Small Wars Journal

Cultural Frictions: Mentoring the Afghan Army at ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’

Thu, 11/19/2015 - 6:15am

Cultural Frictions: Mentoring the Afghan Army at ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’

Maya Mynster Christensen and Cecilie Odgaard Jakobsen


On 19 July 2012, the Afghan President at the time, Hamid Karzai, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the creation of the Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA) at Camp Quargha on the outskirts of Kabul.  Nicknamed ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’, this academy is seen as being central to NATO’s, and in particular Britain’s, legacy following their withdrawal from Afghanistan.[2] With the launching of the Resolute Support Mission on 1 January 2015, marking the transition from combat operations to training, advising and assistance of Afghan security forces, the political significance of this academy has only been strengthened further. While the strategic aims of Resolute Support are only vaguely formulated[3] and are therefore difficult to measure, the extent to which the mission will be a success depends on the capacity building and self-sustainability of the Afghan forces,[4] and the extent to which these forces assume ‘full responsibility for the fight against insurgency’.[5] In line with this mission’s aims, the British government sees the creation of the ANAOA as one of their main achievements in strengthening the Afghan forces, and as a success in the sense that it is ‘an example that Afghans are proving to be confident and capable of taking the lead in providing security and support for their people’.[6]

Drawing on inspiration from the military ethos of the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the official vision for the ANAOA is ‘to select and prepare quality platoon leaders for specialised training within the ANA’, to imbue them ‘with the ethos of leadership, knowledge of Afghan and wider military affairs’, and to develop ‘the core values necessary for the future leadership of the ANA’.[7] Here, the overall goal of building a ‘capable, sustainable and independent’ institution[8] that produces ‘Warrior Officers’ is intended to be achieved through project phases of preparation (2012-2013), mentoring (2013-2016), advising (2016-2017) and assuring (2017-2023). The current phase of mentoring is set to be the most significant NATO contribution to the academy with around 121 personnel from coalition forces from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway being deployed.[9] The deployed soldiers are tasked to ‘develop the Afghan National Army (ANA) instructors to be effective trainers of the ANAOA cadets’ through the exercise of mentoring.[10]

Based on qualitative data collection, this article traces coalition force mentors from their pre-deployment training at Sandhurst, to their deployment at ANAOA and finally to post-deployment, in order to explore their experiences of mentorship.[11]  Focusing on how discrepancies between the promotion of the ethos of Sandhurst and the emphasis on establishing local ownership are communicated, practised and negotiated, the article illuminates how ‘culture’ is employed as an explanation when mentoring fails. The article argues that the current phase of mentoring is influenced by an uncertainty in the vision for ownership, which gives rise to a production of cultural frictions between mentors and mentees as well as within coalition forces. Such cultural frictions may be counterproductive to well-intended efforts at creating sustainable security solutions in Afghanistan. Approaching cultural frictions as ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference’,[12] and as ‘encounters where ideas, practices, norms, and actors, meet and result in new or unintended outcomes’,[13] the article proposes that frictions are transformative and can lead to new social and political arrangements. In order to enable the self-sustainability of the ANAOA, these transformative potentials must be examined. Simultaneously, new modalities for enabling engagement and cross-cultural collaboration between local actors and multi-national coalition forces must be developed with the aim of enhancing military capacity building missions.

Between Western Values and Local Ownership

‘At Qargha, they tried to take Sandhurst as a model and impose it on the Afghans, but it did not work. In hindsight, this seems kind of obvious’, explains a British mentor who was deployed to the ANAOA in 2014.[14] His statement points to the challenges of making Sandhurst applicable to an Afghan context and, more broadly, to the discrepancy between the promotion of Western values and the emphasis on local ownership.

