rd Corps. The subordinate battalions were dispersed across Afghanistan among the Train, Advise, and Assist Commands (TAACs) and worked primarily with brigade staffs.

The 1st SFAB brigade headquarters worked with the 203rd Corps. Assisting Task Force Southeast, the SFAB HQs worked along side their Afghan counterparts across all of the corps sections – advising and assisting where needed. At this level there are plenty of meetings, conferences, planning sessions, and daily battle update briefings to attend. These events are usually followed with discreet one-on-on meetings with Afghan counterparts. Typical of the type of work done with the 203rd Corps is the job description of Major Chris Welsh – who served as an advisor to Afghan intelligence personnel and found himself assisting in the 203rd’s Joint Operations Center (JOC).

The 1st Battalion was at Forward Operating Base Gamberi advising the 201st ANA Corps. The 201st Corps operates in Nuristan, Kunar, Nangarhar, Laghman, Panjshar, Parwan, and Kapisa. FOB Gamberi is the home of Train, Advise, and Assist Command – East (TAAC-East).

The 2nd Battalion was positioned in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. The battalion was tasked with advising elements of the ANA’s 205th Corps spread across three or four provinces. TAAC-South is the command in southern Afghanistan.

3rd Squadron, 1st SFAB was also based at FOB Lightning – from which it conducted ‘fly to advise‘ missions elsewhere in the 203rd Corps’ area of operations – such as FOB Altimur and other locations.

4th Battalion, 1st SFAB was based at Camp Arena in Herat province. This is the home of Train, Advise, and Assist Command – West (TAAC-West) which is led by the Italians. It is also where the Afghan National Army’s 207th Corps and the Afghan National Police’s 606 Zone is located. The 207th’s area included Ghor, Badghis, Farah, and Herat provinces.

The 5th Battalion was supposed to be in the south of Afghanistan but was diverted to assist in securing Kabul. The capital city was experiencing a high level of bombings conducted by the Taliban and Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). The battalion advised Afghan police and army units responsible for the security of Kabul. While most of the SFAB advisor teams were advising the Afghan National Army (ANA), the 5th Battalion, due to its mission in Kabul, worked with many Afghan National Police (ANP) units that focused on the airport, roadways, and installation security. Initially five advisor teams were assigned to Kabul; but this number grew with the addition of eight more SFAB teams to combat the high profile attacks in the capital city.

The 6th Battalion worked in Helmand province advising the 215th Corps as well as other ANDSF organizations in other locations. The leading unit in Helmand province is the Marine Corps Task Force Southwest.

Photo. 4th Bn 1st SFAB attending a 3-day ops planning conference at Camp Arena, Herat. Advising Afghan counterparts on MDMP. Photo by Capt Adam Hendricks, July 9, 2018.

Some of the small advisory teams of the SFAB did not neatly follow the deployment and disposition as outlined above – there were some located in TAAC North’s area as well as ‘functional teams’ that traveled or worked throughout the country as the need arose. Some news reports stated that a few advisory teams were attached to NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (NSOCC-A) assisting in the training of Afghan Commandos – although there is little information available in the public domain on that topic.

A DoD report issued in December 2018 stated that U.S. advisors ‘touched’ eight ANA brigades and 34 kandaks. SFAB Logistics Advisor Teams (LATs) provided training and assistance at all levels of the ANDSF. Of the 36 Combat Advising Teams (CATs), more than half were advising kandaks (probably more than one), several were advising brigades, and others were at the regional training centers.

Advising Below Corps Level

In January 2015 with the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission and beginning of the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) advising below Army corps and police zone level ceased. Tactical advising – a lower echelons of the ANDSF – was conducted by special operations forces and the Train, Advise, and Assist Command – Air (TAAC-Air). In time, it became apparent that some ANA brigades needed some help and Resolute Support HQs decided to employ Expeditionary Advisory Packages (EAPs) to deploy to Afghan brigade level on a temporary and as needed basis. The deployment of the 1st SFAB hopefully provided a more consistent advisory effort than the EAPs could provide at brigade level.

