Special Operations Advisory Groups: a Case Study in Cross-Cultural Organizational Collaboration

Foreign Intrigue is pleased to present another article by former United States Army Special Forces soldier Dave Coughran. John Bertetto contributed to this piece as editor. An alternate edit of this article appears in the 2014 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Review.

Dave is a 2014 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, currently studying diplomacy and international affairs. Coughran completed two tours to Iraq as a Green Beret in the Special Forces. He speaks Arabic and has served in numerous advisory posts to militaries and governments from the Middle East.

Eric Jones
Editor in Chief
Senior Writer
Foreign Intrigue


On November 24, 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai surprised the world by indicating that he would not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement.[1] This decision will have a critical effect on the future of the country; without a clear blueprint and formal legal authorization, future troop numbers for Afghanistan are now in question.[2]Whether or not a grand bargain can be struck, news agencies report that Special Operations units plan to inherit the Afghanistan mission and become the enduring military presence.[3] In March 2013, NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan (NSOCC-A) began reorganizing itself so that it could better respond to this as-yet-unknown future requirement. One of its most important decisions was the creation of Special Operations Advisory Groups, or SOAGs.

SOAG’s mission is to train, advise, and mentor a senior staff headquarters within the Afghan security forces. Their creation and deployment signal a shift in strategy away from US and NATO leadership and toward developing senior Afghan planners and logisticians who can effectively manage the enormous security apparatus that the international community helped create over the last twelve years. NATO leadership believes that, at this stage in the conflict, it is best to develop the capacity of the senior headquarters to ensure that the lower level formations are employed properly.[4] Most importantly, the relationships that the SOAGs cultivate will help the US and NATO maintain influence with senior decision makers as foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

SOAGs also provide a compelling case study in how to successfully create and sustain organizational change in overseas institutions. The lessons provided through their development and experiences are applicable to any collaborative engagement with a foreign counterpart here the goal is to influence a particular outcome. Diplomats, overseas investment firms, NGOs, and missionaries share many of the challenges that the SOAGs face, in particular the question, “How can I overcome cultural, political, and bureaucratic barriers in this foreign institution to achieve a result that is favorable to me?”

I served in a SOAG from June through November 2013, working for Commando-SOAG, the advisory group that mentors the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC). ANASOC controls both the Afghan Commandos, highly trained infantry units designed for rapid deployment, and the Afghan Special Forces, small teams that operate throughout Afghanistan gathering intelligence and living among the population. This article distills the most salient learning points of Commando-SOAG’s experience and offers them as proscriptive guidelines to other organizations working in a foreign advisory field.



Working with a foreign culture requires a perspective and approach that is often quite different than the one the trainer brings with them. Techniques or styles of management the trainer is accustomed to may be completely ineffective with trainees from foreign cultures. Persons operating in a foreign culture, therefore, are challenged on two critical fronts: they must have acumen in their specialized field (security, investment, technology, etc.), and they must be experts (or at least exceptionally well versed) in the culture within which they expect to operate in order to effectively communicate their messaging.

How do you select the right people to send into that environment? The first step is to cast a wide net. More importantly, that net must be cast into pools not typically considered. In Commando-SOAG, the commander frequently joked that he was creating “an island of misfit toys” to acquire all the unique skill-sets needed to properly mentor the ANASOC headquarters. The SOAG consisted of servicemen from all branches of the US military, NATO, civilian specialists, and technocrats under government contract. SOAG also activated people from the National Guard with special skills in their civilian fields to assist the mission: construction managers, engineers, corporate coaches, federal agents, police officers, lawyers, political attaches, etc. The people in Commando-SOAG collectively spoke six different native languages, and the unit was as culturally diverse as the Afghan staff it mentored. This gave the commander a wide set of skills and personalities that he could match with the Afghan staff officers. Often times, he found the optimal pairing outside of particular technical fields. For example, the commander paired a Rhode Island police officer with the commander of the Afghan construction unit when he saw a unique chemistry develop.

Second, a list of required personal and professional qualities for team members must be explicitly developed and referenced during selection. In Commando-SOAG, the commander used such a list when considering recruits. After expertise in a particular craft, enthusiasm for the job was critical. Military advisors measure success over months and must find gratification in small achievements,like teaching their Afghan counterparts to file reports in three-ring binders.  Those working in a SOAG had to be patient negotiators, have a deep understanding of the political/strategic environment, and be at ease working with their native counterparts. Initially, turnover in the unit was very high, as the Commando-SOAG commander removed people who couldn’t connect with the Afghans, but over time expertise and personality achieved a kind of critical mass and personnel stabilized into effectiveness.