Local ownership is a fuzzy concept, which is increasingly employed as part of the political vocabulary of post-conflict interventions, including military ones. While it is emphasised that local ownership is central to successful post-conflict transition and peace building efforts,[15] it is rarely defined with any precision.[16]  In the context of security sector reform in Afghanistan, local ownership is most commonly simply referred to as ‘Afghan actors taking full responsibility for security’.[17] A significant consideration in this regard relates to what vision of ownership such an approach is based upon, and how attempts are made to achieve ownership. As illuminated by scholarly discussions, dominant approaches tend to be structured around two competing visions for local ownership. Whereas the first vision is based on a communitarian approach in which processes are designed, managed as well as implemented by local actors, the second approach is based on a liberal vision that seeks to mould institutions in accordance with Western perceptions of democracy and good governance.[18]

At the Sandhurst Coalition Force Mentor Course, visions for local ownership were not explicitly addressed. Here, the coalition forces were first presented with the ethos of Sandhurst, which was then employed as a framework for evaluating lived realties at the ANAOA. The value-based leadership of Sandhurst, rooted in ‘selfless commitment, respect for others, loyalty, integrity, discipline and courage’ was the central point of departure for such an evaluation. These values, it was pointed out by the course lecturers, should guide the officers in making tactically and morally correct decisions – also in the context of the ANAOA. While it was not stated by the course instructors that the military ethos and values of Sandhurst are superior to Afghan military ethos and values, it was continuously emphasised that Sandhurst officers are role models for future leaders. The Afghan officers, the instructors noted, had no role models to help them determine how their seniors should look and act, and were still at the early stage of developing a military ethos. Consequently, the coalition forces should encourage the Afghans to adapt their values.

The ways in which the Sandhurst instructors expressed that there is to be an attempted transfer of Western values to the ANAOA reflect the liberal approach to local ownership, which tends to envision ownership as an end state, rather than as a means.[19] In this context, local ownership is not necessarily embedded in Afghan values and visions, but based on the principle that the Afghans take ownership of externally imposed ideas.[20] At the same time, however, the presentations given on the Sandhurst course created the impression of a divergence from such a liberal approach. To begin with, one course instructor emphasised that the Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army, General Karimi, had himself requested the Sandhurst model to be implemented at the ANAOA.[21] As such, the transfer of British military values was an internal demand. Moreover, Sandhurst course instructors were hesitant to argue that they were in fact seeking to build a copy of Sandhurst in Kabul. The British Sandhurst model, they said, could not simply be applied without adaptations, as the ANAOA was still in its ‘infancy’ compared to Sandhurst. In order to facilitate such adaptations, the content of the training should, in theory, be orientated towards Afghan needs through a process referred to as ‘Afghanization’.[22]

At Camp Qargha, coalition force mentors expressed uncertainty over whether such a process of Afghanization had been undertaken. ‘There is our way and their way’, a mentor from New Zealand explained while drawing two separate circles on the table, ‘and nothing is being done to connect these two’.[23] The same mentor further argued that ‘there is a British superiority informing the approach’ making the mentors ‘push the solutions on the Afghans based on the idea that we know best, and that we have the right answer’. Several coalition force mentors at the ANAOA echoed such formulations. While they had been instructed to do their business ‘the Afghan way’, they experienced that they were in fact simply taking the Sandhurst model and ‘dumping it at Camp Qargha’.[24]

The discrepancies between the emphasis on tailoring capacity building to an Afghan approach and the imposition of British military values triggered confusion amongst coalition forces, which impacted on their primary assignment: that of mentoring.

The Exercise of Mentoring

‘You are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea’. On the Sandhurst mentor course, this was the saying an instructor employed to address the tricky position of the mentor who was to implement the ethos of Sandhurst while simultaneously displaying respect for the Afghan mentees. His statement suggests the significance mentoring has in respect of balancing the imposition of Western values, on the one hand, and local ownership, on the other, and the difficulties of performing this exercise. The 2014 ANAOA Mentor Directive describes mentoring as ‘a rewarding and noble endeavour’.[25] Yet, in a context where only a minority of deployed coalition forces have previous experiences with the mentoring of foreign security forces, it is no straightforward endeavour. According to coalition forces at the ANAOA, it is therefore crucial to operate in accordance with specific procedures for mentoring.