Advising at Kandak Level

SSG Christopher Humpheys, 1st SFAB, engages with Lt. Col. of 4th Kandak, 4th Bde, 203rd Corps. Aug 6, 2018. Photo by Lt. Aubrey Page, U.S. Navy, Aug 6, 2018.

The initial impression provided by the US Army while the 1st SFAB was forming up and training was that the 36 plus advisor teams would be located with and working at the kandak (battalion) level. This proved not to be the case once deployed to Afghanistan; at least not initially. Some news sources indicated that by June 2018 SFAB combat advisor teams were ’embedded’ with 26 Afghan army kandaks. This number likely grew as time went on. The term ’embedded’ can mean different things – it is likely that most of the teams were not truly ‘embedded‘. A DoD report issued in December 2018 indicates that teams did advise 34 kandaks.

According to ATP 3-96.1, Security Force Assistance Brigade, (May 2018) an SFAB is designed to field 36 advising teams at the company echelon and below. It also has the capability to form additional teams from its battalion and brigade staffs. These twelve-man teams have a variety of specialists in the operations, intelligence, fires, explosives, medical, logistics, communications, and maintenance fields. Some functional advisory elements were task organized to meet requirements and did not necessarily follow the 12-man construct.

There were a number of factors that limited advising at the kandak level during the initial deployment of the 1st SFAB in Afghanistan. One was the lack of adequate logistical preparation – to include lodging, transportation, and force protection. A second factor was the ‘vetting’ of Afghan units at kandak level to ensure that the insider threat would be mitigated. This included a process where Afghan and contract counterintelligence (CI) teams would interview brigade and kandak members – certainly a lengthy process.

The 1st SFAB stance is there was no delay due to CI vetting; that the kandak advisor teams had to wait until corps and brigade advisor teams were in place and functioning. That the delay in fielding advisor teams at kandak level was a natural progression from top down – and the CI vetting of Afghan units was slowly advancing downward to kandak level as necessary.

Photo. CPT David Zak 1st SFAB Afghanistan, advising ANA officer about security in Logar province, Afghanistan. Photo by Lt. Aubrey Page, U.S. Navy, Aug 7, 2018.

One of the more important functions of advising at the kandak level is to assist with synchronization of the effort. There are US and NATO advisors at the ministries and corps. In addition, some brigades are advised on a semi-permanent basis. But it is difficult to see if there is any positive effect of the advising effort at the institutional or operation level taking place at the kandak level. This is where the ‘fly-to-advise’ mission at the kandak level is helpful – having coalition eyes on the ground gauging the success of the advising effort at the higher levels. [4]

The frequency of advising at the kandak level is limited by a number of factors. Is the forward base secure enough for rotary wing to land in and to put a small contingent of advisors on the ground? Has the unit been vetted from a security standpoint (insider threat)? Other factors include the availability of an advisor team (there are more than 36 kandaks in the ANA), availability of helicopters, availability of ‘guardian angels’.

Fly to Advise

Advisors with the 1st SFAB in Afghanistan exit UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters during a routine fly-to-advise mission at FOB Altimur on Sep 9, 2018. Photo by Sean Kimmons.

Photo: Advisors with the 1st SFAB in Afghanistan exit UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters during a routine fly-to-advise mission at FOB Altimur on Sep 9, 2018. Photo by Sean Kimmons, U.S. Army.

Initially most of the advisor teams from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade were working at corps or brigade level – but in time some were advising and assisting at the kandak level. The Afghan kandaks are usually located at forward bases which means the advisor teams have the option to embed full-time with the kandaks (as Special Forces teams are known to do, as the early Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) in the early 2000’s did, or as the SFAATs of the 2012-2014 era did). Usually the 1st SFAB teams did not embed – they visited on a periodic basis – (once referred to as Level II advising or Expeditionary Advising Package). The periodic visits could last for a couple of hours or several days. These visits are called “Fly to Advise” missions. [5] The latest DoD IG OFS report indicates that as many as 80% of the advisory missions to kandaks were ‘fly to advise’.

The majority of the fly-to-advise advisor teams were based on major U.S. or NATO bases and probably covered down on more than one kandak. The interaction at kandak level provides a glimpse – if only fleeting – of what is going on at that specific kandak.

