Small Wars Journal

Conceptual Model of Advisor-Counterpart Interactions to Develop Institutional Viability

Thu, 11/04/2021 - 2:59am

Conceptual Model of Advisor-Counterpart Interactions to Develop Institutional Viability


by Aaron Byrd




Current efforts in Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA) efforts rely on relationships created between advisors and counterparts. The DoD’s handbook “Advising at the Senior Level” describes the role advisors and the relationships we build:

“An advisor is a subject matter expert who serves with foreign security forces, or their ministerial-level security institutions, to advise, counsel, and assist their partner nation counterparts. An advisor’s primary purpose is to create professional relationships that will inspire and influence their counterparts, and their counterparts’ organization, to become more effective and accomplish their missions, while putting in place sustainable processes that will endure beyond their tour as an advisor.” (Rocke and Gillette 2019)

These relationships have the singular goal of improving our counterpart’s ability to function effectively and supply key functional efforts that are needed to make our counterpart’s organization more capable and effective (more institutionally viable). Because relationships are at the heart of advising, advisors constantly find themselves balancing the relationship with their counterparts to either get work done themselves or through their counterpart’s actions and initiative.

The level of who does what is an integral part of the advising relationship. The overall goal is to, in the end, have our counterparts function effectively as an integral part of their organization in such a way that the organization performs its functions successfully. When our counterparts can effectively lead and manage their organization in such a way that they advance the overall mission objectives, the advisor’s TAA effort is complete.

While the overarching goal is to develop effective counterparts that enable institutional viability, most advisor-counterpart relationships tend to develop into a static level of who does what. It usually takes a change in the advising environment (organizational changes, advisor changes, or changes in leadership priorities) to spur change in the advising relationships. However, changing and growing advising relationships, so that advisors lead less, and our counterparts lead more, is at the heart of developing the capabilities of our counterparts.

To understand how to better transition our relationships in a manner that improves the capabilities of our counterparts, though, we first need a conceptual model of advisor-counterpart interactions in a relationship.  A SIGAR report (SIGAR 2019) also comments on this lack of a common understanding:

“The U.S. government was ill-prepared to conduct [security sector assistance] programs of the size and scope required in Afghanistan. The lack of commonly understood terms, concepts, and models undermined interagency communication and coordination, damaged trust, intensified frictions, and contributed to under-resourcing of the U.S. effort to develop the ANDSF.” (SIGAR 2019)

There is a strong need to create a conceptual model of TAA relationships with terms and concepts that define stages in the relationship that enable a common understanding and language of advisor-counterpart interactions. The challenge is to define this model in terms that result in meaningful methods and metrics for TAA efforts that create organizational leadership capability (Byrd and Braden 2020) and move the mission forward. 

The Advisor-Counterpart Interaction Model


In looking at the spectrum of advising relationships over time, including SIGAR reports on previous experience in Afghanistan, I have noted parallels to a conceptual model of coaching/mentoring/advising relationships described by Col. Maynard (Maynard 2020). The advisor-counterpart relationship spans a continuum from entirely advisor led, to cooperation, to entirely counterpart led. The value of creating and utilizing a conceptual model that describes discrete stages in the relationship is that it enables common understanding of where the relationship is and how to move the advising relationship forward to enable greater ownership and capability within our counterparts.  

The advisor-counterpart relationship model described below has 10 stages. These range from entirely advisor-led (1) to entirely counterpart led (10).

  1. Manipulation: Advisors push and force counterparts into making decisions and taking actions contrary to what they want to do.
  2. Decoration: Advisors make all decisions and take actions; counterparts may be present when decisions are announced.
  3. Tokenism: Advisors make all decisions and take actions but make attempts to have counterparts present as part of the conversation to imply acceptance and credibility.
  4. Assigned and informed: Advisors make decisions but include counterparts in discussions and assignment of actions to be taken.
  5. Consulted and Informed: Advisors make decisions but get input and feedback from counterparts about the decisions; counterparts included in assignment of actions.
  6. Advisor Initiation, Shared Decisions: Advisors lead the effort to bring about change in a specific area; decisions result as a mutually agreed choice between advisors and counterparts.
  7. Shared Initiation, Shared Decisions: Both advisors and counterparts bring up and work on specific topic areas for change; decisions result as a mutually agreed choice between advisors and counterparts.
  8. Counterpart Initiation, Shared Decisions: Counterparts predominantly lead the change efforts; decisions are mutually agreed upon.
  9. Counterpart Initiation and Decision, Advisor Consulted: Counterparts identify and lead the change efforts and make the decisions; Counterparts refer to advisors for counsel and inform about decisions.
  10. Counterpart Initiation and Decision: Counterparts lead the change efforts and make decisions; advisors not consulted or informed.

