Small Wars Journal

Confusing Deference with Agreement

Tue, 12/06/2011 - 7:09am

“Had the coalition had a better understanding of the Iraqi logistics system under Saddam, significant resources could have been saved…this lack of understanding was in part due to an arrogant belief that coalition systems provide the best option for a developing nation being rebuilt to mimic Western, democratic models.

National logistics systems are as much a reflection of national psyche as any other pillar of national power.  Business processes and its supporting decision making and delegation systems are directly influenced by national, ethnic and religious realities….

It is also worth highlighting that logistics at every level is a function of command.  The link between the effectiveness of the command and control of the organization and prevailing logistics preparedness, responsiveness and robustness is irrefutable.

Understanding this history and building from this base rather than casting it aside and deriding it, is a path more likely to deliver agreed and shared outcomes.  Regrettably, and for too long, the coalition patronized and lorded over ISF logistics, seeking to expunge the pre-existing system and replace it with coalition systems.”   (Partnership: Development of Logistics Capabilities; Center for Army Lessons Learned, November 2009)

These quotes from “Center for Army Lessons Learned” beg the question--we collect lessons learned but, do we learn from the lessons collected?

This paper focuses on logistics but, in fact, its basic premise applies across the entire range of efforts associated with security force assistance and building institutional capacity in partner nations.  In Afghanistan the coalition seems singularly focused on installing what are arguably, the world’s most advanced logistic systems in a developing nation whose security forces boasts, at best, a third grade education and the most marginal technological infrastructure imaginable.  We espouse a handful of words that form the basis of all advising efforts; among them accountability and sustainability.  However, we must ask ourselves: are the systems we are building accountable, sustainable and, perhaps most important, enduring? 

In general, our intelligence system is focused on operational requirements and pays little attention to non-operational functions such as logistics and, what non-operational focus there is would typically be focused on Main Supply Routes or depot locations.  Faced with that lack of intelligence collection and information we are forced to guess about what might later loom as critical components for success when building institutional capacity. Furthermore, that lack of knowledge and understanding, coupled with a natural tendency to “go with what you know,” exacerbates the difficulties of “getting outside the box” and seeking to identify and implement policies and programs appropriate to the environment.  Instead we often try to make the environment fit the Coalition model.

In hindsight I wonder what analysis was done before “deciding” what logistics systems/processes were right for Afghanistan.  Among the many questions I would pose are:

  1. Were business models or historic case studies conducted of previously emerging or emergent nations; in particular those with historic/religious/ethnic parallels and those who suffer low literacy rates and minimal technological infrastructures? 
  2. Did anyone simply ask our Afghan partners what had previously worked in Afghanistan, or what hadn’t?  What was the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) logistical system prior to the Coalition’s arrival?  How robust was that system?  What were the strengths and weaknesses?  What was the historical basis? 
  1. When considering the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) [comprised of the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP)] leaders chosen to command; did anyone ask or analyze those leaders’ educational background and systems expertise?  Who asked those leaders’ for their perspectives on “where we should go?” 
  2. Did the advisors or contractors tasked to implement a logistics system for the ANA have anything other than their own military experience in a U.S. or NATO logistic systems to draw on?  Were alternatives even considered or did we set out with pre-conceived ideas based on an insular perspective founded on our (the U.S.) logistic system? 
  3. Did anyone consider the impact of the literacy rates, question the technological and physical infrastructure or user competency on future operating capability?

The bottom line that can be extrapolated from the questions above is that it is debatable whether anyone had a reasonable idea of what the ANA’s logistic and maintenance capabilities were before they were deemed inadequate.  I believe it is quite evident we did not fully understand the Afghan’s capabilities before we began building new systems. One point of evidence would be that nine years into our effort we continue to install technology based management systems that virtually no one believes have enduring value to the Afghans but which the coalition professes are necessary to manage maintenance visibility.

Did we fully understand their capabilities before implementing new systems?  I suspect the answer is a flat “NO” across the board.  Thus, with this realization in mind one must ask….just who is the more adaptive of the two: the Coalition or the Afghans? 

