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Muscular Mentoring: FM 3-24 and Selected Experiences of Regional Corps Advisory Command 3-5
Major Thomas M. Ross, 2/1/2011

The Regional Corps Advisory Command (RCAC) 3-5 stood up on 30 October 2007 at Camp Hansen, Okinawa Japan in order to deploy to Afghanistan to embed as combat advisors for the 201st Selab “Flood” Corps, Afghan National Army (ANA). The 26 Marines and Sailors assigned to RCAC 3-5 were joined by 126 Marines and Sailors organized into six Kandak (battalion) Embedded Training Teams (ETT). All seven teams were slated to replace previous Okinawa-based advisor teams then assigned to units of the 201st Corps. FM 3-24 had been published ten months prior to RCAC 3-5’s formation but few of the teams had read it much less critically analyzed its view of the role of the advisor. More pressing on the minds of the advisors-in-training were the events transpiring in Nuristan at FOB Ranch House and those at the COP in Korengal. Advisor teams in the 201st Corps were stretched thin, in several cases one or two advisors with a platoon of ANA were manning forward bases well outside the normal operating area of the coalition forces. The situation would not be drastically different when RCAC 3-6 would replace us in November 2008. In northern Kunar and Nuristan members of ETT 7-3 would be spread over eleven locations, two of which only ETTs and ANA manned.

FM 3-24 represents the culmination of several years’ worth of hard intellectual work, blending the counterinsurgency experiences of the last century with the recent lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan, though mostly Iraq. Its content is germane for both military and civilian audiences; however, the primary audience is the military leaders and campaign planners. Those individuals who are crafting the strategy for fighting and winning a counterinsurgency are most likely to glean insights from this text. The advisor to a host nation security force will gain something from the manual but little will be directly applicable to their daily functioning, save for those instances where a host nation security force conducts independently-planned operations.

It was not surprising then that the leaders of RCAC 3-5 turned to Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice; although like FM 3-24 it was speaking to infantry battalion commanders, there was a common acceptance that Galula’s lessons were still very much valid. With Galula as an anchor, the teams augmented the formal culture and history courses included in the pre-deployment training with tactical vignettes from The Bear Went Over the Mountain and The Other Side of the Mountain. Michener’s Caravans added to our understanding of the culture and people we were supposed to advise.

Looking back on the time spent as the RCAC 3-5 Intelligence Advisor and Officer-in-Charge of ETT 7-3, I see where our actions coincided with the elements of sound counterinsurgency strategy and where they diverged. A deeper look at FM 3-24 also reveals some omissions, specifically in the selection and training of advisors. FM 3-24 points to the Special Operations Foreign Internal Defense Tactics, Techniques and Procedures Manual for guidance on the selection criteria for advisors. These criteria continue to be relevant but did not weigh significantly in RCAC 3-5 personnel selections.

Throughout the deployment, the COIN principle of unity of effort continued to surface, usually from the conspicuous lack of unity. It would be something that we continued to wrestle with until re-deployment. A lack of cultural and historic understanding would likewise hamper our efforts as advisors, although it was nearly uniformly commented on by our Afghan counterparts that the Marines had a strong understanding of Afghan history. These comments speak more to the lack of understanding by other advisors than they do about our grasp of the complex subject. Possessing a capability to learn and adapt was one of our pillars of success. When coupled with efforts to include external units in ANA bids for success, we may not have accomplished earth-shattering achievements but we did avert some major catastrophes. Finally while we deployed to Afghanistan for the express purpose of supporting the government through advising its army, it wasn’t until several months into the deployment that we began to understand what exactly that meant.

Some of our successes and many of our failures could be attributed to what became called “muscular mentoring.” Muscular mentoring was a term coined by the RCAC 3-5 Commander during a quick-fused mission to support the U.S./Afghan Poppy Eradication Force in eliminating several hundred hectares of poppy in the Tagab district of Kapisa province. The 201st Corps was tasked to provide security for a poorly led Poppy Eradication Force (PEF) which had recently suffered significant losses clearing poppy in Helmand. Neither the Corps nor the Brigade staffs were capable of planning the large-scale operation, an operation that would end up being one of CJTF-82s main efforts. It was then that the RCAC Commander and staff shifted from advising the Corps staff to pressuring them, and there was the formal birth of muscular mentoring. However, it had its true origins several months earlier during pre-deployment training.

Training: The Origins of Muscular Mentoring 

The COIN Manual speaks little to the nature of training that would best facilitate the development of a competent and effective advisor. The sum total of writing on this subject is contained in section 6-59 and spans only two paragraphs.[1] The limited attention afforded to the training of advisors in the current COIN Manual belies its importance. This is clearly a deficiency in the scope of the manual, possibly to be addressed by a subsequent or service-specific manual. If either of those cases were applicable then a ready reference to the correct text would be appropriate. The importance of a competent host nation security force advisor can be directly linked to success in a COIN fight. FM 3-24 states, “most societal and government functions require a secure environment … ultimately the host nation must secure its own people.”[2] The need to provide a secure environment is also tied to winning the key battle, the battle for the support of the population. Governmental legitimacy is tied to its capacity to provide the most basic of needs, security. Competent, well-resourced advisors are one of the most direct and tangible means to develop a capable, well-led host nation security force. Given this connection the selection and subsequent training of an effective advisor force should rank high on the list of mission-essential tasks for any U.S. COIN force.

