SFATs in southern Kandahar Province.
So what is an SFAT? An SFAT is a team of eight to 15 mid-career officers and NCOs that is developed to advise the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Over the years, many Soldiers have been a part of training teams (military transition teams, security transition teams, or even an operational detachment alphas) with an ANSF training mission. As the ANSF have matured, their need for tactical training from U.S. forces has decreased while their need for specific guidance and advising has increased. The SFAT was created specifically with the mission to professionalize the ANSF. The SFAT also brings access to enablers that can be used in support of ANSF missions and has specific skill sets to enable mentorship across all staff sections and warfighting functions.
My team's mission is to advise the 3rd Kandak of the 3rd Zone Afghan Border Police (ABP) in the Spin Boldak District of Kandahar Province. Our task organization originally called for a major as the team leader, a captain as executive officer and operations advisor, and an officer from each of the specific staff functional branches: signal, logistics, and intelligence. In addition to these, the team is authorized three drivers, a fires NCO, and a medic. How the team actually ends up being comprised is almost totally up to the unit being tasked. As our SFAT came entirely out of an Infantry battalion, the team is comprised of more NCOs than officers and is made up almost entirely from a mechanized rifle company. The SFAT will typically have a conventional battalion that owns the battlespace and is responsible for all effects in the area while also controlling and managing enablers.
The ABP in Regional Command (RC) South have never had advisors before April 2012 and are almost a paramilitary force. They are much closer to soldiers than policemen as the majority of their engagements are direct fire or initiated by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They are much less professionalized at the lower levels, especially when compared to the Afghan National Army (ANA). There is one key difference though; they are not nationally recruited. Almost all of the ABP in 3rd Kandak are from the Kandahar Province. Many of the commanders are former mujahedeen fighters and have long histories and trust with one another.
One of the key ways the SFAT impacts the ABP is by providing International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) enablers; this is an interim solution until the ABP builds robust organic capabilities. Being able to request and provide enabler support when needed is one of the key ways advisors can build rapport with the advised force. This is especially important during emergency situations and of itself is an argument for having embedded advisors with the ABP. The first time the SFAT provided aerial medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) for a wounded ABP soldier, the tone of the relationship between the SFAT and the kandak commander improved markedly. Additionally, being able to get helicopter resupply to beleaguered checkpoints or close air support (CAS) during an ABP troops-in-contact event improved the SFAT's standing in the kandak commander's eyes. By providing this support, anytime the SFAT needed information, human intelligence (HUMINT), or even a high value individual captured, the ABP were far easier to work with and more receptive to the request.
Route clearance is by far the most requested and used enabler by the ABP. All of the ABP kandaks are working hard to develop explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and route clearance patrol (RCP) capabilities, but as an interim solution ISAF route clearance is used to maintain freedom of maneuver for the ABP in the district. Developing a good working relationship with the RCP commander is critical for the SFAT. The second most requested asset is close air support or fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR). As far as close air support, unless the ABP are actively engaged with ISAF present, it is very difficult to clear fires. Finally, MEDEVAC or coalition medical support is also frequently requested. Using these assets effectively is a huge challenge, and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for their use will be discussed later.
This leads into the crux of advising--how to replace coalition enablers with ANSF capabilities? As far as the RCP and MD-Defeat capabilities within the ABP, there are two parallel courses of action (COAs) as well as a tertiary coordination effort. The primary COA is to train teams in every kandak in explosive handling and reduction. The parallel effort is to train an EOD team in the quick reaction force kandak which could respond to other kandak's areas to remove IEDs. The tertiary coordination effort is to at some level integrate the ABP with the ANA RCP teams, allowing the ABP to request and receive RCP support from the ANA. To date this hasn't happened, but it is a working goal. The ABP will have access to ANSF EOD capabilities, but for simpler devices the local commander will need to be able to reduce that device to maintain freedom of maneuver in his operating environment (OE). These types of IED reduction tactics are very Important in terms of replacing U.S. enablers with an ANSF solution that is sustainable and practical.
