With the Obama administration poised to transition the bulk of its forces out of Afghanistan by 2014, it’s all the more critical to build credible, accountable and enduring institutions there.

August 19, 2011

With the Obama administration poised to transition the bulk of its forces out of Afghanistan by 2014, it’s all the more critical to build credible, accountable and enduring institutions there.

And it takes the so-called whole-of-government approach , fusing all relevant agencies and institutions to achieve a singular goal, and build that kind of capacity in time, say American defense and other officials. The U.S. Defense Department’s Ministry of Defense Adviser, or MoDA, program, marries American institutional expertise with counterparts in Afghanistan’s fledgling ministries to help them to become viable for the day when the U.S. and its international partners leave.

Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who heads NATO’s training effort in Afghanistan, calls the MoDA program “one of the most important contributors” to the achievements made within the Afghan government thus far.

“The MoDA program has been the key enabler for us to not only achieve progress in the training mission, but literally it has been an absolute game changer,” he said during a taped appearance at an August 11 event at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to welcome home advisers. The program relies on individuals within the Defense Department with relevant professional experience to advise, mentor, train and teach their Afghan counterparts. As proof of its value, Gen. David Petraeus, then the top commander in Afghanistan, requested 100 more advisers after observing the positive impact the first team of 17 advisers had had. Currently there are about 47 advisers serving in Afghanistan.

Michael Lumpkin, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict, who also spoke at the event at USIP, related several anecdotes about how individual advisers were making a difference.

“All of these successes – and countless others – rely on the strong trust-based relationships built between each MoDA adviser and his or her counterpart,” Lumpkin said. “Each achievement – even the smallest one – is a testament to the quality of the program’s pre-deployment training which emphasizes developing sustainable and locally-powered solutions through respect, humility and empathy,” he said.

USIP plays a big part in that training, conducting two weeks of classroom training of the seven-week program for advisers before they deploy to Afghanistan. USIP will do its fourth iteration of the training in the fall of 2011, and more next year.

David Clifton is a retired Marine colonel who as a civilian recently returned from a 14-month deployment as adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Interior’s chief of staff. He said one of the things that he noticed was the passion his American colleagues had for helping build Afghanistan. “I was used to that in the Marines, but it just struck me that we had this civilian reservoir of commitment, and they are making a difference,” he said. MoDA advisers work each day to help Afghanistan achieve a level of competence that will serve the Afgan government when the U.S. and other countries ultimately leave. The goal is to be “Afghan good enough” - a practical approach to doing just enough to make it work, Clifton explained. He believes the MoDA program will become the focus of the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan as “transition” becomes the new buzzword.

“I think the ministry adviser program over the next few years is the center of gravity,” he said.

Another MoDA adviser, Char Rusnak, a Navy rocket scientist who now works within the Afghan National Security Forces’ gender integration effort, wrote an e-mail to the program’s leaders commending the program that there are good days and there are bad. In the end, wrote Rusnak, the advisers are making a difference.

“Although some days here are long, tiring or discouraging, others are equally uplifting, exhilarating and encouraging,” Rusnak wrote in the e-mail read aloud by Lumpkin.

While Lumpkin lamented the fact that a program such as MoDA wasn’t stood up earlier, he’d like to see the capability “institutionalized” so the U.S. government can call it up the next time it needs to advise and mentor civilians overseas.He noted that programs like USIP’s MoDA training is vital because it helps other countries ultimately do for themselves. And, it’s a big bang for a small buck.

“Strengthening foreign defense institutions is an increasingly critical element of our overseas engagement, and through inexpensive programs like MoDA, we can help partners build effective, accountable and well-governed defense ministries,” he said.

He added that in the end, the benefits to American civilians “may prove greater” than the Afghan partners they deploy to advise. “When MoDA program advisers return to their Department of Defense positions here in the United States, they bring back a wealth of new skills, knowledge and experiences.”

Nadia Gerspacher, a USIP program officer who runs the MoDA program for the Institute, said one of the values of the training program is that it helps advisers to make “informed decisions in a reform environment.” Relationships are key, and picking the right kind of adviser to deploy overseas is important if that relationship is to work. “Building a rapport is all important in advising and that is directly impacted by the type of person that has been selected, the preparation they received and the conditions in which they are asked to operate,” Gerspacher said.National Defense University President Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, a USIP board member, said working with the whole-of-government to provide the best mentoring in Afghanistan is critical to creating positive perceptions of Americans in Afghanistan. The MoDA program, she said, helps cement that critical relationship.

“It matters that we are trusted, it matters that we listen, it matters that we’re willing to contribute and to be part of a team that makes things happen,” she said.

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