This critique is not to say that the COIN Manual is entirely devoid of useful comments on this matter. Instead, with the exception of the list of eight emphasis areas, the remaining suggestions are implicit rather than explicit.[3] Even the explicit statements are nebulous, taking on the characteristics of the Beatitudes rather than training guidance. A more structured guideline for pre-deployment training specific to advisors would be useful, especially if it were to be synchronized with the remaining body of literature relating to planning and operations in COIN.

In an effort to better portray the influence that the pre-deployment training had on the development and actions of Regional Corps Advisory Command (RCAC 3-5) and Embedded Training Team (ETT 7-3)[4] it is necessary to expound upon the situation in 3rd Marine Division (3d MarDiv). From late 2006 through 2009, the United State Marine Corp contribution to Afghan National Army (ANA) advising originated from Okinawa.[5] A relationship between 3d MarDiv and the ANA 201st Corps had been growing. This relationship and revolving commitment served to develop an institutional body of knowledge among the Division staff. While the COIN Manual had been published within this period, much of its advice was directed at general purpose forces deploying to a COIN fight, not to non-special forces advisors. As such the model used in the development of RCAC 3-5’s pre deployment training was largely based upon the previous RCAC iterations. The connection between RCAC 3-5’s pre-deployment training and previous iterations was largely the result of several corresponding factors. The first was the preponderance of 3d MarDiv forces contributing to the advisor teams; the second factor was the influence Colonel Jeff Haynes had as both the Division Operations Officer (Div G-3) and soon-to-be RCAC 3-5 Commander. Finally, the two previous RCAC commanders came from Okinawa, so the Division had developed some institutional knowledge regarding advising the 201st Corps.

At the time 3d MarDiv was developing the overall pre-deployment training plan for its advisors there was no Marine Corps equivalent to the training at Fort Riley. Instead parent units or regionally-assigned training centers were assigned the duty of coordinating the mandated Block training.[6] Upon culmination of the home station training, a deploying unit, normally destined for Iraq, would conduct the final training and evaluation at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in 29 Palms California. During EXERCISE MOJAVE VIPER units were evaluated on their ability to operate in an Iraq-like COIN environment. The entire cycle was designed to prepare an infantry battalion capable of conducting combat operations not to produce a qualified advisor skilled in developing a competent host nation security force. RCAC 3-5 would be the last iteration of advisors to conduct a final evaluation outside of MCAGCC and with an Afghanistan-specific scenario.

Responsibility for developing the overall training program for 3d MarDiv units was divided among several units within the Division: the Division G-2, Division G-3, and 4th Marine Regiment (4th Marines). The responsibilities generally fell along fairly logical lines. The G-3 and 4th Marines were responsible for planning and conducting the training of core combat skills: shooting, communications, combat casualty care and vehicular operations. The G-2 was responsible for coordinating and conducting the culture and language training. Because of the small size and junior nature of its officer and enlisted cadre, the effort was more oriented to coordinating rather than conducting the training.

While 3d MarDiv was developing a relationship with 201st Corps, it was also heavily committed to supporting the Iraq mission. 4th Marines was responsible for training all Marine units and individuals deploying into either OIF or OEF. Because of limited resources and a small staff, the training mission fully committed 4th Marines. The large proportion of Iraq-bound personnel slanted the G-3 and 4th Marines orientation towards Iraq scenarios. Like the G-3 and 4th Marines, the G-2 had more experience with Iraq. The G-2, LtCol Victor Bunch, and the primary culture and language coordinator, 1stLt Wes Grey, had both served as Iraqi Army advisors. Both approached the Afghan mission from a highly logical and analytical perspective. The remainder of the G-2 were likewise predisposed to Iraq having either just returned from a deployment or preparing to deploy there.[7]

Training for RCAC 3-5 unfolded generally along existing lines of responsibility with one slight but significant exception. For this iteration the core of the RCAC staff would be drawn from the 3d MarDiv staff. The result was an increased focus on refining the scope of the pre-deployment training and support from external sources. The second factor that affected the nature of the pre-deployment training was a surge of individual augments deploying to Iraq, effectively consuming 4th Marines’ training capacity. The net effect of both factors led Col Haynes to direct the RCAC to assume near complete responsibility for the training of all deploying Afghan advisors. The analogy of building the airplane while you were flying it was indeed appropriate. With the exception of a select few, no one had experience in Afghanistan or as an advisor.

At the onset of training the RCAC had assumed responsibility for planning, coordinating and in many cases conducting the pre-deployment training. They were also deeply involved with the logistical aspects of equipping and moving the 150+ personnel and their associated equipment from Okinawa and Hawaii to Afghanistan. The twenty-four man RCAC was doing much of what had previously been done by the Division staff, all while participating in the pre-deployment training that they were administering. Although the arrangement appears confusing and somewhat less than efficient, it worked exceptionally well, with the exception of a few key areas. Expertise in cultural understanding, language training, and advising skills would prove problematic during the pre-deployment training and would lead to the development and employment of “muscular mentoring” during the actual deployment.