In the 2014 ANAOA standard operating procedure (SOP), mentoring is defined as ‘the transfer of skills, knowledge, attitudes and experience through counselling and coaching in a collaborative relationship’.  In the SOP, it is further elaborated that the mentor can ‘provide suggestions, and some limited direction as a last resort only, as ‘it is important for self development that there is a clear delineation of ownership by the Mentee’. The emphasis on local ownership in the mentoring SOP does not correspond with how the British Chief Mentor at the ANAOA in 2014 envisages mentorship. According to him, ‘mentorship is about putting a thought into their minds and letting them believe that they got the idea’. As such, he argues, ‘it is a mind clearing exercise’.[26]

These diverging approaches to mentoring are reflected in how mentoring is practised at the ANAOA. Here, mentoring has been performed in diverse ways, ranging from what the mentoring SOP terms ‘Mentoring Plus’ to what coalition forces refer to as the ‘try and fail’ approach. While Mentoring Plus conflicts with the focus on ownership, as it allows the mentor to take the lead when he (rather than the mentee) believes it is appropriate, the ‘try and fail’ approach is based on the idea that the mentor will not interfere unless he is asked to do so by his mentee.  In the case of the latter, mentors should simply step back and observe even in situations when the Afghan instructors fail to deliver the planned lessons or follow the procedures formulated by the British staff. According to British staff in the academic department at the ANAOA, these divergent approaches are sometimes counter-productive to collaborative mentor-mentee relations, as the Afghan instructors are mentored in conflicting ways.[27] At the same time, the divergent modes of mentorship catalyse frustration amongst coalition forces.

‘Amazingly, after more than ten years in Afghanistan we still don’t know how to teach them’, a British mentor stated, as he explained about the failure to practise mentorship in productive ways at the ANAOA.[28] As his statement implies, he interpreted mentoring mainly as an exercise in teaching the Afghan instructors what to do – in accordance with British military values. The frustrations linked to the failure to exercise mentoring in profitable ways gave rise to awkward connections between mentors and their mentees, but also to passivity and discouragement. When instructed not to interfere with the Afghan instructors’ training of officer cadets, the coalition forces’ mentors began to see mentoring as simply an exercise in ‘showing face’ and ‘demonstrating presence’.[29] As a result, several mentors expressed that they were no longer motivated to engage in collaborative relations with their Afghan counterparts, and more broadly, that they had lost confidence in the fact that their endeavour would have a positive impact on creating a sustainable officer academy.[30]

Amongst coalition forces, ‘culture’ and ‘cultural differences’ are dominant explanations of why mentoring sometimes fails. As will be discussed below, these cultural differences do not simply relate to distinctions between Western and Afghan forces, but also to an internal distancing within coalition forces.

Cultural Differences and Distances

‘The Afghan cadets are probably not as intelligent as you should be as an officer. Culturally, they might also be unable to learn the same way as us’, a British mentor suggests.[31] Like other coalition force mentors, he puts the failure of mentoring down to matters of culture and intelligence, and to perceptions of cultural differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. These cultural differences were already sharply drawn up during the Sandhurst pre-deployment course when the course instructors sought to characterise the locals.

‘There are some good, there are some average, there are some bad, and there are some downright ugly’. This was how a course instructor framed the first session on ‘ANAOA personalities’ concerning those whom the coalition forces were heading out to mentor. The distinctions between the good, the bad and the downright ugly were, to a large extent, a moral distinction based on coalition forces’ evaluations of their mentees. While the ‘good’ mentee was described as ‘hardworking’, ‘receptive to criticism’ and as being able to ‘think outside the box’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ mentees were characterised as ‘lazy’, ‘arrogant’, ‘selfish’ and ‘emotional’. The ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ mentees were also employed as examples of the negative consequences of nepotism. As they were protected from within, they could not be discharged, even when they did not live up to what was expected of them.

More generally, the challenges to productive and collaborative mentor-mentee relations were explained through descriptions of how the Afghan instructors culturally diverged from Western military forces. The Afghan instructors, a British mentor for instance pointed out at the Sandhurst course, have ‘a cultural aversion to forward planning and thinking’, ‘it is not in their nature to plan’, and they simply ‘leave it up to God’.[32] In this context, coalition forces were informed that their mentor role would be to tell the mentees ‘what they do wrong, as the Afghans have a ‘good’ culture’, making it difficult for them to admit their weaknesses.