One way of viewing this model is like a set of balance scales (see Figure 1). How much we as advisors initiate actions and take decisions is balanced against how much our partners initiate actions and take decisions. The ability and desire of our counterparts to initiate decisions consistent with institutional viability demonstrates how far they have progressed towards being an organizational leader that enables overarching institutional viability.


Figure 1. Depiction of the balance scales of advisor-counterpart actions. What determines the balance is who makes the decisions about what is to be done. As we work to move the balance in favor of partner-led activities we are able to progressively increase leadership capability of our partners and thus the institutional viability of the organizations we are working to build up. From author.

In the model above, the first three stages are almost entirely advisor centric. They differ slightly by their intentions and by the situation. While there may be times when these stages are appropriate, they are certainly few in both number and context.

The next set of stages still have advisors taking the lead but increasingly working with their counterparts and gradually putting their counterparts more in the lead. As we do not always get assigned to reliable, capable partners, sometimes this level of interaction is where we need to function to enable the overall mission to move forward. Also, there are times when the work to be done exceeds our counterparts’ capacity. For example, the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan (CSTC-A) had for years an “off-budget” (a “we pay, we do”, rather than the Afghans do) programs to construct facilities, conduct vehicle maintenance, and supply locations with fuel for generators and vehicles. These actions were to provide mission-critical actions that were beyond the capabilities of the Afghan organizations to do on their own. It should be recognized clearly, though, that this means the advisors were the buttresses that were holding the organization together. If the advisors leave without creating a path to organizational leadership in the organizations we support, there will be a significant leadership gap and the organizations will not be institutionally viable – they will not be enduring organizations capable of resolving ongoing concerns and adapting to new needs.

On the other end of the scale is our counterparts crafting a vision, creating a plan, and initiating action. When our counterparts initiate actions and decisions, they are using their understanding of the cultural and organizational context. They are basing their actions on the perceived state of the organization, their personal goals, and the (perceived) goals of the organization. These goals may or may not be readily apparent to the advisors. This is our counterparts making work happen, but in their way.

When we as advisors initiate actions and decisions, we are inherently doing those actions and decisions in what we think is the most appropriate manner and frequently based on our national interests and politics.  This is inherently the “easy” button, as we typically see it, to creating the effects we desire. Thus, advisors can default to making decisions when our counterparts seem to not be making decisions to solve problems and move the mission forward.

The root problem with advisors initiating actions and making decision is that the advisors are not attuned to the cultural and organizational environment that provide the context for making appropriate decisions. This lack of context means that advisors will often make decisions that are at odds with the rest of the organization and how the other organizational leaders will make decisions and take actions. Our counterparts need to mesh their efforts into the wider efforts of the organization, which in part is dependent on processes, and in part dependent on relationships. As advisors we can seek to understand our counterpart’s systems and processes, and try to understand the relationships and network, but we will always be at a disadvantage compared to our counterparts. Our advantage comes from steadily working to understand our counterpart’s systems and processes, being able to frame the processes, understand friction points, and enable our counterparts to better think through decisions and focus resources where the needs are greatest.

In strengthening our counterparts, the challenge for advisors is to both understand our counterpart’s actions, decisions, and cultural context for those decisions, assess how reliable and capable our partners are, and balance the immediate risk to mission due to inaction or inappropriate actions with the need to create long-term sustainable change within our counterparts and within their organization.

The Balance between Doing and Building


The advisor-counterpart interaction model describes discrete stages along an adjusting balance of advisors doing and our counterparts doing. At any given time, there is a balance that enables maximum output and work done towards the mission. Finding and understanding this sweet spot is part of the art of advising. However, the goal of advising is developing institutional viability – the ability of the organization to perform effectively with minimal to no advisor assistance. Thus, as advisors our aim is to slowly shift the balance to the right. Keeping the balance of effort a little past the comfort zone of our counterparts, a little bit to the right of the zone of maximum output, enables our counterparts to grow and build capability.

