When Mark Milley first led a US training mission 14 years ago, he was ordered to school an Afghan unit on Soviet-era weapons at a military installation that was little more than dirty ground. Most of the recruits didn’t have bank accounts to cash their paychecks, and colleagues remember that Milley had to haggle with Afghan contractors just to get American troops fed.
“We went into a parking lot behind a warehouse, we looked around, and we said, ‘This looks like a pretty good place to establish a base camp,’” Milley recalled in a 2007 interview. “And there was nothing but trash, but that was what we did.”
The first Security Force Assistance Brigade, a Milley-led invention to pick US military trainers from the regular Army instead of the elite Special Forces, wrapped up its first Afghan deployment in the fall. Now, as President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley will take the top job in the military with a chance to expand his experiment to North Africa and the Middle East, where the US Army is focusing on training instead of combat missions to fight terrorism.
“Where we go to do work is dependent on where we need to grow partner capacity,” then-Brig. Gen. Brian Mennes, who led the development of the Security Force Assistance Brigades, said at a Washington Institute event in March. “So right now, the emphasis is on the Middle East.” A US military official confirmed that the next deployments are likely to be beyond Afghanistan.
The concept could help relieve US Special Forces units fighting in the Middle East that have sustained a relentless operational tempo since the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, US Special Forces have had a mixed track record standing up foreign troops in the region.
In Syria, the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have succeeded in dismantling much of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in the war-torn country, even as the Arab-Kurdish force remains beset with threats from Turkey. Meanwhile in Yemen, US-trained units mostly dissolved after the Iran-backed Houthis took over the nation’s capital in 2015. Some of the American-backed fighters are now fighting under the command of the nephew of slain former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the Red Sea coast, a former US official told Al-Monitor.
Milley has a long track record of deploying to Middle East warzones, leading the multinational observer force in Egypt’s Sinai desert and becoming an early adopter of counterinsurgency tactics championed by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. As a colonel serving in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Milley’s 2nd brigade of the 10th Mountain Division helped rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and protect voters going to the polls in 2004.
“He has seen the tactical challenge of working with partner forces that are in very nascent stages of development. He’s seen the whole range of developmental challenges,” said David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. “Just teaching people to shoot straight is not good enough.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed Milley to accelerate the Security Force Assistance Brigades last year after seeing “an intimate partner relationship” between US and Iraqi units on the ground in the battle of Mosul, said Mennes, now a two-star Army general.
But the new training units had to shift their objectives as violence surged in Afghanistan earlier this year, raising concerns that the new units could come under fire in the Middle East. In March, several of the new US teams were re-deployed from their Afghan training missions to defend Kabul, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction wrote in a report earlier this year.
“The first one was going to be a little rocky,” said Jim Dubik, a retired lieutenant general who once led US military training in Iraq. “At the tactical level they are helpful and continue to be helpful.”
Milley’s elevation comes as there’s more demand for the advisory brigades to relieve combat units in Africa. Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, the US Army’s Africa chief, told Army Times in October he would welcome an Africa-based unit, and Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., asked the Army to explore the idea in an April letter. The idea is to free up brigade combat teams, the Army’s building block, for potential battles with China and Russia.
But the service’s requirements for a heavier footprint when it comes to basing, supplying and protecting conventional US troops might make those plans unrealistic, retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc told Al-Monitor. “I found in Africa that the army policy is that conventional forces can’t live with their partners,” said Bolduc, the former commander of US Special Forces on the continent. “You’ve got to set up everything for them.”
Yet Milley’s focus may be drifting away from the region, even as a second training brigade is expected to be deployed early next year. As Army chief of staff, Milley has pushed the land service to refocus on building new long-range missiles and armored vehicles to handle rising threats from China and Russia, even as military officials raised concerns about a dwindling US presence in the Middle East. In August, US Central Command submitted a report to the Joint Staff to “Recalibrate Middle East Presence,” which will inform next year’s budget, according to congressional testimony. CENTCOM “faces increased risk resulting from reduced posture and presence” as the Middle East deals with sectarianism and cross-border conflict, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, tapped to lead the command, wrote to Congress earlier this month.
For Jason Dempsey, a retired US Army infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the brigades may be too little, too late to help in a war on terror that’s been going on for 17 years.
“Hats off to Milley for doing this,” he said. “[But] it’s kind of like the firemen showing up to your house three hours after it’s burned.”
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