The life of an SFAAT (Security Force Advisory and Assistance Team)
March 15, 2013
Major Lucas Connolly
2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment
FORWAR OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan (Mar. 2, 2013) - "A 'Salam Aleikum!" Peace be upon you! A phrase every advisor learns before deploying to Afghanistan. And this is typically how an advisor will greet their Afghan partner at the beginning of each day.
In Afghanistan, Afghan customs and courtesies take precedent at all times, even when peace feels like a distant prospect.
Security Force Advisory and Assistance Teams from 2nd Security Forces Assistance Brigade "Commandos," 10th Mountain Division, have been deployed to Afghanistan's Paktika province for nearly a month.
Their mission is to advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces to develop their units into more effective and efficient fighting forces. Ensuring ANSF is capable of defending their nation when coalition forces reduce their commitments in the coming year.
The day begins with a team meeting where team leadership outlines the priorities for the day and receives feedback from individual advisors. Each advisor is the military equivalent of a corporate consultant; tasked to take a hard look at Afghan units, leaders and the systems they use to carry out their assigned tasks.
But unlike corporate consultants, most advisors do not enjoy the benefit of a master's degree in organizational development.
Their success is based on their ability to understand and mitigate cultural differences, manage interpersonal dynamics, leverage personal experience and maintain intellectual dexterity.
During the course of their deployment, the advisors will spend countless hours sipping tea and discussing operations. At a glance, this may seem like casual conversation, but beneath the surface, the advisors comb painstakingly through the words being exchanged.
This is the Afghan way of doing business. No slides or multimedia presentations required here. Business is conducted face to face, Soldier to Soldier and with the casual grace one might expect from an 18th Century English tea party.
For the advisor, however, these meetings can be stressful events.
In a recent engagement, advisors from 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment "Allons," met with leadership from the 4th Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 203rd Corps of the Afghan National Army. Topics of discussion included training for future operations, infrastructure improvements and relationships between noncommissioned officers and officers within the battalion.
To ensure the best interests of their Afghan units are in mind at all times, advisors must first be subject matter experts in U.S. Army doctrine and they must also be well-versed in Afghan Army doctrine.
While advisors always have the best intentions in mind, their advice is not always well received. For many people, change, even if it is for the better, is an unwelcomed addition to their lives. But maintaining the status quo, in most cases, is not an option.
When sound advice meets a stiff resistance to change, advisors must leverage a wide range of influence techniques to help lead their counterparts down the path of organizational development, which leads to operational independence.
The duties of SFAAT advisors are the most mentally challenging duties being performed in Afghanistan. While large staffs may have the time and energy to spend days solving a single complex problem, SFAAT advisors solve complex problems with unseen human variables on a daily basis. They have little time to consider multiple options and rely entirely on their own personal training, military experience, intuition and broad guidance provided from higher headquarters.
Interpersonal and inter-ethnic rivalries, conflicting motivations and biases, varying degrees of literacy and personal dedication and dozens of other factors, some known and some unknown, affect methods of engagement and the manner of influence the advisor chooses.
Of course, success is a desired goal; however, failure is sometimes an option.
As an SFAAT, shielding their partners from failure by doing too much is counterproductive to the desired end-state of operational transition. Advisors must decide for themselves how much help represents positive enabling, rather than "enabling" in the sense of encouraging addictive behavior.
In some cases, weaning ANSF soldiers off a constant and seemingly limitless stream of support can be challenging. Some respond with resentment and anger, while others understand the imperative-- Afghan forces must begin to stand on their own.
Only a close working relationship, honesty and open communication, and positive rapport make this transition possible. Like so many other things, the Army teaches rapport building techniques, but they only go so far.
The effective advisor must find a way to build bonds that surpass professional courtesy and mutual respect and venture into feelings of friendship and even brotherhood. Herein, lays the most personally fulfilling aspect of the job.
Advisors may never see the full effect of their work. They may never know how much the lessons they taught and the advice they gave will help shape the future success of their Afghan partners.
After all, organizations are made up of human beings, and human beings develop and change on their own timelines. Their lives cannot be predictably plotted on a PowerPoint slide.
But when an advisor sees understanding for the first time in the eyes of a Soldier during a practical exercise; sees a reluctant leader take charge for the first time; sees a construction project completed to standard; witnesses a training program gaining popularity and yielding success; the advisor experiences a sense of accomplishment. Not unlike witnessing one's own child take steps for the first time.
This is when an advisor knows they have helped. They are proud to have been of service, but even more so, proud to watch their friends… nay, their brothers, continue to succeed on their own.