The third criterion is the ability to function in an ambiguous environmentand with minimal supervision. ANASOC operated under very dynamic and evolving conditions, so the SOAG commander could not offer definitive guidance or detailed instructions to his new personnel. Instead, he merely communicated his priorities and allowed his subordinates to develop their own goals and plans. This necessitated that he find “self-starters” who could think on their own.

The steps taken by SOAG would be helpful for NGOs operating in dangerous parts of the world. Here, altruism is not enough. Aid workers and their leadership must be able to understand their operational environment and stay abreast of social or political shifts that could put them in danger. In an instant, conditions may change and workers who are initially welcomed (or at least ignored enough so that they could engage in their mission) may no longer be welcome in a certain area. Like a SOAG, civilian organizations have to think on their feet and be able to make quick decisions with relatively little guidance.


At some point during the first three months of a tour, every new recruit in Commando-SOAG received a brief from Brigadier General Christopher Burns, a Green Beret in the National Guard whose civilian job is corporate coaching. His business firm supervises millions of dollars in assets, and he has worked one-on-one with high powered executives throughout the private sector. The single most important lesson he emphasized in his lectures was this, “[i]f it is your goal, and only something that you want to happen, your Afghan counterpart will not follow through. But if it is his goal, and something he wants, it has a chance.” Burns’ point is that the military advisor’s time should be spent goal setting with the mentee and encouraging him along a plan of action, not simply persuading him to perform some desired action.

This methodology sounds simple enough, but the effort can be easily lost in the routine grind. In Commando-SOAG, priorities from our superiors could change overnight, or any new emergency could surface and require immediate action. Spending time on goal setting may seem like a waste of time, especially if one is under immediate pressure to achieve a certain result. However, goal setting is important if for no other reason than to fight the dangerous mental trap that can snare even a seasoned military advisor—adopting the mindset that, “my job is to give advice, and it is up to my counterpart to decide if he follows it.” That approach is dead-wrong. Advising is not a binary operation, nor does it have only one end-state. Advising is a constant struggle for leverage and influence, and even though the mentee may choose not to follow the advice provided, lessons may still be learned from it. Goal setting in SOAG gave both the mentor and the mentee a direction to follow, a direction that narrows as time passes in the give-and-take of the relationship.


While serving in Commando-SOAG, my Afghan counterpart was Colonel Farris, ANASOC’s Director of Operations.[5] Through my own experience, I came to realize that my methods to advise him fell into one of three categories; consensus, demonstration, and intervention. Typically, if I was trying to influence his decision-making, I would start with consensus and build up to intervention, until I had effectively changed his goals.

Consensus: Consensus is short for consensus building. This is the idea of having a discussion with the mentee, making a recommendation, and allowing him to realize the merits of the suggestion on his own. If the mentee values the potential outcomes, his goals will change, and then behavior follows. I would classify the overwhelming majority of my advising efforts with Colonel Farris as consensus building.

Demonstration: Colonel Farris’s unique handicap was his lack of experience working in special operations units. By training, he was an artillery officer who had studied gunnery in India. This left him ill-prepared to manage the surgical-strike infantry missions, helicopter raids, and the intelligence work that characterized ANASOC. I knew that I could not make up for the years of training he lacked in my limited weekly sessions with him, nor could I give him a reading list and expect him to study during his free time. This was where demonstration became important.

As an example, one of Colonel Farris’s problems was taking intelligence reports, analyzing them, and then giving proper guidance to his units in the field. So the SOAG demonstrated a technique to make this more manageable. We dissected Afghanistan into smaller sections by geography and numbered them. The SOAG then chose one of these sections and intensely studied it for a matter of weeks until we understood everything about the people, terrain, government, and enemy in that area. We next shared the results of our analysis with ANASOC and then moved on to another section of the map, repeating the process over and over until larger trends across Afghanistan came into focus. After two iterations led by Commando-SOAG, Colonel Farris’s staff adopted the technique.

Intervention: On the far-end of the scale was intervention. If consensus and demonstration failed, and I still needed Colonel Farris to adopt a recommendation (in perhaps a life or death situation), I would liaise with a different member of Commando-SOAG to advocate for me. For example, I could explain my issue to the ANASOC Chief-of-Staff through the intermediary of his Commando-SOAG advisor. If the Chief-of-Staff agreed with the recommendation, he would usually intervene with a direct order to COL Farris. To the best of my ability, I attempted to avoid going around my counterpart to further my mentoring agenda. It implied a lack of trust and damaged the rapport that I had built with over a long period of time.

