Small Wars Journal

New Rules for Advisers at the Strategic and Institutional Levels

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 10:06am

New Rules for Advisers at the Strategic and Institutional Levels

Edward P. Donnelly

Jim King wrote an excellent article in Small Wars Journal[i] advocating 15 rules for what he asserts is a little known core competency of the US Army -- advising host nation forces. Jim laments that, despite over 50 recent years of experience in this competency, the US Army has devoted little effort to either producing doctrine or developing training and education programs to assist in the preparation of soldiers for that role.  Yet, Jim does point out that the Army had done already some things to prepare Advisors prior to his 2007 assignment, and the Army continues to try to improve the manner in which it develops this important core competency[ii].  Notwithstanding Jim’s constructive criticism and acknowledging that there is always room for improvement, the Army should be justifiably proud with the manner in which it has responded to the demand and improved its ability to prepare and deploy soldiers skilled in advising foreign nations’ forces at the tactical and operational levels.

However, we should be less sanguine about our ability to advise foreign nations’ forces at the strategic and institutional levels.  As, if not more, important to developing host nations’ forces to conduct military activities at the tactical and operational level, is developing their capability and capacity to plan for, resource, and sustain affordable solutions to security issues so that tactical and operational success has a much better chance of translating to lasting security and stability.  The US Department of Defense (DOD) recognized this need for strategic and institutional capability and capacity among many of our partners starting in the late 1980s[iii].  The Department commenced several institution building programs relying upon expertise organic to the Department but very few DOD employees had the requisite ability to impart that expertise and those that had the ability frequently had other career related priorities.  The Department then turned to other organizations, especially Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), for assistance in recruiting, organizing, training, and deploying people with the core competency of advising host nation forces at the strategic and institutional levels.  Able to draw from retired military or civilian personnel with defense institution experience and from individuals with academic or corporate experience, these organizations have successfully executed the task relying upon best practices from around the world.[iv] In the spirit of Jim’s article, some practices may be worth sharing.[v]

Be humble -- we didn’t get it right the first time either.  The United States, despite centuries of Western European tradition and almost 150 years of experience in democratic government stumbled out of the gate upon achieving independence.  We should not be surprised that many of our partner nations, following decades or centuries of control by dictators or colonial powers, have difficulties in establishing governmental organizations or processes that are incorruptible, transparent, and democratic.  The United States, formed from a group of colonies with a relatively homogeneous concept of democratic governance, conducted a successful insurgency against a controlling power and organized itself under the Articles of Confederation.  Ratified in 1781, the Articles were soon found to be inadequate and, in 1789, were replaced by a completely new Constitution.  Even this new Constitution was sorely tested less than four-score years later in a great Civil War and, arguably, given the violence of civil discord today, we may still not have achieved real “success” in what Tocqueville called our “experiment in democracy”.  As Advisors, we need to be a little humble in recognizing our own flaws even as we point out areas in which we believe our foreign partners could improve.

Be practical -- the US muddled thru almost 200 years without a DOD.  Our own systems of government and national security evolved since the Revolution.  Only when we recognized ourselves as a global power with global responsibilities, did we give serious thought to articulating a strategy for national security, harmonizing the activities of the federal government to implement that strategy, or combining our military services.  Even then, our experience with reorganization and unification of effort and purpose wasn’t an instant success.  That many of our partners struggle with unifying action at the strategic and institutional levels should, therefore, be no surprise.  Nor should it be a surprise that many partners want to instantly adopt structures and processes just like those we have, believing them to be appropriate because the United States is organized and does business this way.  Advisors need to understand our own long history of developing structures and processes for ensuring security and stability within our own territory and in exporting security assistance to other nations.  Consideration of our own experience before DOD may point to some solutions more appropriate to our partners needs than a full-blown recreation of the Department of Defense, Joint Strategic Planning System, or Planning Programming and Budget Execution Process.

Be fundamental -- Stick to first principles.  Following from the admonition to avoid trying to recreate the Pentagon in the midst of a partner nation’s capital, sticking to basic principles of organization and process usually teases out the best elements of our own, admittedly complex, system of planning, resourcing, conducting, and sustaining activities that collectively ensure our national security.  Many Advisors will have come from a career of federal service in the institutions of national security.  Others will come from a rich background in academia learning about how those institutions developed and function.  Those backgrounds are essential for good Advisors.  But, Advisors must remember that the object of their advice is not so much to teach, let alone ‘impose’, a solution on partner nations, but, rather to help our partners think about what their national security institutions should accomplish and to help them develop organizations,  processes, and products appropriate to their environments.  Advisors should draw upon the fundamentals of their own experiences to help partners construct appropriate solutions rather than simply adopt those that work for the Advisors’ national security forces.

