You can spend your life training a turtle to run – but it will never be anything other than a slow, plodding, defensive animal. If, however, you train a racehorse to run, you dramatically improve the odds of transforming that animal into a winner.
Why am I drawing this analogy? Last week, USA Today published a fascinating article, “U.S. Looking for Leaders in Afghan Army.” The piece illustrates the military’s strategies for selecting and developing leaders from within its ranks.
Leadership Obstacles: The 3 C’s
It also underscores the struggles associated with building strong Afghan forces from the top down. In a nutshell – think corruption, cronyism and cultural challenges. These “3 C’s” continually stand in the way of progress. I saw this first-hand, while training border police in Afghanistan with U.S. troops in a remote region near Pakistan.
Actually, buying-and-selling military rank isn’t a concept that’s new or unique to Afghanistan. Even during the American Revolution, many officers bought their commissions. But there’s a huge difference between these two situations. American soldiers were leading a revolution – not drawing a paycheck. Their deep commitment to the cause of independence outweighed their commitment to personal advancement.
Right Stuff – Wrong Place
Many very capable Afghan Soldiers want to do more. They display initiative, talent and desire. However, too often, viable candidates are limited by their position in the pecking order. They aren’t tribal elders or relatives of powerful people. And if American military personnel attempt to develop and promote these rising stars, their more powerful Afghan brethren typically take offense – accusing U.S. forces of meddling.
This scenario is a direct result the cronyism USA Today mentions. If a more capable Afghan is promoted into leadership, but doesn’t kowtow and provide the kickbacks desired, it angers Afghans who are already in power.
Their response isn’t merely about greed or tradition. It’s also about saving face. Power and face-saving are intricately linked. If a powerful Afghan promotes a weak leader – and Americans subsequently remove that “weak link” – the Afghan official who sponsored the promotion looks incompetent, himself. So, unfortunately, it’s in the best interests of those at a higher level to preserve the status quo.
The Fast Path to Leadership
What’s the solution? Find Afghans with strong values, as well as leadership potential. Strong leaders, alone, aren’t sufficient.
As history reveals, leadership without an accompanying sense of justice, fairness and integrity often wreaks havoc. Consider the Taliban. Their ranks are full of dedicated leaders – but their brutal, destructive values threaten the civilized world.
In the USA Today piece, a Harvard-educated military science professor estimates in the article that it takes 10 years to develop good leaders for higher positions. I disagree with that notion. Of course, it would be better if we had the luxury of time. But rarely in a crisis have leaders with that level of mentoring been available.
George Washington, himself, didn’t have a decade of training prior to taking command of the Continental Army. And in most U.S. wars, many officers were promoted to significant leadership positions with little or no training, beyond the experience they previously gained in battle.
A Recruiting Checklist
So – if we want to develop effective Afghan military leaders quickly and efficiently, what qualities should we seek? Obviously, intelligence is key. But so are three other “C’s” – courage, conviction and commitment. We should actively pursue young men who demonstrate that they will sacrifice to protect the interests of others. Leadership requires a clear moral code – as well as the resolve to die for those principles, if necessary.
Not surprisingly, these are same attributes that define good U.S. military leaders.
Yes, there’s a severe leadership problem in Afghanistan – partly due to the culture itself. But if we want to help Afghans move forward, we should help them find and promote the right kind of people, rather than trying to mold leaders from the wrong material.
It starts with selecting horses, not turtles.
P.S. To learn about insights from my tour as an Afghan Border Police trainer, check out my book, “Afghan Journal: A Soldier’s Year in Afghanistan.” Read an excerpt and reviews at the “Afghan Journal” site, or buy the book at Amazon.com.