Small Wars Journal

Our Own Worst Enemy

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 7:24pm

Our Own Worst Enemy: Lessons Learned from Recent Negotiating Successes with the Afghan Ministry of Defense

Michael B. Chase

In Afghanistan as elsewhere, a lack of psychological savvy on the part of US leaders, combined with a perverse tendency to abandon or undervalue their own leverage, are undermining US interests as well as those of populations Washington purports to be helping.

- Sarah Chayes, December 6, 2013

The United States has spent more than $641 billion on the war in Afghanistan, a substantial portion of which went to building up and sustaining the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Afghan National Army (ANA).1  The International Community (IC) of Afghan donor nations has provided tens of billions more in direct and indirect aid to Afghanistan.2  Despite repeated calls by the U.S. and IC donor nations, the MoD has made very little progress toward key IC goals such as combating corruption, implementing civilian control of the military, and gender integrating the ANA.

Loss of IC funding could prove fatal to the fledgling Afghan democracy, and the precarious financial state of many IC donor nations is leading to domestic pressure on the leaders of those nations to reduce their future contributions.  The analogy to President Najibullah’s post-Soviet Afghan government is clear.  Following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, his government held on to power until 1992, falling only when the former Soviet Union ceased providing significant amounts of financial aid.3

Consequently, it is critical that the MoD begin to make significant, measurable progress on issues important to the IC, as failure to do so could give financially-strapped IC donor nations excuses to reduce or withdraw their pledged funds for Afghanistan.  Norway announced in October 2013 that it would cut its pledged 2014 funding for Afghanistan by 50 million krone ($8 million), after having warned the Afghan government in July 2013 that it needed to see more progress on combating corruption and advancing gender integration.4 If other IC donor nations follow Norway’s example and a financial rush for the exits ensues, it would be tragic not only for Afghanistan, but also for the Coalition.  The collapse of Afghanistan back into chaos would create a safe haven for terrorist organizations, the outcome the Coalition originally entered Afghanistan to prevent.

The situation is far from hopeless, however; Coalition advisors have recently used new negotiating tactics that exploit the Coalition’s financial leverage to make significant progress in instituting civilian control of the military, and rationalizing the ANA pay incentive system.  Using the lessons learned from these recent successes to tackle other important issues, such as combating corruption and gender integration, can enable the MoD to demonstrate sufficient progress on these issues to retain IC funding and gain the time needed to enable Afghanistan’s democracy to become self-sustaining.

The first example is in the area of civilianization, the process of instituting civilian control of the military.  The MoD’s Table of Organization and Equipment, commonly referred to as the military Tashkil, has 195,000 positions, which the ANA is now close to filling.  Of these positions, 12,095 were designated to be filled with civilians, including 887 officer-equivalent positions.  Until July 2013, six years of efforts to convince the MoD to civilianize, first by United Kingdom advisors, and then by U.S. advisors, had resulted in no progress.  Under continual pressure to civilianize, in the second half of 2013 the ANA brought 123 of the 887 officer positions into compliance with the law, moved them from the military Tashkil to a new civilian Tashkil, and hired its first 16 “true civilian” employees.  At this pace, civilianization would not have been completed before 2112.

The main reason for this poor progress was that the Coalition had not chosen to leverage its approximately $1.9 billion in annual U.S. financial support to the ANA to obtain the desired outcome.  The Coalition has traditionally disbursed funds to the Afghans without regard to whether they then use the provided funds in the manner specified in the financial Commitment Letter signed by the MoD and Coalition leadership.  As every parent knows, far better results are achieved by giving children their allowances after they have cleaned their rooms and mowed the lawn, and not before, but a similar approach to financial leverage was not consistently employed by the Coalition in Afghanistan on major issues.

There are at least three reasons for this phenomenon.  First, after more than 12 years of Coalition presence in Afghanistan, this is the first Afghan fiscal year in which an accounting and auditing system is in place that provides the necessary transparency and accountability to be able to effectively use funding as leverage.  Second, the current personnel rotation system, in which Coalition advisors and financial personnel serve six, nine, or 12 month tours and then rotate back to their home countries, almost guarantees that Coalition advisors will be at a disadvantage when negotiating with Afghan counterparts.  A common Afghan negotiating ploy is to state how much the ANA truly desires to make progress on a particular issue, and then use the uncertain security environment as a reason to delay making significant progress until conditions improve “next year.”  This argument makes perfect sense to advisor after advisor.

