May 06, 2008

Flagless Advisors

Working within the advisor command in Afghanistan was both one of the most rewarding and troubling experiences of Kip's life. Because no one is really taking responsibility for advisors on the ground, you learn to live with the fact that your command might not know where you are and, even if it does, might not care, and, even if it cares, doesn't have the assets to do anything for you if you're in trouble. On the other hand, you have the opportunity to thrive with a degree of autonomy that cannot be had anywhere else in the US military. In fact, advisors in Afghanistan have even fewer restrictions on what they can do than Special Forces elements in the country (of course, they have far fewer capabilities than the Special Forces teams, and abandoned Special Forces teams are not begging food and ammo off of advisors).

But while abandonment and ineptitude are things that advisors come to accept in Afghanistan, service in this environment doesn't have to additionally serve as a career killer.

The specifics of the problem are different in both countries, but they are real and contribute to captains leaving the Army as well as to senior officers and NCOs, who would willingly serve on a team but would like to continue to progress in their career, actively fighting assignment to a team.

In Afghanistan, distance, poor communications infrastructure within the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), and a lack of accountability for leaders who fail to complete evaluations and awards results in many good officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) finishing their tours without receiving an evaluation. At times, these men will beg their higher command to complete their evaluations and not receive any response. Awards are generally awarded to those who are most vocal within the command and who are closer to command and control centers. In certain locales, Region North comes to mind immediately, awards are given exclusively based on rank and amity with the command. In theater, lack of effort and accountability resulted in a number of NCOs failing to be promoted because the command would not complete their NCO evaluations in time for boards.

Unlike in Afghanistan, in Iraq, the Iraqi Assistance Group (IAG) and Multi National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) do not write the evaluations for their advisors. This leads to a situation where brigade and battalion commanders who do not train with their advisors and never see them again after their tour are responsible for evaluating them against people within their everyday chain of command. Who does the brigade commander give his limited top evaluation marks to, the battalion executive or operations officer within his best battalions or his best mentor team leaders? The answer, when the brigades actually complete the evaluations, is almost always the executive and operations officers throughout the battalions.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, awards for advisors are lower than they are for positions of similar rank and responsibility within regular units. This is a reflection both of the isolation in which these teams operate--therefore not necessarily seeing their commanders as regularly as others--and the continued lack of institutional commitment to advising.

While the specifics are different in Iraq and Afghanistan, both stem from the same deep cause, the ad hoc collection and deployment of advisors to theaters without a single cohesive unit that operates together both before and after deployment. While Nagl's advisor corps would prevent this, the Army is unprepared to undertake that needed reform. In the meantime, the Army should flag regional advisor commands throughout Iraq and Afghanistan (Afghanistan already has a regional command system) and deploy together through Fort Riley the full flagged set of advisors falling under that command. This would develop unit cohesiveness prior to deployment and at least give commander's an idea of the real people they are abandoning when they leave them out on mission without food, water, fuel, spare parts, MEDEVAC coverage, and ammo or prevent their promotion by not seeking the proper awards and evaluations for their advisors' service.