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General Hillier

DND photo KA2003-A404D

Persuasion as an Element of Leadership: General Hillier as Commander ISAF

by Roy Thomas

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“Persuasion” is one of the elements of leadership listed by Field Marshal Slim in a post-war lecture to the Camberley Army Staff Course.1 General Hillier, during his tenure as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), provides an example of this element of leadership in action. He had to persuade others, over whom he had no command authority, to subscribe to an Afghan strategic vision, and to agree to undertake activities which would contribute to achieving a mutually desired end state in order to design an operational campaign for ISAF.

The need for some form of strategic template had already been articulated. At a meeting preceding General Hillier’s assumption of command of ISAF, President Karzai, identified “… the absence of unified action by the multitude of governments and organizations in Afghanistan had resulted in a dissipation of development efforts, and correspondingly, the potential effects” as the most pressing of four major concerns of the Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA).2Karzai’s worries are best understood by looking at the situation in Afghanistan confronting ISAF in 2004.

The ISAF Campaign

ISAF had been created in accordance with the Bonn Conference of December 2001 with the intent of assisting the ATA to extend and exercise its authority across the country, starting with Kabul, the capital. In mid-2003, NATO assumed the responsibility for ISAF, the first ‘out of Europe’ mission for that international alliance.3

When General Hillier assumed command in February 2004, he became the second NATO commander of ISAF.4 ISAF, in early 2004, was still concentrated in Kabul, with its main fighting component being the Kabul Multinational Brigade (KMNB). Prior to General Hillier assuming command, it had been assessed that the situation in Kabul had been stabilized and that “… the time was propitious to expand beyond tactical activities and implement a long-term campaign plan.”5

The American anti-Al-Qaeda Campaign

There existed an ongoing American-led campaign to uproot the terrorist Al-Qaeda institutions, such as training sites and leaders’ bases from Afghanistan, which the overthrown Taliban government had accepted, tolerated, or, indeed, had been allied with to some extent. This campaign had, in fact, started before the Bonn Conference, not long after the 9/11 attacks, and it was responsible for the rapid collapse of the formal Taliban regime, which had exercised governance over a large part of Afghanistan. The Al-Qaeda training was forced underground, if not driven out entirely, into the neighbouring tribal areas of Pakistan.6

Canada participated in Operation Enduring Freedom7> by sending an infantry battalion to an area of operations near Kandahar in 2002-2003. At the time of General Hillier’s command of ISAF, the coalition forces deployed in the theatre of Afghanistan on this operation, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, (CFC-A), totalled approximately 20,000 military personnel, including contingents contributed by the same nations that were contributing to ISAF, such as Canada.

The Office of Military Co-operation for Afghanistan had been created in response to the need for military cooperation between ISAF and CFC-A, as well as various Special Forces, and a wide range of armed Afghan elements operating under various authorities.

General Hillier and President Karzai

DND photo SU2006-0523-41 by Master Corporal Jill Cooper

Relief, Recovery, Reconstruction, and Development

However, it was among the many, many agencies involved in trying to help Afghanistan recover from war that the need for coordination was most evident. One commentator has equated the process of attempting to lead the “… plethora of quasi-independent actors” with trying to “herd cats.”8

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was established, much like ISAF, to assist the ATA, but with a mandate aimed at supporting the process of rebuilding and national reconciliation, as outlined in the Bonn Agreement. A key aspect of the UNAMA mandate required this organization “… to manage all UN humanitarian relief, recovery, reconstruction, and development activities in coordination with the government.”9 The head of UNAMA held the appointment of Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG).

