The National Guard in Afghanistan

I am super proud to be a member of the National Guard. Its contribution and importance in the Global War on Terrorism has often been overlooked. This is my take on that history.


On the morning of September 11, 2001 at 8:30am four airplanes were hijacked over the skies of the American east coast. Within the next hour and half two of the airplanes had slammed into the World Trade Center. Another one had hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into an empty Pennsylvania field after the brave passengers fought with the hijackers for the controls of the airplanes. Within hours of the attacks the cause and inspiration would be known to the world. Al Qaeda, based in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, had decided to wage war on America. At the end of the day on 9/11 the America death toll would be over 3,200 Americans dead.

The American invasion of Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. The Americans went to Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Within six short weeks, by early December, American Special Forces Teams allied with Afghan North Alliance fighters had taken Kabul and defeated the Taliban. By then the leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda had slipped across the border to Pakistan. Over the next decade Americans would stay in Afghanistan attempting to build a strong and democratic nation. The basis for the security and stability would fall on the Afghan National Army (ANA) (West 2011).

Afghan-Pakistan Border

The next year would be an important one in both Afghanistan and America. By December 2001 the U.S. was astonished with the fast speed that the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) allied with local Afghan had defeated the Taliban. After the Soviet experience of a decade long war slugging it out with Mujahedeen tribesman, many of who would become key leaders in the Taliban a few years later, no one in the American leadership thought victory would be that easy.

The Taliban had been defeated with a combination of precision air power and SOF working with indigenous bands of Afghan (some of whom were veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War) who provided local knowledge of the terrain and enemy.  The bulk of the Taliban forces simply melted away and went back across the border. America had faced two failures in the last twenty years in Beirut, Lebanon and Mogadishu, Somalia and did want a heavy concentration of combat forces ambiguous missions. SOF was the answer and would later inspire the same idea of a light footprint for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

American political leaders had started to switch their focus to Iraq.  In March 2002 planning for the biggest offensive of the war was being conducted to destroy Al Qaeda in their mountain fortress in a place called the Shahikot Valley.  Military planners were told that were only allowed to use forces in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to conduct the mission that would be code named Operation Anaconda (Naylor 2005).  The reason for the force cap was that Pentagon had already started looking at preparing for a coming war in Iraq.

The forces cobbled together for the mission was the small forward headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division, one battalion (600 men) from the 10th Mountain Division, two battalions from 101st Airborne Division and a single company of eight Apache helicopters. There were several Special Forces A-Teams with Delta Force Commandos and Navy SEAL Team Six operators all working with several hundred allied Afghan Forces were supposed to be the main effort to trap and kill Al Qaeda fighters.

The biggest indicator of the priority of the mission was the lack of any artillery support.  Artillery is the biggest destroyer on the battlefield and belongs directly to the battlefield commander on the ground who controls fires.  Artillery can fire in any environment and continuously only stopping when they run out of ammunition, targets or equipment failure (Naylor 2005).

By relying on air support for indirect fire the commander directing the battle had to ‘request assistance’ from the Air Force and the ability to support the mission was weather dependent. The U.S. forces going into the Shaikot Vally was the first U.S. Army infantry brigade was going against prepared enemy defenses without the benefit of supported artillery since the invasion of against Japanese Forces on Papua, New Guinea in World War II. Based on the American success in Afghanistan American political leadership considered the war won and had started looking at when and how it could invade an old enemy, Iraq. This would continue to be a trend in America’s ‘forgotten war.’


On December 1, 2002, President Hamid Karzai, issued an announcement establishing the creation of the Afghan National Army (ANA) (Christ 2009). In the beginning great effort was made to make sure the ANA was comprised of Soldiers from all over Afghanistan’s vast ethnic group and was balanced according to the country’s national averages.  Task Force (TF) Phoenix was stood up in April 2003 to mentor and train the ANA.  The first unit tasked with TF Phoenix was the 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, NY. This was the same forces that had fought in Operation Anaconda. They now had to switch from an offensive operation to an advisory role.