The COIN manual sets forth eight areas upon which pre-deployment training should focus.[8] On first glance the list appears complete and well thought-out; however, with more careful examination the emphasis areas are far from useful and unique in guidance. Several of the points lack a logical connection to a specific training plan; for instance how should a leader specifically apply, “train to a standard – not time.” Nearly all military training is supposed to be based upon the concept of training to standards. Training standards for individual and unit tasks are codified in an official manner. Individual tasks are contained in MOS-specific Training and Readiness (T&R) Manuals, while unit tasks are derived from an approved mission and Mission Essential Task List (METL). In late 2007, there were neither individual nor collective standards for advisors. Lacking a formal set of standards, each team leader or parent unit emphasized those standards that were perceived to be important. Furthermore there was the difficulty of quantifying successful training of advisor-like standards. Some were easier to quantify and as a result were given more emphasis, such as shooting, communications and field medicine. Cultural competence, more specifically cross-cultural competence is a significantly more subjective skill, and was generally glossed over in the training and evaluation.

A second emphasis area that lacks clarity is the concept of “developing the host nation trainer.”[9] Of all the logical lines of operation set forth in the COIN Manual, developing the host nation security force is one of prime importance to the advisor. Table 5-3 lists several considerations for the development of host nation security forces.[10] Developing the host nation trainer is identified as an area of emphasis in the advisor pre-deployment training package, but throughout the manual there is a lack of practical methods to bring this area to fruition. For RCAC 3-5 the transformation from Marine to advisor needed to be accomplished between 30 Oct 2007 and 30 Jan 2008. Time and resources were limited and there was a prioritization of the skills to be trained to. In the case of RCAC 3-5, less time and resources were afforded to culture, language and advising skills.

Cultural Understanding

Leading theorists (Kilcullen, Taber, Johnson) have either implicitly or explicitly stated the need for culturally-aware counterinsurgents. An ability to critically analyze the second and third order effects of a given action through the cultural and historic lens of a given population is a precursor to the development of a successful COIN strategy. Understanding the continuum of relative interests in a relatively homogeneous society, such as Cuba and Iraq, is difficult.[11] In Afghanistan, where rugged terrain and a multitude of distinct ethnicities and tribes have produced a seemingly endless number of factions, cultural understanding or even awareness is at once more critical and more difficult to master.

Based on the constrained timeframe and the independent nature of advisor duty the decision was made to focus on hard combat skills whose mastery was necessary for survival. Part of the equation was based on the time necessary to master a given skill. A detailed understanding of the cultural environment was not possible to obtain in the time period allotted, even if every available training hour was dedicated to cultural training. Similarly, a more tailored approach to the cultural training was precluded, as the advisors were unaware of their assigned areas of operation until they arrived in country. Finally, finding experts capable of effectively tailoring the correct cultural knowledge was difficult.

The final solution was to coordinate with the Marine Corps’ Center for Advanced Operational Culture and Language (CAOCL) to provide a two-week mobile training session. CAOCL designed and provided a multi-tiered program in which every deploying advisor would receive both cultural and language training. One week was designated as cultural and language training for the entire team and the second was solely language training for select individuals.

A contracted cultural expert provided the cultural training from CAOCL. As a result of a last minute change in instructors, the training consisted of a series of ad hoc classes loosely stitched together. The instructor was extremely knowledgeable regarding the tribal dynamics of North and South Waziristan, but had difficulty presenting tactically relevant cultural knowledge of the current tribal dynamics within Afghanistan. Knowledge regarding the character of the ANA was even less forthcoming albeit more significant.

The content of the cultural training was best categorized as introductory and general, focusing on broad trends within the Pashtun culture. Pashtunwali and the role of religion in the lives of the Pashtun was given particular emphasis, at the expense of the other dominant ethnic groups. Historic relations between tribal leaders, mullahs, and the national government were never covered. This was an obvious omission and would lead to the encouragement of policies promoting the importance of mullahs within 201st Corps operations, 3rd Bde operations in support of the Kapisa poppy eradication mission is a specific example. A lack of appreciation for the historic balance and the current imbalance likely hampered the Marine advisors during their interaction with both the ANSF members and influential Afghan civilians.

Along a similar vein the lack of understanding of tensions between ethnic groups within the country and ANA decreased the advisor’s effectiveness. This lack of understanding played out in a thousand subtle ways throughout the course of the deployment. Oftentimes the tensions were attributed to a petty dispute and elicited a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the advisors. As a whole the advisors did not fully appreciate the concept of pitting a stronger ally against a competitor while attempting to avoid direct confrontation. Similarly there was a uniform lack of appreciation for the infinite gradations separating corruption from patronage. The corruption/patronage dichotomy and strategic alliances would be a recurring theme for the duration of the deployment.

