The South Asia Channel

Why ‘Train, Advise, and Assist’ Should Begin with ‘Assess’

The NATO Resolute Support Mission’s (RSM’s) mandate to “train, advise, and assist,” but a better prerogative would be to “assess, train, advice, and assist.”

Afghan National Army soldiers march during a handover ceremony of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar province on January 11, 2015.       AFP PHOTO / JAVED TANVEER        (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan National Army soldiers march during a handover ceremony of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar province on January 11, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JAVED TANVEER (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)

The NATO Resolute Support Mission’s (RSM’s) mandate to “train, advise, and assist” is the perfect opportunity to reconsider the basis of U.S. policy engagements in places like Afghanistan. As the new non-combat mission, RSM endeavors to develop the capacity of key ministries and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), a better prerogative would be to “assess, train, advice, and assist.”

Recent reports from the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction warrant a critical reflection of the $62.5 billion spent on developing the ANDSF. Although assistance to foreign governments is often seen as “triage,” the concept fails where it should count most. For example, public shock over a clinic that arbitrarily administers stomach surgery on a patient without investigating the underlying cause of the surgery would be reasonable. So why do policy engagements risk utility and effectiveness by intervening in the same manner? Administering aid as an indiscriminate band-aid squanders millions of dollars on ineffective projects. Much of the waste may have been mitigated by conducting — and actually heeding — simple baseline studies. In fact, a legitimate, actionable inquiry into the preparedness of Afghanistan for American-style democracy and economic privatization would have likely spared the futility of earlier efforts.

The RSM efforts rely on a cadre of international military advisors to build the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and institutions across eight essential functions, like budgeting, force generation, and accountability, among others. It is all the more important that technical assistance be methodically and surgically applied prior to 2016, when NATO further reduces its footprint to an advisory role led by civilian leadership. If the objective is to strengthen institutions, it is incumbent on the mission to have comprehensively assessed their weaknesses before recommending and institutionalizing change. In a recent discussion at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko noted that the Monthly ANDSF Assessment Report (MAAR) “follows Resolute Support Mission’s advise and assist model whereby the ANDSF is assessed on its ability to carry out certain Essential Functions. It remains to be seen if the MAAR will be a useful tool for the Resolute Support Mission and the ANDSF in determining Afghan security force capability.”

He further stated that the senior U.S. military leaders surmised that “it will take years for the Afghans to master their essential functions, and that they will not master any of them by the time the U.S. shrinks its military presence at the end of 2016.” The programs that provide training and assistance benefit the most from a thorough review of reports, such as MAAR. It allows advisors to target exactly what and whom to train.

Implicit in RSM’s “train, advise, assist” is a collaboration of people — the human resources tasked with delivering the services. People dictate the systems and processes that determine the success of institutions. As such, explicit in the recommended “assess” component is the imperative to tailor technical assistance provision. This seems obvious, but a consistent frustration among U.S. military servicemen and women, who have served in such mentoring capacities, is the expectation to be experts in fields such as budgeting and finance and act as management consultants to their counterpart Afghan mentees. For advisors who do have a background in finance, for example, there is the added frustration of being assigned to an entirely unrelated department upon deployment. This does not bode well if the advisors are learning on the go the specificities of their roles and assignments. It is anything but a solid foundation for planning, training, and capacity development, and, above all, institutional progress.

For years, the rhetoric of “informed decision-making” and “lessons learned” has justified policy actions, but in practice lacked substantive weight. Although baseline and evaluation studies are part of program planning in the defense and development sectors, they are rarely given the attention and resources they deserve. Project effectiveness is tied to money spent, or “burned,” rather than the outcomes of an evaluation. Peppered with “gender equality” and questionable mathematics, it is astonishingly simple to create a convincing success story out of an otherwise disconcerting monthly report. Analytical studies and needs assessments must be earnestly leveraged as information that “informs” decision-making and drives “lessons” learned.

Lip service to lessons learned is problematic on many levels, and it stands to undermine the effectiveness of the $7.6 billion that supports ANDSF through 2015. The necessary investments this year will facilitate NATO’s continued presence in Afghanistan in subsequent years.

Yet these are not new ideas. The irony is that American history is a concrete example of solid foundations; the constitution for one. It is all the more surprising then that policy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than being grounded in an objective reality, have at times been predicated on congressional budgets, political re-elections, and arbitrary presumptions. The U.S. Congress is in an inextricable part of the solution. But congressional pressure is a dual-edged and dangerous tool in policymaking. It can lead to actions taken for the sake of perceptions instead of pursing less popular, but correct measures. In the sort of environment it fosters, (with the exception of SIGAR), few want to risk admitting that U.S. institutions or programs suffer from inadequate information or capacity to justify policies and benchmarks overseas. How much capacity can the figment of a foundation sustain? As the American historian, Daniel Boorstein observed: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

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