Despite the fact that the superficial and morally-biased portrayals of the ‘the locals’ may hinder local agency in the context of capacity building,[33] several coalition forces at the ANAOA pointed out that they had managed to build valuable relationships with their Afghan mentees. Rather than taking their point of departure in the portrayals presented at the pre-deployment course, they had decided to start from scratch by engaging their mentees in a discussion of how they regarded themselves and of what they hoped to achieve through being mentored. Building on these discussions, gradual progress was made towards enabling the Afghan instructors to take ownership of the training of officer cadets, some of the coalition forces explained.  The optimism inspired by such productive encounters was, however, punctured by frequent reinforcement of those perceptions of cultural differences initially communicated at Sandhurst.  At Camp Qargha, several mentors had adopted the rhetoric employed at the pre-deployment course, and were using the same moral categories and examples of cultural differences to explain the challenges to productive mentoring. Here, Afghan values and cultural practices came to be regarded as barriers to collaborative mentor-mentee relations, rather than as valuable departure points for nurturing local ownership and sustainability.[34]

In practice, the cultural frictions between Western coalition forces and the Afghan instructors resulted in a lowering of ambition. At the pre-deployment course this lowering of ambition was in fact intimated during the presentation given by the British PJHQ, in which it was emphasised that ‘our mission is to make the Afghans good enough to deliver the training – not to produce the best officers’.[35] The notion of ‘Afghan good enough’ implicates a lowering of ambition in the sense that it is employed to ‘show that specificities in the Afghan context makes it necessary for the international military to forego their usual procedures and instead settle for lesser goals’.[36] At the ANAOA, this was reflected in the constant emphasis on ‘the number we produce’ – rather than the quality of the officer cadets – when engaging in discussions around the ANAOA vision.[37]

The lowering of ambition was not simply a consequence of cultural frictions between Western coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts, but also of cultural frictions within coalition forces. Most significantly, these frictions related to cultural distances between British and non-British forces.  Whereas British staff and mentors at the ANAOA argued that Western coalition forces worked well together, as they were united by the ‘Western democratic way of thinking’ and by ‘a similar ethos, values and standards in our militaries’,[38] non-British mentors had – to a large extent – developed a shared narrative about how they differed from their British allies. Central to this narrative was a distancing from Sandhurst and the British ‘way of doing business’, and a critique of the failure to tailor the Sandhurst model to an Afghan cultural context. Here, non-British coalition forces for instance stated that the British soldiers were ‘rigid’, ‘condescending’ and acting in accordance with the idea that ‘everything must look good on the surface’.[39]  Such stereotypical accounts of the British grew out of conflicting approaches to mentoring at the ANAOA, but they were also an unintended outcome of the pre-deployment course where non-British mentors felt that their national military proficiencies were initially neglected, as they were being taught about the superiority of Sandhurst, and about how they were to act as role models of this particular institution.[40] Thus, a potential experience of disempowerment and lack of ownership amongst non-British mentors was produced before entering Camp Qargha. The lack of ownership resulted in disengagement and lack of belief that they were in fact contributing to building a sustainable officers academy.

Conclusion: Towards Productive Frictions

‘We are good at winning wars, but not at building institutions’, states a mentor from New Zealand deployed to the ANAOA.[41] In a context where ‘assistance to host nation militaries is both a current concern and a challenge for the future’ which ‘is likely to become an increasing component of bilateral and multinational engagement in fragile and conflict affected states’,[42] this statement suggests the urgency with which Western militaries should create better modes for ensuring sustainable security solutions. Mentoring represents a modality of soldiering, which is central to such solutions.

In this article, we have employed mentoring as a lens to explore the cultural frictions of military capacity building in the context of the ANAOA. These frictions have empirically been found to be an outcome of the ambiguous vision of creating a Sandhurst-modelled ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’ the ‘Afghan way’ – a vision structured around apparently contradictory approaches to ownership. While cultural frictions are most commonly perceived as obstacles to be overcome, we suggest that their transformative potential must be further explored in order to make mentoring an effective tool for enabling the sustainability of the ANAOA. Such exploration should take its point of departure in how visions for ownership are negotiated through interactions involving both the ANA and multi-national coalition forces.