Language Competency

Language training presented another challenge throughout the training and deployment. First and foremost was the decision of what language the advisors would be taught. The debate naturally centered on the benefits of Dari and Pashtu. Both sides of the argument had valid points. Dari being the most prominent of the official languages and most widely used in the officer corps of the ANA was heavily favored. It was also a much easier language in which to develop a rudimentary capacity. Pashtu, while a more difficult language was spoken more often by the civilians through the 201st Corps’ AO as well as by much of the ANA. The ideal situation would be for the advisor to be proficient in both languages; however, time and learning capacity would negate an ideal situation from the beginning. In an effort to maximize returns on investment, a multi-level Dari program was adopted.[12] All deploying advisors would receive a one-week basic Dari course focused on tactical commands, while a group of “advanced language learners” would receive an additional two weeks of language training. The second session focused on grammar and an expanded vocabulary.

Language training was conducted early in the pre-deployment training cycle, largely because of scheduling constraints. Each advisor was provided with language-learning resources to facilitate further self study. Additionally, each team was provided two computers loaded with language learning software for use during designated language study periods.[13] In all but a few cases language training was placed on the back burner in lieu of more pressing hard skill training or logistical matters.

During the deployment a general sense developed among many of the advisors of the limited importance of the formal language-training program. An incomplete ability to discuss complex concepts that consistently emerged in the course of the deployment led to consternation on both parts. Language barriers often led to the advisor adopting a caveman command posture “go here … shoot that … no … etc.” or a heavy reliance on the limited CAT 1 interpreters.[14] The latter situation provided the possibility for an additional dynamic, the rise of influence of the interpreter.

A lack of language skills among the advisors and the corresponding reliance on local interpreters opened the door for possible abuses of power. Guidance on selecting and interacting with linguists is covered in fair detail in Annex C of FM 3-24.[15] The manual suggests appropriate duties of the three categories of linguists, with CAT 1 relegated to the least sensitive duties.[16] There is no discussion regarding the possible security issues much less the potential for an inappropriate relationship between linguist and host nation security force member. As a matter of policy, RCAC 3-5 interpreters were regularly rotated to reduce this possibility. The case of the RCAC commander’s interpreter, Shafi, underscores the potential of such a problem. Shafi was excluded from several interpreter rotations because of a perceived positive influence on the relations between advisor and advisee as well as the belief that any danger posed by Shafi could be mitigated.

When RCAC 3-5 arrived in country, Shafi had been serving as the RCAC commander’s interpreter for most of two rotations, nearly two years. During this time he had developed a close relationship with the 201st Corps Commander. The established relationship had some initial benefits; it allowed Shafi to provide historical context to the RCAC Commander for many of the issues that initially arose. This was useful as it prevented the repetition of discussions that were conducted with the previous RCAC Commanders. How much Shafi’s council affected the RCAC Commander’s decisions is unclear. The relationship with the Corps Commander provided Shafi with tangible benefits. Benefits included access to ANA fuel and assistance in sorting out local legal matters for his nephew. To this day it is unclear the effect, positive or negative, that Shafi had on advisor/ANA relations as there was no completely disinterested linguist available to monitor his daily duties. Loyal and competent linguists are a limited resource and are critical to the ultimate success of any advisor mission. RCAC 3-5 had linguists who consistently placed themselves in danger to protect advisors and went above the call of duty, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

Advisor Skills

Effective advising is built upon the historic and current counterinsurgency perspectives contained in the first section of the COIN Manual. To be an effective advisor, one must have a firm understanding of the operating environment.[17] By understanding the operational environment along four parallel axes (coalition troops, host nation government/security forces, host nation population, and the insurgent), it is possible to avoid the pitfalls of mirror imaging and truly advise the security forces. With an effective advisor, one who understands the entire operating environment, COIN and host nation forces can develop the governmental legitimacy and unity of effort necessary to protect the population.

The advisors of RCAC 3-5 arrived in Afghanistan with an unclear picture of the four axes. Across the teams we were forced to gain situational awareness while learning the art of advising. Exercise MOUNTAIN VIPER was supposed to provide a learning opportunity for the introduction and development of the soft advising skills, however it did not. The majority of the training was superior and prepared the individual and unit for duty in a mountainous combat environment. MOUNTAIN VIPER was divided into three main sections: individual skills, team skills, and mission specific skills. Individual and team skills development primarily concentrated on hard combat skill sets. Only in the final section did the teams interact with interpreters and “Afghan Security Forces”. The Afghans contracted to role-play ANSF and locals were Afghan-Americans who as a rule had little to no military background and only marginally more exposure to the current situation in Afghanistan. The group was of marginal value in developing cross-cultural competency, but they did provide a realistic view of where we would have to start with many of the ANA soldiers. In order to make the exercise progress, the advisors had in many instances to take the lead and puppet the ANSF personnel. This may have been the initial genesis of muscular mentoring, by providing the initial impetus to push our ideas forward without a current ANA set of practices.

The class sessions relating to the soft skills were of mixed value for two reasons. The first is that the classes were conducted at the end of the regular training day in an open warehouse. Normally this would not be an issue but the temperature in Hawthorne, Nevada during January was quite cold. The second reason was the instructor lacked a holistic perspective of the advising skills. He developed the course based upon his experience as an enlisted mentor for a Kandak in the 203rd Corps AO. While some of his experiences were applicable to the 201st Corps, many were not. The most useful session was an ad hoc AAR/advising session conducted by the previous RCAC Commander. His point that the credibility of an advisor is directly tied to the strength of his personal relationship with the Afghan counterpart and the necessity for inclusiveness provided the best foundation for the subsequent deployment.