There are numerous examples of systems more adaptive to Afghanistan’s culture and abilities than many of those we have installed.  For example, prior to my deployment, a ranking Pentagon official informed me that the Pakistani Air Force runs their entire F-16 support and maintenance programs on a system composed of 3x5 cards and,  in fact, run that system extremely well. A similar example would be the ANA’s paper based personnel system, which while far from state of the art, functions adequately.

While addressing the first US Department of Defense civilian Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) class, no lesser a luminary than Special Ambassador Holbrooke expressed the hope that we were not so short sighted as to fail to heed the lessons of Viet Nam and Iraq wherein we installed our own, overly complex logistics systems.  The Ambassador then wondered aloud if we were doomed to commit the same sins in Afghanistan and urged us not to fall victim to that failing. 

Shortly after I arrived in country I attended a meeting in which a Coalition advisor was pushing an Afghan Lieutenant General to change a logistics procedure.  Finally the general said, “Very well, we will do it your way but when you leave we will go back to the way the Russians did it.”  Later that day I was perplexed to see the exchange viewed as a success by the advisor: he had won the argument and installed another aspect of “our” logistic system.  It was then that I first realized the grave danger of confusing deference with agreement. 

The Afghan LTG deferred to the advisor but obviously did not agree, thus making the change temporary and unsustainable.  The push from above, regardless of what the ANA thinks or needs, can be overwhelming.  One must remember the very nature of our military advisor system makes them work within a limited time frame and perspective: a year or less.  A time in which the advisor must try to form immediately effective solutions while, within the same time period, focusing on short term successes measured in terms of the quality of the advisor’s efficiency report and its’ resultant career impact. Thus, typically, the military advisor, or contractor who has only military experience on which to draw, implements systems with which he has experience while avoiding unfamiliar, often riskier, yet possibly more innovative and effective solutions.   

I have firsthand experience with advisors from Viet Nam to Afghanistan and believe we often fall victim to a potentially fatal flaw.  We know one way, our way, and fail to consider that our advanced, computer based systems may, in fact, not be suitable for emerging nations.  Quite frankly we often fall victim to our own hubris and I frequently remind myself, and others, of the danger of listening with a deaf ear and failing to understand our counterparts.   When we embark on institution building with a lack of understanding of the inherent capabilities of the nation in question, and its institutions we will surely suffer tunnel vision that leads to a failure of imagination rather than the open minded approached required to search out innovative solutions.  Bureaucracies typically reward conformity while stifling innovative thinking, flexibility, and the willingness to experiment with untested ideas.  Imagination and rogue intellect coupled with a willingness to accept risk can lead to startling realizations and innovations. On the other hand, risk averse, pre-determined mindsets all too often fail to grasp the complexities and true nature of the situation.  Ironically, risk aversion and the implementation of advanced systems leads to much longer timelines when developing partner nation capacity.  For those who are skeptical of my comments that the military might be risk averse or bureaucratic I offer the following comments from a February 2011 address to cadets at West Point by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. "A more merit-based, more individualized approach to officer evaluations could also do much to combat the risk-averse, zero-defect culture that can take over any large, hierarchical organization."

Considering that time is the single non-renewable resource we have in the combat/capacity building equation, time then becomes critically important in situations where history has repeatedly proven, progress has a shelf life limited by the political appetite for the conflict. 

Thus, it is critically important to realize that enduring change is attained through mutual agreement--not deference.  Thus, the following approach sets us on the path to gaining such agreement:

There is no question that people, not systems, are the center of gravity and you simply cannot fully understand your counterparts’ perspective unless you immerse yourself in their culture.  Quick trips to and fro designed to make a point are no substitute for hours spent listening, learning, and having frank, revelatory conversations.  In Afghanistan, tea, lunch and meaningful discussion open doors that provide incredible insight into your counterpart’s world and the opportunity to emplace the building blocks that are the very essence of effective advising ---Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!  It is those relationships that enable you to identify and begin to bridge the gap between deference and agreement.

So, if not a mirror image of our logistics system, what then?

