Staff Sgt. Alejandro Santiago speaks with a member of the Afghan Uniformed Police. Advising became an important piece of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Sgt. Michael Cifuentes/Marine Corps)
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The training group that prepped thousands of Marines to serve as advisers in Iraq and Afghanistan has been deactivated. The move marks the end of rotational deployments for the teams that carried out vital counterinsurgency missions throughout the two wars.
The Advisor Training Group, based at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, closed June 18 after a ceremony aboard the base. It was the end of a seven-year mission to train small teams of Marines tasked with mentoring foreign militaries, policemen and border personnel.
With major combat operations in both countries complete, and mentoring missions drawing to a close, the shuttering of the unit highlights the shift in responsibility to the local forces and agencies. Col. Jeffrey Kenney, director of the ATG, said the group also landed on the chopping block due to budgetary restrictions.
“The Marine Corps is going down in numbers and the adviser mission is going away,” Kenney told Marine Corps Times. “It’s regretful for me because I think this is a mission that’s going to be relevant for a long time.”
As President Obama expands the U.S. advisory role in Iraq, and remains firm on keeping advisers in Afghanistan past 2014, Kenney said the mission will have relevance for years to come. But without knowing specifically in what arena Marines are going to be operating beyond those two countries, he said it’s difficult to provide advisers with the cultural savvy they need to conduct their missions successfully.
The training for any adviser teams that are called on to deploy in the future will likely be held at the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group in Virginia, Kenney said. They have many of the same capabilities the ATG had, but the experience and pace of operations won’t be quite as robust, he said.
Since it was stood up in 2007, the ATG trained 424 adviser teams, comprising more than 7,700 Marines. While the advising mission was one that Kenney said was foisted upon the Marine Corps, it’s also historic in its relation to gaining stability and standing up legitimate governance during the wars.
“It was necessary because in order for us to call the counterinsurgency there in Afghanistan a win, we had to have our friends in the host nation actually take the reins and be effective,” he said. “The only way to really do that was through advisers, mentors and liaisons.”
Applying lessons learned
As the Marine Corps slogged through dual protracted conflicts, it became clear that failure and success in each endeavor would depend in large part on cultural comprehension.
The ATG helped the Corps develop capabilities specific to the needs of the small teams of Marines responsible for training foreign forces, said Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, commanding general of Training and Education Command. It allowed TECOM to ensure it was sending Marines who were equipped to handle the missions and challenges ahead of them, he said.
The Marines who served on adviser teams in Iraq and Afghanistan came from a variety of military occupational specialties, Kenney said. That diversity covered key Afghan deficiencies in areas like logistics and communications.
Predeployment training for adviser teams took about four months. The first two months were spent near the Marines’ home stations, where they worked on basic adviser training, language skills and foreign weapons familiarization, said Lt. Col. Thomas Chalkley, the ATG’s deputy director. From there, they went to the ATG for 25 training days, he said, where they spent the next few weeks refining skills on relationship building, negotiation and mitigating insider threats.
The ATG weaved in training like defensive marksmanship in an effort to remain firmly in tune with emerging security trends overseas. The training needed to mimic what Marines could realistically expect, which is why they provided a completely immersive experience, Kenney said. Upon arriving at Twentynine Palms, students would operate at mock police stations or outposts surrounded by up to 300 well-trained role players.
“These role players went through an academy that taught them how to actually play their part,” Kenney said. “If the advisers did something good, then the role players would respond accordingly. And when they did something bad, they did too, because the best way to learn is to actually have the reaction of the role players be as realistic as possible.”
Kenney said the role players were so effective that it would be difficult to tell the difference between the actor who played a commander and the actual commander in Afghanistan. Losing those experienced role players to new actors at a smaller training facility will make the experience less realistic, he said . Or they could go back to having Marines step in to play Afghans or other nationals.
“[Marine role players] always devolved into something between the extras in ‘Mad Max’ and Kent State protesters,” Kenney said. “It wasn’t really that realistic, but it was the best they could do.”
Making a combat generation
Before Kenney headed up the ATG, he spent time training there in preparation for his first deployment to Afghanistan as an adviser in 2009.
Some of the other Marines on his adviser team included then-Cpl. Dakota Meyer, then-1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo and then-Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez. The three would later earn valor awards for the infamous Battle of Ganjgal, a 2009 firefight in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Chalkley said that team’s performance in Afghanistan was a prime example of the great things Marine adviser teams were capable of accomplishing.
“I think what defined the decade as far as the Marine combat adviser mission, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, was that it was really the one single place where the Marine Corps really treated every Marine as a rifleman,” Chalkley said. “You have the broad experience of Marines from various [military occupation specialties] ... but you put them in a small adviser team of anywhere from 12 to 20 Marines. Everyone has to go out on patrol; everybody is engaged in ground combat operations.”
Even though some of the Marines who lost their lives during the Battle of Ganjgal worked in administrative MOSs, Kenney said they were excellent advisers and fierce combat Marines. Putting Marines from all of the various MOS communities on adviser missions filled today’s Corps with proven combat leaders, Chalkley said.
“Now you’ve got a generation of Marines,from a broad spectrum of MOSs, who probably would never have been in direct combat with the enemy if they were with, say, their own logistics unit,” Chalkley said.
In order to carry out the adviser mission successfully, they needed mature Marines on the teams, Kenney said. They had to accept the blame from the local forces when something went wrong and shift credit to those they advised when something went right. And help from larger forces was often far away, so the teams had to operate independently.
Ultimately, they had to boost the confidence of the Iraqis and Afghans they were readying to stand on their own, he said.
Preserving the capabilities
If Obama decides to send Marine adviser teams to Afghanistan after operations there end in coming months, Murray said the Corps will ensure the teams get the proper training they need to accomplish whatever mission they’re given.
When the ATG was closed, the Corps brought in several experts from Rand Corporation, the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance and the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, Kenney said. That way, if the Marine Corps needs to recreate an ATG-like mission in the future, they can do so quickly by taking into account what they spent years creating at Twentynine Palms, he said.
Murray said the Corps will also continue to leverage other cultural tools they’ve put into place over the past few years. That includes the Regional, Culture and Language Familiarization program required of every new lieutenant and sergeant. Those Marines are assigned a region of the world, its culture and a corresponding language to study, with new requirements added whenever they reach a new rank. The thought is that wherever Marines deploy in the future, they’ll have members of the unit aware of cultural norms or sensitivities they might encounter.
As the Corps looks to keep deploying Marine advisers around the world, the service will keep the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group operating, Murray said. At the schoolhouse there, Marines spend weeks training with foreign area officers and other experts who can teach them more about the part of the world in which they’ll be operating.
“Senior leadership in the Marine Corps has realized that this is a requirement we’ll have for many, many years to come,” he said.
Closing the ATG was difficult for Kenney and Chalkley, who said they grew fond of the mission and cared deeply about what they taught Marines. Murray said the Marine Corps will stay committed to keeping elements of what was carried out at the ATG alive as Marines carry out missions outside the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s just essential to what we do and what we think we’ll do for decades to come,” Murray said.