While there were significant drawbacks to the content and method of instruction, overall the training instilled a significant degree of independence among all the advisors. Independence would be critical as the nature of the ANA advisor mission routinely involved operating outside of the normal ISAF command relationships. Along with independence, the advisors of RCAC 3-5 cultivated a sense of inclusiveness. This was likely related to the need to co-opt external sources of support out of a lack of organic capacity. Of all the traits inclusiveness was the most immediately applicable. It facilitated the establishment of relations with our Afghan counterparts and coalition partners. The general attitude was driven by the thought of, how can we cooperate to accomplish the most of both of our goals? Inclusiveness was the foundation for establishing unity of effort within the 201st Corps advisors, becoming apparent during the poppy eradication effort of April 2008.

Muscular Mentoring in Action: “Tagab Poppy Eradication”
Establishing Unity of Effort Among the Advisors

Command relations in Afghanistan were confusing in 2008. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan had not yet stood up and the combat mission under ISAF and the advising mission under CSTC-A did not have the unity of command that they currently have. As you progressed farther down the chain-of-command it only became more confusing. National caveats played a role in the confusion but could normally be accommodated; service-specific restrictions were more problematic. Marines were only a fraction of the advisors assigned to the 201st Corps; the remaining advisors were made-up of a mixture of active duty individual augments, National Guard teams, and international cadre. The Air Force and Navy personnel were restricted from certain duties, such as manning crew-served weapons. Kandak teams had an equally ambiguous relationship with the adjacent ISAF unit, more along a support/supported relationship rather than a strict TACON relationship. Of all the advisors the Marine teams were unique in the sense that CSTC-A was only given TACON of the teams from MARCENT. This restricted CSTC-A and Task Force-Phoenix from being able to deconstruct teams and place them elsewhere in the country. The Marine TACON caveat was used to our advantage, and disregarded when it suited us to do so.

When RCAC 3-5 arrived to Afghanistan the nature of the overall advisor command structure was beginning to shift. CJTF-Phoenix and its regional ARSICs were assuming the administrative and support functions of the ANA and ANP advisors. Though the purpose was to free the advisors to focus on their specific units, in practice it created a flat organization. All the advisor teams, from Corps to Kandak, were treated as independent, equal entities, in effect undermining from a structural standpoint any attempts at establishing and maintaining unity of command/unity of effort. The ARSIC staff was unable to effectively manage the administration and support functions to sustain the advisor teams while simultaneously integrating their efforts.

The RCAC Commander and staff addressed the situation by expanding their mandate. In addition to mentoring the 201st Corps staff, the RCAC assumed a coordinating, oftentimes bordering on command, function for all the advisors of 201st units. Twenty-six members of the RCAC staff augmented by a handful of reservists, five French and three Turkish officers directed or coordinated the efforts of 750+ advisors throughout the 201st Corps AO. While the arrangement did not always result in a perfect unity of effort, it did dramatically increase the communication and coordination between advisors at all levels. The increased communication enabled advisors to elevate problems through the advisor chain at the same time as their Afghan counterparts. In the areas of administration and logistics this parallel chain was most beneficial. Requests that had previously languished would now receive attention by the advisors of the brigade or corps staff.

FM 3-24 refers to Hand Shake Con; the arrangement within the 201st Corps was something similar.[18] The difference was that the RCAC established and maintained the arrangement with other military personnel, not a civilian entity. The arrangement was further solidified by several calculated personnel assignments. Through the deployment the RCAC commander replaced the senior brigade mentors with Marine officers. The replacements came from the group of Marines who had gone through the pre-deployment training under the command to RCAC 3-5. These officers were already conditioned to working with the RCAC and the established personal relationships facilitated much more implicit understanding of intentions while strengthening formal and informal communications paths.

Establishing Unity of Effort with ISAF

At the same time advisors were working to solidify relations with subordinate advisors, the RCAC staff was looking outward. The outward look initially followed two paths, the first to Bagram and CJTF-101, the second to Camp Eggers and the CSTC-A Ministry of Defense (MOD) advisors. The relationship between CJTF-101 and RCAC 3-5 began with at the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) Annual Afghanistan Conference. Informal introductions and initial coordination were made between the 101st Airborne Division G-2, G-3 and myself. The initial coordination was followed up by a formal visit to the 101st Headquarters by the RCAC 3-5 Commander. The initial outreach to CJTF-101 paid significant returns, as a rule RCAC 3-5 members were routinely included in ISAF planning efforts for both U.S./ANA and U.S.-only operations. The advisors established personal relationships with members of the CJTF-101 staff and were able to leverage those relationships into tangible support, often in the form of ISR and aviation support as well as planners to support 201st Corps operations. In return, CJTF-101 received near-unbiased assessments of the capabilities of personnel and units within the 201st Corps as well as access to sources of information that were previously unavailable. Of note was the cooperation between the CJTF-101 biometrics team and the advisors. In exchange for an increased supply of portable biometrics devices (HIIDE Systems) the advisors uploaded biometric collects from ANA/ETT patrols and vehicle checkpoints. This cooperation expanded the scope of CJTF-101 biometric collection beyond areas where only ISAF forces were operating.

