Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Lessons Learned Report

July 2019

Divided Responsibility: Lessons From U.S. Security Sector
Assistance Efforts in Afghanistan


U.S. Army photo by Tyrone Walker

This report examines the patchwork of security sector assistance programs undertaken by dozens of U.S. entities and international partners to develop the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), Ministry of Defense (MOD), and Ministry of Interior (MOI) since 2001.

After 17 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and security-related U.S. appropriations totaling $83.3 billion, there is not one person, agency, country, or military service that has had sole responsibility for overseeing security sector assistance (SSA). Instead, the responsibility was divided among multiple U.S. and international entities. This report examines how these divides had unintended consequences and created challenges to the effectiveness of the mission, as well as some benefits.

Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who heads Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, briefs reporters Oct. 19 at the Pentagon on operations conducted in support of the recent Afghan elections.
Photo by Robert D. Ward

Arguably, the greatest flaw in our 21st-century approach to [counterinsurgency] is our inability to marshal and fuse efforts from all the elements of national power into a unified whole. This failure has resulted in an approach akin to punching an adversary with five outstretched fingers rather than one powerful closed fist.

Lt. Gen. David Barno

While the dual-hatted U.S.-NATO commander is largely responsible for reconstructing the ANDSF, MOD, and MOI, the commander has no direct authority over civilians operating within embassies, the European Union, and other international organizations. Moreover, the commander does not have absolute authority to dictate the methods and activities NATO countries use to train and advise the ANDSF in different parts of Afghanistan. This created asymmetries in ANDSF development and impeded the standardization of security sector assistance programs.

This report highlights how the unity of command and effort was strained because no single U.S. executive branch department or military service had full ownership of key components of the mission, responsibility for assessing progress toward meeting U.S. strategic objectives, or accountability for vetting and deploying experts. Within the NATO-led coalition, the United States implemented a patchwork of SSA activities and programs involving dozens of U.S. government entities and international partner nations.

The lack of institutional focus on developing a cadre of SSA professionals and the short-term nature of deployments created serious staffing challenges. For most of the conflict, the United States and NATO deployed individual advisors and assigned them to frequently shifting and temporary command structures. Most of these advisors came from backgrounds unrelated to advising foreign security forces, were underprepared for their tours of duty, and had short deployments with limited opportunity to establish long-term rapport with their Afghan counterparts or take ownership of multi-year SSA programs.

Field Advising

ISAF Joint Command photo by Eliezer Gabriel

The U.S. military’s approach to field advising in Afghanistan has gone through four iterations: Embedded Training Teams (ETT), Security Force Assistance Teams (SFAT), Security Force Assistance Advisor Teams (SFAAT), and Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB).

Despite these efforts, the U.S. military continues to struggle with staffing units, providing tailored predeployment training, and retaining personnel long enough to maintain expertise and long-term relationships with ANDSF partners. Predeployment training initially focused on combat, rather than advisor-specific skills, and still lacks sufficient theater-specific training focused on the host nation's security institutions, systems, processes, and weapons.

Chaplain (Capt.) David Haltom, 732nd Air Expeditionary Group, provides spiritual guidance to a Joint Expeditionary Tasked Airman in a combat zone. As one of the only ‘combat’ chapel teams, Chaplain Haltom and Staff Sgt. Porscha Howard, the chapel team for the 732nd AEG, provide chapel support to Joint Expeditionary Tasked Airmen, who are filling Army positions in unique locations.
U.S. Air Force courtesy photo

Key Findings

Marines with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, hike toward Range 101 to conduct a battle sight zero exercise at Range 101 on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Aug. 27, 2011. The Marines of 3/3 traveled from Hawaii to California last week to begin the 35-day Enhanced Mojave Viper training exercise. While 3/3's prior pre-deployment training in Hawaii focused on the battalion internally, EMV will allow them to combine with supporting arms, aviation and logistics units, and train to fight as a Marine Air Ground Task Force. This exercise will be their final evaluation before deploying to Afghanistan's Helmand province in support of Operation Enduring Freedom this fall.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Reece Lodder


Ministerial Advising

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Dustin D. March

SIGAR found that the ministerial advising effort in Afghanistan suffered from a lack of ownership. This resulted in the deployment of individual advisors from multiple DOD agencies and military services, each with varying levels of experience and training, all of whom were ultimately assigned to a temporary command structure.

