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The American Military Advisor: Dealing with Senior Foreign Officials in the Islamic World

Authored by Mr. Michael J. Metrinko. | August 2008

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SUMMARY

The American Military Advisor: Dealing with Senior Foreign Officials in the Islamic World is a comprehensive guide for American military officers assigned as advisors to regional officials in places very different from the United States. Starting with a definition of terms and a brief description of the advisory role, it brings the reader into today?s Islamic political and social context, pointing out the complexities inherent in the advisory position, as well as the tools an advisor must use in order to perform successfully. The precepts and examples in the text are based on the personal experiences of a number of diplomats and military officers who have seen extensive service in the Islamic world and in many conflict zones. The text is not a simple list of do?s and don?ts, but rather it explains the type of questions that an advisor should ask, the preparations he should make, and the characteristics he should display in order to complete his advisory mission successfully.

The advisory role is at best loosely defined in military career terms, and realities on the ground further complicate the advisory mission. These include differences in American and foreign perception of the advisory position, differences in the way Americans and host country officials view time lines, the impact of the local calendar on the advisor?s work, and the importance of cultural adaptation and intellectual openness. In the end, establishing personal rapport with a host country official is the basis for success as an advisor, and the qualities in an advisor?s personality that allow for such a relationship are difficult to quantify. Assigning advisors poses a challenge to the military personnel system because of age, gender, and cultural values in the Islamic world, and the characteristics that help make an advisor successful?his personality, openness to new cultures, and flexibility in dealing in uncharted areas?are not normally considered by the military selection process. A good advisor?s skill set includes language ability, cross-cultural adaptation and knowledge, and a solid foundation in American history and politics, as well as expertise in his particular military field. Normally an advisor will be partnered with an interpreter, and understanding this relationship is vital, just as studying and understanding the new terrain to which the advisor is assigned and the foreign officials with whom he will be working. How the host country views the United States and how its citizens regard their own officials affect the advisor?s role.

The advisor is never alone in his new environment, and a variety of other players, from the American Embassy, international organizations, the media, nongovernment agencies, and the local populace affect the advisory mission as well. Understanding the roles played by this variety of actors is essential to the advisor, since they can provide support and cooperation as well as hinder his mission.

Although difficult to define and open to change as time at the job passes, the advisor?s role is nonetheless essential in today?s American political and military environment. The advisor is placed squarely in the host country?s decisionmaking process, and his skill and ability impact directly on overall American interests in the Islamic world.

INTRODUCTION

The events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) and subsequent U.S. military and political operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed American military-civil relations throughout the region, generating relationships between American military officers and senior foreign officials in ways never envisioned in traditional training manuals. American military officers now serve as advisors to senior foreign officials in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other countries. There is little in military doctrine that addresses such relationships, or in regular training that equips officers to serve as advisors to foreign Cabinet Ministers, Governors and, at times, even Heads of State. The problem is compounded by profound differences in background, culture, and mindset between American officers and foreign officials.

The role of advisor is a complex one, and not easy to categorize. Even the terminology commonly used to describe the function is not perfect. For example, although often used in discussion, the word ?mentor? is not a good choice to describe an American officer?s advisory role vis-à-vis a senior foreign official, since mentoring implies a relationship between a superior and someone younger, or inferior in status and rank. In the world of strategic partnerships, and in a setting where expertise, experience, social status, political rank, and financial resources can be more heavily weighted on the foreign official?s side, ?mentor? is a misnomer. Even the word ?advisor? can be misleading, but there is, however, no perfect word to use. The function goes far beyond merely advising a foreign official on military tactics or logistics, often spilling into the political sphere and blurring the lines between the officer?s core duties and the responsibilities of State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other civilian officials. It touches the realm of nation-building, affecting the relationship that the foreign official has with the American government, and the relationship between his country and the United States. The advisory role can bring the American officer into political realms that traditionally are distant from his reach, and be more of a learning experience for the American than it is for the senior local official. As such, it has value in itself.

