22 March 2012

The Constant State-by-State of War

When I started the Red Bull Rising blog in late 2009, I was preparing to deploy as a member of the Iowa Army National Guard. My buddies and I kept a digital ear out for news of Vermont's 86th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), the unit we planned to replace. We sifted and scanned Vermont newspaper and television reports, U.S. Army public affairs releases from Afghanistan, and posts from mil-bloggers and Facebookers.

The 1,500-member 86th BCT had originally deployed as the command-and-control headquarters for Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, a U.S. and coalition training mission that had been in place since 2003. (A quick review: In Army speak, the term "combined" means "U.S. plus allies." The term "joint" means one or more branches of the armed forces: Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard. A "task force" is an group of disparate units organized around a specific mission.)

The CJTF Phoenix mission was to advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (A.N.S.F.), including various forms of Afghan police and military units. It controlled 8- or 16-person Embedded Training Teams (E.T.T.). Coalition partners call their ETT personnel "Operational Mentor Liaison Teams" (OMLT, pronounced "omelette").

An additional irony? Such Foreign Internal Defense ("FID") training missions have traditionally been considered a core mission of U.S. Special Forces. The National Guard, on the other hand, often has to battle "second-string" stereotypes when encountering active-duty soldiers in the field. Even after more than 10 years of deployments, and transformation into an operational reserve.

That U.S. National Guard soldiers tend to have civilian-acquired work experiences and skills is often touted as an advantage in the advise-and-assist context. Citizen-soldiers who are law enforcement professionals back home can be used to mentor Afghan National Police, for example. Teachers and coaches, business owners and managers can be more familiar with non-military mentorship models. With the possible exception of the National Guard’s joint Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.), however, in which citizen-soldiers and -airmen are deployed based upon their civilian-acquired agricultural skills, it’s hard to move such assumptions and assertions beyond the anecdotal.

In 2009, in the middle of a foreign country, a deployment, and a war, Vermont's 86th BCT reconfigured to a mission in which they would act as "battlespace owners" for the provinces of Parwan, Panjshir, and Bamiyan Provinces. Two more U.S. National Guard brigades—each approximately 3,000 personnel each—would follow. Rather than being sliced up into smaller companies and battalions, and assigned to support active-duty brigades, the National Guard brigades were kept relatively whole.

Iowa's 2nd BCT, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) deployed to Afghanistan from October 2010 to July 2011. It took over the mission in Parwan (where Bagram Airfield is located), Panjshir, and Laghman Provinces. One Red Bull battalion, the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.) was attached to active-duty brigade in Paktiya Province. A 400-member Nebraska Army National Guard unit with historical ties to the Red Bull, the 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry (1-134th Cav.), deployed alongside the 2-34th BCT. Based at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, the 1-134th Cav. deployed as mentors and trainers for Afghan National Police.

Oklahoma's 45th BCT ("Thunderbird") took over the Red Bull's mission in July 2012, maintaining responsibility for Laghman Province and other areas. After the Thunderbird took over, my Red Bull buddies and I again took to the Internet, this time watching for Oklahoma newspaper and television reports, U.S. Army public affairs releases, and posts from mil-bloggers and Facebookers. As of this week, nearly all of the Thunderbird units have returned home to Oklahoma. Rather than hand-off to another U.S. National Guard unit, in February the Thunderbird transferred authority to an active-duty unit.

Watching a war through the lens of brigade-sized deployments, state by state, is an accessible way to perceive the ebb and flow of the past 10 years. In the beginning, it was team after 16-person mentor team. Occasionally, a state would get tapped for the CJTF Phoenix mission—a brigade's worth of headquarters staff, plus yet more advise-and-assist teams. Then, for a grand and glorious moment, the states were asked to muster fully trained, fully resourced fighting brigades. Newspaper reporters wrote sentences like, "the largest deployment of Iowa troops since World War II."

Now, with American resolve, purpose, and troop numbers waning in Afghanistan, U.S. political and military leaders have taken to describing a "new" mission of advising and assisting Afghan forces, and withdrawing troops by 2014. Given that the advise-and-assist mission started in 2003 and never stopped, this latest language seems like rhetorical repackaging. Meet the new mission, same as the old mission.

During mobilization in 2011, Ohio's 37th BCT ("Buckeye")—was re-configured to fulfill an advise-and-assist mission in Northern Afghanistan. It arrived Afghanistan in February 2012.

The Red Bull Rising crystal ball is currently in for servicing and recalibration, but it seems as if the moment of brigade-sized deployments might be over. Perhaps National Guard units will be more likely to deploy piecemeal as companies and battalions, or as 16-person mentor-and-trainer teams. Even the National Guard-specific Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.) may be winding down. In a recent ceremony in Paktya Province, for example, the outgoing Nebraska ADT transferred its responsibilities to the co-located Provincial Reconstruction Team (P.R.T.).

During the Association of the United States Army (A.U.S.A.) annual convention and trial-balloon festival last fall, there was much talk of assigning the advise-and-assist mission to the Reserve Component. (Other, contradictory balloons: Assign to the U.S. Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve most or all of the heavy/armored and field artillery forces.) Proposals to create and train specific advise-and-assist capability, whether in the active- or reserve-components, seem to have stalled. The consensus seems to be that the military will continue to take such teams ad hoc and out of hide, rather than create specific organizations or structure. Every soldier wants to grow up to be Patton or Schwarzkopf; few aspire to be Lawrence of Arabia.

That's not to say that operational deployments are over, or that war isn't still a dangerous business. While 70 headquarters soldiers of the Indiana National Guard's 76th BCT ("Night Hawks") were engaged in send-off ceremonies to Afghanistan last January, the Hoosier state simultaneously learned of the loss of four Indiana combat engineers assigned to the 713th Engineer Company, Valaparaiso, Ind.

Sobering times.

War beats on.


For additional insights into the history of the advise-and-assist mission, see Jeffrey Courter's "Afghan Journal" and Benjamin Tupper's "Greetings from Afghanistan" and "Dudes of War." Also, check out former U.S. Marine officer Jonathan Rue's "Build a House and Burn it Down," in which he reflects on his experiences training Iraqi soldiers. And Joseph Trevithick's insightful attempt on Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog to untangle the historically convoluted U.S./coalition command structures in Afghanistan.

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