The U.S. approach to developing institutional capacity within the ministries was often not based on an expert-designed plan centered on an initial assessment of Afghanistan’s long-term needs. Instead, plans routinely changed in reaction to immediate tasks and requirements. In-country, interagency coordination was ad hoc and responsibility for ministerial advising and field advising was divided between different chains of command.

One U.S. general officer described a constant feeling of “turning the corner now” conveyed by leadership in Afghanistan, creating the sense that time constraints prevented any long-term commitment to partnering.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Ross Jr., for instance, has noted stories about U.S. military advisors trying to develop a budgeting system for the Afghan MOD based on Pentagon budgeting systems. Ross remarked on the absurdity of this idea, describing it as:

[S]eeking to adapt an incredibly complex system designed to balance requirements of numerous components and agencies across over a half trillion dollars to meet the needs of a ministry that had a budget the size of an average big-city school district in the United States.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Ross Jr.
Gunnery Sgt. Todd Leahey, the 81mm mortar platoon sergeant for Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, motions toward impacting rounds while supporting Kilo Company, 3/3, during Exercise Clear, Hold, Build 2 on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Sept. 16. The battalion’s line companies — India, Kilo and Lima — each arrived by helicopters or tracked vehicles to clear enemy activity from the village, establish security and re-build rapport with local nationals. During the Enhanced Mojave Viper training exercise here, the Marines of “America’s Battalion” are training to kill enemy fighters by practicing counterinsurgency operations. Next month, they’ll deploy to Afghanistan’s Helmand province to support Operation Enduring Freedom.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Reece Lodder

Key Findings

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Matthew Perry, right, Radio Operator Maintainer And Driver, 82nd Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron, and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Darryl Honick, left, Joint Fire Observer, 3rd Battalion, 159th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, walk back to the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected, All-Terrain Vehicle after supporting Operation Spartan Shield on Sept. 11, 2012, Southwest Asia. ROMADs are considered Joint Terminal Attack Controllers in training and help coordinate and control attack air assets, surface-to-surface and unmanned aerial vehicles from all branches of the U.S. and Multi-National Military. Perry hometown is Front Royal, Va. and Honick hometown is Pittsburgh, Pa.
U.S. Air Force photo by Jonathan Snyder


Equipping the Force

U.S. Air Forces photo by Andy M. Kin

Since 2002, the United States has spent over $18 billion to equip the ANDSF—representing the second-largest expenditure of all Afghanistan Security Forces Fund allocations.

In 2018, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that between 2003 and 2016, the United States provided the ANDSF with:

600,000 weapons, such as pistols, rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers;
76,000 vehicles, such as trucks, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV), and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles;
163,000 tactical and non-tactical radios, such as handheld radios and base stations;
30,000 items for detecting and disposing explosives, such as mine detectors;
16,000 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, such as night vision devices and surveillance drones; and
more than 200 aircraft, such as helicopters, light attack aircraft, and cargo airplanes
U.S. Army photo by Tyrone Walker

Source: GAO, Afghanistan Security: Some Improvements Reported in Afghan Forces’ Capabilities, but Actions Needed to Enhance DOD Oversight of U.S.-Purchased Equipment, GAO-19-116, October 2018, p. 6.

SIGAR found that U.S. decision-making concerning the provision of military equipment and training has proven shortsighted. The United States has provided equipment to the ANDSF without adequate training and sustainment, and provided equipment that did not meet ANDSF identified needs.

In order to equip the ANDSF, the United States employed a pseudo Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process under which foreign military sales are (1) funded with U.S. government appropriations rather than partner-nation funding and (2) initiated by the United States without a formal request from the partner nation. DOD began using this process to acquire equipment for partner nations like Afghanistan, which lacked financial resources and the capability to define their own requirements.