Advising foreign officials in a conflict or post-conflict situation is not a new phenomenon for military officers, and the classic example of ?Lawrence of Arabia? comes immediately to mind. American military officers have had such responsibilities in post-World War II in Europe and Japan, and more recently in Korea, Vietnam, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but in general, their responsibilities have been at the tactical level. There have been American advisors at the highest levels, particularly in Germany and Japan, when high-level restructuring of those governments was done by American military officers, but unfortunately this competency within the military structure has diminished or not been formalized and passed to succeeding generations. Yet mid- and senior-level officers have a productive and often vital role to play as advisors in a wide variety of areas.

In the post-9/11 world, an advisory position at the political and strategic level in the Islamic world can have great and immediate consequence for U.S. interests, and can make the American advisor a prime figure in the decisionmaking process of foreign leaders. The advisor is as likely to be dealing with a civilian counterpart as he is with a foreign military officer, and the range of duties will go far beyond mere military tasks. The position has become a critical one in today?s world, where stability, peacekeeping, and obtaining civil support are considered equally important to kinetic offensive and defensive operations, and where ?nation-building? has become a de facto and integral part of the military mission.

The guidance herein is based predominantly on experience in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Afghanistan, in areas that are generally (but not completely) Muslim, conservative, and very traditional. These are also countries in flux, with rapidly changing political and military realities that pose a challenge to local mores and tradition, and affect the way that America is viewed by the populace. All of the countries cited are strategically important to the United States, and even routine events and decisions in these places can directly affect America?s security and political interests. Media portrayal of events in these countries can resonate throughout a large part of the Islamic world, and the American military advisor?s role can be pivotal in determining policy and affecting the country?s development. While most examples cited in this handbook are based on service in the Islamic word, many of the principles and lessons have universal application.

Even within the Islamic world, great disparities exist in socio-economic conditions, traditions, and behavior. Some countries are wealthy, with national income guaranteed by natural resources and business development, and some are so poor that their very survival as political entities can be at risk. Sunni Muslims differ from Shi?ite Muslims, and each of these major groups has internal ethnic and religious components that differ from one another as well. Life in Turkey is quite different from Yemen, and Algeria is not the same as Indonesia. The sophisticated Shi?ite Persian socialite in Tehran may have nothing in common with a Sunni tribesman from the Maghreb, and a young Pashtun Afghan member of the Wahabbi-influenced Taliban lives in a very different spiritual world than a moderate Sunni Turkish businessman from Istanbul. A wealthy Arab Muslim entrepreneur from Dubai with a household staff of Indian or Filipino servants lives very differently than a Bedouin nomad.

This diverse world is often further complicated by the presence of large Christian and other non-Muslim religious communities which claim long histories and economic and social prominence, by large western expatriate communities, and by a wide variety of domestic tribal and ethnic groups whose traditions color their customs and their behavior. This presence and role of sub-cultures and diverse ethnic, cultural, and regional groups are not unique to the Islamic world, but can be found in almost every society and country.

Although Muslim countries and cultures differ from one another, and methods of approach will change depending on locale, there are certain generalities that define the relationship of an advisor to foreign officials in this world:

  1. The advisor can assist and consult, but he cannot command. It is, after all, not his house and not his own country. He is a counselor, not a colonial administrator.
  2. The advisor should have expertise, but he does not have the last word. Policy direction and limits are set by his commander and by the American Ambassador, and policy will shift to conform to political shifts within the United States, the local population, and among local elected officials. Final decisionmaking is in the foreign official?s hands.
  3. The advisor must cooperate with other players, both foreign and American. Working alone does not mean being alone. The other players can enhance?or dilute?the officer?s influence.
  4. The advisor must be a true American, but not an Ugly American. Whatever his own religious and political convictions, the advisor must show respect for local culture and tradition to be successful. He is not a judge.
  5. The advisor should not be a hypocrite. If he is not prepared to live by his own advice, he should not expect others to follow it.
  6. The advisor should be humble. He should always remember that his audience may not have his resources, his background of living in a peaceful, orderly society, or his confidence in a good future and a guaranteed pension following retirement.
  7. And finally, the advisor must be helpful, but also credible. He should never promise what he cannot deliver.