Replacing ISAF air support with ANSF air support is more challenging. The Afghan air force will for the foreseeable future be far less robust than what has been provided by ISAF. The ability to affect this as a kandak-level advisor is certainly limited. However, instead of using CAS to protect the checkpoints, one tactic is to simply improve fighting positions. Typically attacks against checkpoints are uncoordinated fire-and-maneuver attacks. More often they are a group of three to five insurgents with AK-47s firing on a checkpoint. CAS is not always available, and relying on their U.S. mentors to get close air support to repel every enemy attack is simply not sustainable. Instead, our team focused on getting checkpoint commanders to see the value in increasing the amount of cover and the overall survivability of their checkpoints. Sometimes this is done through ANSF funds, but it can also be achieved by getting the kandak staff to request materials through the ANSF supply system. For example, in our OE it took four months to get HESCO bastions to a checkpoint, and another month to convince the checkpoint commander to fill them. The commander ended up hiring a front end loader out of his own pocket because the nearest ANA engineer unit was more than two hours away. This took a considerable amount of time, but this particular checkpoint is now the most hardened checkpoint in the area and will last for years with minimal maintenance. While this doesn't take the place of CAS, it does reduce the dependency and denies the enemy the quick 10 (information operations) victory of attacking a checkpoint and killing or injuring policemen.
Though improving checkpoints reduces the need for CAS, there are situations where CAS is required, such as during dismounted patrols in remote areas. Thus, there is a need to establish a battle drill with the battlespace owners (BSO) for employment of CAS. Our SOP involved receiving the report from the ABP and the request for air support at the kandak headquarters. That report was then translated into a CAS nine-line and relayed to the BSO battle captain and joint terminal attack controller (JTAC). The SFAT is critical in terms of pulling the necessary information from the ANSF to get a CAS request. The other hurdle is clearance of fires. Without U.S. advisors on the ground with the AN SF, it is very difficult to clear fires. Instead, a show of force is often the only way to affect the enemy safely and avoid blue-on-green or civilian casualties. It is very important for the SFAT to develop a relationship with the BSO staff and commander to "husband" a CAS request through the appropriate staff channels. Too often a CAS request will sit at battalion or brigade because of a lack of understanding of the problem or desired battlefield effects.
Employing a 12-man team with a conventional BSO requires some creativity. BSOs will set their own requirements for what constitutes a minimum force requirement for a patrol. Also, each time the SFAT goes on a mission in its entirety, it forces the team to focus on one task (outside the wire) and removes advisors from helping the kandak staff conduct battle-tracking, mission command, requests for support, etc.
One tactic that we developed was to divide the kandak's operating environment into three distinct OEs. This enabled us to assign an SFAT member as the primary advisor for a geographic area, and he retained responsibility for the checkpoint commanders in his area. Splitting the OE is what drove the development of the "mini-SFAT." Vehicles--each with a senior advisor, driver, gunner, guardian angel/overwatch element--then became the mini-SFAT platform, which enabled the SFAT to have an element with every maneuver element (typically a rifle platoon) on large battalion missions. This worked because we had a habitual relationship with a BSO company that lived at our combat outpost. The company typically provided a full platoon for security whenever we patrolled.
This approach had four distinct benefits. First, it gave every advisor an operational focus in addition to a staff focus (intelligence, communication, logistics, etc.), allowing the advisor to see what was happening on the ground with the organization and advise checkpoint commanders in the field. Secondly, it involved every member of the team in advisor operations. Breaking the team into this small of an element, with the security of a rifle platoon from the BSO, enabled every member to advise either at the leader or Soldier level, enhancing composite team understanding of the OE and the ABP kandak's capabilities. Third, it prevented the team leader from being the only advisor and the ABP from only wanting to talk to the team commander. If the team commander went to a checkpoint, the checkpoint commander would only want to engage with him. This presented a problem on kandak-level operations where the focus is advising the ABP to enable junior leaders, where at the same time every junior leader will only talk to the team commander. Lastly, if we needed to conduct a checkpoint assessment or engage a checkpoint commander, then only one third of the team was required to complete this task. Having the mini-SFAT partnered with a platoon allowed the other advisors to continue mentoring at the kandak level.