Further, the frequent turnover of U.S. personnel meant that any long-term, comprehensive plans for equipping the ANDSF existed only on paper. That, combined with unclear roles and responsibilities across relevant organizations, a lack of technical expertise and experience among personnel involved in equipping decisions, and insufficient oversight over ASFF expenditures, has contributed to a situation in which the ANDSF is still unable to provide needed security or defeat the Taliban.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, former commander of NTM-A/CSTC-A, likened looking at ANDSF equipping decisions over the years to:

[A] cross section of sedimentary rock [with] each year’s U.S. budget priorities and ‘good ideas’ layered across the older ones.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger
Two Royal air force CH-47 Chinooks take off from Task Force Helmand headquarters in Lashkar Gah district, Helmand province, Sept. 22. [2011]
U.S. Marines photo by Jonathan Chandler

Key Findings

A Mil MI-8 helicopter taxis on the runway at sunrise at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Oct. 23. The Russian-built MI-8 is in use in over 50 countries around the globe.
U.S. Marines photo by Jonathan Chandler


U.S.-Based Training

U.S. Air Force photo by Rachel Martinez

Since 2003, the United States has trained over 3,000 military and civilian members of the ANDSF at U.S. installations, at a cost of approximately $112.6 million, as a means of professionalizing the force and fostering future international cooperation.

But because DOD and State face challenges tracking alumni of U.S. training programs, they struggle to evaluate the effectiveness of U.S.-based training programs. While one of the primary goals of such programs is to build professional relationships with foreign military officers that will last as former students rise through the ranks, only 13 of the thousands of ANDSF students trained in the United States have risen to “positions of prominence.”

While U.S.-based training programs were successful in professionalizing the ANDSF, Afghan military students absconded from training at a higher rate than students from any other country, putting the sustainability of U.S.-based training programs at risk. DOD plans to end U.S.-based aviation training on December 31, 2020.

SIGAR photo

Key Findings

SIGAR photo


By, With, and Through NATO

U.S. Navy photo by David Quillen

In 2003, as the United States became preoccupied with Iraq, it turned to NATO to assume responsibility in Afghanistan. In 2003, NATO assumed command of the UN-authorized International Security Assistance Force, the mission responsible for assisting the Afghan government with security in and around Kabul. It would not be until 2009 that the United States refocused its attention and dramatically increased its involvement in Afghanistan. From this point forward, the United States worked through NATO to optimize international involvement in its overarching security objectives in Afghanistan, including reconstructing the ANDSF.

At times, NATO’s involvement complicated operations, strained unity of command, and required the United States to devote additional resources to support allies and partners. Restrictions, or national caveats, placed by NATO members on how and where their forces could be used impeded unity of effort.

In describing the complexity caused by caveats NATO nation’s put on their troops, one lieutenant colonel told the Combat Studies Institute:

[T]he commander would have to look down this matrix and say, ‘Okay, these guys can do something, but these guys can’t. These guys can fly over and observe. These guys can actually shoot at them.’ This really constrained the commander quite a bit.

Caveats do have benefits – without them, some NATO members would be unable to participate in NATO operation because domestic policies or political sensitivities would make them unable to approve of all NATO operational plans.

While the United States enabled many NATO nations’ involvement, several NATO nations provided unique capabilities that the U.S. government used to fill voids in security sector assistance effort. In most cases, the United States sought to leverage NATO nations with expertise on Soviet-style aircraft and weapons and with experience in police advising.

Afghan National Army commandos patrol Deh Chopan district, Zabul province, Afghanistan, Oct. 25, 2011. The commandos, partnered with coalition special operations forces, conducted clearing operations in the district to disrupt insurgent safe havens and promote security in the area.
U.S. Army photo by Christian Palermo

Key Findings

Commandos and coalition special operations forces prepare to be inserted near an objective via MI-17 helicopters during a clearing operation June 2 in Kajaki village, Afghanistan. The operation was aimed at destabilizing insurgent drug trade and resulted in more than $9.5 million in black tar opium being destroyed.
U.S. DOD photo by Ryan Whitney


Key Report Findings

U.S. Air Force photo by Jonathan Snyder


U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kathleen M. Kochert


U.S. Air Force courtesy photo