While RCAC 3-5 personnel were strengthening relationships with ISAF forces they were also increasing the coordination with the CSTC-A mentors. The approach was similar to the one used with CJTF-101: offer assistance and access to the 201st Corps, then look for ways to synchronize efforts. CSTC-A mentors were hampered largely because they were tied to Kabul and rarely got out to physically see the Afghan Corps much less lower formations. Proximity to Camp Eggers and Camp Phoenix aided in establishing the relationship; the RCAC advisors began showing up at CSTC-A meeting in an observer capacity and were soon regular contributors. The proximity also allowed CSTC-A to test initiatives in the 201st before implementation in other Corps. Test bed programs such as the creation of a bi-weekly intelligence meeting between members of MOD G-2, 201st Corps G-2, ANP G-2 and NDS were a result of cooperation among advisors.

The most tangible benefit of the coordination was the development of the relationship between the 201st Corps and the Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC). Advisors from the RCAC reached out to the ANAAC advisors in hopes of increasing the role of Afghan air to move and resupply ANA troops. The availability of ISAF air transport was limited and ANSF resupply and troop movement received a lower priority than ISAF requirements. A consistent resupply program never materialized, but with effort a long series of ad hoc air requests was facilitated under the guise of air training. One of the initiatives that did gain some traction was the development and use of an initial Afghan photoreconnaissance capability. Admittedly it was rudimentary, consisting of two two-man teams operating out of an ANAAC MI-17, but the products allowed Afghan planners to develop an ANA/ETT air assault into the Kohi Sofi district of Parwan province.

Aside from the tangible benefits the enhanced relationship among advisors provided, the most important were intangible primarily in the form of information. An informal invitation to a meeting at Camp Eggers was what began the shift in the nature of the RCAC’s advisor relationship. During the preceding months much of the Corps’ attention had been focused on the Victory Day Parade. Every officer and soldier not actively engaged in combat operations was dedicated to parade preparation. The majority of the day was spent painting tanks and APC and marching practice. The parade was supposed to be an example of Afghan unity and success, but was over almost before it began. Four insurgents locked in a hotel room with a machine gun, an RPG, and some assault rifles scattered the soldiers and police on national television. The Corps staff was demoralized, much of the last month’s effort had been thwarted and ongoing efforts were stalled pending investigations and accusations.

Planning and Execution of the Tagab Eradication Effort

In the months leading up to the parade Kapisa, more precisely the districts of Nijrab, Tagab and Al Asai had been deteriorating. The 201st Corps’ 1st Brigade and their French Advisors had been fighting to gain a foothold in the area for weeks. The ANA were to clear the enemy from the districts and set conditions for the Afghan National Police (ANP) to establish a permanent security presence. The ANA did their part driving back the enemy and seizing the ground, however, the police never arrived. A relief in place between the 1st and 3rd Brigade was in the works, slated for completion after the parade. Because of a poor security situation in Tagab the relief would be conducted through the northern portions of the province.

The Corps and both brigades had conducted a similar operation under different security conditions. This was also the first time RCAC 3-5 advisors had worked a large-scale operation with their counterparts and were keen to have a success after the parade fiasco. Within days of execution the RCAC 3-5 Commanding Officer was invited to a meeting at CSTC-A regarding an upcoming poppy eradication mission. A courtesy invite ended up turning into active participation on the part of the advisor as the 201st Corps was expected to play a key role in establishing security for the poppy eradication force.

Several issues became obvious early in the meeting regarding the mission. First and foremost, there had been almost no Afghan participation during the eradication planning. The meeting consisted exclusively of active and reserve U.S. military officers, DynCorps contractors and Department of State employees. The second indicator that there was potential for things to go wrong was the lack of details. The DynCorps contractors advising the PEF had numerous pictures of poppy fields throughout the Tagab district, but outside of identifying poppy fields and generating a rough course of action there had been little in the way of detailed planning. The PEF had access to a small fleet of DoS helicopters, but had done little to develop an integrated air plan, one which could incorporate coalition aircraft if needed. Legitimate crops surrounded many of the fields, but there was no plan for how to gain access to the illegitimate crops without destroying the legitimate ones.

Most concerning to the Marine advisors was the lack of integration of the Afghan Army into the security efforts. The PEF is not an offensive force; for it to conduct its mission the ANA support was critical. Routes into and out of the eradication site had to be secured. No planning had been conducted with the ANA; the only consideration given to the ANA participation was to roughly identify the size of force thought to be necessary for the security mission. Unfortunately, that guess did not take into account the complex situation in Tagab. The RCAC 3-5 Commander determined that the complexity of the mission required a different level of involvement on the part of the 201st Corps advisors resulting in the muscular mentoring approach.

Independent of our Afghan counterparts the RCAC 3-5 began their planning, conducting a quick but thorough mission analysis and arranged for an initial reconnaissance of the operating area. Reconnaissance was arranged for the following morning utilizing the DoS helicopters. Throughout the night the RCAC 3-5 staff began coordinating with the 101st Airborne Division. To aid the effort CJTF-101 dispatched a liaison team.

