The Misunderstood Strategic Purpose of SOTF in Afghanistan
By: LTC Gabor Santa, Hungarian Army
I serve in the 34th Special Forces Battalion of the Hungarian Army. While my battalion is not the most prominent SOF unit in the world, I work in the SOF realm and have operational experience leading SOF nations in the hottest battlefields, including Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, I was the assistant team leader of the Hungarian Military Assistant and Liaison Team, NATO Training Mission–Iraq. I have been deployed three times to Afghanistan, two of which were SOF-related deployments. In my first SOFrelated deployment in 2008, I was a partnering officer in the International Security Assistance Force Special Operations Forces Headquarters (ISAF SOF HQ). Then, in 2012, I served as a Hungarian Special Operations Forces Special Operations Task Unit liaison officer. One of the greatest advantages of these two deployments was that I could experience the SOF environment from a multilevel perspective.
While working at the ISAF SOF HQ, I developed a clear picture of the strategic purpose of ISAF SOF, not only through a better understanding of the written directives but also through field experience with the units on the ground. I was responsible for the partnering task assigned to four nations; the units associated with the task were spread across Afghanistan's northern and western provinces. The task clearly stated the strategic intent, which was to support a safe and secure environment by establishing a provincial response company (PRC)—an Afghan quick-reaction, special operations–capable police unit—for each province. The end goal of this process is for these independent PRCs to be capable of operating throughout their assigned area, maintaining their equipment, and sustaining manpower over the long term.
Direct Action vs. Military Assistance: Five Observations
The designated ISAF SOF special operations task forces (SOTFs) are responsible for training and advising the PRCs during the PRCs' establishment, initial operational development, and full operational capability phases. In my view, these responsibilities are being only partially fulfilled. In 2008, my first impression of the situation was that SOTFs were focusing more on the socalled "sexy" SF mission—that is, direct action—than on providing military assistance to PRCs. SOTFs still viewed PRCs as important, but direct action always took priority. I know this perception had not significantly changed as of 2012. In the following sections, I share five observations that support why I think task forces view military assistance as less important than direct action.
Slow Development of Administrative Tools
In order to properly control, advise, and assist a designated partner unit, it is not enough for SOTFs to teach the unit how to shoot, break into houses, or handcuff and body search. SOTFs should have a proper system for all-around accountability, including manpower data (e.g., complete names, birthdates, family), logistics, and all other necessary databases. In 2008, several SOTFs already had their designated PRC. Yet, by 2012 there were still only a few PRCs, and those units had access to an incomplete database that was scarcely useful. I understand the difficulties of human resource administration in an environment where the public sector is basically absent, and I cannot blame any unit for not possessing those administrative databases. But the fact that only minor changes have occurred since 2008 suggests that minimal effort has been put into developing these administrative tools.
Logistics are based on numbers, and these numbers are—or should be—the same in any language, whether it be Pashto or English or anything else. When we initially provide the PRCs with some equipment, we should keep tracking the numbers and the inventories to be sure that the equipment is used for the intended purpose. Many PRCs have received huge amounts of material support from ISAF and other agencies. The partnering reporting system within the ISAF SOF bureaucracy includes very detailed rosters of what each PRC is supposed to have, but the PRC accounts and these rosters often do not match. I do not know why this is happening, but this inconsistency definitely requires more attention.
PRCs Are Operationally Excluded
ISAF SOF directives determined the "Afghan face" participation percentage— that is, the number of individuals from the PRCs designated to participate in a given mission—for all operations, and according to my knowledge, these directives were never disobeyed. But the process for determining the percentage was still not conducted as expected. I had the chance to look through and listen to many concept-of-operation (CONOP) briefings during the PRC approval process and was impressed by the level of detail of the presentations, which included the names and call signs of all the PRC participants in the presentations' task organization section. (I am not surprised that the final CONOP was over 40 slides—such a waste of time and energy!) These slides always received approval, but only very rarely did anyone verify how they were implemented in the operation.
All PRCs go through basic and advanced training, and most of the partnered PRCs have finished these courses. After completing both levels of training, a PRC should be able to plan and conduct operations independently. Nevertheless, PRC leaders are not involved in the operation planning process, and even worse, they are notified of an operation only a day or even a few hours prior to the mission. This practice does not support the operational experiment of preparing PRCs to operate independently when ISAF SOF withdraws. To make matters worse, the SOTF camps are not located near the units they partner with, a situation that does nothing to support the training mission. Physical distance makes it even harder to involve the PRCs in operational planning and execution, especially if SOTFs are reluctant to do so in the first place.
Limited Intel Sharing
Operational security is always the largest issue in an uncertain environment. Speaking from personal experience, I have never seen any PRC member involved in the intelligence process on a tactical level. Again, I am aware of how difficult it can be to manage sensitive information while working with indigenous forces, but we also have to consider the fact that without a common intelligence picture and operational capability, the final result will be edentate.
Inadequate Resources for PRC Basic Training
The basic training for PRC members takes place at the Special Police Training Center in Maidan Wardak province. The main instruction is given by a civilian company, but SOTFs are expected to provide assistant instructors. The number of these assistant instructors depends on how many trainees the SOTFs send from their partnered PRCs. This has always been a serious problem, however, because none of the SOTFs is willing to send its operators to assist with this course, claiming that the operators are overloaded with other tasks. There should not be other tasks while conducting military assistance. The most important thing these task forces should be doing is to provide the PRCs with appropriate training from the beginning, so that when the SOTF's partnered unit returns from the training center, it is well positioned to start advanced training or participate in operations suited to its skills.
A Focus on High-Tech Systems
The members of the coalition are using advanced technology to eliminate our opponents. A $1 million rocket hits a house where the enemy is hidden, soldiers use satellite-based communications systems, operations are drone dependent (CONOPs are not usually approved unless higher command has an eye on the target and is in control of the mission), and armored vehicles can resist a direct hit from rocket-propelled grenades with no significant damage. These are all great assets to protect our operators, but we also have to keep in mind that once we leave our partnered units alone, they will have only AK-47s and light-skinned vehicles. No surprise: our opponents also have these assets. Considering that the last decade of fighting did not bring resounding success to the coalition in the struggle against our opponents, even though we applied tremendous amounts of high-tech equipment, it is advisable to question whether we have trained the PRC in the right tactics, or whether we wanted to prove something else.
These are just a few observations supporting the idea that SOTFs are biased toward direct action. Many of the SOTF units that I met were more excited to kill or capture enemies of much lesser importance, and mark some additional scratches on their weapons, than focus on their PRCs. This is wasted energy, since there are always more enemies to replace the ones who are killed. Unfortunately, for these units, the glory still comes from how many Afghans they have killed, not from how many they have taught to kill. This is where, I think, the strategic purpose of SOF in Afghanistan is misunderstood. There are no perfect solutions. The Afghans, however, are fighters just like us; they fight in their homeland for their country against their kind. We have to build trust through such measures as sharing co-located camps, so we can involve them more deeply in a process that should ultimately become theirs.
About the Author(s): Lieutenant Colonel Gabor Santa is a member of the 34th Special Forces Battalion, Hungarian Army. In Iraq in 2007, he was the assistant team leader of the Hungarian Military Assistant and Liaison team, NTM-I. Two of his three deployments to Afghanistan were as a member of the Hungarian SOF: in 2008, LTC Santa was a partnering officer in the International Security Assistance Force SOF Headquarters, and in 2012, he served as the Hungarian SOF Special Operations Task Unit liaison officer. He is currently studying at NPS.