August 05, 2009

Why isn't army-building working (pt. 2)?

Lack of advisor continuity could be one reason that army mentoring in Afghanistan and possibly Iraq is not succeeding as we might have expected. I was the third mentor in my particular position that Afghan army staffers could remember; I was succeeded by a fourth, and he'll be coming home himself in a couple months to be succeeded again. Even if we were all of the same mind with all our successors and predecessors what needed to be done (and that's difficult due to the near-complete absence of official doctrine or advice to draw on), and we were fully committed to the task, the overall message we were sending by this sort of perpetual turnover is not one of commitment to the host nation. The effect on the Afghans must be similar to a Canadian workplace besieged by a perpetual stream of management consultants.

The success stories of indigenous army-building we all know and use as exemplars tended to have far fewer continuity breaks, and an almost unapproachable depth of experience in the principal leadership:

--T.E. Lawrence had been a Middle East archeologist who had practically lived in the Ottoman Empire for five years prior to his commissioning in 1914;

--Orde Wingate was also fluent in Oxford Arabic and had been a major in the Sudan Defence Force for five years interwar, before he formed the successful Sudanese-Ethiopian Gideon Force in 1941;

--John Paul Vann's first failed attempt to be an ARVN military advisor in 1962-3 preceded his relative success organizing South Vietnamese resistance as a civilian advisor from 1965 to 1972; Joe Stilwell had served in China through most of the 1930s before becoming senior advisor to the Kuomintang in 1942.

--In Canadian history, Matthew Elliott, who helped bring the Indians into the War of 1812, had lived on and off with them from 1774 on; his stint as Superintendant of Indian Affairs (his second) had begun four years earlier. His predecessor in that essential Indian liaison role, William Johnson, had already been named an honorary sachem by the Mohawk in 1742, which undoubtedly helped him lead them to support the British in the Seven Years War and Pontiac's War after that, over a decade later.

--For that matter, the British officers who founded the Canadian army and led it to its first victories also had extensive local experience before they started throwing their weight about. Garnet Wolseley, who led them to their first real success in the Red River expedition in 1870, had been in a command position with that force from 1861 on. His mentor and colleague Patrick MacDougall had served in Canada for 10 years before being sent there to create the first real Canadian militia force in 1865.

It's fair to say that no one I have met or served with in an military advisory capacity, despite their many other excellent qualities, has had anything like that kind of level of experience with the Afghans. That has to be a factor in how much impact we're having. By comparison, we're all short-timers.

That's not to say that there isn't lots of room for short-timers in mentoring, particularly in low ranks or technical areas. Lawrence's NCO assistants, "Stokes" and "Vickers", who trained the Arabs in their respective weapons and fought alongside them, had none of Lawrence's prior experience. Like the others in Lawrence's small party, it would have been enough that they were effective military instructors and soldiers: nothing more was asked of them. Where the cutoff line on that, though, is hard to say outright.

A related issue is the continuity on the home side. Part of the challenge is that, although there's now lots of us with relevant experience, there is no standing mentoring force in most armies, no centre of excellence where lessons can easily be archived and recalled. The Canadian battlegroup in Kandahar Province is, more or less, based on a standing infantry battalion, shipped over and back in a block. This gives it advantages I've mentioned before in pre-deployment, as its training and administrative facilities are not all stitched-together ad hockery. To a degree this is necessary: in Canada the battalion is the basic building block of any task force; and any deployed force aimed at mentoring is going to have a significantly different orbat. The result, though, is that when a battalion ships out to be a battlegroup, the building it occupied in Canada basically closes up for six months, after which they all come back and store all their lessons learned etc., in preparation for the next go; but an OMLT has no home base to launch from or return to, and no place to put all that information. The upshot is each new OMLT is essentially a one-shot organization, stood up for the one rotation only, with little in the way of formal links between itself and its predecessors or successors, as strong or as weak in relevant issues like cultural understanding as the strengths and weaknesses of its senior members. Who, as mentioned above, are not particularly experienced by comparison to any previously successful examples found in the history books. That has to seen as imposing some limitations.

UPDATE: I was glad to see the current Canadian commander in Kandahar has no illusions about the current state of affairs, thankfully:

"Il n'y a aucune manière d'arriver au point où les forces afghanes pourraient s'occuper de la sécurité à Kandahar en 2011. C'est absolument impossible."

Posted by BruceR at 04:27 PM