For many missions, United Nations coordination of humanitarian activities was conducted under auspices of the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Instead, in Afghanistan, the SRSG, who, on UN missions, often provided oversight for a military and even a civilian police component, was responsible for humanitarian coordination. In 2004, there were 27 UN agencies with interests, indeed, a presence in Afghanistan. Most were major agencies, such as UNDP, whose worldwide budgets could total hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

At the same time, literally thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operated in Afghanistan, ranging from major organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an organization with a footprint spread across the entire country, as well as a ‘historic’ continuous presence that dated back to 1979, when the Soviets invaded, to small NGOs consisting of just a few people. The functions were equally varied, ranging from delivery of immediate relief, to long-term development. Some had capabilities that covered a general range of humanitarian assistance, and some were quite specialized/technical, such as those involved in the clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance. The need for coordination was reinforced by the fact that the NGOs themselves created several coordinating bodies. For example, the Afghan NGO Coordination Board (ANCB) in 2003 counted over 200 members.10 The Agency Coordinating Body Afghan Relief (ACBAR) had registered even more members at this time.11 Complicating the situation was the fact that major donors, such as Japan, a nation contributing billions of yen, had no formal lead in any of the activities.

In 2004, Karzai’s ATA, in the short term, had to organize an election, but in the longer term, had to try and extend its authority, or the authority of the soon-to-be elected Afghan government over a state which, even before the Soviet invasion, had possessed a decentralized and very regional system of governance. As it materialized, the ATA had to wage its own campaign to extend its governance.

At this point, General Hillier stepped in to provide ‘assistance’ in the form of a planning team that could translate ATA priorities into a framework knitting together the myriad objectives resulting from the almost overwhelming number of ‘players.’Their assistance to the Afghans resulted in strategic thrust lines based on achieving security, governance, rule of law, and development of social and human capital, as well as the building of national economy and infrastructure objectives under the umbrella of what was then called the Investment Management Framework (IMF).12

Figure 1

Figure 1: ISAF Harmonized Development Process or Investment Management Framework13

The Need for Persuasion

General Hillier had to use ‘persuasion’ to convince the ATA, and, subsequently, the SRSG and UNAMA, of the usefulness of this approach.14 He apparently was successful, since “… there was general acceptance of the concepts and principles that underpinned the IMF.”15

The ISAF planning team then assisted ATA with incorporating this information into National Priority Programs (NPPs). The unifying function of these NPPs was that donor aid would be channelled through an Afghan national budget process, thus increasing the capabilities of national institutions both systemically and consistently. Out of this work was developed a concept, Creating a National Economy: The Path to Security and Stability in Afghanistan, which articulated a strategic vision that served as the precursor to the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. This concept General Hillier had to ‘sell’ to the ‘herd of cats,’ among others.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Challenge of Creating Common Intent16

Figure 2 illustrates some of the contacts or organizations that General Hillier had to persuade to share the strategic vision laid out in the IMF. This figure depicts the three major groups requiring ‘persuasion,’ the Afghan government, at that point, the ATA, the Afghan and coalition militaries, as well as the International Community (IC), which included not only the SRSG and UNAMA, but other major organizations, such as the World Bank.

The ambassadors seen in the IC thrust line of Figure 2 do not include all the members of what General Hillier labelled the ‘Policy Action Group.’17 Warlords are presumably in both the military and ATA mix, illustrating that although the diagram shows linear relationships within thrust lines, relationships and connections crossed these distinctions at times.18

“Spreading the Word” is how Hillier and Coombs describe the process of gaining consensus for the strategic vision contained in Creating a National Economy. It was recognized that the strategy required consensus among all the stakeholders, particularly the Afghans, as well as the organizations and countries represented by the Policy Action Group. “This effort to create interest and shared ownership amongst all agencies was crucial.”19 General Hillier personally exercised the elements of leadership and persuasion with the ATA, with the Policy Action Group, with CFC-A, and with NGOs.


The unified plan that General Hillier persuaded so many to agree upon, and even to implement, not only empowered the Afghan government at the time, the ATA, but also its successor, giving Afghans influence in development of the strategic vision for their own country, and allowing them to own part of the process. At no time could General Hillier ‘command’ acceptance of what was essentially an Afghan strategy, albeit one developed with help from ISAF planners. He had to utilize that element of leadership ascribed to Slim, namely, ‘persuasion.’

