By, With, and Through: Lessons from Advising Afghans

by Richard Laszok
Printed with Permission

As an Infantry Officer in the Marine Corps, I spent the majority of my time training with or advising partnered forces.  Through my career, I participated in Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) exercises across the Asia-Pacific region and served as an adviser in Afghanistan.  Aside from the cultural differences, the partnered forces in the TSC exercises I participated in had varying capabilities and proficiencies.  This required my team to develop different approaches to how we would maximize training opportunities for everyone.  As a member of Task Force Southwest, an adviser team deliberately built to provide training, advising, and assistance to the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) in Helmand province had to apply similar skills.  All these experiences have taught me several lessons, but have identified what I consider the top three which contributed to the success of my teams.

1)    Know your stuff.  It seems intuitive enough, but before you can teach or advise, you must master the material yourself.  It requires competency in the subjects you will be advising.  The amount of time you dedicate to learning and reviewing your subject will directly relate to your effectiveness as an adviser or partner.  Competency provides accurate information taught or shared and provides a level of confidence that helps deliver the information.  I attribute the success of my teams during the TSC exercises and advising efforts to the preparation.  Preparation also includes knowing a little about your partner.  Take the time to learn about their culture, customs, and if possible a few simple phrases.  Knowing some of these little things will make what you teach more meaningful and leave a positive lasting effect.

2)    They aren’t us.  It’s okay that they are different and sometimes that makes the partnership more valuable.  Leverage the differences to bring new ideas and approaches to problem solving.  Often we tend to think that our way is the best way to solve the problem but when working with different cultures the host nation personnel may provide the best solution with a little assistance from you.  They bring an understanding that a foreigner might not understand or overlook.  For example, initially, when we were advising the Afghan instructors at the 215th Corps Regional Military Training Center we wanted the instructors to follow written outlines for the courses.  This is how our militaries do business, why shouldn’t they.  Well, we quickly found out that the majority of the instructors were illiterate.  Having detailed written classes would not have helped because they couldn’t read the material.  Our solution was to develop the instructors in the skills they were good at already and help them professionalize their ability to instruct.  If you are there solely as an adviser, always encourage the host nation personnel to develop their own solutions but be willing to assist along the way.  There were many occasions as an adviser where it would have been faster or easier for my team or me to provide the solution upfront.  We had to resist the urge to do this and allow the host nation personnel to work through the issues.  At the end of the day as long as progress was made and solutions were developed that was effective advising.  Efficiency became the next goal.

3)    Be self-aware.  You and the team need to have self-awareness.  Effective advising means the host nation is demonstrating improvements.  If they aren’t improving, you aren’t being effective.  You might be the most knowledgeable subject matter expert or best instructor back home, but if the target audience doesn’t get it your wasting everyone’s time.  This requires the adviser(s) to have the maturity to reflect to improve or sustain their approach to advising.  Constant assessments of yourself and your partner will help shape and drive your engagement strategy.

Advising skills will continue to be relevant to the U.S. military and success of future missions.  Understanding these skills will enhance partnerships during TSC exercises, which are valuable for building partnered capacity throughout the world.  Maintaining these strong relationships will be imperative if the countries have to work together in response to a humanitarian disaster or execute combat operations.  Finally, these lessons are also good leadership tools that can be applied to our own military services.  Leaders can use them to develop their subordinates and ultimately strengthen our own warfighting organizations.

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