USIP's Nadia Gerspacher explains why U.S. and other NATO advisers are so important in places like Afghanistan and how we can make sure they’re ready to hit the ground running.

Deadly attacks on U.S. and other NATO advisers in Afghanistan have attracted a lot of media coverage in recent months. But while these reports have raised the public profile of advisers, there's still little awareness of what they do. USIP's Nadia Gerspacher helps train U.S. advisers who work with foreign governments on security-sector reform. Here, she explains why advisers are so important and how we can make sure they're ready to hit the ground running.

Gerspacher analyzes this subject in more detail in "Preparing Advisers for Capacity-Building Missions," a USIP Special Report to be published in August.

We keep reading about the dangers U.S. and other NATO advisers are facing in countries such as Afghanistan, but why are they there to begin with?

In almost any transition from war to peace, there's a period where the national government needs assistance to reform itself so that it can manage the country more effectively—and often more fairly—than in the past. Among other things, post-conflict governments benefit greatly from the help of experts with years of professional experience handling complex, technical matters such as logistics, human resources, and legislative affairs. This kind of expertise tends to be in short supply in countries recovering from violent conflict, so it needs to be brought in from abroad. That's where advisers come in. Foreign governments and international organizations ask some of their highly experienced people to work for a while alongside officials in the post-conflict country. In Afghanistan, several NATO allies have sent advisers—some military, some civilian—to share knowledge and establish lasting professional networks with different parts of the peacebuilding and reform process. For the countries, such as the United States, that have deployed advisers to Afghanistan, they are a way of accelerating Afghanistan's post-conflict recovery and—to quote former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a way to "sustain security over the long term."

What exactly does an adviser do?

Advisers come in different shapes and sizes and work at different levels and in different areas of government. At one end of the scale, a relatively junior U.S. Army officer or police officer might find himself or herself advising an Afghan police officer or sergeant in a remote provincial town. At the other end of the scale, senior-level U.S. personnel might advise ministers at the apex of the Afghan government in the capital, Kabul.

What all effective advisers have in common are three things. First, they advise; they don't dictate to their local counterparts. They offer ideas and knowledge; they don't insist on particular strategies. Second, they tailor their suggestions to suit cultural, institutional and political realities. They recognize—and respect—the traditions and practices of their hosts. Third, they don't shoot for the moon. Instead, they look for realistic targets and work for incremental reform.

Let me provide a concrete example. I've been involved in a program run by the Department of Defense that's called the Ministry of Defense Advisers Program (the MoDA program). MoDA sends senior civilian professionals from the U.S. government to Afghanistan as strategic advisers to officials in Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior. USIP has contributed to the program in various ways; for instance, USIP staff have taught several training sessions. Once trained, MoDA advisers are deployed for up to two years to help their Afghan counterparts strengthen the ability of ministries to handle such challenges as recruiting personnel, devising government strategies and managing finances.

What kinds of things have the MoDA advisers accomplished?

Quite a variety! They have piloted a simple, Afghan-designed logistics tool that has proved remarkably successful in tracking the location and status of Afghan National Police vehicles. Other advisers have assisted Afghans in improving business operations and health standards at the Afghan National Army slaughterhouse. MoDA advisers have also developed and implemented a way for the Afghan government to assess how well its reform efforts are going. Each of these achievements is contributing to a significantly more effective and accountable government.

That all sounds very technical. Does that mean that advising is chiefly a technical exercise?

Without professional expertise, an adviser wouldn't be able to do the job they've been recruited to do. But having that technical knowledge isn't enough by itself. Advising is essentially a process of transferring the knowledge you have to someone who might need it. To do that, you need not only to have the knowledge in the first place, and not only to identify which part of your knowledge might be useful, but also to be able to transfer it in a way that makes it useful and acceptable. That last task is probably the hardest, because it means you have to be good at analyzing the local landscape, good at communicating across cultural differences and good at building relationships with your local counterparts.

So the advisers' toughest job is coping with a foreign culture?

That's only part of the challenge! You also have to be able to waltz diplomatically through a maze of relationships with your "own" people. Advisers are usually deployed to countries that are already crowded with a host of international actors: representatives of different governments, members of different multilateral organizations (NATO or the United Nations, for instance), and the staff of nongovernmental organizations (such as human rights groups or humanitarian aid agencies). To avoid duplicating effort, an adviser will need to coordinate with a lot of these people.