Third, we have not sent our “best and brightest” to Afghanistan.  There are notable exceptions, of course, but the U.S. Department of Defense has not selectively detailed its best civilian personnel to Afghanistan.  Rather, it has sent those personnel who are willing to deploy in a haphazard manner under various programs such as the Ministry of Defense Advisor (MoDA) program, the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) Hands program, the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW) program, and individual agency programs.  These personnel deploy with greatly differing levels of experience, training, and compensation.  Likewise, the U.S. military does not, in general, use a selective detailing process to send its best and brightest active duty personnel to serve as ministerial advisors.  The combination of these factors has resulted in a lack of ability and/or will on the part of the Coalition to use its financial support to best effect, a trait that noted Afghanistan observer Sarah Chayes recently referred to as “a perverse tendency to abandon or undervalue their own leverage.”

This began to change in a small but significant way at the start of the new Afghan fiscal year in December 2013.  Senior Coalition leaders made it clear while negotiating the terms of the Commitment Letter that the release of the $1.9 billion in U.S.-provided funding for Afghan fiscal year 2014 would be contingent on the MoD moving all of its 12,095 civilian positions from the military Tashkil to the civilian Tashkil by the beginning of the new fiscal year, and that the incumbents of those positions would then have to be converted to civilians by the end of the fiscal year.  The Coalition also agreed in the Commitment Letter to provide one year of pay retention funding to compensate the affected position incumbents for the loss of military incentive pay they would suffer upon conversion.  The MoD leadership initially responded with the same arguments they had used for the preceding six years, but as the beginning of the fiscal year came and went without the $1.9 billion being disbursed, they began to negotiate in earnest for the first time.

After a series of negotiations, a compromise was reached to: (1) civilianize the 764 remaining officer-equivalent positions, replacing each senior position incumbent with a civilian as the positions vacate through normal attrition; (2) convert 3,425 of the positions to military positions to be filled by noncommissioned officers and soldiers, as a joint MoD-Coalition review made it clear these positions should more appropriately be military; (3) move the remaining 7,783 positions to the civilian Tashkil immediately; (4) convert 5,606 of the incumbents of those positions to civilians in Afghan fiscal year 2014; (5) convert the remaining 2,177 incumbents of those positions to civilians in Afghan fiscal year 2015; and (6) provide an additional year of Coalition-funded pay retention in Afghan fiscal year 2015 to the incumbents of the converting positions.

Several “firsts” were achieved during these negotiations.   Most importantly, the Coalition allowed the new fiscal year to start without disbursing the $1.9 billion.  This event was not only the prime mover in achieving serious negotiations on civilianization; it established a new negotiating paradigm for future issues.  The Coalition also established measurable conditions that must be met prior to funds being disbursed.

The second example of a recent negotiating success is in the area of pay incentives.  Until 2013, the Coalition was working to build the ANA to a size of 195,000 personnel.  To help achieve that force level, the Coalition approved four general pay incentives for all personnel filling positions on the military Tashkil, and additional pay incentives to four specific groups: (1) commandos/special forces; (2) explosive ordnance disposal; (3) aviation; and (4) medical personnel.  The specific method used to increase an existing incentive is for MoD leaders to request a Minister of Defense (MinDef) order directing that change.  Until the summer of 2013, whenever presented with such an order, the Coalition would pay the additional amount.  As a result, the total amount of money expended annually on such incentives exceeded the more than $220 million budgeted for that purpose.  This failure to ensure that pay incentives remained within the budgeted amount resulted in the creation of moral hazard, as different groups throughout the ANA began to request more increases in the types and amounts of incentives. 

In August 2013, Coalition advisors resolved this problem by introducing the “zero-sum gain” concept to the Afghans.  Coalition advisors discussed the budgeted amounts for pay incentives, and explained why it was necessary not to approve pay incentive orders in amounts that would exceed the allocated budget.  Then the advisors mentored Afghan working group leaders and stakeholders through prioritization exercises that resulted in the signing of new MinDef pay orders that brought the total amount of money spent on incentives back within the approved Coalition budget.

