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Col. Michael E. Haith (Ret.)
Military leader

Col. Michael E. Haith (Ret.)

Colonel Mike Haith (U.S. Army, Retired) currently works for the Army at Ft. Monroe as a Human Dimension Integrator.

Our most difficult task

In response to this week's On Leadership question: This week President Obama will announce a renewed commitment to train Afghan troops and strengthen the elected government, among other goals. What's the best way for U.S. forces to nurture leadership among Afghani forces? Is it possible to teach leadership across cultures?

Developing Afghan leaders is a task that will occur at many levels and will include tribal leaders, military and police junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) and senior civilian, military, and law enforcement officials. It's about changing professional behavior, and there is no getting around the fact this will be the most difficult effort of our involvement in Afghanistan.

We can and must engage in leadership development of Afghan leaders. It will be complicated, require cultural understanding and involve real consequences our advisors must understand to be successful. Most importantly our relationship with Afghan leaders must be based on a relationship of mutual respect, collaborative rather than dictatorial.

The first step is to lead by example and serve as a role model. Our engagement must be continuous, not episodic, and our efforts must be consistent with their cultural norms and values. That is not to say our advisors will accept Afghan actions counter to the rule of law or the law of armed conflict, even for example, when Afghan leaders argue that detainees are not entitled to the same treatment as enemy prisoners of war. We have an obligation to prevent such abuse even if it is committed by Afghans as a matter of accepted practice. Similarly, even though corruption may be a "cultural norm," we must engage the Afghans in a discussion on its negative effects, prevent it where possible and report it when observed.

While I have little experience with Afghan civilian leaders at the local, district, provincial, or national levels, I spent a month in 2006 assessing the professionalism of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) for USCENTCOM. The most glaring deficiency was the poor treatment of the enlisted soldier and non-commissioned officers by the officer corps. Food, living conditions, pay, clothing and general treatment reflected their belief that their status entitled them to perks unavailable to subordinates. There was no professional military ethic similar to Western militaries that included the most basic requirement to take care of your troops needs before your own.

I am confident the past three years have seen an improvement in the professionalism of the ASNF, due in large measure to U.S. and NATO advisors. However, there is the temptation to avoid confronting Afghan leaders. The rationale I heard from several military advisors was it was "useless" to address leadership deficiencies because our values were not consistent with their values. This attitude reflected an unwillingness to engage in discussions with Afghans, where the advisor could identify what they do value and ask of the Afghans, was their professional conduct consistent with their professed beliefs?

Perhaps the most critical consideration is that our conduct and advice must be consistent from advisor to advisor. This effort will not show dramatic results in a short period of time. We must be prepared to stay the course but at the same time understand that the outcome will be imperfect. We here in the United States struggle with these very issues among our business, military, appointed and elected leaders as this website discusses on a weekly basis. We should therefore not be surprised that our progress will be slow and marked by significant failures as well as successes. Only our commitment to this effort will ensure we make any lasting impact.

By Col. Michael E. Haith (Ret.)

 |  December 1, 2009; 5:18 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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If the Taliban and their allies know that US/NATO troops are going to pull out at a specific time in the future, they will pull back and hide in their sanctuary's and wait until an opportune time to restart offensive operations. Air combat support will have to remain in the theater after US/NATO ground troops have left. The Afghan military and police must fight alongside the non-Afghan military who are attempting to train them.

Posted by: xrayloop | December 1, 2009 7:57 PM
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1. The Afghanistan War would be a great business op for the Appollo Group, our Bio-technology , information and technology, financial services divisions of Bank of America, Well Fargo and Wachovia, H and R Block, Jackson-Hewitt, our Construction sector, also, the best health care system the world has ever known. There is alot of hay to be made.
2. What I am getting at is this, Afghanistan, would be a good test platform for training our Green Economy Specialists. The time is now to train our workers for the jobs of the 22nd century.

Antonio the Sun

Posted by: sterlinggo1 | December 1, 2009 7:26 PM
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Afghanistan smells a lot like the governments of South Vietnam with the notable exception of significant tribal regions and a very backwards country even more so than most in Asia. As much as I would like to see the U.S. become successful, history is against us.