And an adviser also needs to be an astute manager of conflict—a juggler, of sorts—because he or she has multiple bosses. A U.S. adviser in Afghanistan, for example, is recruited and trained by the U.S. government, which is focusing primarily on U.S. national interests; is part of the wider NATO mission in the country, which has a somewhat different focus; and is working within and for the benefit of an Afghan institution, which has its own agenda and objectives. Sometimes, too, advisers can find themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war between, on the one side, civilian practices and approaches to governance and regulatory activities, and, on the other side, military goals, priorities, and cultural predispositions.

How can one prepare an adviser to handle so many different tasks?

Advising is a tough job, and training advisers to do that job is correspondingly demanding. In the past, some advisers have found themselves well trained in terms of, say, personal security but unprepared for other parts of their mission, especially the process of transferring knowledge. Fortunately, many are learning from past experiences and training programs are being enhanced.

The MoDA program has certainly taught some valuable lessons. And I've learned a good deal from teaching capacity-building courses at USIP's Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding and other venues.

It seems that a good curriculum for training high-level advisers in any sector of government should have four parts. One part is knowledge about how to be an effective adviser, including techniques for building relationships and communicating across cultures.

The second part is briefings on the situation in the country. These briefings shouldn't cover only broad subjects, such as national history and politics, but also very specific topics, such as the reputation that the adviser's predecessor acquired locally.

The third part is substantive knowledge about the sector in which the adviser will work. In the security sector, for example, the adviser needs to know how reform of the military, police, and associated ministries is supposed to take place and what success would look like.

The fourth part is preparation through practice. An opportunity to practice new skills in a "safe" environment—where one can make mistakes and learn from them—is crucial to preparation. Practicing takes place through role-playing simulations, planning exercises, real or fictional scenario analysis exercises, and analysis of case studies.

It's not just trainers who have a responsibility to ensure that advisers are properly prepared. So, too, do the policymakers who are increasingly relying on advisers to help countries create stable, effective, and democratic governments. Preparation of advisers should be an integral part of strategy; it should be factored into budgets for mission; and it should be deeply embedded in the planning process. Time and money are always in short supply in government, but an effective advising program needs both.

Explore Further

Related Publications

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Thursday, April 29, 2021

By: Karen Decker

President Biden’s announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw by September 11 has many Afghans and observers warning of a quick collapse of the Afghan state and a new phase in the country’s civil war. Without minimizing the challenges ahead, the United States should avoid any self-fulfilling prophecy of imminent collapse by insisting that the only future for Afghanistan is one that advances the gains of the past 20 years. As troops begin to depart, it is an opportune time to examine three forms of leverage the United States has to promote a political settlement.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Democracy Is the Afghan Government’s Best Defense Against the Taliban

Democracy Is the Afghan Government’s Best Defense Against the Taliban

Thursday, April 22, 2021

By: Scott Worden; Belquis Ahmadi

The Biden administration’s announcement last week that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by September 11 came as a blow to the current peace talks and many Afghan citizens who appreciate the rights and freedoms that international forces have helped to defend against the Taliban. Still, President Biden made clear that the United States continues to support the Afghan government and democratic system, and, to that end, the administration has indicated it would request $300 million from Congress in additional civilian aid. But Biden explicitly de-linked U.S. troops from that equation — stating that they would not be “a bargaining chip between warring parties.”

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Gender; Democracy & Governance

U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: End to an Endless War?

U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: End to an Endless War?

Thursday, April 15, 2021

By: Scott Worden; Johnny Walsh; Belquis Ahmadi; Ambassador Richard Olson

President Joe Biden formally announced on Wednesday that the United States will withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks that led to the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban. The decision comes a month after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looked to jump-start the moribund intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar with a sweeping set of proposals. Although the withdrawal would mean an end to America’s longest war, the implications for Afghanistan’s hard-won progress are immense and many fear the possibility of a rejuvenated civil war after U.S. troops leave.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

Thursday, March 25, 2021

In February 2020 the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement that paved the way for the first direct talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan republic since 2001. This nascent peace process has sparked hope for a political settlement to the four-decade-long conflict, although slow progress and increasing levels of violence threaten to derail the process before it gains momentum.

Type: Fact Sheet

View All Publications