Because of the “zero-sum gain” concept, proponents of any incentive increases had to identify what existing incentives would be eliminated or reduced to keep the total amount of incentives below the threshold.  This forced the Afghans to make their own decisions and defend them against their fellow stakeholders, in the process developing additional ministerial capacity.  These exercises laid a solid foundation for succeeding fiscal years in which budgeted amounts for pay incentives will decrease.

These negotiating techniques are transferrable to other issues across the MoD, and a conscious effort should be made to employ these lessons as new standard operating procedures.  One example of an area ripe for a new approach is gender integration.  Coalition nations designate money each year to increase gender integration (e.g. the U.S. Congress has allocated $25 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget for this issue).  For cultural and religious reasons, the majority of the MoD leadership would prefer not to make significant progress in this area.  The MoD’s stated goal is to have 19,500 women in the ANA, but after 10 years, there are only approximately 700 women on active duty, and no female officer training classes were held at all in 2013.  As a result, the millions of IC donor nation and Coalition dollars spent to advance the cause of gender integration in the ANA have gone primarily to seminars, conferences, recruiting campaigns never meant to succeed, and the building of female-specific facilities that are underutilized by females or used by men.  The concept of linking funding to goal achievement could easily be applied to gender integration.

Following significant Coalition pressure, the ANA in May 2014 approved its first-ever consolidated annual recruiting and training plan that will maximize throughput in its existing female training facilities, which currently have sufficient capacity to train 700 females per year.    When these new candidates are added to the existing 700 females in the ANA, it is a realistic goal to expect there to be 1,400 females in the ANA by May 2015.  The planned construction of new female training facilities, and the renovation of existing facilities, should increase the ANA’s maximum annual throughput to 2,000 females within the next 18 months.

The Coalition should include a provision in the Commitment Letter for the next fiscal year that the ANA be required to fill at least 1,400 of their 195,000 Tashkil positions with females, or lose funding for the number of positions they fall short of that goal.  Then in each subsequent annual Commitment letter, the number of positions required to be filled with females should be raised by the maximum annual throughput of the ANA’s female training facilities until the ANA reaches its goal of 19,500 women.  The ANA has already demonstrated on the civilianization and pay incentive rationalization issues that they respond to financial pressure.

Gender integration is just one example.  There are more such issues that, with some creative thinking on the part of Coalition advisors, could be similarly structured to better incentivize our Afghan partners.  This would ensure that the MoD makes measurable, significant progress on the issues on which IC donor nations are predicating the continued financial support required to allow Afghanistan’s experiment in democracy to continue.

The author advising Lieutenant General Baz Mohammed Jawhari, the Afghan Assistant Minister of Defense for Personnel and Education. (Photo: H. Chipchase)

End Notes

1 Cordesman, Anthony. “The U.S. Cost of the Afghan War:  FY2002-2013.” Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 14, 2012.

2 Chester Dawson. “Nations Pledge $16 Billion to Help Afghanistan.” The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2012.

3 Crossette, Barbara. “Life for Afghans After Najibullah: Warring Clans and Deprivation.” The New York Times, October 14, 1992.  

4 ”Norway to cut funding to Afghanistan.” The Norway Post, October 6, 2013.

About the Author(s)

Michael B. Chase is a former Senior Advisor with the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) Ministry of Defense Ministerial Advisory Group (MoD MAG) in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He is a 1984 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a former surface warfare officer. The opinions expressed herein are entirely his own.



Thu, 08/28/2014 - 3:36am

I served with Mr Michael Chase as an MOD Advisor. Mike was (and probably still is) determined, committed, and enthusiastic to the cause. While I have some fundamental disagreements with several of his ideas, I appreciate the publication of his article. Tim Fawcett

Mr. Michael Chase in his article “Our Own Worst Enemy: Lessons Learned from Recent Negotiating Successes with the Afghan Ministry of Defense”, posits that the “MOD [Ministry of Defense] has made very little progress toward key IC [International Community] goals such as combating corruption, implementing civilian control of the military and gender integrating the ANA [Afghan National Army]”. The root cause of what he describes as “little progress” is primarily attributed to (in his view): failure to use negotiating leverage and failure on the part of the US Government to send its “best and brightest” to Afghanistan. Mr. Chase does offer (again his own assertion) a glimmer of hope through description: “new negotiating tactics” to bring about “significant progress”.