Application of the operational art to the situation in post-war Afghanistan did not invite the ‘muddle’ suggested by Professor English’s classic essay on the operational level of command.20 Rather, the example of General Hillier suggests that any ‘muddle’ in such scenarios arises from the lack of the leadership element of ‘persuasion,’ which is needed to gain adherence to an overarching strategic framework so necessary for campaign planning.

CMJ Logo

Major (ret’d) Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA, a highly experienced Canadian Army peacekeeper, has served in seven different UN mission areas, including the Middle East missions of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force [UNDOF] and the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization [UNTSO], during which he was hijacked in South Lebanon.


  1. Frederick Baillergeon, “Slim of Burma,” in Armchair General, August/September 2007, Vol. IV, Issue 4, sidebar, p. 58, refers to the elements and qualities of leadership outlined by Slim in a post-war address to Camberley students.
  2. Howard G. Coombs and General Rick Hillier, “Command and Control during Peace Support Operations: Creating Common Intent in Afghanistan,” in Allan English (ed.), The Operational Art: Canadian Perspectives, Leadership and Command (Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2006), Chapter 8, p. 177. The other three concerns expressed by President Karzai were, not surprisingly, external and internal threats to the fledgling Afghan ‘National’ Army,the lack of human capital and all that that entails, and the need to publicize the positive consequences of ATA governance.
  3. Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007), explores how NATO became involved in assuming the lead for ISAF.
  4. Prior to becoming NATO-led, ISAF had been commanded by a general from whichever American ally had agreed to be the lead for ISAF during that particular period of time.
  5. Howard G. Coombs and General Rick Hillier, “Planning for Success: The Challenge of Applying Operational Art in Post-Conflict Afghanistan,” in the Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3, Autumn 2005, p. 8.
  6. Peter Piggott, Canada in Afghanistan (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007), provides background about Pakistan at the time of General Hillier’s command of ISAF.
  7. In addition to Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom also established theatres of operation in the Philippines and the Horn of Africa, reporting to CENTCOM in Florida, where Canada had established a liaison team.
  8. Paul LaRose Edwards, “NATO and Militaries as Trusted Partners in Civil-Military Interaction,” in The Pearson Papers (Ottawa: Pearson Peacekeeping Centre), Volume 11, Issue 1, Spring 2008, p. 25. On the same page, LaRose observes that “… the most valuable civilian and military leaders in the field are those who are consummate cat-herders.”;
  9. UNAMA Web site: www.unama-afg.org. Both ISAF and the coalition forces of Operation Enduring Freedom operated under a UN umbrella of sanctioned approval.
  10. www.ancb.org, as accessed in 2007.
  11. www.acbr.org, as accessed in 2007.
  12. Roy Thomas, “Origins of the Strategic Advisory Team-Afghanistan,” in On Track (Ottawa: Conference of Defence Associations Institute), Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2008, pp. 27-32, outlines how General Hillier provided ISAF staff to assist the Afghan government, in particular, the Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, in developing a strategic vision.
  13. Figure 1 taken from Coombs and Hillier, Canadian Military Journal, p. 8.
  14. Interview Thomas/Hillier, 27 February 2007.
  15. Coombs and Hillier, in English, p. 178. In their CMJ article, p. 9, it is mentioned that President Karzai asked that the term ‘program,’ not ‘project,’ be used in reference to the carrying out of policies involving large amounts of money.
  16. Figure 2 adapted from Coombs and Hillier, in English, p. 183.
  17. Interview Thomas/Hillier 27 February 2007. General Hillier labelled this ad hoc group, which included the UN SRSG, the EC’s Special Representative, as well as the ambassadors from Canada, the US, the UK, Japan, and Germany, the Policy Action Group.
  18. Thomas/Hillier interview, 27 February 2007. The general discussed meeting a provincial governor and warlord to discuss fitting provincial requirements within the NPPs in order to receive donor money.
  19. Coombs and Hillier, Canadian Military Journal, p. 12.
  20. John English, “The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War,” in B.J.C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessey (eds.), The Operational Art (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), pp. 7-27.