Reframing the Solution

The US must take a chapter from our adversary’s playbook; we must analyze the situation from the mindset of the weaker nation; not the stronger.   We cannot assume that we can build institutional capacity by bludgeoning the partner nation with technology and seemingly unlimited resources. Instead, we must step into their world and attempt to identify systems that fit their current capabilities, which they will accept, and that are sufficiently accountable, enduring and sustainable.

In the business world we define efficiency as a comparison of what is actually produced or performed with what can be achieved with the same consumption of resources.  I know of no better example than FedEx’s thoughts on using radio frequency ID technology (RFID) to track packages throughout the system.  FedEx choose not to use RFID--why?  Because the traditional, two dimensional barcode system was a proven technology, whereas RFID would have required an enormous infrastructure investment, and of little benefit considering barcodes were working perfectly well.  Choosing not to employ cutting edge technology speaks volumes for a company generating $30-$35B a year in revenues. 

As stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars, we must always keep in mind that just because a system is more advanced, it is not, necessarily “better” for a particular environment where it might be employed. 

As a result I propose several ways to enhance our intervention strategies and to attain more sustainable solutions:

  1. We must begin by questioning just how many of the nations in the world we seek to help have the capacity to assimilate our systems without generational improvements in literacy and technological advances.
  1. Instead of expecting near instant gratification for our effort we must begin to think in terms of generational change and, in so doing, might well save billions of dollars.
  1. We must question the wisdom of throwing money at problems with no thought of the responsibility toward future sustainability.
  1. Instead of a near total reliance on military advisors at the most senior levels, the U.S. should place far greater reliance on a diverse civilian force; both those from the Departments of Defense and State as well as “best practice” experts from the business world; and not just as advisors but as critical members of the planning team
  1. Civilian advisors must be included from the very onset of the effort.
  1. From inception, we must establish a baseline and determine what a sustainable, end-state budget might look like.  For example:
  • What do economists forecast the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to be in the timeline in which we hope to achieve sustainability?
  • What percentage of that end-state GDP should be allocated to the military?
  • Going one step further, if the sustainment of the partner nations security forces depends on GDP, then development of the partner’s GDP potential should be treated as a military necessity.

However, when referring to an end-state budget I do not mean to say we cannot exceed the targeted budget during the capacity-building phase of operations.  It merely sets sustainable parameters for whatever end-state we envision.

If we accept these premises and establish a goal of constraining choices it will, in turn, shape our contribution. Thus, rather than introducing systems requiring western levels of literacy and advanced technology we would, instead, focus on fielding systems that meld with the actual capacity of the partner nation; the 3x5 card solution.  In other words, we should identify what is good enough for the partner nation and assist in mastering those systems as a baseline for further development while working to build up their literacy and technological capability.  In modeling an institution by aligning programs and systems to sustainable strategic outcomes, we overcome the mistaken presumption that open-ended funding will continue in perpetuity.  In so doing we would demand a degree of ’belt tightening’ wherein concepts like the 3x5 card management system would be viewed as brilliant rather than ignorant.

I believe the Department of Defense should establish a “Skunk Works” composed of a wide variety of military and civilian experts from the Pentagon, academia, and the business community.  Moreover, it should act as a capacity building headquarters in order to avoid the pickup game of individual augmentees on a Joint Manning Document, which is disastrous to the core principal of unity of effort.  There must be a core of professionals that understands security assistance in order to drive the vision and strategy of institutional development.  Augmentees are critical for actual mission success but only under the supervision of a team with the intellectual capacity and experience to effectively guide their efforts. The mandate of that team would be to study both the historic and current institutional capacity of less developed countries around the world and capture the “best practices.”  A useful construct will then emerge as a series of assessment matrixes applying known systems to the actual abilities of partner nations.  Those assessments matrices should include literacy, human technological capabilities across the force structure, physical infrastructure available for technology based systems, religion(s), ethnicities and historic parallels.

