War in Afghanistan: How Marines Are Training Afghans to Replace Them

USMC Air-Ground Combat Center; 29 Palms, Calif.

A stable country needs a competent army and police to provide security for its citizens, and in Afghanistan, the army and police are being mentored by Marines trained specifically for the task by the Advisor Training Group based here at Camp Wilson.

It’s not a question of being "tough enough" as the Romney campaign accuses the Obama administration of lacking, it’s how the American military most effectively addresses a threat: while scenes of raw firepower play well on American television; quietly training a 3rd-world foreign military to take over defense of its own country brings American troops home while leaving that country in better shape for our assistance.

“The mindset of an adviser needs to be different than that of a typical Marine hard-charger,” explained Col. William Gillespie, “It’s like the difference between a recruiter and a drill instructor, plus you’ve got to take into account the US-Afghan cultural differences.” 

Gillespie is the director of the Advisor Training Group (ATG), a small, but vitally important cog in the Marine effort to teach the fledgling Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) how to provide the services a country requires.

The ATG trains the adviser group Marines who mentor, advise, and train the Afghan forces including the Army (ANA) and Police (ANP). A typical adviser team consists of 14-32 Marines and Sailors. Many, if not most have prior combat experience.

There are two levels of advisers; while the typical team is assigned to with the Afghan army and police in RC-Southwest on a local level, with the other a specialized team of field grade officers working on a regional or national level with a colonel/Lt. colonel mentoring an Afghan major general/brigadier general.

Realistic Training a Necessity

With the recent spate on "green-on-blue" shootings, building Marine-ANSF relationships are of even greater importance. The cultural differences claimed to be responsible for the incidents are studied, with the goal of better understanding the Muslim religion and Pashtunwali, (which translates to “the way of the Pashtun’s life”). With the Pashtuns being by far the largest ethnic group in RC-Southwest, knowledge of their culture is very important.

Understanding these cultural differences is a major part of ATG’s mission of teaching the Marines the subtleties of how to successfully mentor and advise the ANSF. “It’s not just how to teach tactics,” Capt. Alex Luedtke said “it’s using the trust and respect so important in the Afghan culture to reinforce the tactical and soft skills necessary to lead effectively.” 

Luedtke is one of the captains who oversee the training; he is responsible for the Influencing Human Behavior classes. “Our Marines aren’t teaching,” Luedtke explained, “We’re mentoring and advising, and it’s important the Marines understand the difference.”

Every Advisor Team must complete a 25-day graduate level Advisor Skills Course, Gillespie explained, learning both hard and soft skills with a final field exercise designed to emphasize the mentoring role of the mission. To assist in making the training as realistic as possible, a contractor supplies some 190 Afghan-American citizens who act as role players. The men and women play a variety of roles ranging from ANA, shopkeeper, ANP, townsperson, to village elder. The field exercise is a week-long Mission Rehearsal Exercise where the team must deal with various Afghan-related scenarios.

"We plan the attacks carefully" Sgt. Philip Lubin explained, "We’re able to conducts complex ambushes, with multiple points of attack, which are designed to stress the Marines we’re training." Lubin is a member of the Role Player Control Team with Sgt. Paul McAllister, the ATG expert in foreign weapons. He and Lubin plans the attacks that include the use of AK-47’s and belt-fed weapons. During the exercises, they don Afghan garb and fire blanks from their weapons, ambushing the joint patrols from various locations within the town.

During the MRX the Marines are observed and graded in how they interact and advise their Afghan counterparts during a series of high-stress exercises ranging from complex ambushes, IED strikes, detainee processing, morale and discipline, and air medivacs. It’s not about the Marine keeping his composure during a mortar attack or IED strike, but ensuring the Afghan counterpart is able to keep his.

Although this is an adviser mission, Afghanistan and RC-Southwest is still very much a combat zone and ATG ensures the Marines maintain a high combat proficiency. The ATG program includes foreign weapons courses, along with both basic and refresher courses in machine gun usage, counter-IED, mounted and dismounted patrolling, and medivacs. There is also a course specially tailored to teach the Marine how to defend himself in a green-on-blue.