Coincidentally, my experiences in SOAG are similar to those in organizations such as the State Department, who work to build professional skills in impoverished nations. A colleague of mine at Department of State explained that he often works with a counterpart who lacks the right credentials or training. In these cases, he too was mixing consensus, demonstration, and intervention in attempts to nudge his mentee in the right direction. His advice for me was to always use the technique that was minimally intrusive when trying to influence my counterpart’s goals. Experience has shown that this is sound advice.


On my first day of advising in the ANASOC Tactical Operations Center (TOC), I walked by a door with two locks on it. I turned to a colleague and asked what the Afghans stored in there. It turned out to be a computer system purchased by the U.S., and incredibly expensive. The Afghans only turned the system on once a week to see if it worked, but then they immediately locked it back up again. If they actually used the system, it would greatly improve their staff work.

For the next five months, I made it my goal to see that the Afghans properly employed this system. The more I learned about all of its features, the more I realized that it was exactly what ANASOC needed all the time, and not just once a week for a diagnostic check. The conclusion I reached was that the Afghans did indeed value the system. However, their fears were that if the computers and hard drives ever left the locked room, the information could be compromised and put people in danger. To them it was better to secure it in a storage room and use only in cases of extreme emergency. This decision generally corresponded with an Afghan military culture that does not freely share information with each other and prizes compartmentalization over coordination.

After a considerable amount of effort, I reached a compromise with ANASOC where the computer system would stay locked in the closet, but the Afghans allowed Commando-SOAG to drill a hole through the wall so that cables from the system could be hooked up to monitors and projectors in the main room. The system stayed turned on in the storage room, and an officer could shut down just the displays with a flip of a switch if he so desired. The overall setup was ridiculous by American standards, but to the Afghans it made perfect sense.

The important lesson that Commando-SOAG learnedfrom this is that outcomes are far more important than processes. The experience is reminiscent of Homer Atkins in the 1958 political novel The Ugly American.[6] In the story, the protagonist builds an unwieldy water pump with bicycle parts to help irrigate a village in Southeast Asia. The author intended the vignette to demonstrate that aid workers were more effective when they understood the specific needs of the people they worked with and did not push ideas on them. Both the water pump and the computer system were strange to observe, but effective in their outcome. Ultimately Commando-SOAG learned that we could achieve greater results in developing ANASOC by improving “their” Afghan-systems rather than forcing our methodology upon them.


At the present time SOAGs continue to carry out one of the most important missions in Afghanistan. These special operations units are a long term insurance that the security gains the US and our NATO allies worked so hard to achieve in Afghanistan don’t come undone. The lessons learned from their creation, development, and deployment and the best practices learned from their endeavors and experiences can be applied to business, politics, and statecraft on the world stage, where successful outcomes depend upon successful collaborative outcomes with foreign counterparts.

[1]“Afghanistan’s Karzai Rejects Elders’ Advice to Back US Deal Quickly,” Reuters, accessed November 24, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/24/us-afghanistan-usa-idUSBRE9AN04X20131124.

[2]“US Military Eyes Afghan Force of 10,000, or a Pullout,” New York Times, accessed January 21, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/world/asia/military-eyes-afghan-force-of-10000-or-a-pullout.html.

[3]“US Maps Special-Ops Heavy Afghan War Plan,” CBS News, accessed April 12, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-maps-out-special-ops-heavy-afghan-war-plan/.

[4] “First Person: Top U.S. General in Afghanistan Maps Out Next Phase of War,” Marine Corps Times, accessed September 12, 2013, http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/article/20130912/NEWS01/309120006/First-person-Top-U-S-general-Afghanistan-maps-out-next-phase-war. General Joseph Dunford wrote this piece shortly after assuming command of all NATO units in Afghanistan.

[5]The names of Afghan personnel and equipment in this article have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[6] William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American, (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1958).


(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the United States Air Force)


Dave Coughran (Author) is a 2014 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, currently studying diplomacy and international affairs. Coughran completed two tours to Iraq as a Green Beret in the Special Forces. He speaks Arabic and has served in numerous advisory posts to militaries and governments from the Middle East.

John A. Bertetto (Editor) is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. His current areas of study and work include criminal street gangs, social network analysis, and asymmetric threat mitigation.