Logistics Preparation

Some early news reports of the deployment indicate that the logistical preparation for the arrival of the 1st SFAB was not quite what it should have been. Housing, vehicles, and other aspects of logistics support are reported to have been inadequately prepared. Small, independent advisor teams spread out over a large area tend to rely on other units rather than their own internal and organic support. Sometimes the coordination and preparation of receiving advisor teams falls short; which, apparently happened in some cases with the 1st SFAB advisor teams. Many times the equipment, supplies, comms gear,  and logistics caught up with the deployed teams.

Traveling the Roads

1st SFAB advisor teams working with higher level ANDSF units had the convenience (sometimes) of being located on bases adjacent to their ANDSF counterparts. Sometimes teams did a ‘fly-to-advise’ mission. But many times the advisor teams had to travel the roads. Improvised explosive devices set along the roadside are a constant threat to advisor teams traveling to and from the ANDSF location. To mitigate this the teams would either fly to that location or ride in armored vehicles (MRAPs, MATVs, etc.). In addition, units like the 509th Clearance Company, 5th Engineer Battalion would conduct route clearance missions ensuring safe travels along Afghanistan’s roads. [6]

Training TTPs

When a unit deploys to Afghanistan it will usually fall in on the TTPs of the previous unit that it replaced. But sometimes the new unit will develop some new TTPs that enhance its ability to do its mission. One such TTP is how the 1st SFAB produced videos to help train the ANDSF. The videos are a step-by-step method of training that are about five to ten minutes long and can be run on a laptop. Training topics include vehicle maintenance, functions check on weapons, how to set up a vehicle control point, and more. [7]

Insider Threat

Photo. SGT John White of 3rd ID provides security for 1st SFAB advisors in Pul-e Alam, Logar province, Afghanistan. Photo by U.S. Navy L. Aubrey Page, Aug 7, 2018.

Advisors in Afghanistan are at risk due to the insider threat that has taken the lives of many U.S. and NATO service members. In 2012 the number of attacks by Afghan security force members against Coalition service members reached its height. Advisor missions screeched to a halt until ISAF could develop and implement some procedures that could mitigate the threat. One of the steps taken was to implement the Guardian Angel process; where Soldiers were tasked with protection of advisor teams.

1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division took up this force protection mission and accompanied 1st SFAB to Afghanistan. The attached Soldiers from 1-28th coordinated and provided security for the combat advisor teams so the advisors could focus on interaction with their Afghan counterparts.

One member of the 1-28th, Corporal Joseph Maciel, died in July 2018 from wounds sustained during an apparent insider attack at Tarin Kowt airfield in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan while attached to 2nd Battalion, 1st SFAB. Command Sergeant Major Timothy Bolyard of 3rd Squadron, 1st SFAB, was killed in September 2018 by an Afghan policeman at Camp Maiwand – the base for 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps (located at the former FOB Shank in Logar province).

Lessons Learned

Photo: By Lt Aubrey Page, U.S. Navy, August 5, 2018.

The Army is famous for publishing ‘Lessons Learned’ and there are thousands of papers and publications with these lessons documented from the deployments of Army units to Afghanistan over the past 17 years. Many of these are on the topic of training the ANDSF. [8] No doubt there will be – in time – plenty of lessons learned from the 1st SFAB deployment. Unfortunately, many of these will have a classification of FOUO or higher and will not be available for public reading. Hopefully the lessons learned will not end up being just ‘lessons observed’. However, some information is slowly seeping out into the public domain and on social media. A few are noted below.

Rush to Deploy. The 1st SFAB was supposed to have a full year to gear up for its mission. However, the Trump administration’s new South Asia Strategy included an increase in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan with an emphasis on advising at the tactical level – and the 1st SFAB got its deployment moved up so it would arrive prior to the 2018 summer fighting season. Unfortunately, this shortened its stand-up period by several months and the six-week long advisor academy (MATA) was reduced to two-weeks.