As examples:  North Viet Nam was able to conduct highly complex resupply operations across large geographic distances despite a massive interdiction effort.  We might consider exactly how were they able to manage that, what systems they used.  Following the Cold War, a number of nations in Eastern Europe emerged as very capable western allies.  Before adapting to NATO requirements it is entirely possible components of their logistics systems were compatible with nations having limited infrastructure with respect to technology and literacy. We should study the Pakistani 3x5 card management and the Afghan’s paper based personnel management systems to determine their adequacy in emerging nations with limited literacy and technology infrastructures.

The Department of Defense’s (DOD) Minister of Defense Advisor (MoDA) pilot program directed toward institutional capacity building is a quantum step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, MoDA arrived on the ground in Afghanistan far too late to achieve its full potential and have the desired impact.  Introduced nine years into the effort, MoDA finds the Coalition committed to systems on which we have expended enormous resources. Thus, it is now incumbent upon us to analyze existing systems, decide which are truly enduring and then make those work.  Because the die was already cast we are limited with respect to proposing alternative systems which might, in fact, be more applicable to the environment. 

In addition, if MoDA were integrated with the existing DoD Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI) the “…combined focus on national level defense sector governance …” could provide strategic insights into possible future efforts in addition to the current capabilities in the fields of advisors, seminars, studies and workshops.

In order to achieve their full potential the MoDA-DIRI (M-D) program must be included in nations where conflict has not occurred or before Stability Operations begin where we face an ongoing conflict.  To be completely effective M-D must be involved in all phases of a combat operation with its initial introduction into Theater toward the end of the Exploitation Phase of operations.  At a minimum the program should include the following:

  1. A process to conduct appropriate information gathering with respect to prospective partner nations.  M-D requires authority to promulgate appropriate CCIR wherein other agencies provide the requisite data collection and analysis.
  1. A dedicated joint M-D  staff whose mission is to “think outside the box” while conducting both historic and present day nation-state case studies with an eye toward future DoD mandates to build institutional capacity in as yet unknown nations.  Staff membership should be comprised of a diverse group from across the military, defense department and business world.    
  1. A methodology to utilize those case studies to produce “plug and play” action plans applicable to a wide variety of potential scenarios across a full spectrum of assessment factors including, but not limited to; religion, ethnicity, cultural, literacy, technical infrastructure, geography, historic international affiliations and existing capacity.
  1. DoD insistence on inclusion of M-D planning teams with primary staffs focused on possible operations in evolving nations.
  1. Inclusion of advisory teams in theater-level CPX’s.
  1. The ability to project M-D teams to any theater on short notice to serve as a senior DoD advisory team(s) to the commander(s) tasked with stability operations, security force assistance, and building institutional capacity.  It is imperative such teams have status equal to, and be an integral part of, the joint commander’s primary staff.

A perfect example of adaptive solutions is the Logistics Readiness Tool (LRT) recently developed and implemented by the Afghan National Police (ANP).   A charter member of the aforementioned initial MoDA team and on arrival in country in July 2010 was assigned as one of the senior advisors to the Ministry of Interior (the Afghan National Police) to assist in building their logistics capabilities.  It is no secret that Afghan National Police’s institutional development is less advanced than the ANA and, therefore offers greater latitude in building alternative sustainable capability. Recognizing that technology and literacy were significant barriers to the implementation of NATO logistics systems Mr. Pollitt determined that advanced programs such as Core Information Management System were a “bridge too far” for the ANP.  Working with the full support of the forward thinking USAF Colonel who is the senior logistics advisor to the ANP, Mr. Pollitt developed the LRT using Microsoft Access data base management software to build a program utilizing an amazingly simple, yet effective, reporting system for “shoot, move and communicate” equipment.  LRT was immediately embraced by the Afghans and recently implemented by a coalition review board after comparison to Core IMS.  Fundamentally, the appropriate solution for the ANP was found in an inexpensive, highly effective, easily maintained, sustainable system, which goes so far as to offer pictures of each item of equipment within the database to facilitate use by literacy challenged personnel.

In its simplest form our military’s mission is to fight and win wars.  Quite frankly, conventional threats, State Department reluctance to engage their personnel in dangerous environments, global terrorism and the menace of nuclear proliferation have stretched our resources thin.    In today’s world that same military is now asked not only to fight and win but also train to foreign armies and, at the same time, assume an ever greater role in building institutional capacity.  Consequently; the U.S. military is being tasked with missions not previously envisioned and for which they often lack the appropriate force structure and/or for which they are poorly trained.

