Leveraging Observations of Security Force Assistance in Afghanistan for Global Operations

by Leslie Adrienne Payne, Jan Osburg


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Research Questions

  1. How do operational-level practitioners view their Security Force Assistance missions at this stage of the Afghan campaign?
  2. What suggestions do they have regarding the future of their trade?
  3. What observations and insights from Security Force Assistance efforts in Afghanistan can be applied to future advising efforts in other theaters?

The U.S. Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) requested that the RAND Corporation conduct a study on how to leverage observations from Security Force Assistance (SFA) efforts in Afghanistan for global operations. Researchers interviewed 67 advisors and SFA practitioners at the tactical and operational levels to collect their firsthand insights into SFA. Interviewees included members of security force assistance teams and Special Forces Operational Detachments–Alpha, senior leadership at the brigade level, and AWG Operational Advisors. The enduring nature of most of these challenges suggests that solutions still remain uncertain. Future SFA missions, such as those envisioned for the Army's Regionally Aligned Forces, can benefit from the experience gained from SFA in Afghanistan as captured in this report. These lessons need to be incorporated both at the institutional level and by individual SFA advisors.

Key Findings

Security Force Assistance Practitioners Face Several Interrelated Challenges

  • Foundational or structural challenges lie in how the Army perceives, values, and incentivizes advising compared with how it does so for other missions.
  • Operational challenges arise from the way the Army is conducting Security Force Assistance operations, including how it selects, trains, assesses, and rewards advisors.
  • Advisors must manage the complex motivations and interpersonal dynamics of the advising mission.

Interviews Revealed Insights at Institutional, Operational, and Personal Levels

  • Incentivizing security force assistance will improve the talent pool for future missions.
  • The Army should build on Special Forces practices and training.
  • The U.S. Army's Regionally Aligned Forces must master the difficulties and nuances of relationship building.
  • Advisors must remain security focused.
  • Personality and behavioral dynamics will unequivocally affect security force assistance outcomes.
  • The mission's end state must override an advisor's personal end state.
  • An advisor must maintain mental fortitude.
  • Revamped security force assistance doctrine can function as a mobilizer.


  • Modernize Army advising and combat-related narratives to generate capable and confident advisors.
  • Aggressively leverage the experience and institutional knowledge gained by Special Forces conducting foreign internal defense.
  • Seek out the best advisor candidates.
  • Provide sufficient time for training to ensure quality.
  • Ensure that attention to the mission's end state overrides attention to advisors' personal end states (i.e., advisors' personal goals and objectives).
  • Remain focused on team operations and security during the advising mission.
  • Maintain mental fortitude while advising.
  • Communicate and adhere to existing doctrine.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    The Security Force Assistance Process

  • Chapter Three

    Identifying and Leveraging Key Security Force Assistance Insights

  • Chapter Four

    Sustainability of Security Force Assistance Results: The Development Paradox and Host-Nation Autonomy

  • Chapter Five


Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the RAND Arroyo Center.

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