To make the training realistic for both Afghanistan and future expected third-world trouble spots, the Marine Corps built the largest MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) town in the American military, with 1,550 buildings spread over 284 acres. Built primarily from used 20’ and 40’ shipping containers, the buildings replicate jails, hospitals, bazaars, and even a multiple-story hotel complete with furniture. Graveyards, Afghan women, and bazaari’s add to the ambiance.

In one of today’s exercises, a joint Marine-Afghan Army patrol suffered multiple wounded from a notional IED, and was then attacked. With five Afghans bandaged realistically, (including copious amounts of fake blood) while moaning and shrieking in Pashtu, the Marine 1st Lieutenant called for a medevac. But while awaiting the helicopter’s arrival, the patrol was ambushed, with the Afghans being attacked from a nearby village by heavy machine guns, small arms, and artillery (shooting blanks). The purpose of the attack was to see how well the Marine lieutenant would liaise with his Afghan captain-partner while under the pressure of combat.

With the Afghan commander seemingly paralyzed by the heavy fire, the Marine tried to get him to make a decision “we can’t stay here,” he emphasized, “we need to move forward and attack, or we need to pull back.” A Marine armored vehicle accompanying the patrol moved forward into the fight, but a referee suddenly declared the up-gunner wounded and the vehicle was pulled back in order to deal with the WIA. Calling for additional ANA troops was another option, but as the audio of incoming fire increased in volume, the Afghan remained unable to make a decision “We can’t wait,” the Marine emphasized in a tone one could hear over the gunfire, ”you need to decide NOW!”

After an intense 10-15 minutes, the medevac arrived, the Afghan "casualties" were loaded, and the flight departed in a cloud of dust.

It was a complex problem with an unpalatable answer. If the Afghan continues to waffle, ANA and Marines may die. If the Marine takes command, he undermines the command structure by showing the Afghan commander to be ineffective. The goal is if the ANA commander isn’t effective, the Marine will not take command, but rather spur him to command effectively.

“Mentoring is often an exercise in pushing the Afghans,” Luedtke explained, “but not to the point of pain. Leadership is tone as much as tactics; this is how we build competent Afghan forces.”

The Afghan role players understand the need for leadership and spend time coaching the Marines in the finer points of Afghan culture. Omar, an Afghan-American who often plays the part of the ANA commander, explained, “we’re able to assist our home country and our adopted country; whatever we can do to help the Marines, we will do.”

This article originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project's blog. 

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Andrew Lubin

I'm an author and foreign policy-defense analyst who writes on current military operations, international relations, and serves as an advisor to the Truman National Security Project. My work appears regularly in such professional magazines as “Leatherneck”, “The Gazette,” “Jane’s Defense Weekly," and the Huffington Post. I served as the military consultant to Stephens Media Group for their “Valor Series” and wrote for PS's “Regarding War” and U.S. Naval Institute’s “Proceedings.” I'm a member of the Marine Corps Combat Camera Association, and have 14 embeds with USMC in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Asia, and Beirut. I'm producing "Bootsteps," a documentary re: Marine ops in Afghanistan, for PBS. My first book, “Charlie Battery; A Marine Artillery Battery in Iraq” won the 2007 Gold Medal for best Military Non-Fiction from the Military Writers Society of America, as well as Best Memoir from the University of Virginia’s “Festival of Books.” I'm a co-author of “Saluting American Valor” along with “Uncle John Salutes the Armed Forces”, which was nominated in 2009 for “Best Anthology” by the Military Writers Society of America. My latest book, “Keep Moving or Die; Task Force Tarawa at An-Nasiriyah” is due out next year. I've appeared on ABC, CNN, CBS, FOX, and Patriot Media, and is a regular guest on VFW’s “The National Defense,” In November 2004 I was the Military Analyst for WPVI (ABC) Philadelphia during Fallujah-2. I've spoken at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, the Clinton School, the Thunderbird School of Global Managment, Villanova University, and other universities in the US and Canada. I'm a graduate of Allegheny College, and the Thunderbird School.

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