Small Wars Journal

Strategic Advising: Should it be Transactional or Transformative?

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 6:35pm

Strategic Advising: Should it be Transactional or Transformative?


John M. Gillette


The purpose of this paper is to offer some thoughts and, hopefully, stimulate debate about the Department of Defense’s collective advising efforts over the last fifty plus years; of which I have been a witness from Vietnam to Afghanistan.  I was spurred to write this paper after reading SIGAR report 19-03-AR/MOD and MOI Advising and comparing its findings to my long-standing thinking about our efforts.  To that end, in 2010 I wrote an article that closed with this question “Why did they think that would work?”[i]  I still wonder.


The ideas herein are my own and not necessarily based in current US doctrine.  However, I feel strongly the reason for much of the failure reported by SIGAR is the result of a basic misunderstanding of what form strategic or ministerial level advising should take.   The primary point I hope to convey is relatively simple in concept yet seemingly difficult to execute for a variety of reasons; not the least of which is the U.S. and the partner nation’s (PN) differing internal desires and objectives and, typically, the failure of US advisors to recognize these root issues then reconcile them as opposed to simply driving one-sided solutions.


What is My Point? - The Difference Between Transactional and Transformational Advising.


Toward that end I offer thoughts on the two as I see them, and specifically how they apply to capacity building at the strategic/ministerial level.  Further, I believe compelling counterparts to change is far less effective than inspiring in them the will to change yet we have focused collectively largely on the former vice the latter.


Transactional Advising is simply a response in kind (positive or negative); if you do X I will reward you by providing you Y. Conversely; If you fail to do X I will not provide you Y (or take it away). It’s this simple; if you adopt specific processes/procedures I will reward you; if you do not, I will punish you.  However, quite frequently this seemingly simple transaction becomes very complex as the PN employs the Action-Reaction-Counteraction model.  For example; Do X and I will give you Y often results in them only doing a portion of X but wanting all of Y, which is then rationalized as ‘enough’ in the following argument “You don’t want us to fail do you”?


I can think of no better example of transactional advising than Resolute Support’s (Afghanistan) use of the Commitment Letter.  Commitment letters were introduced several years ago to provide the coalition leverage over the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANSDF).  Under them financial penalties are applied to organizations which fail to meet specific goals set forth in the letters.  Many will argue that the Afghans agreed to those letters and, as evidence, point out Afghan authorities signed them.  I will leave it to the reader to determine just how agreeably the Afghans entered into those terms because, either way, this is a clear example of transactional advising.


Use of forcing agents (threats).  Some ask, why not forced change?  Consider the following quote from an article by a former senior advisor to the Afghan Minister of Defense,  “The view that the coalition “holds all the cards,” particularly with regard to resourcing, makes it possible for the coalition to threaten to punish the Minister for not complying with a coalition request, typically by denying one of more resources which the Minister needs to be successful. It appears such an approach almost universally works in the short-term but brings long-term negative consequences that often outweigh the gain. Even if completely effective, a threat delivered by a senior advisor will almost always taint the relationship with the Minister in a manner that is difficult if not impossible to repair. As a rule, the senior advisor should stay far away from threats to the minister in an attempt to influence his behavior. If a threat simply must be delivered, it is best to allow another coalition leader to deliver it.”[ii] With that in mind return to the aforementioned commitment letters.  Commitment letters are a perfect example of what McLamb cautions against.  I do not argue there is no place for adverse actions toward a PN if they fail to progress.  What I will argue is the time and place to state compliance actions is in the original planning rather than as an afterthought, of equal importance, the compliance terms must be: (1) carefully considered and realistic in nature and then, (2) enforced, lest the advisors become enablers of failure.


So, how does Transformational Advising differ?  It is the resourceful application of a host of advising skills whose result becomes apparent when the PN counterpart(s) conclude that change is necessary.  I maintain that rather than leveraging rewards or punishments a strategic advisor’s role is to transform PN perceptions; otherwise it is simply foolish to believe you are building ministerial capacity.


But here is the rub; people fear change for a variety of reasons; not the least of which is the uncertainty that will accompany it.  Moreover, fear of change is not limited to the individual; it can span institutions, even a nation.  Fear can crush change at any point in the process, yet change is essential for capacity building.  Finally, while increased capacity results from change, and requires consensus it must also be generated internally.  Advisor partners can, and must, influence thinking about change.  Real capacity building occurs with those rare advisors who forge powerful relationships and then engage in deep, contextual, meaningful discussions wherein new ideas are discussed, analyzed, synthesized.  Only then will the net result be that the counterpart adopts and implements the idea of change.  The critical point is: only counterparts, not advisors, can be agents for change within the Foreign Security Force (FSF).  To think otherwise will undoubtedly lead to failure.


