About 15 years ago, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, was a brigade commander in the 10th Mountain Division and was tasked to do an advisory mission in Afghanistan.
The job was to advise and assist Afghan troops.
“My brigade was all broke apart to do that,” Milley said. “I thought at that time ... ‘there has got to be a better way of doing this. There has got to be a more professional way.’ We were ad hoc. We were pulling it out of our butts, so to speak.”
Thursday afternoon Milley, the Army’s top general, launched that better way when he activated a new unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade during a ceremony at Fort Benning.
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The brigade, which went from concept to reality in less than nine months, will waste no time getting to work. After spending the better part of January at Fort Polk, La., training, the unit will begin to deploy to Afghanistan next week.
“Today is not just any routine activation ceremony,” Milley said. “Today’s ceremony, in my mind, begins a new approach for the Army. A new asset for a critical mission that the U.S. Army has had for many, many years.”
When he was tasked as a brigade commander to do an advisory mission, Milley made it work, but he never forgot the lesson learned.
“At that time I was a colonel and I had no power,” Milley said. “As luck would have it, I still have no power, but I became the chief of staff of the Army. I remembered what I thought then.”
The 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade — there could be as many as six more established in the future — has about 800 battle-tested soldiers.
One of the key elements of this unit is the experience from the top of the command down through the ranks.
Col. Scott Jackson, who has three degrees from the University of Notre Dame, was selected by Milley to lead this mission. Jackson commanded the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat team from July 2013 until January 2015 when it was inactivated as a result of the Army draw down. Jackson, a 27-year Army veteran was given command of the unit and reported to Fort Benning in May without a single soldier or piece of equipment.
“We have a chance to shape history, shape the Army and achieve some great tactical results,” Jackson said.
And the vast experience of those in his unit is the reason, Jackson said. More than 80 percent of the soldiers have combat experience. The unit is also comprised primarily of carefully selected volunteers. Only about 60 percent of those who wanted into the unit were chosen.
“Our battalion commanders have already commanded, our command sergeants major have already been command sergeants major,” Jackson said. “We don’t need to learn how to do that. All we need to do is learn how to actually advise as a formation.”
At the core of this unit’s mission will be teach the Afghan security force how to conduct successful missions.
“The best analogy I can use is a lot of people can do a lot of things,” Jackson said. “You can be an expert at your task, but to be able to teach that task is whole different set of skills. Our mission as advisers is we are taking those war-fighting skills that we already possess and have mastered and figure out how to teach it. And not only teach it, but teach it to a foreign partner. Not do the job for them, but make them better.”
The unit will, in Milley’s words, be a professional brigade that will laser focus on advising foreign forces.
“The mission of this brigade is to achieve U.S. national security objectives, by, with and through our indigenous security partners,” Milley said. “This brigade’s specific task is to train, advise, assist, enable, assure and accompany those indigenous forces in combat ground operations in order to help them build their confidence and provide them with the necessary access to U.S. and join collation intelligence, firepower and other support when necessary,”
The U.S. Army has had this mission for decades dating back to the post-World War II era. It has been done in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places, Milley said.
“We often treated the mission as peripheral, when in fact it was central,” Milley said. “The ad hoc approach had very mixed results — some good and some not so good. Most critically, the sourcing of a security force mission with the leadership of brigade force combat teams, we had to rip those teams apart, strip them of their leaders. Separate the leaders from their soldiers.”
There is a rule that SFAB soldiers are expected to follow, Jackson said.
“We like to say you have a tool kit, and there’s a tool in it for every problem,” Jackson said. “We tell our leaders, and our leaders implement this, when you have a problem, the first tool you pull out of your tool bag is not a U.S. tool. It’s an Afghan tool. With that mindset, we take our tools, transfer them to our foreign partners and make them use their tool first.”
The until will have a special look from the brown berets to the distinctive unit patch designed to honor the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam.
Milley directed his closing remarks to the troops.
“You are marching into history,” Milley told them. “You will make your own history and you will establish your own legacy. Your knowledge and commitment to this critical mission is extraordinary — and I have seen it firsthand.”