The notion of ownership is most commonly operationalised in binary terms; as a top-down process managed by external actors or as a bottom-up process driven by local actors. Yet, in order to develop modalities to ensure self-sustainability, attention must be directed towards how this binary divide can be bridged. A significant departure point for doing so is to approach culture as a process of exchange and co-production through which the division between insider and outsider values and visions are constantly adjusted and result in new practices.[43] In this process of exchange and co-production local actors must be recognised as  ‘agents of transformation’, rather than as ‘objects to be transformed’.[44] This implies the careful integration of cultural factors in the design as well as implementation of internationally steered capacity building efforts. Here, attention must not simply be paid to the specificities of Afghan culture, but also to what it means to be a soldier navigating the conflict-ridden landscape of Afghanistan.  When the ANAOA officer cadets are passing out, they will be deployed to face ‘insurgent enemies’ and to provide security to the Afghan population. As implicated in the notion of ‘dead men walking’ this is an endeavour in which life and death is at stake. [45] Considering also that Pakistan, rather than the Taliban, is often regarded the enemy by the Afghans,[46] it is furthermore a challenging endeavour. Visions for substantive ownership must involve such critical considerations.

If enduring security solutions are to be facilitated, the merging of Western values with local cultural dynamics is, however, not the only challenge to be addressed. It must additionally be considered how to engage multi-national coalition forces in a collaborative process of exchange. While coalition forces tend to be viewed as a coherent whole and as operating in accordance with a shared Western military culture, this article has demonstrated the cultural differences within the coalition and the challenges these differences present to effective mentoring at the ANAOA. To overcome these challenges, the multiple cultures within coalition forces must be taken into account. If failing to address the various, and at times conflicting values these cultures are composed of, engagement may easily turn into disengagement. This may not just pose obstacles to NATO’s envisaged end-state of enabling the self-sustainability of the Afghan forces, but also to future military capacity building missions.

End Notes

[1] The authors would like to thank the Permanent Joint Headquarters (UK) and the Danish Defence Command for permission to conduct field studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA). The authors would also like to thank the personnel at the ANAOA for their support during the field visit.

[2] UK Ministry of Defence, ’A lasting legacy in Afghanistan’, 1 November 2014,, accessed 1 November 2014.

[3] Cf. Philipp Münch, ’Resolute Support Light: NATO’s New Mission versus the Political Economy of the Afghan National Security Forces’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 2015.

[4] NATO, ‘NATO and Afghanistan’, 12 February 2015,, accessed 13 March 2015.

[5] NATO Parliamentary Assembly, ’Afghanistan: 2014 and beyond’. General Report, 2013.

[6] UK Ministry of Defence, ’A lasting legacy in Afghanistan’, 1 November 2014,, accessed 1 November 2014.

[7] ANAOA Coalition Force Mentor Course, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, May 2014.

[8] Afghan National Army Officer Academy Mentoring Standard Operating Instruction (SOI), DRAFT version, October 2014.

[9] The bulk of these mentors (around 87) are British.

[10] Afghan National Army Officer Academy Mentoring Standard Operating Instruction (SOI), DRAFT version, October 2014.

[11] Fieldwork has been conducted at Sandhurst between 21-31 May 2014, and at the ANAOA between 11-17 November 2015. Moreover, post-deployment interviews have been conducted with eight Danish mentors and three Danish linguists between March 2014 and December 2015, and with three British mentors in May 2014. In all settings, interviewees have been anonymised.

[12] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 4.

[13] Anna K. Jarstad, ’Unpacking the friction in local ownership of security sector reform in Afghanistan’, Peacebuilding, (Vol. 1, No. 3, September 2013), p. 383.

[14] Authors’ interview, Sandhurst, UK, May 2014.

[15] Cf. Stephanie Blair: ’Assisting Host Country Militaries: Assessing Lessons from NATO, EU and Member State Experience’, Conference Report, Research Division, NATO Defence College, July 2014, p. 3.