Mr. Chase’s article, such as it is, rests upon three questionable foundations. First and foremost, ministerial advisors are not negotiators. Secondly, civilianization and gender integration are not really “key goals” as the article suggests. Finally, Mr. Chase, in his less-than-flattering description of advisors, mistakenly states that “we” are failing to send our “best and brightest”—noting that those we do send are deployed “haphazardly”—to advise the MOD. This paper will serve as a response to Mr. Chase’s undoubtedly well-intentioned but highly dubitable three, aforementioned assertions.

Defining an advisor’s role is not a simple matter. Advisors serve to build capacity through empathy, humility, and respect. In order to be successful, advisors must have patience, determination, and an introspective mindset. The harsh, sometimes-xenophobic political landscape presents an arduous challenge. Often-times advisors are tempted to take an adversarial stance with their Afghan counterparts, an unfortunate occurrence, because advisors are really here to do the things Afghans themselves are unable to.1 One fundamental tenet, though, which serves to call into question one of Mr. Chase’s fundamental premises, is this: advisors are not negotiators.

In order to negotiate and advocate on behalf of the US government, advisors must be specifically chartered and authorized by official directive, often-times with clear cut monetary boundaries specified by recognized authority. Advisors, (in the Afghan context) lacking formal training in negotiation are rarely if ever tasked to advocate for specific purposes on behalf of their nation. Negotiation is best left to flag officers and senior executives. Advisors are certainly expected to be innovative, however they are not charged with “creative thinking” when it comes to “incentivize ‘our’ Afghan ‘partners’”. By creating incentives, advisors step into the policy crafting realm—an area more purposefully served by those vested with proper authority (read: not the place for advisors). Mr. Chase, in belittling fashion, compares the Afghans to children, and suggests withholding allowances until the lawn is mowed. One in an advising role should keep in mind that the goal is to provide (not withhold) information/expertise for helping our counterparts in navigating from point A to point B. Advising is a long term proposition built on mutual trust, and in the case of the Afghans: rapport. Goals cannot be achieved overnight. TE Lawrence offers incredibly sound and appropriate counsel in his 4th of 27 articles: “Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can. Never refuse or quash schemes he may have put forward: but insure [sic] that they are put forward in the first instance privately to you. Always approve them, and after praise modify them insensibly, causing the suggestion to come from him, until they are in accord with your own opinion. When you attain this point, hold him to it, keep a tight grip on his ideas, and push him forward, as firmly as possible, but secretly, so that no one but himself (and he not too clearly) is aware of your pressure”2 . Certainly TE Lawrence subscribes to a relationship based on rapport and trust, vice an adversarial dynamic of us-versus-them tactics.

Much like the assertion that advisors are negotiators, stating that implementing civilian control of the military (civilianization) is a “key IC goal” is questionable at best. While the Coalition was successful in including terms of civilianization in the solar year 1393 (current year) unilateral commitment letter, there remains little progress in its implementation. Furthermore, the Coalition has already enabled ministerial leadership changes, during SY1393, which contravene the conditions laid out in the commitment letter. Furthermore, I found it interesting that the advisors, at the time of Mr. Chase, assigned to personnel and education could provide no guidance for civilianization other than vague reference to some very generic Geneva human rights websites. There is no mention of civilianization in the Bonn Accords, Tokyo or Chicago Framework, let alone the Constitution of Afghanistan. In fact the only ministry even mentioned in the Afghan Constitution is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tying civilianization to any agreement, written or otherwise, is a stretch at best.

The continual foundering of civilianization is not due to lack of effort on the part of individual advisors. As an example, one of Mr. Chase’s immediate predecessors poured his heart and soul into civilianization efforts. To say that “six years of effort…had resulted in no progress” is a scathing insult to the efforts of Mr. Chase’s predecessors, all of whom really did do their very best to advance the questionable cause of civilianization. Any success that advisors did have, “in the second half of 2013”, was due in large part to the groundwork laid by their predecessors, not the leverage of the commitment letter. Incidentally, with respect to the commitment letter, Mr. Chase makes the following point: “Most importantly, the Coalition allowed the new fiscal year to start without disbursing the $1.9 billion. This even was not only the prime move in achieving serious negotiations on civilianization; it established a new negotiating paradigm for future issues”. In reality, by withholding the $1.9 billion, the Afghans were put into a bind during the roll over of end-of-year contracts and are in now in danger of under-executing their current year budget—which has unfortunately turned into a mutual headache. As a lesson learned, the Coalition and Ministry are already working collaboratively (a novel concept!) this year to craft next year’s joint-commitment letter. The only “paradigm” established from the SY1393 commitment letter was a future determination to partner with the Afghans in the construction of and submission of future commitment letter item content to legal review.