Having a good relationship with the BSO unit is what makes this technique work. Of course, there are times when the BSO has tasks for their platoons to complete that may not fit with the SFAT mission perfectly. In these cases, accomplishing our SFAT tasks under the construct of time and space within the BSO requirements became necessary. For instance, if the BSO had a patrol scheduled that would essentially drive by one of the ABP checkpoints we needed to assess, it was easy to add an SFAT truck to the patrol and two hours to the mission and accomplish both units' tasks with the same patrol. Where it gets more complicated is on large operations. For those, the SFAT simply developed a list of tasks that needed to be either trained or assessed with the ABP. As opportunities arose to complete these tasks, they were completed rather than trying to dictate to the BSO when, where, and how the SFAT needed to be on the battlefield to accomplish its mission.
Another tactic that the team developed was sharing human intelligence that had been gathered by the ABP both within the ABP kandak itself and with the BSO. Nearly every village in the OE has at least one cell phone in it, and that cell phone is controlled typically by the village elder. One of the goals for both the SFAT and the ABP over the last nine months was to get every village to have the kandak operations officer's number or the kandak commander's number. That way, the villagers would have a means to call the ABP with information or intelligence.
The ABP operations officer or commander would receive at least three to four HUMINT reports a week. These reports would be shared with the advisors. Additionally, as the advisors developed relationships with various checkpoint commanders, the checkpoint commanders would also call the SFAT with HUMINT reports. The SFAT would then share that information laterally with the kandak intelligence officer, who would disseminate to all the checkpoints, as well as with the BSO intelligence officer to either corroborate or leverage additional U.S. collection assets. There were numerous times when the BSO would be able to corroborate intelligence with an ABP HUMINT report and vice versa.
Interpreters are key to an SPAT and should not be overlooked. Interpreters can make the team successful or struggle. There were two specific occasions in which quick-thinking interpreters literally saved ISAF lives and numerous other occasions in which the interpreters helped the SFAT save face and preserve ABP relationships. Early on in the deployment when the SFAT was new to the OE, an interpreter spotted an indicator that an IED was nearby and literally shoved a U.S. Soldier out of the way to prevent him from stepping on it. Another instance involved a deliberate clearance of a village in which the ABP misunderstood what the attached female engagement team was doing with regards to searching a specific female on the objective. The interpreter recognized that the policemen were agitated and was able to get word to the SFAT and the ABP commander who responded and calmed the situation. Ensuring that reasonable measures are taken to make interpreters feel a part of the team and included in operations goes a long way to building this relationship. Before every meeting or mission, a deliberate interpreter plan should be made so that all members of the team know where the interpreters are and which member of the SFAT they should be working with.
Finally, being an SFAT is a rewarding mission. It isn't perfect and can have its challenges. One of the most important things our team learned early on was the necessity to maintain three distinct relationships. The first relationship is with the advised or partnered force. The improvement of the ABP was our mission; without their trust the mission would not get anywhere. The second relationship was with the BSO; in order to build rapport with the ABP, you have to have access to BSO-owned enablers. The BSO is reluctant to give up enablers unless they are confident their use will achieve desired effects in their battlespace. Having a good working relationship with the BSO staff and commander is the only way to get a seat at the table and full access to enablers. Lastly, the relationship with other SFATs is very important. There was an SFAT at our kandak's higher headquarters, and having a good working relationship with them ensured information would flow to our kandak and material issues could be resolved with the help of the higher HQ's SFAT. Also, sharing TTPs and combining logistics convoys with other SFATs made those tasks far easier to accomplish. Overall, the experience of being an SFAT in southern Kandahar was rewarding professionally and personally. Every day was unique and watching the ANSF organization as it grows and develops over time is rewarding indeed.
CPT THOMAS ANGSTADT
CPT Thomas Angstadt is currently serving on a SFAT from the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo. His SEAT is advising the 3rd Kandak, 3rd Zone Afghan Border Police, in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. He previously served as commander of D Company and A Company, 1-8 IN. He graduated from the Maneuver Captains Career Course in 2009 and Ranger School in 2005. He has a bachelor's degree in management from Seattle University.