Many may argue “that’s not true, as an advisor I’m a change agent.”  I ask you think it through, advisors can advocate and argue for change while only the FSF personnel can make the decision(s) and take the actions to actively drive change.  Let me offer a perfect example of why that’s true:  everyone acknowledges the enormous negative impact corruption has had on capacity building work in Afghanistan.  If the advisors were the real change agents there can be no doubt that negative impact of corruption would have been reduced long ago…but that hasn’t happened.  Need convincing—read this November 2018 article titled “Afghan anti-corruption program is corrupt, US officials say” discussing the Afghan Anti-Corruption Justice Center as well as its top prosecutor which discusses why they have failed to achieve their mandates.


The point is this…we can advocate for change and/or use forcing agents to try and compel change but, ultimately, success rests in decisions internal to the FSF. However, for reasons I can’t grasp, fundamental thought is very difficult for many planners and practitioners to grasp/accept.


Moreover, we must be brutally realistic in our assessment of success in advising.  Consider this quote discussing a PN, The first level of supposed reform is illustrated by “fine words.” Nothing has actually changed, but the words used suggest it has.[iii] The problem here is because defence academics, quasi- experts, politicians and most senior state officials who have been appointed for political allegiance and loyalty; and not on the basis of their expertise and professional merit, therefore would have no understanding  of the theories and abstract Western concepts that determine democratic defence governance.”[iv]  We too, are very proficient espousing ‘fine words’ but less so achieving results. For example, compare the referenced SIGAR report with the annual, congressionally mandated “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” (1225) reports and I challenge you to reconcile the supposed progress claimed versus SIGAR’s assessed outcomes.  I suggest the profound difference is based in our use of ‘fine words’ as opposed to a sustained, systemic focus on achieving real change.


We cannot discuss transformation advising without touching on episodic versus full time advising.  Episodic advising is easily grasped if you think in terms of the use of consultants; folks who visit your organization, do some sort of assessment, recommend change(s) and then depart only to return at some future dates to assess your progress relative to achieving their solution.  Episodic advisors (consultants) certainly have a role in the strategic advising environment however, generally speaking, they lack the time to forge the powerful relationships essential to encouraging meaningful change.  Thus, I would argue they are best served in roles complementary to those served by full-time capacity building missions.


Furthermore, lacking experienced oversight either form of advising often fails to identify the real problems as opposed to what might be (1) perceived by the US or, (2) initially communicated by the counterparts.  Weeks, months and possibly years can be wasted trying to find and offering solutions that fail to address the real issue which is often an underlying fear of, or resistance to, change.


Frankly, a large part of our failure to transform Afghanistan and other PNs results from our inability to understand who they are and that they have very real objectives of their own which may not coincide with our often one-sided perspective of exactly what desired outcomes are appropriate.


I often try to describe the tools needed to inspire change, among them the need for empathy coupled with a deep understanding of the cultural/historical/political/avenues of power.  I also speak to what I term “vison-based selling” as the essential tool required to inspire desirable change.  To me that’s a pretty simple equation: ‘sell’ a vision of what could be if change were implemented.  However, after several years of employing that phrase, I now see how difficult it is for many to adopt. In the absence of quick progress most advisors invariably fall back to the doctrine, systems and processes they know so well - but which are all too often inappropriate to the PN cultural identity.


The challenge for stakeholders such as the U.S. is that achieving genuine reform of defense institutions requires a multi-year commitment in-country by trained advisers who have the cultural understanding to know what they see, the wisdom and experience to be able to provide multiple solutions, the communication skills coupled with the confidence and gravitas to successfully address governmental challenges, and the skills and patience to deal effectively with low level officials as they work to promote sustainable change.


In closing, let me offer this final observation; recently someone I hold in high regard asked, “Can you show me the doctrine that encourages the use of ‘transformational advising or vision based selling’?  My answer to that is twofold: (1)  No, but just because it’s not doctrinal today doesn’t mean it’s wrong and, (2) doctrine is derived from proposals,  thoughtful discussion and validation---maybe it is time to examine and discuss transactional versus transformational advising practices and work to achieve the latter in light of the failures resulting from the former.  That’s the ‘proposal’ behind this paper.


End Notes


[i] Confusing Deference With Agreement.  John M. Gillette, Small Wars Journal.  2011.

[ii] Senior Advisor to the Minister of Defense, Colonel Joe McLamb.  April 3, 2015

[iii] Thomas-Durell Young, Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defence Institutions. The Mirage of Military Modernity (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

[iv] Identifying the Challenges to Defence Reform in Central and Eastern Europe: Observations from the field.  Glen Grant and Vladimir Milenski

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.