Be open-minded -- The United States isn’t the only example of what right looks like.  While most Advisors will have developed their knowledge and received their experience from US methods and models, it would be wrong to assume those are the only examples, or even the best or most appropriate for a foreign partner.  Many of our allies with well-developed strategic and institutional structures have ways of doing things that accomplish the same things US methods do but in a manner that is either simpler or more understandable for partner nations attempting to develop themselves in those areas.  Advisors should look beyond their own learning and training to explore other ways of doing things and use the perspectives gained to offer alternatives or to better illustrate principles.  Further, advisors should assume that no country’s security forces are intentionally trying to fail.  With this in mind, advisors should avoid criticizing host force ideas and initiatives and, instead, build upon their ideas when proffered to create a sense of ownership within our hosts in what then develops.

Be objective -- Work with, but not for, the Embassy and don’t become a shill for your nation’s hardware.  An Advisor can become a trusted asset to a host nation by  maintaining the image that you are there to help them develop capability and capacity for their nation and not to meet the direct, immediate needs of US Government stakeholders.  Naturally, you will need to maintain close and cordial relations with appropriate members of the Country Team and, except in a few cases, the SDO/DATT is the SecDef’s senior representative.  Yet, you also need to assure your counterparts that you will maintain confidentiality to the degree demanded, about the strengths and weaknesses of the host nation institutions.  Similarly, while frequently the ‘gold standard’ in terms of performance and effectiveness, US or western ally equipment may not be appropriate for a host nations capabilities or resources.  Granted, most of your experience likely came from that equipment and the processes that supported it so there will be natural biases; but your task is building institutional capability and capacity and the host nation needs to utilize the skills and knowledge you imparted to make their own decisions about what hardware they ultimately purchase for their own use.

Be sensitive -- Culture matters; Respect matters too.  Partner nations have rich histories and traditions, many stretching back much further than our own.  Members of those nations’ defense establishments rightly value their heritage.  Advisors should devote time and effort to learning and understanding a nation’s culture prior to and during the relationship.  Additionally, members of partner nation’s defense establishments are professional military and civilians.  They want to succeed and they want their nation’s military to develop and execute the strategic and institutional things necessary for their nation’s long-term security.  Sometimes the culture of a partner nation or of that nation’s military may make it difficult to discern the desire or the will to succeed; but, if Advisors assumes their counterparts really want to succeed and respects the individual, the desire and will to succeed will probably become more evident with each engagement.  Be sensitive to asking questions that have potential to embarrass your counterpart. Being asked or being unable to answer an Advisor’s question can create ill-feelings, animosity, and prompt less than helpful, even untruthful responses. We might like to know many things, but must understand that most are not essential.  If what you seek to learn is not absolutely necessary, avoid the question.

Be realistic -- Help them internalize a concept of risk management.  Large as our annual Defense budget is, even the United States cannot do everything we want to do – even if our requirements system could tell us we need to do it all and we need to do it right now.  Partner nations will have the same difficulties of wanting to do more and faster than their resources will allow.  Advisors need to emphasize the importance of nations making tough choices on the capabilities in which they invest.  Advisors need to help their counterparts go beyond determining what capabilities they may “need” and even beyond helping them determine what capabilities “cost”.  Advisors need to help counterparts determine what capabilities their nations can “afford” over the life of the capability.  This is more than helping them establish a priority system.  Life cycle costing, estimation of likelihood, consequence, urgency, and cost-benefit analysis are a few among many important tools in identifying and managing risk.  Further, any recommendation brought to senior leaders at the strategic or institutional should be cost and risk informed.  Anything less is simply irresponsible.

Be persistent -- Don’t do it for them and they need to want it more than you do.  Two hackneyed and frequently misquoted admonitions that are really central to advising at any level.  Advisors need to be committed to delivering an effect but will only achieve the effect if the recipient of the advice is willing to take the advice, apply it, and institutionalize it for lasting benefit.  This advising business isn’t about you – it’s about them and the capability and capacity that you leave them with once you are gone.  The emphasis on producing results may tempt you to develop a product yourself and just hand it to your counterpart so you can both move on to the next steps.  That won’t develop either a capability or a capacity.  Accept that your counterparts may not master tasks quickly, try to accomplish them in ways you know from experience are unlikely to work, or try to get you to do things for them.  Sometimes your counterpart will actually find a way of doing things that are better than the way you wanted them to do them.  In the end, true and lasting learning will only occur when your counterpart is able to do things for themselves.

Be flexible -- Your experience counts but your flexibility counts more.  Most Advisors at the strategic or institutional levels have considerable experience in the fields in which they advise.  Your experience is very relevant to establishing your bone fides with your counterpart and to imparting the wisdom gained from your years of practice.  However, your task is not to replicate yourself or your experience with your counterpart.  Vast as you may believe your experience and knowledge to be, your counterpart needs only to understand that part of it that enables the host nation to develop the capability and capacity for them to develop and implement the mechanisms for their defense establishment to succeed at the strategic and institutional levels.  Just because you did it a certain way or know something, doesn’t mean they need to do things that way or know what you know.  Good Advisors must sense when they have gotten enough of their points across to a degree that will be useful.  Don’t expect everything to work in a straight line, don’t expect your counterparts to do everything the way you would like them to do it, and don’t expect them to agree with everything you say.