The 10th Mountain was a light infantry division designed to close with and destroy the enemies of the United States. The term ‘light’ was a misnomer because a light infantry Soldier carries everything he needs in a heavy rucksack. A single infantryman can be weighed down with over 80 pounds of gear designed to keep him alive and to kill the enemies of his country. The division was not designed or prepared for the advisory mission to the ANA. Once the 10th Mountain Division time was up in Afghanistan and they rotated home the mission to train and mentor the ANA was taken over by units of the National Guard and other members of allied coalition of Afghanistan.

ANA Guard

The American Army Special Forces (SF) has a primary mission to act as instructors to provide other foreign governments military expertise for their own internal development.  This mission is called Foreign Internal Defense (FID). SF FID is focused on training an indigenous force to work with American forces in a by, with, and through construct.  With the major American forces being directed towards an upcoming invasion of Iraq the SF mission of building the volunteer Afghans into the ANA went to the National Guard.

The National Guard

The United States Army National Guard has a unique mission and plays a exceptional role in the security and defense of the United States. Traditionally, the Guard’s role has been both as a state-level security force and a ready reserve component of the U.S. combat power for overseas commitments (Christ 2009). With the Global War on Terrorism that role changed.

In 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union its old empire disintegrated almost overnight.  U.S. government officials looked for ways to reach out to the new democratic nations in the former Soviet Bloc without seeming like they were threatening either Russia or the former Soviet republics that had militaries based on the Soviet model. The government of Latvia made a request to develop a military based on the American National Guard.

General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army General John Shalikashvili, the Commander of the NATO European Command embraced the concept of building a partnership with the small country. Other countries in the Baltic regions including Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania asked for similar assistance. The National Guard was chosen to play the lead role in the military liaison teams.  It was seen that using active duty Soldiers could cause offense to the Russians. The Guard took the lead and by 2002 the National Guard had a decade of liaisoning with foreign countries and their militaries.

The National Guard’s working with foreign militaries is important work. Its primary intent is to help the legitimate host government address internal threats and their underlying causes and to help improve security. The role of assist to a Host Nation (HN) is appropriate with the U.S. policy goals. By focusing of all US FID efforts is to support an HN’s internal defense and development program. The difference with conventional forces (not Special Forces) doing FID, is that conventional forces, like the National Guard, concentrate on training indigenous forces to do a mission in lieu of US forces.  This would be the role of the National Guard Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) in Afghanistan.

ANA Guard 1

Initially TF Phoenix was involved in training just the ANA but in 2007 that mission spread to include the Afghan National Police (ANP). The basis for the training is the Embedded Training Team.  The ETT is a 10 to 17 man Soldier team that lives and trains with a ANA Kandak (Dari for battalion) of up to 600 Afghan Soldiers. The primary mission of the ETT is to advise and assist the ANA in different areas.  The advisory team will have senior army leaders who are subject matter experts (SMEs) in the areas of infantry tactics, logistics, fire support and intelligence. The ETT is also gives the ANA access to combat assistance in the form of indirect fires, close air support, medical evacuation and a quick reaction forces of American Soldiers. The aim of the ETT mission is make the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) competent enough to conduct independent missions that include complex operations such counterinsurgency and direct missions. This is a tall order especially when you consider less than 20% of Afghans are even literate (West 2011).

Advisory Teams were nothing new in the history of the United States. The Marines had been the force of choice for advisory missions for almost the first two hundred years of our history.  The Marine Corps had a longer tradition in these kinds of conflicts; its Small Wars Manual, published back in 1940, had noted that they “represent the normal and frequent operations of the Marine Corps,” which, from 1800 to 1934, had landed 187 times in 37 countries “to suppress lawlessness or insurrection,” mainly in Latin America but also as far away as the shores of Tripoli, as the “Marines’ Hymn” put it (Kaplan 2013).  Marine legend General Charles Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller fought as advisor battling guerillas in Haiti and Nicaragua.  It would be here he would earn two of his five Navy Crosses.

Chesty Puller in Nicaragua 1931


Boot, Max. “The New American Way of War.” Foreign Affairs, July 4, 2003: 41-58.

Christ, James F. The Bone Yard: Book One of the ETT Series. Ogden, UT: Mountainland Publishing , 2009.

Kaplan, Fred. The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Naylor, Sean. Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Afghanistan’s Operation Anaconda. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.

West, Bing. The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. New York: Random House, 2011.