10/16/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mentoring the Afghan Forces: The Advisor Training Group

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

A stable country needs a competent army and police to protect its citizens, and in Afghanistan the army and police are being mentored by Marines trained specifically for the task by the Advisor Training Group.

It's not a question of foreign policy being "tough enough," as American election politics is so cavalierly phrased; it's how the American military most effectively addresses a threat. While scenes of raw firepower play well on television, quietly training a third-world military to take over defense of its country brings American troops home while leaving that country in better shape for our assistance.

"The mindset of an advisor needs to be different than that of a typical Marine hard-charger," explained Colonel William Gillespie. "It's like the difference between a recruiter and a drill instructor, plus you've got to take into account the 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 advisor group Marines who mentor the Afghan forces, including the army (ANA) and police (ANP). A typical advisor team consists of 14-32 Marines and sailors. Many have prior combat experience.

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

Realistic Training a Necessity:

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 from used 20' and 40' shipping containers, the buildings replicate jails, hospitals, bazaars and even multiple-story hotels complete with furniture. Graveyards, Afghan women and bazaaris add to the ambiance.

With the recent spate of "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 "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 successfully mentoring and advising the ANSF. "It's not just how to teach tactics," Captain 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 heads 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 completes a 25-day 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 Mission Rehearsal Exercise is a week-long exercise where each team deals with multiple scenarios.

"We plan the attacks carefully," Sergeant Philip Lubin explained, "We conduct 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. Lubin and McAllister plan 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 in order to provide the realistic training the Marines need to mentor successfully while under pressure.

During the MRX, the Marines are observed and graded in how they interact and advise their Afghan counterparts during high-stress exercises ranging from complex ambushes, IED strikes, detainee processing, morale and discipline and medivacs. It's not about the Marine keeping his composure during a suicide attack, but learning to teach his Afghan counterpart how to keep his.

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

In a recent exercise, a joint Marine-Afghan Army patrol suffered notional multiple wounded from a blank-IED. 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 into the fight, but a referee suddenly declared the up-gunner wounded and the vehicle pulled back. 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 continued 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 to take command, but rather to 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."