Detailed planning continued for the next several days. During that time the RCAC staff developed a detailed holistic plan. Despite the CJTF-101 LNO the RCAC staff did the majority of work. During the initial development members of the Corps staff were brought into the effort. As a general principle the advisors tended to defer to Afghan solutions, however with the complexity of the operation and integration of ISAF enablers, there was little substantial Afghan participation. The additional constraints of classification further restricted Afghan participation. The evolution of the planning cycle represented one of the fundamental problems inherent in U.S.–Afghan operations; they tend to be less combined and more directive.

After the plan was sufficiently mature from the U.S. standpoint, the effort was shifted to the ANA to develop a supporting plan. This meant that the advisors pressured the 201st Corps Staff into action. The first problem the advisors faced was a lack of formal tasking by the MOD. The ANA were loath to begin planning any mission without explicit instructions from the MOD. ANA leadership did not think there needed to be much planning despite the lack of Coalition and Afghan force operations in southern Tagab for nearly a year. Tagab was conducive to standoff attacks by a small force and insurgents were known to operate there and in adjacent valleys. It took a considerable amount of coercion by all the advisors to get the Afghan acceptance of detailed and integrated planning. The Corps staff took the plan developed by the RCAC and began adjusting under the supervision of the advisors.

Since time was a factor in the operation, the Corps Staff generated a warning order and issued it to the 1st and 3rd Brigades to enable a concurrent planning. The warning order was augmented by coordination and near-constant communications between the Corps and Brigade mentors. The fact that information was being shared between levels of command in the Afghan Army may not have been a novel concept, but it was a rare one. Third Brigade was designated as the main effort for the operation and its commander, Brigadier General Zamari, immediately formulated a supporting plan, designating Lieutenant Colonel Adam Khan’s Kandak as the main effort. The force would comprise of mechanized Kandak augmented by U.S. advisors, and a French Forward Air Controller (FAC). Planning at the brigade level is less of an interactive process than at the Corps. It consisted of General Zamari and a select group of his staff and commanders listening to how the General wanted the operation to unfold.

While the planning was being conducted, the brigades and Kandak personnel were undertaking all manner of preparation. Armored personnel carriers were being serviced, heavy equipment transport trailers were being readied, weapons and supplies were being checked and staged, all without a formal order from the MOD. Behind the Afghan preparations for the operation, the U.S. and Coalition Mentors were continuing the coordination for support and the negotiations with the DynCorps and DoS personnel. The discussion continued to revolve around what would be considered success for the mission. DynCorps was adamant that success meant clearing a percentage of poppy fields up to the 50 grid line. After much discussion from all levels of command, it was agreed that the culmination of operations would be based on daily assessments of the eradication progress, reconnaissance efforts of the next day’s projected eradication site, enemy activity, and capabilities of the security force.

The date arrived for the entire force to move east to the tactical assembly area. The MOD had only just issued the deployment order and troops were on the move. Lead elements of 3rd Brigade’s mechanized Kandak departed garrison along a narrow and over-used dirt road to the assembly area. The initial plan was for the force to move along the route with the armored personnel carriers loaded on heavy equipment transport trailers. The trailers lasted less than fifteen kilometers, at which time all the armored personnel carriers were off-loaded and driven the remainder of the way.

While the Afghan Army started the operation with a success, the PEF got off to a rockier start. While waiting for their turn to depart one of the soldiers detonated an RPG round in formation. PEF soldiers were visibly shaken and were on the verge of losing morale according to the DynCorps liaison officer. The decision was made to begin moving the PEF.

Most military operations involve a shaping effort. In Afghanistan, like other counterinsurgency operations, the most critical factor in the environment is the people. Whichever side has the support of the population possesses an undeniable advantage. The insurgents need the population for support and camouflage, while the government’s legitimacy is based on popular support. The 3rd Brigade Commanding General conducted his own shaping operation, one that was unique to the Afghans and which would likely be difficult or impossible for non-Afghan forces to duplicate. The Corps and Brigade Religious Officers attended morning prayers in the southern most villages of Tagab. They brought with them a degree of religious credibility and an understanding of local pressure points, both positive and negative stimuli. With the key village leaders in attendance both religious officers were able to apply a heavy dose of carrot and stick in an effort to ensure the unimpeded progress of the security forces and thereby the PEF. The morning prayers shaping effort continued for the duration of the operation, backed by the distribution of humanitarian assistance material. In addition to the religious officers’ efforts, General Zamari sent several of his relatives into the battle space to appeal to those less religious residents. It is unclear exactly what message they carried, but it likely involved more stick than the carrot.

The first day’s objective area was the poppy fields just north of the village of Kam Shinkay. It is unclear how much legitimate cropland was damaged by the PEF during the conduct of the operation. The first day’s mission yielded little more than ten acres of poppy fields eradicated. The PEF leadership was excited by the progress, claiming the PEF would likely hit triple digits over the next several days.

The RCAC forward command element, without ANA counterparts, continued to monitor the radios tracking the operation from the assemble area. They were the link back to the coalition enablers, the enablers that were supposed to be ever present but unseen. For all the coordination and planning, the enablers totaled up to be one UAV flight prior to the mission commencing, Apache attack helicopters on alert, and a liaison team from one of the 101st Airborne Division’s subordinate elements. None of which was utilized during the conduct of the operation.