In our history when we supported the corrupt regimes of South Vietnam, we were fighting a strong national liberation organization supported by Russia and Red China. My experience there indicated that we were doomed by 1970. In 1971 and 1972, the term DYNAMIC DEFENSE was a platitude for not going after the VC and NVA. The South Vietnamese did not support their government and usually fought for self protection or self interest (most province and police chiefs). We have an even worse situation in Afghanistan.

In most cases we have good trained and experienced troops on the ground. However, their track record and success in this insurgency has not been that good. The problem is that the U.S. military fails to use lessons learned and has to develop tactics and weapons all over again.

The question is who in the U.S. really believe that the Afghan military and police are up to the job of defeating a tough enemy? They have a corrupt government. They do not have the active support of most of the country. They do not have a realistic military tradition with Afghan training sites and academies run by their own military (like Pakistan and India).

This is not a winnable war. Kill as many Taliban and Al Qaeda as possible. Get out and let the Afghanistan people figure out what they want.

Posted by: CPTKILLER | December 1, 2009 5:49 PM
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Haith: "...when Afghan leaders argue that detainees are not entitled to the same treatment as enemy prisoners of war. We have an obligation to prevent such abuse ..."

Detainees? What detainees? We meet a friendly clan and some devout young fellows, high-fived, and said good-bye. Later, we suffered an attack, by kafirs perhaps. All are dead. Tricky fellows, they charged at us backwards, which is why the bullets wounds are all in their backs.

Haith: "though corruption may be a 'cultural norm,' we must engage the Afghans in a discussion on its negative effects,"

Such sermons will hardly dissuade a cadet or prospective civil servant if the sermonizer gets vastly higher pay or security, or if the listeners get the impression that their culture is being derided.

And Haith adds on corruption: "prevent it where possible and report it when observed."

How about starting with the padded accounts, bogus results, feather bedding, and over-invoicing of our own contractors and NGOs? What sort of "protection program" is there for whistle blowers? What if one man's whistle blowing is another's slander? And what if the choice is between a "partner" that is honest but lenient to Taliban, versus one who is corrupt but knows and exterminates Taliban?

None of the conditions that aided the occupations of Germany or Japan are present in Afghanistan. It might be easier and more fruitful to "build" Haiti, which is closer, smaller, and not distinguished by an acute religious difference. Finally, the 9/11 perpetrators studied in Germany and the US and none were Afghans. However, since our occupation, some would-be terrorists are Afghan, and our continued occupation may spawn more. Foreign Occupation = Domestic Resentment.

Posted by: jkoch2 | December 1, 2009 4:38 PM
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What's the best way for U.S. forces to nurture leadership among Afghani forces?
1. Discover oil in Afghanistan.
2. Change from opium to marijuana with guaranteed exports to the United States.
3. Teach Afghans English and directly export American jobs to Afghanistan instead of India.
4. Pay for ears and beards of dead Taliban as was done in Vietnam.

Leadership will follow economic development just as jobs follow growth.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 1, 2009 4:10 PM
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The commentor "Doctort" hit the nail squarely on the head. I can't add anything more.

Posted by: TooManyPeople | December 1, 2009 3:15 PM
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Management consultants recommend management. There is no reason (and equally good odds for success) in trying to clone our somewhat silly society in AfPak. They consider us decadent, wasteful infidels (and they may be right).
We went into Afghanistan in order to get al-Q'Aida. Since little Bush, for his own reasons, was going to invade Iraq he didn't want to get bogged down in a war with few good air targets, so he outsourced the war to the drug-pusher warlords who were on the brink of getting kicked out. These are the leaders to whom you are trying to teach leadership American style (Cicero-style might be closer to where they are). As Karzai, as American as Tom Delay, as amply demonstrated, our present style is not appropriate for them, they have their own.
After 8 years, it's time to go. With enough cash, we can make a deal with whomever is going to run the country (either our drug lords or their 19th Century religious Boss Tweeds) that we can come in every once in a while, like a termite treatment, to clean out any infestions that threaten the neighborhood. Pakistan had not gone into the tribal areas for sixty years, and they really don't want to. We can help them out by offering aerial support (let them play with their own drones like the Mujahadeen and our Stingers), money, and a way to talk to India. The local sheiks will tire of al-Q'Aida eventually and deal with them in their own inimitable style.
For the posters, it is pointless to rail against American hubris because: 1) people with hubris don't listen (that's why it is often tragic); and 2) we have already been mucking it up for 8 years. We can only hope that people like the good colonel are not allowed into AfPak, and instead bless with their presence the many foreign entities our companies have outsourced to.

