I decided to write this while beginning the turnover process with my replacement after a one year tour advising the Afghan Border Police (ABP) in Helmand Province. All of my recommendations are followed by a personal experience. This is not an all-encompassing list but I hope it proves helpful to advisors in any theater.
1) Rapport is your best force protection. If someone wants to kill you, they will. As an advisor you must be comfortable being uncomfortable. This is a tough pill to swallow, especially at the beginning of your tour. However, the sooner you realize this is true the sooner you will focus on making your counterparts not want to kill you. This requires rapport building. Treat your counterparts with respect and show that you trust them. Rapport is not only built by drinking tea and talking about family, it is also built through professional interaction. Mission success is the ultimate rapport builder. The more you focus on building a solid relationship with your counterparts the less you will have to focus on the “insider threat”. Do not take this to mean that if you have good rapport you are totally safe, as an advisor you will never be totally safe, rapport just makes you safer.
2) Spend time with the soldiers even if you don’t understand them. For the first part of our tour we were not embedded and had to patrol to advise. This meant that all members of our team were trying to advise simultaneously but we only had five interpreters. Those Marines that decided to sit in their counterparts’ offices and just drink tea and observe their daily battle rhythm, without interpreters, gained a much better knowledge of how the unit we were advising worked. Further, by using our rudimentary language skills and teaching our counterparts some English we built better rapport by showing we were interested in learning their culture and language and sharing ours. Our counterparts and their NCOs and patrolmen did not forget this and routinely invited us in for tea even without interpreters. This provided more security for us than any number of Marines could.
3) Utilize the available expertise on your team. Our team was globally sourced from throughout I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). Many of the Marines on my team were filling line numbers that did not fit their MOS or experience. We found that the ABP finance department was essential in many of the initiatives we were trying to accomplish; however, we had no “finance advisor” on our table of organization. What we did have was a disbursing Sergeant on our team who had no specific billet and was mostly utilized as a watch stander. We paired him with the ABP Finance Officer and found many of our initiatives became much easier to accomplish.
4) Turn a blind eye to trivial problems. You will be shocked at how resourceful your counterpart is when he is left to solve a problem without your help. Multiple times my counterpart brought a problem to my attention that could have been easily solved by giving him supplies or bringing it to the attention of our higher headquarters. However, by doing nothing, except suggesting a course of action, I was able to observe how he would find solutions. As time went on the ABP began to solve more and more complex problems, often, without even bringing them to my team’s attention until after the fact. This prevented the ABP from becoming reliant on the Marines to solve all of their problems and reinforced their faith in the existing chain of command.
5) Be honest. Your counterpart should know that you are not a miracle worker. I served as a logistics advisor which, to the ABP, meant I could get anything at any time. It took nearly a month for me to convince the ABP that since we were drawing down we could barely take care of our own equipment, much less request additional assets for them. Instead of making promises we could not possibly keep my team was dead honest with our counterparts and told them we could not help supply them outright. We would follow up this admission with a recommendation for a course of action to help them accomplish whatever their goal was.
6) Speak openly with your counterpart. I cannot count how many times I was told not to talk about religion, drinking, women, or politics with my Afghan counterparts. I am ashamed to admit that when I arrived in country I was surprised to find that many of the ABP I worked with were well educated and culturally sensitive enough to understand viewpoints different from their own. I am not saying your first meeting should center on the differences between cultures but once you know your counterpart, and his personality, do not shy away from what might be an uncomfortable discussion. Your counterpart will most likely want to get to know you personally as well as professionally, do not be afraid to speak with him openly.
7) Tap every resource you can to accomplish your mission. This may seem obvious to any service member but when working in an advisory role you will have a great many resources at your disposal. The compound built for our ABP came with an inefficient power grid that generated nearly 100% more power than was actually needed. The ABP wanted to be put on the city power grid to save money and cut back on generator maintenance needs. By working with contacts at the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) we were able to get city power brought to the camp without using our counterparts’ budget because it was billed as a training event for the local power company’s new employees. This would not have been possible without liaising with the Regional Command, Regional Support Command, British forces, the PRT, the Provincial Governor, the local power company, and significant work from our ABP. This point also applies to providing for your own team, sometimes a difficult requirement in a small area of operations.
8) Your priorities don’t mean a thing. As a logistics advisor I was subject to a lot of oversight. As coalition forces attempted to quantify the advancement of Afghan Security Forces I was required to push priorities on my counterpart and provide constant feedback to higher. The only problem was that my ABP did not share my higher command’s view of what was mission essential. This left me in the dilemma of attempting to push projects forward while simultaneously pushing the ABP’s agenda back up the coalition chain of command. The point that I initially missed is that my counterparts knew what it would take to succeed in their particular environment. Many of our counterparts had been serving Afghanistan in one form or another for more than 20 years, they knew more than even the most competent staff officer who was only on deck for seven to twelve months. By taking their priorities into consideration and lending them weight we were able to accomplish much more than if we only chased requests for information from our higher headquarters.
9) Your rank will not shield you from manual labor or high level discussions. Since you will be operating on a small team your rank will carry both more and less weight than it does in the fleet. Our team advised a Zone Headquarters, roughly equivalent to a regiment. Our organic team consisted of six officers and eight enlisted, none below the rank of Corporal. This meant that for internal tasks everyone acted as a non-rate at one time or another. Someone had to take out the trash and clean the toilets and no one Marine can do that for a year so we all did it. However, when advising, we received a boost in rank unequalled in the fleet. I came to Afghanistan as a Second Lieutenant advising a full bird Colonel. He treated me as an equal. We had Sergeants effectively advising Lieutenant Colonels and Majors. As an advisor the only things that matters are competence and hard work. As an advisor, do not be afraid to clean toilets or talk to Generals, both are in your purview.
10) Take all advice with a grain of salt. This might seem a counter-intuitive piece of advice but I think it is very important. No one knows what your tour will entail or how your unit works compared to others. Even the advice left to me by my predecessor was not perfect. Be wary of anyone who claims to know exactly what you will face. It took three months for me to fully comprehend the ABP logistics chain and even longer to figure out how much equipment they actually had on the ground. Keep all advice in the back of your mind but, most importantly, keep an open mind as you progress through your tour.
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Hello 1st Lt McKavitt, very good and succinct points about advising in Afghanistan. I have read scores and scores of unit AARs and interviewed many returning leaders and your paper comports very nicely with all of them. Thanks for adding your experiences to the body of knowledge. For you and all others reading this, there is a handy compilation of articles about advising and learning the Afghan culture available from the Center for Army Lessons Learned entitled Understanding Afghan Culture: Observations, Insights, Lessons (Sep 12). See especially MAJ Aram Donigan’s, A Failure to Engage,
Current Negotiation Strategies and Approaches; and LTC Mike Simmering’s, Understanding and Communicating, Neutralizing the Arghandab River Valley Insurgency. See this link for the entire document: http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/call/docs/12-18/12-18.pdf .
Sanford Sheaks, CTR, US Army Irregular Warfare Fusion Center. This statement is my own and does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense.