Image courtesy of Flikr user US Army. Image courtesy of Flikr user US Army.

By First Lieutenant David Kearns

As the combat mission in Afghanistan winds down in favor of a strictly advisory role, the Coalition’s success and the long-term security for the struggling nation will depend heavily on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). While ISAF Forces have been working with and fighting alongside ANSF for years now, the fruits of our labor will be most apparent as we increasingly take a backseat and allow the Afghans to plan, execute, and lead their own missions. Time is short, and while we may not be able to solve all of the Country’s problems, one realm that we can still positively affect is the training and preparation of the Afghan Soldiers and Police.

I was deployed in support of OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM XI-XII with a Combat Engineer Company task organized as a Rifle Company. During our 11 month deployment we operated in multiple districts throughout Wardak and Ghazni Provinces. Throughout this time we were partnered with two separate Afghan National Army (ANA) Companies and one Kandak (Battalion), each with a different personality, strengths, and weaknesses. One of our primary goals was to train these ANA and help them become effective and successful. We were never under any illusion that we could turn these Afghan Soldiers into a fully trained and professional Army in 11 months, however, it was driven from our Company Command Team down to us, that investing in our Afghan Partners would be the most effective and enduring thing we could do. It would be our legacy. The way I viewed it, and what I tried to communicate to the leaders and Soldiers in my Platoon, was “We don’t have enough time to make them perfect, but we can teach them enough that they live long enough to learn everything else they need to know.” It may not be the most eloquent way to put it, but I believed, and still believe, that it was a realistic and achievable goal.  By the end of our tour and all the lessons learned that came from it, our Company was successful in training and mentoring a very successful Kandak. There are four principals that embody what made us successful. They are; understand, train, empower, and trust.  

Understand. Afghanistan is one of the most ethnically heterogeneous and culturally complex nations on the Planet. The Country is home to Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajik, Hazaras, Nuristanis, and a host of other major and minor ethnic groups. Beyond that it is divided along tribal, linguistic, and geographical lines. Something as simple as how one village processes its cheese versus another is enough to create a cultural divide. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ANSF, where all of these groups are thrust together in an attempt to create a cohesive fighting unit.

The first step to building an effective ANSF unit is to gain an understanding and appreciation for their culture. Without this, advisors can never fully reach them and will have limited success in gaining their full cooperation. There are some very fundamental differences between western culture and the various cultures of Afghanistan and some of these differences may not be reconcilable. Regardless, it is important to understand their thought processes, norms, and taboos.

An example of this is a situation my Platoon and I encountered during several missions in Ghazni. Our Company was paired with an ANA Service and Support Kandak, with each platoon assigned to one ANA Company. Despite their identification as a Service and Support Kandak, we were tasked with partnering with them and conducting Infantry missions throughout three districts in Ghazni. My platoon was partnered with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) which was, by far, the least proficient of the three. They were less trained, less motivated, and had more leadership difficulties than their sister Companies (a Recon and an Engineer Company). After about a month of conducting combined Patrols with little success, the Platoon leadership and I sat down with the ANA and discussed our friction points. One of their chief concerns came down to a cultural difference between us, one that anyone who has conducted combat operations with Afghans has likely encountered. We believed in denying the enemy any opportunity to operate freely. To disrupt their operations we would frequently conduct searches of Qalats (houses) and vehicles. While we were sensitive towards women, we still insisted that the ANA search every room and vehicle. The ANA were stubborn about this and never wanted to conduct searches when women were around. We knew that the Anti-Coalition fighters were using this to their advantage, and we felt that the ANA’s stance was foolish and naive. They thought that we were ignoring their cultural norms and, therefore, being disrespectful. Ultimately we found a compromise that was in line with their cultural norms but took into account our security concerns. It involved allowing the ANA and male Local Nationals the opportunity to hide or move females prior to any home or vehicle searches. In addition, we tried to minimize or avoid unnecessary incursions of American Soldiers into the Afghan homes. This worked in our favor because it put the ANA in the position to take charge and properly executed searches and clearances. It also showed our partners that we respected the Afghan culture. Once we attempted to understand and view things through their cultural lens, the HHC began to improve. Is it possible, that this change in how we conducted operations allowed a few insurgents to slip through our grasps? Yes. Was it worth it to see our ANA Partners improve to the point of conducting unilateral operations? Absolutely.

