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ISAF Command Sgt. Maj. Hosts CSM Jirga at Bagram Air Base

International Security Assistance Force Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall listens to a speaker during the senior enlisted leader conference held at the Jirga center on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, May 20.(Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Chlosta, ISAF Public Affairs Office)

Story and Photos by
U.S. Army
SFC Matthew Chlosta

—The Command Sergeant Major for the International Security Assistance Force gathered his top senior noncommissioned officers from around ISAF’s combined joint area of operations in Afghanistan to review and discuss counterinsurgency strategy and recent updates to escalation of force rules.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michael T. Hall held the conference to figure out what is working and what is not with the new COIN focused strategy by gathering feedback from senior enlisted leaders in ISAF. 

Hall said “The main reason we decided to get everyone together is a significant change in tactical directive SOP[Standard Operating Procedure]. The good news is the strategy is working.

The all day conference had several guest speakers and an open discussion format that covered ISAF Commander U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s reemphasis on Soldiers understanding and following his tactical and driving directives. According to Hall the conference was designed to generate discussion.  

“We need your honest feedback,” Hall said in his opening remarks. “You’re the perfect group to do that. You’ve got to be critically honest with us. No one here is interested in being right, everyone here is trying to get it right. I hope everyone is very, very candid. He are the issues out there.” 

Hall also talked about how, “Gen. McChrystal completely reorganized Afghanistan.” One reason ISAF was reorganized was to get lessons learned to the replacement units.

After Hall’s opening the conference delved into four main discussion topics: ISAF commander directives (tactical and driving), reducing civilian casualties and Afghan National Security Forces partnering, escalation of force, and NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

Directives: Tactical victories v. Strategic defeat
The first area discussed was McChrystal’s tactical and driving directives. They were both put out in 2009 and the escalation of force had its most recent modification in April. The ISAF Commander’s intent is to defeat the insurgency, protect the Afghan people and partnership with ANSF at all levels. “I direct this guidance to be briefed and explained to every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine and Civilian (including contractors) of the force as soon as practical.” McChrystal said.

No matter what is written in the directives you need to protect your Soldiers first, Hall emphasized. “The tactical directive is how we fight,” Hall said. “We need to change how we think.” “We try to write all our guidance for the lowest level in the chain of command,” Hall said. “I think most of the stuff we put out is mostly spot on."

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. James Capel, 82nd Airborne Division, Regional Command (East), ISAF, said. “These tactical directives, driving directives have to be enforced all the way down to the lowest level. It is best to meet these partners at the training areas before you get to the battlefield.”

“We want everyone to think these things through,” Hall said. “Escalation of force is something we are trying to get them to think about each and every time.”

Civilian Casualties and Partnering w/ANSF
“Whenever there is any kind of violence, who gets blamed, we do,” Hall said. “[That’s] why it’s important that we do everything we can to prevent them. At the end of the day, whenever someone causes a civilian casualty, who pays for it? We do.”

Cutting down civilian casualties protects us, Hall said, in reference to the COIN strategy, where the number one goal is protecting the Afghan people. Several of the slides showed past incidents of civilian casualties and that there was a significantly less chance of them if the unit either on patrol or even driving was partnered with ANSF.

Afghan Minister of Interior’s Command Sgt. Maj. Karim Khan said, “Today was important for the Afghanistan people. One mistake we did in the past I hope we won’t do in the future is civilian casualties. I hope that you’re thinking about in the future what happened in the past.”

The new force packages coming into theater will focus on partnering with the ANP not just the ANA, according to U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Darrin Bohn, ISAF Joint Command, ISAF, said . 

 “A good police station, is an empty police station,” Bohn said, in reference to the idea that police need to be out on patrols in the community. This keeps them in touch with the people they’re protecting and this causes a reduction in crimes.

“Cultural understanding is about understanding differences,” Hall said. “Army protects the country, police protect the people,”

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Ralph Beam, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan said, “You just gotta understand why they do it, the way they do it.”

There was a lot of good discussion and examples from special operations forces of good ANSF partnering.

“When – [we’re] partnered with a unit, we’re always beside them,” U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Ledford Stigall, Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan, said.

Bohn said you need to collocate, you have to plan together, you have to rehearse, [but] you do need a break at times. He said, “you can’t teach an ANA how to put a chest tube in if they don’t have a chest tube. You can’t have the ANA [Afghan National Army] living in a nice compound and the ABP [Afghan Border Police] living in squalor. Each ANA and ANP [Afghan National Police] has different strengths and weaknesses.”

