September 09, 2010


Some American soldiers have been charged in the murder of three Afghans in Maiwand District of Kandahar Province, as well as beating up another soldier who had reported they were smoking hashish, earlier this year.

Posted by BruceR at 12:53 PM

Personal advice to another mentor

A colleague of mine was taking up an Afghan S2 (military intelligence) mentoring job: we talked for a while on the phone and in email, and the following is some of the general advice I offered.

If I had to sum it all up, I'd say, sometimes (although not always) in your prep it can help to try to put yourself in the mental frame of mind of a time-travelling Int O going back to visit a brigade S2 in Normandy, 1944 (or wherever), going back to help them defeat the Nazis a little faster. That's not meant as a put down to either Normandy vets or Afghans, btw: they're both better natural fighters than our average Canadian today, in all probability. What would you bring back with you? Organization? Procedures? They've got them, even if we might think they were 60 years behind the times. Technology? Not so much. If you could provide your 1944 counterpart with a conduit to bring a little more of the future tech (ISR, etc.) to their fight against the Germans, and showed you shared their cause a little, you'd win them over and probably do some good. PowerPoints on Canadian IPB [Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace] doctrine, not so much... and if you find yourself at any time acting like a Canadian management consultant, you're probably doing something wrong, at least in my humble opinion.

That's obviously not close to the whole answer, but it can be a useful mental model to play around with for some aspects of the job that helps avoid some of the more obvious errors.

The only other thing I'd say about Afghan mentoring, and this is something I never really could articulate until after it was over, was that the daily chai and conversation stuff was never really mentoring. It's just the petty diplomacy that leads to the mentoring later on. The bad mentors all get that wrong and focus on the day trips and the chess games. It's not VIP visits to each other's camp, or one-off planning sessions either.

The real stuff happens when soldiers (other than the mentor) from both armies are required to cohabit each others space for an extended period. Any time you see that start to happen, you need to throw the S2's resources at it (ISR, ortho-imagery, etc.) to make it a success. (Because if it fails, each side will blame the other, and the gap between the armies and their intents only grows.)

In my roto, we identified three such opportunities in the S2 realm--brigade-level ops with a deployed HQ, the OCC-P, and the kandak-level shared ANA/OMLT ops centres--and we tried to throw everything we could at them. I don't know what the equivalent would be there right now: you'll have to find your own opportunities. But if you get can pros from both armies in the same space with a shared conops, looking across a desk at each other for a few days, they will find a way to make it work, lessons will be learned all around, and bad guys will die. Everything else the mentor does is really just prep/fluff/workup for making those key times into successes.

Good mentors push for and support those opportunities where they find them, because they know that's the real s--t.

Bad mentors try instead to set themselves up as the single point of contact between the two armies and try to shuttle situational awareness back and forth all day themselves, rather than getting the two armies to work face-to-face.

Inevitably, no matter how good a diplomat the mentor might be, this approach will fail, as both sides come to blame all their own little misunderstandings and failures to communicate across space, language and culture onto the mentor, with Afghans thinking the mentor's a plant, or a dupe, Canadians thinking they've gone all "Avatar" on them, and both sides doubting the mentor's intelligence.

This is doubly true for S2s, because their stock in trade is information sharing. So don't worry: you don't have to be the bridge yourself. You just have to be the bridge builder.

I'd just add to this that a lot of the problems with our mental models for mentoring host nation forces have to deal with the mass-media narratives we base our preconceptions on. The "caught between two cultures" story, whether it's Lawrence of Arabia, Pocahontas, Avatar or Dances With Wolves, is generally portrayed as a solo protagonist's struggle, because that makes for better drama: one person, struggling to toe a very fine line, choosing duty over love (or love over duty), etc. But in the real world, supporting a foreign army isn't like that at all: it's very much a collaborative effort. T.E. Lawrence's support to the Arab Revolt wasn't just one man as in the movie; the allies sent a large, polyglot team of advisers -- British soldiers and officers, Egyptians, French -- of which he was just the best known.

And the mentor himself isn't always at center stage, either: to take another example from Canadian history, the British-Indian collaboration of Brock and Tecumseh that resulted in the capture of Michigan Territory in 1812 and set American conquest plans back a year was the result of years of patient set-up work by Matthew Elliott and the rest of the British Indian Department: but when the two British and Indian leaders finally and famously met to seal their plans, those agents didn't need a seat at the table between them.

These are the sorts of successful real-life historical examples that really need to be collected and studied more thoroughly if we're ever going to get beyond some of the simplistic models of mentoring practice that we otherwise tend to internalize and have to have shaken out of us on deployment, myself included.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 AM