Historically, a conventional perspective of a force on force, linear battlefield allowed each member of a functional specialty to hone their skills to a razor sharp edge in preparation for combat.  Today’s complex operating environment, diverse threats and increased roles must force us to realize that focused training is incredibly more difficult. That diversity also forces us to face an entirely new set of problems and requires today’s military leaders to have a much broader understanding of the possible roles in which they might be asked to serve.  Ideally officers/civilians/NCOs selected as advisors for building institutional capacity will be carefully selected for superior critical thinking and communication skills as well as a unique capacity to adapt to a broad array of tasks.  In addition they should receive advisor specific training prior to their deployment.

Conversely, our national military command must provide those advisors with the institutional support necessary for them to approach their new found roles in coordinated, efficient manner. It is toward that end that I urge consideration be given to the suggestions offered by myself and others, all of which are directed toward finding more efficient and effective ways to capitalize on lessons learned as well as capitalize on “outside” expertise in order to build capacity in emerging partner nations with limited resources.

In a rapidly evolving world in which we are faced with asymmetric foes, I challenge us to think asymmetrically when analyzing our past and current efforts directed toward building institutional capacity.  We do not know who our next foe will be, we do not know which nation or geographic area might partner the next asymmetric battlefield and we simply cannot afford to squander precious resources on efforts where hindsight will say, “Why did they think that would work”

In the end I am left with the unanswered dilemma:  we collect lessons learned---but do we learn from the lessons collected?

About the Author(s)

John Gillette is a former infantry officer and private sector business owner with ‘on the ground’ experience from Viet Nam to Afghanistan.  He recently completed a two year tour as a member of the first team deployed under the Minister of Defense Advisors (MODA) program.   In Afghanistan he served as the senior advisor to an Afghan Major General with whom he traveled extensively within the country.  His length and breadth of experience across more than forty years offers candid, passionate insights of the pitfalls to success he has seen repeated again and again, the actual state of our mission today and what we must do in order to be successful in the future.


Chuck Heiden

Tue, 12/06/2011 - 9:11am

Excellent article that brings some points to the front needing serious consideration in the advising effort. Integration of civilian advisers from DoD, whether long time or new hires, for their particular specialties and perspective is definitely needed. I look forward to seeing the debate you have provoked.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 12/06/2011 - 8:59am

This article is interesting in that while "we" claim that we are collecting Lessons Learned and "we" have spent massive amounts of money and created hundreds of defense contractor positions to simply "collect" the LL'd---surprising little of the "collections" make it into the CTC scenarios or into MREs or at the very least into unit/MOS refresher training.

Take Afghan insurgent battle TTPs broken down by RC---what actual Army unit sits down prior to deployment and hammers home those enemy TTPs--what battle staff hones their understanding of the current factors of instability in the AO they are supporting---meaning in their sleep they understand immediately what they are seeing in their AO when they arrive in theater.

No---it still takes a BCT 60-90 sometimes 120 days to get their feet under them and then it is time to start packing up.

As we shift to 9 month deployments Lessons Learned become even more critical---but the mechanism that we have built to capture and train has actually failed regardless of how many pubs, pams, powerpoint presentations have been built and disseminated.

If in fact Lessons Learned is working as envisioned we would be alot further along in Afghanistan than we currently are and our CTC scenarios, MCTP scenarios, and home station training would constantly reflect with a small delay what is going on in theater---we must simply ask the question "are we as a battle staff seeing theater Lessons Learned within a short timeframe after they occur in theater---answer is usually no.

If we take as well all the AARs written by returning BCTs---are the BCTs going into theater repeating the exact same learning experience or have they finetuned their arrival to pickup at the point the previous unit left it---yes we have RIP and RIP/TOA but are we just continuing the previous units's learning experinces or are we based on LL'd ready to make immediate changes to match our view of what the factors of instability are and to act on the insurgent TTPs that believe it or not does not change that much especially in Afghanistan.