In Marjah,”we relied heavily on ANCOP [Afghan National Civil Order Police] initially after the initial clearance.” British Army CSM Gillham, RC(South) said. “Those ANCOP are due to leave soon. As quick as we’re training them. We just can’t get enough of them to be honest. All aspects are covered from an Afghanistan perspective. During Operation Moshtarak, Afghans were involved at every level.”

Afghan National Army Command Sgt. Maj. Zia Amarizai, ANA 201st Corps also agreed that we need to partner better. “

The two key things to take away are first partnering with the ANA Forces and second developing lower level leadership for the ANSF,” Amarizai said. “It’s needed. When it comes to partnering, include everyone in [Afghan] security forces. It’s needed.”

Working Lunch
During the midday break participants ate lunch and they watched and listened to McChrystal explain the 8 Principles of COIN in a 40 minute video.

Escalation of Force
The group had an intense discussion over warning shots and what constitutes a warning shot or a shot to kill, a half dozen sergeant majors weighed in. “When we make a mistake the people talk about it,” Hall said. “The Afghan people believe what they see not what they hear.”

Hall added, is there a degree of removal to trust the EOF reports that come down? This statement generated another twenty minute interaction with several senior enlisted leaders giving their view points and counterpoints. 

Beam said, “In our line of work, everyone is looking at us. We’re held accountable.”

There was also a spirited debate on the idea recently floated about in ISAF military circles about a possible award for courageous restraint, good threat assessment, not having any Civ.Cas. incidents or using the phrase tactical patience.

“Approach these situations with that element of common sense and take that one second more and think about the implications of what will be the result if I pull the trigger,” Gillham said.


“We’re trying to do this right so we don’t have to come back over here,” Beam said. “Today were at 98 percent when I came here we were at 28 percent.” 

“We’re trainers here and we don’t have enough trainers,"Beam said. "Pay has gone up. Private in the Army gets more money then the highest paid in the ANP.” That is why we increased the pay for the ANP, Beam added.
“We increase incentives for those in the front in the fight,” Beam said. “We teach literacy in every course we teach. The Army protects the country, the police protect the people. We have three types of leadership here. The Soviet trained, the Mujahedeen and the French trained officer Corps.

“I’m a boot expert,” Beam said.
Beam was wearing new tan combat boots to test them out for the ANA, so we can make sure they don’t fall apart on them, he said.

CSM Michael Balch, SHAPE, said, “They [NATO] are trying to help this organization especially in building capacity. In this alliance there are 28 nations and for anything to get done, 28 nations have to agree. Don’t get your alliance partners wrong, they care. These flags matter a whole lot in this alliance. It’s important these flags are here. It makes it an international coalition.”

After Action Review(Final Thoughts)
“I thought is was a good leveling of information across all of Afghanistan [Regional Commands],” U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Rolling, 173rd Airborne Brigade, RC(E) said. The updated rules for, “escalation of force is truly the biggest thing; that the leadership is behind it. Then the training of the ANP and the ANA and how we can identify more leaders; mentor their leaders to go to their Afghan military schools.”

“It was good, very informative,” U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Joseph Pedroza, senior enlisted leader, ANA Army Development, NTM-A said. “It was refreshing to hear from the Command Sergeant Major of ISAF, of NTMA and of SHAPE. “The three most important things to take away are, [civilian casualties]; how it influences the minds of Afghans,” Pedroza said. “How each organization ties to each other, everything is interwoven; each organization depends on each other. Third, how important it is for the Afghan partnership [with ISAF].”

Amarizai said he had met previously met many of the same sergeant majors in the Jirga Center at the U.S. Sergeant Major’s Academy. He attended from July 2007 – July 2008 and graduated as part of Class 58.

About the conference Amarizai said, “It’s a good opportunity. It’s a great share of thoughts to make what you have to do to adapt to changes, to not make the same mistakes we made before 2010.”

Final Remarks
CSM Hall ended the day by reading a heartfelt blog post from an officer he knew, who had recently died.“That’s what we’re talking about here today is getting this right and for the sacrifice of all your Soldiers,” Hall said.

Video: ISAF Command Sergeant Major Conference


Senior Enlisted Leader Conference in Afghanistan