By Phil Stewart
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Reuters) - As a U.S. Army medic, Sergeant First Class Jonathan Ortega admits that when he gets to Afghanistan, his instinct will be to help care for any wounded Afghan troops. It is a feeling he will have to fight.
Ortega is heading soon to the 16-year-old war as part of a new kind of U.S. Army training brigade specifically created to mentor Afghan soldiers in the field and taught to resist taking over missions, even in the event of a Taliban attack.
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"It would be hard for me," acknowledged Ortega, 30, who treated wounded Iraqi forces when he deployed to Mosul in 2005 and 2006.
"But that's a big piece ... not to get my hands dirty. To step back (and advise them)."
In America's longest war, Ortega's comments carry echoes of the many trainers who came before him, who wrestled with when to intervene directly, when to stand back and where to set expectations for Afghan soldiers who have long struggled against a Taliban insurgency.
But the U.S. Army is hoping that Ortega and his more than 800 colleagues are the start of something new, as members of the inaugural Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, whose creation aims to institutionalize and improve the advising of foreign soldiers that until now was more ad hoc.
The Army proudly points to the more rigorous training and deep combat experience of the brigade's recruits, who are ready to deploy down to small-sized Afghan troop formations - bringing with them the ability to help direct U.S. air strikes.
Still, the brigade's creation has drawn scrutiny and questions about whether it is deploying too quickly and if expectations are set too high for soldiers whose goals of mentoring Afghan forces are, by definition, long-term.
"It's an evolution, not a revolution," said Jason Amerine, an Afghan war veteran and a fellow at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington, who broadly supports the SFAB's creation.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed confidence in its readiness and acknowledged he had been keeping a close eye on the brigade's development, part of his efforts to ease pressure on overstretched special operations forces.
"You'll see more and more of this," Mattis told Reuters after a visit to the troops last week at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The deployment in the coming weeks is another sign of deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan under President Donald Trump, even as critics warn his military cannot promise to defeat the Taliban anytime soon or overcome Afghanistan's vast political divisions and entrenched corruption. More than 2,400 U.S. forces have died in the war.
NOT SPECIAL FORCES
Sergeant First Class Jeremiah Velez, 34, said he was well aware that his brigade's creation had triggered some anxiety in parts of the U.S. special operations community. But he was not letting it get to him.
"In one ear, out the other," said Velez, whose next deployment to Afghanistan will be his fifth.
Last year, a photo of a green-colored beret that appeared to be a prototype for the SFAB drew unwelcome comparisons with Army Special Forces, known as Green Berets.
Anger over the berets even led to an online petition with more than 88,000 signatures.
Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who once led commandos in Afghanistan, said the SFABs were expensive, unnecessary and risked mission creep into special operation forces' (SOF) terrain.
"The whole thing smells of mimicking SOF," said Bolduc, who served 66 months in Afghanistan.
The Army, which ultimately chose a brown beret for the brigade, has stressed the SFAB is not special forces, whose responsibilities typically include training foreign militaries, particularly commandos.
The SFAB's debut reflects an attempt by the Army to deal better with open-ended counter-insurgency battles in a way that does not undermine growing U.S. focus on high-end military challenges from China and Russia.
By creating six planned U.S. Army training brigades, the Pentagon hopes to let other brigades and special operations forces prepare for different missions.
Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has championed the SFABs as a way to institutionalize a role the Army performed more haphazardly during the war, ripping apart brigades to find soldiers to train Afghans.
"We were pulling it out of our butts, so to speak," Milley said at the brigade's activation ceremony at Fort Benning last Thursday. "We made it happen. But it wasn't as good as it could have been."
THE LONGEST WAR
First Sergeant Sammy Walker, who deployed four times to Iraq, bristles at the idea of walking away from Afghanistan or Iraq and points to the sacrifices of friends who lost their lives.
"Over the years, 16 years, you start counting back how many people you've known who have been hurt or killed. It's a lot of people," said Walker, part of a team of SFAB logistics advisers.
Trump long identified with war-weary Americans skeptical about the Afghan war, even advocating a pullout. But faced with the risks posed by the Taliban, he reversed himself and last August approved a more aggressive war strategy.
Yet a battlefield defeat for the Taliban seems distant.
"I'm not entirely convinced that the SFABs are going to make a strategic difference in winning the war," said Seth Jones, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said a best-case scenario would see the Taliban realize it cannot win, leading to peace negotiations.
Walker and his team are well aware of Afghanistan's many shortfalls, including accusations of corruption. But they are taking a longer view.
"Everything takes time," said Sergeant First Class Keisha Jumpp, another SFAB adviser. "It's just baby steps, baby steps."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)