Be understanding -- Remember your counterparts are also doing ‘day jobs’, sometimes in contact with an enemy. An Advisor, normally, is competing for attention with other demands for a counterpart’s time and attention.  Advice for building a future capability and capacity may seem very theoretic or academic when the very “real-world” pressures of the in-box, email, or in some cases, real-world operations are lurking over your counterpart’s shoulder.  Be respectful of these competing demands but also emphasize the lasting benefit of the capability and capacity that will derive from your interactions.  Look to achieve a balance in what you expect from your partner but, at the same time, set realistic goals and expectations and communicate them with your own and with the host nation’s chain of command.  Perfect is the enemy of good enough. There is only so much time and attention available to assist your counterparts to develop capability and capacity.  Maximize the effect you have on your counterpart by being respectful of the totality of demands on their time. 

Be durable -- Build for the long haul; Help them build the bench for the future.  An Advisor cannot build capability and capacity if all you do is teach, train, and educate the few military and civilians you directly advise. The real benefit of your interaction will be when the members of the host nation codify the structures, concepts, and processes they learn and then develop the ability to pass those on to their successors and to future generations.  Hold your counterparts accountable for producing products and documenting processes.  Military or civilian schools available thru donor nations are good options to sustain training and education.  However, you should encourage your counterparts to find ways to institutionalize the learning into their own military or civilian school systems.  Many of the skills, knowledge, and attributes required for success at the strategic and institutional levels (unlike most of those at the operational or tactical levels) may be applicable to a non-military community and might be appropriately part of continuing education programs hosted by civilian universities.  Encourage your counterparts to identify junior military and civilian members for education and training to expand upon the knowledge base and ensure the pipeline is primed for the future.

Advising another nation’s military is and must remain a core competency of the US Department of Defense.  We have worked hard at refining our ability to do this at the operational and tactical levels.  We built our advice and advisory skill upon hard-learned lessons from the battlefield and the training base.  We developed organizations and processes for delivering this advice and we developed depth in terms of human capital and experience for doing so.  We have helped partner nations develop tactical and operational expertise that has enabled them to achieve battlefield successes and to establish secure environments on and within their borders. 

The same need exists for maintaining a core competency for delivering advice at the strategic and institutional levels that will enable our partner nations to develop, implement, and adequately resource the mechanisms that will sustain tactical and operational proficiency.  Arguably, this need is the greater since, without the institutions to sustain and support the expertise, all the time, effort, and resources expended to develop battlefield expertise will be no more than a temporary and fleeting expedient.  Just as a lasting legacy to the establishment of a secure environment is stability to make it last, so too, the lasting legacy to the inculcation of excellent tactical skills within a host nation’s soldiers and operational units must be to help them create and sustain effective, efficient, achievable, and affordable institutions that can maintain and improve that excellence over time.

End Notes

[i] James King, “New Rules for Advisers: Lessons From a Year With the Iraqi Army”, Small Wars Journal, May 2, 2007 at 12:40 am, accessed June 2, 2017,

[ii] See e.g., Sidney J. Freedberg Jr., “Army Builds Advisor Brigades: Counterinsurgency Is Here to Stay”, Breaking Defense, February 16, 2017 at 3:08 PM, accessed June 2, 2017,

[iii] Walter L. Perry, et al, “Defense Institution Building, An Assessment”, RAND 2016, accessed June 2, 2007,

[iv] See, e.g. Aaron Taliaferro, Wade P. Hinkle and Alexander O. Gallo, “Foreign Culture and Its Effect on US Department of Defense Efforts to Train and Advise Foreign Security Forces”, Small Wars Journal

Journal 26 November 2014.

[v] The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mr. Mark Tillman (COL, USA, Retired) articulating the proposed lessons based upon his own, considerable defense institution building experience.


About the Author(s)

Ed Donnelly retired from the U.S. Army in 2013 having served 35 years as a Regular Army Armor Officer and Force Development Officer.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, holds several Masters Degrees and a Juris Doctor from Suffolk University School of Law.



Mon, 08/28/2017 - 12:34pm

"Be objective -- Work with, but not for, the Embassy and don’t become a shill for your nation’s hardware. An Advisor can become a trusted asset to a host nation by maintaining the image that you are there to help them develop capability and capacity for their nation and not to meet the direct, immediate needs of US Government stakeholders. Naturally, you will need to maintain close and cordial relations with appropriate members of the Country Team and, except in a few cases, the SDO/DATT is the SecDef’s senior representative."

While I understand the need to be objective and to have the appearance of confidentiality with respect to the host nation, any "Adviser" is part of a larger security cooperation program synchronized and agreed upon by the DOD, State, the Combatant Command, and the local Embassy. The person responsible for execution of the program (in all but a very few cases) is the local SDO/DATT, and the advisor is but one of his or her sub-contractors in country for execution of a larger plan.