FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan – It is safe to say that after 11 years the focus of the war in Afghanistan has evolved from a conflict led and fought by International Security Assistance Forces, with a focus on brigade combat teams completing missions, to a more Afghan-centric struggle where the Afghan National Security Forces are responsible for their own country's security. In effect, the emphasis both in the field and on the forward operating bases here has shifted to the security force assistance teams, or SFATs, which appear to be the answer to getting the bulk of American soldiers out of Afghanistan after a decade of war. But what exactly is an SFAT and why has the attention turned to them?
"The security force assistance team is a team organized of subject matter experts - commanders, senior non-commissioned officers and officers, personnel (and) logistics - (whose) mission here in Afghanistan is to enable the Afghan security forces, primarily the police and the army that we're working with, to be able to ultimately take control and lead into independent operations," explained Lt. Col. Chuck Rush, commander, 1st Battalion 8th Infantry Regiment and (SFAT) team leader for the brigade advisory team that covers down on the 2nd (Kandak) of the 205th (Afghan National Army) Corps in Zabul province.
The SFATs, though new in their current form, have roots in the original transition teams concept developed and implemented earlier in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Those 11-man teams, first developed in 2006, worked with Iraqi and Afghan units in battle spaces overseen by U.S. or International Security Assistance Forces, but often reported to a different chain of command.
The idea behind the foregone transition teams was to advise the security forces of Iraq and Afghanistan in the areas of intelligence, communications, fire support, logistics, operations and infantry tactics. Though the models are similar, there are notable differences between the Military Transition Team model and the SFAT concept, said Rush, of Hutchinson, Kan. One such idea is to maintain continuity and unit cohesion to some extent by selecting senior officers and non-commissioned officers from the same brigade.
"What's really different about SFAT versus the MiTT model of old (is) instead of taking a team and piecing it together from across the Army, and giving them a multi-month train-up at Fort Riley or Fort Polk, the Army moved in the direction of taking a brigade combat team … and making us the lead BCT for this organization," said Rush. "Then from that (the) brigade commander tasks each of the battalions to field police and army teams based on the requirement (from ISAF)."
It is that tasking from the brigade commander that dictates how the SFAT is organized by duty position and rank. For instance, an ANSF commander at the brigade level would be advised by a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, while a lower ranking ANSF commander at the battalion level would be advised by a U.S. Army captain. The same could be said with regard to positions. If the battle space owner feels an expert in logistics or communications is needed in their province, then U.S. soldiers with those skillsets would be allocated to one or more of the SFATs.
Another unique aspect of the SFAT concept is the way it incorporates the numerous roles of the independent transition teams - Military, Police and Border Transition Teams - into one team. So instead of several different transition teams advising various branches of ANSF, one SFAT advises them all, though different SFAT teams advise different divisions of ANSF. In Zabul province, for instance, there are 10 such teams that mentor either the Afghan National Police or the ANA but not both.
To accomplish this mission, the SFATs are trained to work with and alongside ANSF from the onset, notably during their train-up at Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La.
"They've had a tremendous amount of training in the United States," said Sgt. Maj. Joseph Marra, the Zabul province stabilization and transition team senior non-commissioned officer-in-charge and senior advisor, who assists the numerous SFATs. "They've been down to JRTC which has a wonderful advisor school that is spot-on with the key leader engagements and dealing with the Afghan military and Afghan police. They have all the tools necessary to be successful."
The STT-SFAT training at JRTC focused on key leader engagements, language training and cultural awareness and once in the field the SFATs are able to incorporate into their formula the use of non-lethal effects that are actions that designed not to kill. Primary contributors of NLE are civil affairs, public affairs, information operations and military information support operations. As well, SFATs have been known to utilize civil-military operations as well. Previously, such operations have included building schools, upgrading water plants or improving thoroughfares, all of which are "a big, big deal over here," said Marra, of Tannerville, Pa.
Non-lethal operations training is aimed at training ANSF to focus on effecting the manner in which Afghan people think and to help them understand how the insurgency's actions affects the Afghan people. In essence, it enables ANSF to demonstrate to the people unequivocally, "that the new government is working and that their lives are better than before," said Marra. Non-lethal effects are designed to gain the backing of the Afghan people who otherwise would not be inclined to support the government and would instead back the insurgency.
"If the government can show they can do things in a secure environment … that's a big powerful tool that takes away the power that the insurgents have," Marra said. "(The insurgent's) message is 'the government can't protect you and we can help you solve your disputes quicker and better.' (ANSF) can counter that message until (the insurgents) either leave the area or they decide to talk to the government and say 'you know what, we want to become part of that because it looks good to us.'"