Building Partner Nation Defense Capabilities Through Ministerial Advising

As the United States military mission recedes in Afghanistan and reductions in defense spending looming, policymakers must reassess how the U.S. will fight terrorism, protect U.S. interests abroad, maintain influence, and shape the international security environment.  A large U.S. military presence abroad is neither politically feasible nor financially sustainable.   U.S. engagement strategy must adapt by using creative means of influencing partner nations to enhance their military capabilities and ensure regional security.

Military Advising:  Enhancing Regional Security by Building Partner Capacity

Military advising has been an often used tool of the U.S. military for decades imparting valuable knowledge and skills to partner nation militaries, so they can competently fight a mutual enemy either independently or alongside U.S. forces.  This policy dates back to the Lend-Lease Program where the U.S. Government provided $50 billion in assistance to Great Britain, the U.S.S.R, and 37 other countries to help stall Hitler’s advance.  This continued to be a major component of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War to contain the Soviet threat and assist allies fighting communist insurgencies around the globe.   This trend continues today in Colombia where the U.S. has invested years training and equipping Colombian Forces to defeat the FARC, a narco-trafficking organization.  Not only has Colombia been successful in degrading the FARC’s power and influence, but is now in a position to export this knowledge helping their Latin American neighbors combat narco-trafficking and other transnational crime.  The modern day euphemism for this is “building partner capacity.”  These are just a few examples of how the U.S. has used military and economic power to fight its adversaries by proxy. 

While U.S. advising has produced remarkable results at the tactical level, the defense ministries tasked with recruiting, training, and equipping their forces are often neglected; unable to develop and sustain a military capable of defending the homeland, respond to national emergencies, fight terrorism, or participate in multi-national security missions.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes this security assistance gap and has begun to address it.  Former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, stated:

"Building the capacity of defense ministries and other institutions, which have not been a main focus of efforts, must become more prominent.  We need to work collaboratively with State, USAID and non-governmental organizations to help partner countries so that they can modernize and reform in a way that contributes to regional security."[1]

The United States will continue to maintain and enhance its military capabilities, but must also be willing to build the security capacity of others beyond the tactical level.  This must be a more collaborative approach between the United States and its allies, partners, and multilateral organizations to bolster partner nations by supporting their defense ministries.

Ministry of Defense Advisors Program:  Helping Others Provide for Their Own Security

The Ministry of Defense Advisors Program (MoDA) was developed as a result of operational requirements in Afghanistan and an increased U.S. Government emphasis on civilian-led institution building.  Specifically, DoD advisory efforts were often carried out on an ad hoc basis, utilizing uniformed or contract personnel who either did not always possess requisite functional expertise or lacked sufficient knowledge of the host country socio-cultural context.  To address these issues, the MoDA program was designed to leverage the specialized capabilities of senior DoD civilians and provide the cultural, operational, and advisory training necessary to ensure that the advisory effort is appropriate and effective.  MoDA partners senior DoD civilian experts with foreign counterparts to improve ministerial capacity in a number of key areas, such as: personnel and readiness, human resources management, acquisition and logistics, strategy and policy, and financial management.  In most cases an advisor is assigned a host-country counterpart with a similar specialty, so that they may share functional expertise. Upon completion of pre-deployment training, advisors deploy for one year and, in some cases, may be allowed to extend.  Since July 2010, MoDA has deployed 130 advisors to the Ministries of Defense and Interior in Afghanistan, of which 64 are still deployed.  The MoDA Program operates on a $12 million annual budget, which makes it a relatively inexpensive security assistance program.

MoDA Advisor Selection and Training

Advisors are selected based on their professional experience in their technical subject matter, advisory experience, advisor skills and traits, education, and international experience.  MoDA Advisors have 20-30 years of experience and a large professional network within DoD and beyond to support their advisory efforts once deployed.  DoD civil service employees have the right mix of skills, knowledge, experience, and seniority to serve as credible ministerial advisors, which makes them unique to the hundreds of contracted advisors currently working in Afghanistan who typically do not have the training, depth of experience, education, or professional network to enhance their advisory work.

The MoDA program offers a comprehensive seven week training course to prepare advisors who will deploy to Afghanistan.  The course includes professional advisor training; cultural awareness, country familiarization, language instruction; senior-level consultations and briefings; personal security training; and simulated exercises.  The first week is medical screening and weapons qualification followed by a five week academic phase.  The last week of training concludes with a scenario-based exercise that tests the advisors on how well they apply the knowledge learned during the previous six weeks.  The advisors are put through several different vignettes using actual Afghan role players.  Each advisor is evaluated on how effectively they interact with their Afghan counterpart, build rapport, negotiate, and solve problems.  The advisors and there training are guided by four simple, but important, principles: 1) Demonstrate Respect, Humility, and Empathy; 2) Support Local Ownership; 3) Design for Sustainability; and 4) Do No Harm.

Expanding to Meet Global Requirements

The MoDA Program’s unquestionable success has allowed it to look beyond Afghanistan to supporting other partner nations around the globe.  There is a growing interest in many regions for this type of U.S. security assistance.  Since Global MoDA is a natural outgrowth of the Afghan pilot program, it shares a similar foundation but has some unique characteristics.  Global recruiting happens in a similar fashion to the Afghan program by selecting individuals with the right blend of technical expertise, advisory skills, education, and international experience.  However, additional consideration is given to the advisor’s ability to work and act independently since he or she will likely be the only foreign advisor working in the partner nation ministry.  Afghan Advisors work under the auspices of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.  The MoDA Program conducts a visit to the partner nation early in the training phase so the selected advisor can meet with ministry counterparts and begin important relationship building.  This trip serves as a sort of “final interview” to ensure that the advisor is a good fit, develops a greater understanding of the scope of the job, and is certain that they are ready to be a foreign advisor.  

The training program is constructed as more of an independent study course since there will typically be only one advisor going to any particular country.  The training curriculum is rigorous and includes more language training (120+ hours vs. 30 hours) than the Afghan advisors receive, course offerings at international schools and the Foreign Service Institute, and a four day advisor training course designed by the U.S. Institute for Peace.  Global Advisors are required to do more language training since they will be living among the host country population and are expected to live somewhat independently where the Afghan advisors live, and sometimes work, on a U.S. military installation outside of Kabul.  Upon completion of training, Global Advisors deploy for one-year and, depending on the host country’s security climate, may even bring their families.

Capable Ministries Means Greater Global Security

Ministerial advising is an important and integral, though not well recognized, element of our national security strategy.  Congressional and DoD leadership should embrace this exciting and critical facet of our national security mission that will generate a solid return on investment by advancing partner nation ministries, so they can develop and sustain military forces able to provide domestic defense and contribute to international security imperatives.  DoD civil service employees who deploy with MoDA will be rewarded both professionally and personally.   DoD will undoubtedly get back an employee with valuable skills and a much broader perspective that will benefit their organization.  Considering the sharp drawdown in resources that DoD is facing for the foreseeable future, it is necessary that policymakers look toward a low cost, high impact program like MoDA to influence allies, improve partner nation ministerial competencies, and shape the 21st century security environment.

[1] Dean Acheson Lecture: "Building Partnership in the 21st Century", U.S. Institute for Peace,  June 28, 2012