This will mean that we will not usually function at maximum output – there will be many times when efforts are short of what we as advisors would consider to be appropriate or expected. Understanding this and being comfortable in this non-optimal zone can be a challenge to advisors.

Creating this gap between our efforts and our counterpart’s plan efforts two things. First, it gives our counterparts the time and space to develop the skills in planning the activities in question. Second, it can, but does not always, create a larger risk to mission. By giving our counterparts the time and space to develop and apply their skills, we create an opportunity for us to train and advise on specific skills. It also gives us a means to assess our counterpart’s reliability and their desire to grow in their position.

A situation that happens regularly in a war zone is urgent life/health/safety situations.  When time is of the essence for saving lives, there will of necessity be urgency to make the “work” happen and happen quickly. Even in these situations, however, balancing our counterpart’s need to learn and grow with the moral imperative to act to save lives is a delicate task. In a war or areas of conflict, hard lessons learned often come with the loss of lives. Removing the consequences of our counterpart’s actions, or lack of action, is counterproductive to the larger purpose of advising. We need to remember that our role is to move the mission forward and help our counterpart learn and become a better leader. There is a difference, however, between bad consequences that are recoverable and bad consequences that are not recoverable. Discerning between the two and determining what is a recoverable situation and being more hands off, and what is not is not a recoverable situation and being more hands on, is also part of the art of advising.

Assessing Our Counterpart’s Skill and Desire


When our counterparts are presented with a gap in their capabilities and skills, we can discern much by their response. Managing shortfalls in skills, actions, and capabilities is the job of a leader. Leadership is a skill, and one that can be learned and developed. We should be looking for clues about communication techniques and styles; their ability to digest and recognize systems issues, their ability to delegate, guide, and direct their subordinates; their ability to connect their organizations processes to larger inter-organizational processes; and their ability to work with less-than-fully-competent peers, managers, and subordinates. Identifying and resolving organizational challenges is a foundational component of what leaders do. This can take an emotional toll, though, that can bring morale down if the “wins” and hard work are not recognized, and if they don’t have a break / vacation to help them reset.

Through assessing the performance of your counterpart to resolve these gaps in capability, you can also see the capacity of both your counterpart and his/her organization. Who can step up and help when needed? Is there one go-to person, or multiple go-to people? How much do those people have on their plate? Resolving problems takes manpower with the right set of skills and relationships. By seeing how our counterpart’s organization acts and reacts, we can start to sense depth of skill set and depth of relationships. Our counterpart’s ability to identify and task the go-to people is a key skill they need in their toolbox. This begins with a mindset in our counterparts of developing their subordinates and improving their subordinate’s skill sets and relationships, which is another skill that can be developed.


The conceptual model presented in this paper shows varying levels of engagement and interactions on initiatives in our TAA relationships. The conceptual model is framed as a balance of advisor-initiated actions vs counterpart-initiated actions. Identifying where in the scale our relationships are will enable us to gage how to create an appropriate skill gap, and thus create a focus for TAA efforts, that allows our counterparts to grow in their leadership skill. The ultimate aim of advisors is to have our counterparts be fully capable of effectively leading their organization in such a manner that their organization is able to make the whole institution viable, functional, and effective at their mission, without advisor input. The conceptual model helps us as advisors recognize what stage our counterparts are at in their progression to effective leaders, as well as helps us understand how to create the skill gaps that are the driving mechanism to create change and develop our counterparts. Using this model creates a common framework and language that allows for more consistent, effective TAA efforts.




Byrd, A.R., Braden, M. (2020). “A Culture-Independent Conceptual Model of Organizational Leadership for Advisors.” Small Wars Journal,, Published 20 October 2020, Accessed 2 April 2021.

Maynard, “The Boy-Led Troop”, Accessed 2 April 2021.

Rocke, M.D., Gillette, J.M. (2019) “Advising at the Senior Level: Lessons and Best Practices.” Center for Army Lessons Learned Handbook No. 19-06. January 2019.

SIGAR (2019). “Divided Responsibility: Lessons from U.S. Security Sector Assistance Efforts in Afghanistan.” Accessed 11 August 2020.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Aaron Byrd is a research engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center, in Vicksburg, MS. He is on his first deployment to Afghanistan as an advisor to support the Afghan police.