But the question remains: why civilianize? One could argue that the Ministry is already civilianized. Despite the fact that many positions in the MOD (which some say should be occupied by civil servants) are filled by active duty generals, the Ministry does in fact answer to the President, who was himself democratically elected. Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss civilianization of the Ministry of Defense with General (Retired) Joseph Hoar, former Commander of United States Central Command. Gen Hoar opined that the Coalition should tread carefully in its quest to impose civilianization on the Afghans. Afghanistan is a sovereign nation, after all, with an inherent right to self-determination; whether or not civil servants ran the Ministry of Defense (which oversees an Army of 195,000, a touch over the size of the United States Marine Corps), in the end, would be of little consequence. In fact, most of the changes discussed in Mr. Chase’s article apply to low-to-middle management positions—hardly headway in civilian control of the military.

Ironically, as NATO assumes many of the enduring, Resolute Support billets, US civilian advisors are being replaced with uniformed military personnel. Does this send the right message to our Afghan counterparts? It seems that NATO and the International Community, as it turns out, don’t exactly see civilianization as a “key goal”.

Much as the effort to civilianize is called into question, so too is gender integration. As Mr. Chase points out, “For cultural and religious reasons, the majority of the MOD leadership would prefer not to make significant progress in this area”. Unfortunately, Afghan history is rife with reformist efforts, made in vain, toward gender integration: Amanullah Khan, Daud, the Saur Revolution, etc, etc. Interestingly enough, the “majority of the MOD leadership”, whom Mr. Chase refers to, participated in the Saur Revolution—a time of significant, but non-permanent gender reform—which ended very badly. Thus an empathetic advisor may understand (not necessarily agree with) the MOD leadership’s caution to progress slowly.

Moreover, Coalition gender advising has of late degraded into a once-weekly “scold and lecture” interaction between a throng of western interlocutors and the MOD Major General who leads the gender integration efforts. In common with the quixotic quest to civilianize the MOD has been the culturally imperialist and ethnocentric goal of rapidly increasing female numbers for a Coalition quick (but pyrrhic) win.

The reality in Afghanistan is such that ISAF is not focused on civilianization or gender. Current events have driven other priorities much higher. The MOD has successfully protected the Afghan populace throughout two (2) elections, taken the lead on security, and successfully held off a significant uprising in the restive south. In the meantime, political transition remains in limbo along with the status of the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement, which will keep Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Coalition draws down to the Resolute Support posture, which will call for focused training, advising, and assisting. In reality gender and civilianization are not high on the list of priorities for Resolute Support, but then again, the International Community has not exactly followed Norway’s lead and pulled out all their resources.

Finally, Mr. Chase implicates the Coalition—particularly the US Government—as our “own worst enemy” when it comes to addressing the myriad challenges of Afghanistan. There are indeed cases where this is true, however it is unfair to cast aspersions on the advising effort. Mr. Chase should realize that Department of Defense advising is voluntary. The Ministry of Defense Advisor Program is an eight week, comprehensive course featuring beneficial cultural, language, and practical application. No other Coalition nations provide such pre-deployment training opportunities for their civil servants. It bears repeating that advising is a long term prospect—much like planting a crop. Advisors may not achieve many quick wins during their tenure, but their efforts may very well set their successors up for success.

In conclusion, advisors should be cautioned that the Afghanistan environment is highly complex, ambiguous, and unpredictable. Afghanistan is hardly a place for advisors to experiment with negotiation tactics, clever leveraging tricks, and us-versus-them ethnocentricity. Certainly advisors should never find themselves in a negotiating position where they are entering into a financial contract. Advisors are not here for that purpose. Again, citing TE Lawrence: “Your ideal position is when you are present and not noticed. Do not be too intimate, too prominent, or too earnest.” 3

1. Mackey, Stephen A. “Leadership Lessons from the Longhouse of My Youth”. Marine Corps Gazette. July 2014 (Digital Edition).
3. Ibid.