The third day started just like the previous two but the end of the day saw the first enemy contact. Elements of the security force received fire from a crowd. The ANA forces surrounded the suspected site and called back for air support. The request worked its way to the advisors and stopped there. Upon further investigation the ANA reported that they had cornered one individual, who subsequently escaped, and wanted to engage the individual with an air strike. Advisors at all levels quickly identified the disproportionate application of force and turned off the air request before it got started.

The eradication effort culminated after three days with less than 100 acres of poppy eliminated. After the PEF left, 3rd Bde conducted its relief in place with 1st Bde through Tagab. In addition to establishing security, members of the Brigade Religious Staff conducted several humanitarian aid drops to villages affected by the eradication efforts. This was also the beginning of what would be later coined “Aid-Gate” by the advisors. Six seven-ton trucks departed the assembly area with food and material aid for villagers, half returned to the assembly area full of humanitarian supplies. Those supplies were later found in vehicles belonging to the Brigade Religious Officer, the Brigade Sergeant Major and assorted other staff officers.

Did the advisors overstep their mandate? Did they succumb to the same ISAF direct – ANA follow dynamic present throughout most of Afghanistan? Probably. There were some positive results that followed from this evolution. The 201st Corps began to take an interest in Tagab. It was an area where ANA forces could operate independently of ISAF forces and they began to do so for much of the remainder of 2008. With the assistance, sometimes forcefully, of the advisors, the ANA built a series of FOBs from Surobi to Al Asai. Along with the FOBs the ANA rebuilt the road through Tagab cutting what used to be a four-hour drive down to one. As the ANA expanded operations, the advisors were able to bring in additional ISAF and GIRoA support. By the time RCAC 3-5 was replaced by RCAC 3-6 CMO operations in Tagab included ISAF, the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development, 201st Corps, the Kapisa PRT, and a growing number of NGOs.

The Staying Power of Muscular Mentoring

Much of the immediate successes resulting from the RCAC 3-5 application of muscular mentoring likely failed to become permanent. They elicited a change primarily based on force of personality, not because the ANA was intrinsically changed. Table 5-3 presents several relevant points on this matter. Avoid mirror imaging, unless it is tactically convenient or involved integration of coalition forces or may compromise force protection. Put host nation personnel in charge of as much as possible as soon as possible, unless it is classified or complex. Once host nation personnel are ready, include them in the planning, again except when it is classified or complex.

Muscular mentoring results in immediate gratification but does little to develop a sense of ownership by the ANSF. It gives the appearance of unity of effort, but does not necessarily instill an appreciation for its value in the host nation security forces. It plays to our, all the coalition partners’, desire to achieve a visible result on the battlefield before we re-deploy. Muscular mentoring satisfies our desire to avoid failure, but results in a less capable, more needy partner force. Perhaps T.E. Lawrence was right, better to have the locals do it tolerably, than you do it perfectly. In the end, the ANA will have to stand on its own, with whom and what it has; it is better they be able to learn how to do that now.

This paper represents the views and observations of the author, and do not represent those of the United States Marine Corps or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


Medby, Jamison Jo, and Russel Glenn. Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations. Santa Monica: RAND, 2002


U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps. FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency Field Manual. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 218-219


1. U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 218-219.

2. FM 3-24, 167.

3. FM 3-24, 218

4. During this time period there were six Kandak-level advisory teams, referred to as ETTs and one Corps level advisory team, referred to as RCAC. The number designators following each title refer to the number of advisor cycles that particular team had been through. For the remainder of the paper I will refer to RCAC 3-5 for the entire seven advisory teams unless additional specificity is required.

5. While 3d MarDiv was providing the lion’s share of USMC advisors to Afghanistan it was also heavily committed to Iraq, sending one or more infantry battalions, artillery units, and a significant number of individual augments. In raw numbers the advisor mission was a small portion of the Division’s overall OIF/OEF support requirement.

6. CMC Washington DC DCCDI/OIF/OEF PREDEPLOYMENT TRAINING CONTINUUM/170023Z MAR 06 dictates the requirements and responsibilities for pre-deployment training of Marines deploying to OIF or OEF.

7. The Division G-2 regularly deploys officers and intelligence analysts to support the Tactical Fusion Center (TFC) in Iraq. G-2 officers and analysts also continue to augment deploying infantry battalions as members of the Battalion S-2 or company level intelligence cells (CLIC).

8. FM 3-24, 218

9. FM 3-24, 218

10. FM 3-24, 168

11. Jamison Jo Medby, et al., Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations (Santa Monica: RAND, 2002), 94.

12. The decision to take a tiered approach was partially based upon the 90-day After Action Report for RCAC 3-4.

13. The language learning computers were loaded with Tactical Pashtu and the SOF language lessons for Dari and Pashtu.

14. Each team was assigned 8-10 CAT 1 interpreters. This roughly equated to one interpreter to two advisors that exceeded the ARSIC-C standard of one interpreter to four advisors.

15. FM 3-24, 335-346.

16. FM 3-24, 335.

17. FM 3-24, 27

18. FM 3-24, 58.


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