Posted by: doctort | December 1, 2009 1:43 PM
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We have come to accept America's manifest destiny is to alter societies we label as threat to our national security. It is a form of hubris that has failed in Vietnam, Iraq and increasingly likely, in AfPak. We fail to see the common human links in formulating our foreign policy. If some other country, however well meaning, were to physically take us over and then seek to reshape the existing system, our reaction would be one of resistance. We seemed constantly surprised when people react strongly to our interference. It would greatly simplify our goals of national security if we start to apply the simple dictum to all our policies. How would we react if a foreign power dictated similar terms to us.

Posted by: drne | December 1, 2009 12:09 PM
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To be charitable, Afghanistan is a 19th Century nation trying to survive in the 21st Century. It is pure arrogance to think we can successfully nation-build the Afghani military and police, when the British and Russians failed so miserably in their attempts to do the same thing. It is one of the most primitive, corrupt and backward nations on earth.

It is pure hubris for Obama and his generals to stay another day. As he reads his teleprompter today to fool the American people - he is only fooling himself.

Posted by: alance | December 1, 2009 12:01 PM
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Col. Haith, I wish you well, but your task is formidable. Take the United States as an example – we have a common history, possess a fairly homogonous and peaceful population, fought a war to keep states from seceding, and yet today have enormous chasms between Republicans and Democrats. Our nation is fracturing due to class and political warfare, yet we refuse to address that. An example: We can spend two trillion “off the books” to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, yet quibble over a lesser sum to provide healthcare for our own citizens. Sex, drug and money scandals are far too common with our politicians. Our political “leadership” should be an example not a cautionary tale.

From Wikipedia (First Anglo-Afghan War): “Although the Simla Manifesto stated that British troops would be withdrawn as soon as Shah Shuja was installed in Kabul, Shuja's rule depended entirely on British arms to suppress rebellion and on British funds to buy the support of tribal chiefs. The British denied that they were invading Afghanistan, instead claiming they were merely supporting its legitimate Shuja government”.

From Wikipedia (Third Anglo-Afghan War): “The nationalism, disruption and unrest that it (Third Anglo-Afghan War ) had sparked stirred up more trouble in the years to come, particularly in Waziristan. The tribesmen, always ready to exploit weakness, whether real or perceived, banded together in the common cause of disorder and unrest. They had become well-armed too, as a result of the conflict, as they had benefitted greatly from the weapons and ammunition that the Afghans had left behind as well as from the influx of manpower in the large numbers of deserters from the militia that had joined their ranks. With these they launched a campaign of resistance to British authority on the North-West Frontier that was to last until the end of the Raj”.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan; however the national population also consists of Tajiks, Hazara, Aimak, Uzbeks, Uyghur, Turkmen and other small groups. The Russians were in Afghanistan for nine years, attempting nation-building Soviet-style. The British fought three wars there, over an 80 year period, before deciding to leave Afghanistan to its’ own devices. Both these empires realized there is no common history, except strife, to glue these separate groups together.

As a punishment from the gods for his hubris, Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down again, forcing him to begin again. The United States received a painful lesson in Vietnam – apparently we insist on repeating it in Afghanistan.

Posted by: shadowmagician | December 1, 2009 10:05 AM
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Mike Haith makes some great comments. But want to assure the readers, that from the perspective of an officer on the staff at NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, there has been considerable focus on improved leadership development, and this is a top priority of the new, incoming 3star general, LTG Bill Caldwell. If you want the history of the complex interaction between winning an insurgency and developing quality leaders, I recommend you read Mark Moyar's book, "A Question of Command". And, to WashPost and Pearstein and Narisetti, thanks for building this column/blog. MRH-Kabul.

Posted by: MRH-in-Kabul | December 1, 2009 6:44 AM
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