“As we began our training last summer, the United States announced the South Asia Strategy, a critical component of which was increased tactical-level advising. The Army directed our units to prepare for an early 2018 deployment to support that strategy, and we modified our recruiting and training programs to ensure we would be ready.”

Colonel Scott Jackson, 1st SFAB Commander, speaking during a teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan on June 13, 2018.

Mortar Training. 1st SFAB advisors note that more time is needed to train up the ANDSF on the employment of mortars. This means more pre-deployment training on mortars and perhaps the attachment of additional infantry specialists. [9] 

Photo: CORE IMS training for 209th Corps by 1st SFAB personnel at Kunduz.

Afghan Logistics. The Afghans still haven’t figured out how to run their logistics enterprise. The 1st SFAB found they needed to stress logistics training with the ANDSF. This should not have been a surprise – mountains of paperwork and terabytes of reports have documented the logistical woes of the logistical system from ministry level down to the kandak and police district beginning in 2002 up to the present day.

Leaving the Wire – Not so Much. The 1st SFAB found that it is not ‘going out on patrols’ as much as it had anticipated. This is probably due to the fact that much of the train, advise, and assist mission is on staff functions such as personnel, intelligence, operations planning, logistics, and communications – in the past referred to as ‘Functionally-Based Security Force Assistance’ or FB-SFA. These training activities are best done at the corps, brigade, or kandak headquarters on secure Afghan bases. (Of course, there is travel required to get to these bases). Most, except perhaps TAA by NSOCC-A and TAAC-Air, security force assistance activities now done in Afghanistan is on functional processes and systems and less on employment of the ANDSF in combat operations.

Photo. Member of 3rd Squadron advising on EOD techniques.

Old Problems. Some things never change in Afghanistan. The 1st SFAB found that many of the problems found in the Afghan security forces a decade ago continue to exist today. These include poor logistics, lack of communication, sustainment, ammunition resupply, vehicle repair, corruption, equipment maintenance, mission command, and a reliance on static checkpoints.

SFAB Advisory Network. One of the more important contributions the advisor teams could make is to help the Afghan chain of command resolve problems at the kandak level. Since advisor teams were observing the situation at the kandak level issues could be passed up the SFAB advisor network to advisor teams working at brigade and corps level. When the SFABs and SFAATs were deployed in 2012-2014 this was referred to as the “OC Net”; with hard to solve problems ending up at the Security Force Assistance Center (SFAC) in Kabul.

“By coming out here at the kandak level, we’re really integrating that advising network at all levels to make sure everything is synchronized and everyone is talking. That’s what really makes this mission unique.”

SFC Jeremiah Velex, Combat Advisor Team 1312, 3rd Squadron, 1st SFAB, Nov 5, 2018.

Flexibility. The SFAB deployed over 60 advisory elements throughout Afghanistan. Most advisor teams were 12 personnel strong although there were certainly smaller specialized advisory elements. The brigade had advisor elements with every Train, Advise, and Assist Command (TAAC) as well as with the Task Forces (TFs). Some teams operated at the corps level and in the Regional Military Training Centers (RMTC) while others were at brigade and kandak level.

The SFAB demonstrated the flexibility to tailor the advisory approach to changing ground conditions and provide advisor teams where it was needed. Midway through its deployment the brigade shifted assets to the Regional Military Training Centers (RMTCs) and the Kabul Security Force. Whether this was where the advisory teams were needed or if it was easier to support the teams at this location is a valid question.

ANDSF Reliance on Air Power. The inclination of the Afghan army in the conduct of offensive operations has been always to request and wait for air support from the U.S. (and now from the Afghan Air Force). This is still true today. The Afghan Air Force is slowly coming up to speed in its capability to support the army and police.

What Has the 1st SFAB Accomplished in Afghanistan?

There is not a lot of substantive news reports about the 1st SFAB in Afghanistan. Very few embeds by the media have taken place so the news stories on the mil blogs are quite infrequent. The US Army certainly has been active in spreading the ‘official’ word – providing vignettes showing that the advisor teams are doing great work. Some of the news stories provided by DoD and the U.S. Army indicate that the SFAB advisor teams assisted the Afghan National Army in the following areas.