If your Afghan partners do not believe you are making any attempt to understand them, their society, or their culture, they will not be receptive to your efforts to teach them. To be successful you have to make the effort to learn about them and take their cultural norms into account with every action.

Train. The next principle that our Company applied in our partnership with the ANA was training. This is something that I’m sure most, if not all, ISAF forces do to some extent with their ANSF partners. It is also relatively straight forward. Taking the time both on and off mission to teach and mentor the Afghan Forces is vital to success. Teach them tactics and battle drills. Teach them land navigation. Set up a range and teach them to properly use their weapon systems, from PMI to advanced techniques such as proper fire distribution. Our Company had dedicated training times throughout the week where each platoon would get together with its respective ANA Company and work on various skills. We also had the luxury of having a single large mountain next to our COP that made for a great firing range. At first the ANA HHC was uncommitted and unmotivated. Sometimes they wouldn’t show up for training at all and we were forced to postpone training in order to coordinate with the leadership and ensure we were making the most of our training opportunities. Despite this, once we got them engaged in the training and started working on more advanced techniques such as land navigation and troop leading procedures, we began to maximize the effects of the training, and it showed on the battlefield. It will require some adaptation in order to ensure that the ANSF fully understand and appreciate the instruction. It also may not be the most desirable way to spend valuable downtime during a high operations tempo. Do it anyway, because it is absolutely crucial to future success.

Empower. This is one of the most difficult principles to apply, but it is also one of the most important. Empowering the ANSF is the only way to ensure that they can operate indepedently. When my Platoon and I began working with the ANA, we dictated the majority of each mission. We told them when, where, and why. At the time this was necessary, but the end state should be for them to drive mission sets. After ample time, training, and mutual understanding, we began to transfer control to the Afghan Forces. It was a gradual transition. We started by explaining our actions and asking for their input during mission planning. We would give them some say in how we executed, but it was still primarily our decision. As the ANA continued to improve we ceded more and more control to them until, by the end of our tour, they were in charge of mission planning and execution, and we were reduced to a strictly advisory role. During this same time period, our Company Headquarters Section worked with the Kandak to build a functioning Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and taught them how to operate it. Before long they were coordinating both joint and unilateral operations from that TOC, with only a small advisory team from our Company. To us, the presence of this TOC and the successful unilateral missions the Kandak was executing was the pinnacle of our deployment, and validated our approach to partnership with the ANSF.  If empowered with the knowledge and the opportunity to be successful, the ANSF, like most Coalition Personnel, will thrive. More importantly, any progress made will be theirs, and they will work that much harder to keep it. Giving the ANSF the ability to plan, execute, and lead will help them grow and force them to take responsibility for their Nation’s security and future.


Trust. The foundation for any successful partnership is trust. This holds true for the relationship between the ANSF and their advisors. This has become increasingly difficult as the threat of insider attacks and the exploitation of this by insurgents threatens to drive to drive a wedge between the Afghans and Coalition Forces. It will be critical in the future years for both sides to overcome this. It will require many hours of drinking chai, eating food, and sharing stories. The leaders in my Company spent every day engaging with our allies and building that relationship. When we met, we did not only discuss business. We would sit for hours eating food, drinking tea, and learning about each other. Topics of discussion ranged from family, sports, home towns, etc. This time spent making “small talk” created the foundation of trust that served us well on every patrol. Once we began to see ourselves as one complete team and not two separate elements, we became much more effective. It is imperative that every Advisor takes the time to build a trusting relationship with their ANSF counterparts. Without trust, neither the Coalition efforts nor the ANSF will reach their full potential, and the mission in Afghanistan will suffer.

Admittedly, these four principals do not fully address the complexities of working with the Afghan People and the ANSF; however if applied properly, they can serve to enhance Coalition Forces’ ability to forge capable and motivated Security Forces in Afghanistan. With the time we have left, we will never be able to fix every problem that plagues Afghanistan. One very real positive effect we can have is on the ANSF. This should be a priority for the future Coalition Advisors that deploy to Afghanistan. To that end, I hope that some of the lessons I have learned during my time over there will help future Advisors forge a more effective partnership with the ANSF, and will lead to a better and more secure future for Afghanistan.