[16] In the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence’s ‘Afghanistan Plan 2013-2014: Towards full Afghan responsibility’, for instance, afghan ownership is defined as one of the three overarching strategic principles – yet without specifying what ownership means. See: Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Danish Ministry of Defense, ‘Afghanistan Plan 2013-2014: Towards full Afghan responsibility’, 2013, p.18

[17] Cf. Jarstad, ’Unpacking the friction in local ownership of security sector reform in Afghanistan’, p. 382-383.

[18] Timothy Donais, ’Empowerment or Imposition? Dilemmas of local ownership in post-conflict peacebuilding processes’, Peace & Change, (Vol. 34. No. 1, January 2009), pp. 3- 26.

[19] Ibid, p. 15.

[20] Cf. Jarstad, ’Unpacking the friction in local ownership of security sector reform in Afghanistan’, pp. 382-383, Donais, ’Empowerment or Imposition? Dilemmas of local ownership in post-conflict peacebuilding processes’, pp. 3- 26.

[21] General Karimi attended RMAS from 1966-1968.

[22] For a discussion of the contradictory interpretations of this term see Antonio Giustozzi, ’Afghanistan’s National Army: The Ambiguous Prospects of Afghanization’, Terrorism Monitor, (Vol. 6, No 9, 2008).

[23] Authors’ interview, ANAOA, Kabul, November 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ANAOA Mentor Directive, 10 June 2014.

[26] Authors’ interview, ANAOA, Kabul, November 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Authors’ interview, Sandhurst, UK, May 2014.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Authors’ interview, Sandhurst, UK, May 2014.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Cf. Donais, ’Empowerment or Imposition? Dilemmas of local ownership in post-conflict peacebuilding processes’, p. 11.

[34] Ibid, p. 8.

[35] Sandhurst coalition force mentor course, May 2014.

[36] Jarstad, ’Unpacking the friction in local ownership of security sector reform in Afghanistan’, p. 387.

[37] Authors’ interviews, ANAOA, Kabul, November 2014.

[38] Authors’ interview, Sandhurst, UK, May 2014.

[39] Authors’ interviews with coalition force mentors, ANAOA, Kabul, November 2014.

[40] Authors’ interview with Danish coalition force mentors, Sandhurst, UK, May 2014.

[41] Authors’ interview, ANAOA, Kabul, November 2014.

[42] Blair: ’Assisting Host Country Militaries: Assessing Lessons from NATO, EU and Member State Experience’, p. 3.

[43] Cf. Donais, ’Empowerment or Imposition? Dilemmas of local ownership in post-conflict peacebuilding processes.

[44] Ibid, p. 19.

[45] ANAOA Mentor Directive, 10 June 2014.

[46] Cf. Blair: ’Assisting Host Country Militaries: Assessing Lessons from NATO, EU and Member State Experience’, p. 6.


About the Author(s)

Cecilie Odgaard Jakobsen has a MSc in anthropology from the University of Copenhagen, and has worked as a research assistant at the Royal Danish Defence College.

Maya Mynster Christensen is an Assistant Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College, where she conducts research on the nexus between culture and military operations and on military capacity building. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Copenhagen, and has previously done long-term research on the mobilisation of militia soldiers in Sierra Leone.


J Harlan

Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:09pm

Perhaps the authors could have commented on how long the mentors were deployed for and what level of Afghan language proficiency they had and compare it to what occurs at the Afghan "West Point".

With regards to culture the most damaging gift we've given the Afghans is the "senior NCO". Quite obviously if you're starting an army from scratch there are no people to fill the role of the experienced old soldier to be put in charge of mundane tasks while the officers do whatever officers do. The most competent Afghan soldiers are made officers leaving the 2nd tier or worse to be senior NCOs.

No sergeant major is better than a bad or mediocre one and a good one is usually a waste of talent. The old Afghan system of having officers command at every level was unusual to western eyes but quite practical especially if your use an aspirant system for commissioning. I suspect if we'd left the ANA alone, except for material support, it might be farther ahead than it is today.