The Leadership Lessons of an Afghan Colonel

 

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV., United States Army, Commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV., United States Army, Commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

For the past 22 months, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan has been charged with developing the Afghan Army, Air Force, and Police. Since day one, developing Afghan leaders has been the command’s number one priority to ensure NATO can transition geographic and institutional lead to Afghanistan. We know in our militaries that good leaders make the most of the resources they are given. Good leaders understand their soldiers’ needs and help them solve problems. And good leaders inspire their forces to excel. The same is true in Afghanistan.

However, when NTM-A was stood up in November 2009, there was a significant leader deficit. Much progress has been made training and educating Afghan military and police personnel; over the past two years officers and non-commissioned officers in the police grew from 42,500 to 61,850. Now that the schools are in place, the police leader ranks will grow to 83,400 over the next year. The same is true in their army; over the past two years officers and non-commissioned officers grew from 40,900 to 66,800 and will grow to 86,500. Training and education are essential, but leaders develop over time through experience.

In spite of the overall deficit of leaders, there are some good leaders within the Afghan security forces. During a recent visit to training sites in eastern Laghman Province, I was struck by one Afghan Colonel in particular. Talking with him, I was intrigued by his leadership philosophy and distilled his comments to three lessons that are as relevant in the Afghan military as any military in our Coalition.

Lesson 1: Lead by example, no matter how menial the task. Culturally, Afghan officers tend to rely on enlisted to perform physical labors, but Colonel Mir learned the importance of rolling up his sleeves when necessary from his previous coalition advisor. He recounted the story of a US Army officer who worked single-handedly to unload equipment from a shipping container. As the colonel and his men curiously watched this officer tirelessly move heavy equipment and boxes, the Afghan leader noticed the advisor’s hands were bleeding. Colonel Mir was so impressed by the willingness of an officer to work until his hands were bloodied that it inspired him and his men to join the US officer in the work. The Afghan colonel said “when we saw that this man was willing to do this kind of work and bleed for our country, we learned a very valuable lesson.” It was a lesson in leadership by example reinforced by sweat and blood.

Lesson 2: Lead from the front in the face of adversity. During an insurgent attack on the training center, a senior coalition non-commissioned officer, stood courageously in the middle of the compound directing supporting fires and positioning the fearful Afghan cadre and recruits where they could defend against the attack. After the attack, the NCO challenged the enemy to come back again because the recruits would be even more prepared the next time. This NCO’s courage under fire inspired Colonel Mir to lead from the front.

Lesson 3: Lead and listen to wise counsel no matter the rank or position of an individual. Afghan officers still struggle with accepting advice from junior officers and non-commissioned officers, however working with coalition personnel changed his mind. Colonel Mir recounted how a young US Air Force lieutenant helped the training center accurately forecast its budget, order supplies, manage facilities and adequately resource the training of the new courses. In spite of his inexperience, the lieutenant taught the much more experienced Afghan leader the value of planning and listening to subordinates.

Undoubtedly, Colonel Mir is exceptional, but seeing the results of his leadership and hearing the positive impact of Coalition advising offered a glimpse into the future. Over the next year, lead training responsibility will shift from Coalition forces to Afghanistan. As evidenced in Laghman and at other basic training courses, this is already happening. There are currently 3,100 trained Afghan trainers with a plan to have 4,500 by December 2012. As Afghans assume training responsibility, there is still a key role for Coalition forces to advise on training curricula, train facilities management, and build training systems. As a I visit training sites throughout the country, I do see hope here that I did not see two years ago and I’m convinced Afghans can do this mission. They will need international support and resources, but officers like Colonel Mir illustrate that Afghans can do the mission.

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV., United States Army, has served as the commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan since November 2009.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spencer-Kenyon/11019701 Spencer Kenyon

    It is inspirational to read that our officers and non-commissioned officers are providing Afghan leaders with solid and competent mentorship.  The three lessons that were detailed in the article are relevant and important for leaders in all facets of life.  I hope that coaltion members can continue to foster positive relationships with Afghan military leaders.

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