All the way back in 2007, Lt. Col. John Nagl suggested, in a paper for the Center for New American Security, that it was time for the U.S. Army to form a dedicated Advisor Corps in order to give greater priority to assisting allied militaries in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. This has become a core military mission, but it is has been addressed in a haphazard manner by pulling personnel out of existing units. Moreover, it has never gotten the support or recognition that it deserves. Nagl proposed to change that.
It’s only taken a decade but the army finally seems to be implementing a version of Nagl’s proposal. Army Times reports that in October the first of six planned Security Force Assistance Brigades—“the Army’s first permanent units that will conduct security cooperation activities”—will be created at Fort Benning, Georgia. And, “to help support the new brigades, the Army will also open the Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning on Oct. 1.”
This is a welcome, if long overdue, adaptation to the realities of today’s world where U.S. forces are more likely to project power through host nations rather than by taking on direct combat assignments themselves. No one, after all, wants to send Americans into harm’s way. Instead, we increasingly rely on advisors. The U.S. currently has 4,500 troops in Iraq and 8,400 in Afghanistan and most of them—the exceptions are a small number of Special Operations Forces—are engaged in the advisory mission, either directly assisting Afghan or Iraqi personnel or supporting those who are. Other American military advisors are scattered around dozens of countries around the world.
Advising foreign military forces is a specialized skill set that requires considerable empathy and patience and cross-cultural understanding—qualities that are not different from those that the U.S. Army looks for in promoting its own leaders. It will be a great boon if under this new structure the army will train and cultivate skilled advisors and allow them to get promoted along with their peers commanding American units.
General Mark Milley, the army chief of staff, deserves considerable credit for implementing this organizational innovation—and Nagl, by now headmaster of the Haverford School near Philadelphia, deserves kudos for thinking it up in the first place. It is not often that think-tank papers get such concrete results, even if in this case the “flash-bang” time was ten years. Now if only the civilian side of government—meaning primarily the State Department and the Agency for International Development–could make similar efforts to train and cultivate political advisors who can assist foreign allies with the all-important task of “nation-building.”