  • Integration of Afghan air and ground assets
  • Logistical planning
  • Operational planning
  • Establishing or assisting in Artillery Leaders Courses
  • Training in land navigation

The presence of combat advisor teams at kandak and brigade level certainly provided an enhanced level of awareness on the status of the ANDSF. After the SFAATs of the 2012-2014 era were pulled off kandaks and brigades the accuracy of reporting from the Afghan army went downhill quickly. So did the combat effectiveness of those units. The ability of an advisor team to observe a kandak (even for a short period of time) is invaluable to assessing the status of the ANA.

The Chairman of the Chiefs of Joint Staff General Joe Dunford visited the SFAB in Afghanistan. Dunford is no stranger to the Security Force Assistance mission in Afghanistan. He was the commander of ISAF during the transition of U.S forces from combat operations to the functionally-based security force assistance mission. He seemed pleased with what he saw in the SFABs accomplishments.

“I am actually very encouraged by all the feedback from the Afghans and the SFAB. We have the right organizational construct for 2018, and the advisors we are bringing in are the right people, at the right level, with the right training.”

Gen Joe Dunford, FOB Gamberi, Afghanistan, March 21, 2018.


Photo: 1st SFAB Uncasing the Colors Ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia. Dec 2018.

Using the information currently available it appears that the 1st SFAB had a successful deployment. The brigade formed, trained up for the mission, and deployed advisor teams across the country of Afghanistan. The SFAB deployed both ground-maneuver-focused teams as well as specialty teams focused on engineering, field artillery, intelligence, communications, and logistics. Many of these teams very likely improved the capability of their advised units to fight the Taliban. The impact, however, should not be overstated. The SFAB likely made an ‘incremental difference’ during its deployment; not a ‘strategic difference” The Afghan conflict is still ongoing and will continue for a long time.

“The natural question that comes after any combat deployment is ‘did I make a difference’. I will tell you, looking across the entire theater the last nine months, the answer is yes.”

General Scott Jackson, Fort Benning, December 3, 2018.

The employment of a professional advisor unit in Afghanistan, whose personnel were selected and trained for their job, is a step in the right direction for the U.S. Army. Hopefully the 2nd SFAB will integrate the lessons learned from the 1st SFAB deployment and continue with the fielding of professional combat advisors to Afghanistan. 


[1] For more on the rationale for SFABs see “All Things SFAB – Explainer of Security Force Assistance Brigades”SOF News, October 10, 2017.

[2] For SF acceptance of the SFAB concept see “SOF and the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs)”SOF News, June 21, 2017.

[3] See “Beret for Soldiers of 1st SFAB – Concern in SF Community”, SOF News, October 29, 2017.

[4] There are three levels of advising in Afghanistan.

[5] See Advising at the Corps and Below, Soldiers ensure Afghans are ready to fight, Army.mil, November 5, 2018.

[6] See “Home in time for the holidays”Guidon, November 29, 2018 for more about the 509th Clearance Company assisting the 1st SFAB.

[7] For more on training videos see “1st SFAB Soldiers produce videos to help train Afghan defense forces”, Army Public Affairs, October 23, 2018.

[8]  See Reconstructing the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), September 2017, 283 pages.

[9] For the need to emphasize mortar and logistics training see “Afghan Forces Need More Mortar Training, Army Advisors Say”, Military.com, August 29, 2018.


News Reports about 1st SFAB

1st Security Force Assistance Brigade – Fort Benning

1st SFAB Facebook

1st SFAB Flickr



November 13, 2018. Shoulder to Shoulder, U.S. Army, 5 mins. An explanation of the 1st SFAB’s mission in Afghanistan.

June 12, 2018. Assistance Brigade Commander Provides Resolute Support Update, Defense.gov, 34 mins. Army Col. Scott Jackson, 1st SFAB cdr, briefs Pentagon reporters on 1st SFAB in Afghanistan (100-day mark).

March, 6, 2018. 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, U.S. Army. A five-minute long video explaining the training and mission of the 1st SFAB.


All photos from U.S. Army or DoD, 2017 – 2018.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.