The Barefoot Strategist

Strategy, planning, policy, international relations, security affairs, and barefoot running.

Advisors: Creating a Strategic Effect or Political Window Dressing?

The following post was recently published by Ty Mayfield (@TyrellMayfield) on his outstanding blog about advisors and advising, The Kabul Cable

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and does not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

One of the most rhetorically-resourced programs in the military services over the last half decade is the “advisor”.  Advisors have taken many forms, in Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM/NEW DAWN; from internally-resourced groups (in the US Army, these were mostly carved out of a land-owning Brigade Combat Team) to Joint-resourced groups formed and trained before deployment, and even civilian Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) with personnel volunteering from within almost any US federal agency to fill a specific skill set.   There has been little coherence or strategic direction given to each program, aside from the general concept of “developing indigenous capacity to stand up, so we can stand down”.  This is the result of scaling up a niche capability beyond where it has strategic utility.  Ultimately, I believe large, ad hoc, conventional force-focused capacity building programs focused on developing security forces doesn’t work, mainly due to a lack of a viable policy for them to achieve.

What I am not saying is that advisors are worthless or without effect on the battlefield.  They most certainly have utility in specific instances where their efforts can have significant strategic effect in support of specific desired political objectives. Let’s take an aside here to make sure we’re all on the same page by defining the two most important phrases in that last sentence: “strategic effect” and “political objectives”.  These two are critical in understanding why, in some cases (including those in Iraq and Afghanistan), I believe advisors are more political window dressing than actors creating strategic effect.

Colin S. Gray is one of the most prolific and eloquent writers in regards to these two concepts (and strategy in general).  According to Gray:

Strategic effect refers to the consequences of behaviour upon an enemy. The effect can be material, psychological, or both.  Control is sought via restricting an enemy’s ability to resist and also, perhaps, his will to do so.[1]

In essence, strategic effect is creating the behavior in the enemy you desire in order to achieve a policy objective.  Again, according to Gray, “The political objectives…provide the purposes of particular historical strategies.”[2]   So political objectives are the purpose, the entire raison d’etre, a government is taking action against another country or group.  It is a vision for how things should/will look if the action is taken.

This means that in order for advisors to have strategic effect, they must be creating a desired change in the enemy in regards to restricting their ability to continue to contest our forces and those that we are advising – all toward a desired political objective.  I believe that our current use of conventional forces as advisors – the industrial machine pumping some more-, some less-trained random groupings of people – does have the semblance of a political objective; namely to develop indigenous capacity (in this case mostly military and law enforcement capabilities, with the exception of the MoDA program that focuses on the civilian capacity in Ministries of Defense and Interior) in many areas to ensure stability as we remove our forces.  In theory, this would restrict the enemy’s ability to achieve their aims and ultimately bring an end to the conflict.  This is, however, a flawed policy that will likely never come to fruition.  It in effect requires a change in a society and a culture that is outside our capability to provide.  Even if we create some capable ministers, officers, soldiers, or even units, the system in which they work and the society in which they live will have a greater influence on the future than those individuals we develop.  

The best example of this is simply where things stand today in the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF).  Despite a decade of materiel and advisor support (though, admittedly, only about 2 years of dedicated focus and funding since the activation of the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan headed by the U.S.), the operational independence, institutional effectiveness, and cohesiveness of the ANSF is marginally improved.  Even more concerning, their capacity to secure all of the country and bring visible stability attributable to the Afghan government (the political objective I believe was, at least at one point, the reason for our continued presence in Afghanistan), has not materialized.  Add the Green-on-Blue attacks that are devastating the relationship between Western and Afghan forces (from the ISAF/Presidential level down to advisors/ANSF on the ground), and it appears the tipping point toward a transition seems in doubt.

Unlike the approach we’ve taken in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, advisors that are employed to achieve limited aims can have significant strategic effect.  Examples, even from other areas of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, include support provided to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to combat Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, and CIA and SOF support to anti-Taliban elements during the opening weeks of Afghanistan.  There are dozens of other examples, but each share at least one similarity – a limited political objective that can be attained by well-trained personnel dedicated to these types of missions.  When this is done, the political objective can be attained with relatively little force commitment and narrow tasks dedicated to creating strategic effect.  For example, the political objective of the forces in the Philippines is to support the AFP to kill and/or capture identified personal of terrorist groups.  They are not trying to remake an entire country or win the hearts and minds of an indigenous population; their limited aim is to support the killing/capturing of terrorists while training and equipping the AFP’s ability to do the same.

So, where do we go from here?  In my opinion, we’re already on our way.  Limited political objectives, executed by a well-trained dedicated forces is the rule today; 100 trainers to Uganda to help battle a known foe, small training teams sent by AFRICOM to develop basic soldiering skills across the continent, and counter-terrorism teams supporting efforts to disrupt and dismantle belligerent networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  These are how advisors can have strategic effect and achieve limited political objectives.  We owe it to our advisors to provide them not only the right training and the right tools, but also more importantly, the right policy.


[1] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 7-8.

[2] Ibid, 18.