NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium.

NATO photo 20100416_1000415a-HQ28-006

NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium.

The Comprehensive Approach: Establishing a NATO Governance Support Team

by Paul Cooper

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NATO has recognized that, for the foreseeable future, most conflicts will be of a counter-insurgency nature involving failing or failed states. As a result, NATO has understood that a 3D approach (Defence, Diplomacy and Development), otherwise known as the “Comprehensive Approach,” involving the engagement of more than just military capabilities, is required to deal successfully with these failed/failing state conflicts. Specifically, it has recognised that the primary concern in turning around a failed/failing state, or in establishing a post-conflict state, is to take a comprehensive approach in dealing with three sectors; Security, Development, and Governance.

Based upon the experience of individual member nations and NATO itself in both the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts, a great amount of expertise has been developed with respect to Security Sector reform. Additionally, premised upon national contributions via individual national militaries in establishing “Provincial Reconstruction Teams,” (PRTs) a degree of expertise has been developed by NATO and its member nations in the realm of Development. But whereas NATO has been fully engaged in two out of the three sectors, its engagement in the Governance sector has been lacking. The main reason is that Governance has traditionally rested within the realm of national ministries of Foreign Affairs and/or the Development Agencies of the NATO member countries, as well as with non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

However, there are periods of time within the spectrum of conflict when, based upon threat level and/or lack of readiness, these traditional players cannot deploy to engage the Governance sector until much opportunity has passed. This issue is particularly important, since one could argue that pre-conflict, conflict, and post-conflict in a counter-insurgency type of operation quickly become blended, with no clear-cut delineation between phases. More importantly, a level of threat will exist for extended periods of time such that civilian-based Governance assistance is not able to be deployed. Yet, effort in all three sectors is vital at all times. In this regard, this short article proposes a specific approach to the Governance Sector that NATO may wish to consider; namely, the establishment of a NATO Governance Support Team (GST).

Royal 22e Régiment soldier provides security during Operation OMID ATAL 09 (Hope and Victory)

DND photo AR2011-0200-43 by Corporal Tina Gillies.

Royal 22e Régiment soldier provides security during Operation OMID ATAL 09 (Hope and Victory)

Historical Perspective: The Canadian Strategic Advisory Team (SAT)

Beginning in August 2005, at the request of the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, the Canadian government dispatched a 20-man Strategic Advisory Team to work for the Presidential Office. This team, consisting of military officers from a mix of army, navy, and air force backgrounds, deployed with a broad mandate to assist the President in establishing a nascent government, as well as assistance in implementing government services to the nation. At the time, President Karzai was struggling to establish a working government, supported, for the most part, by first-time elected members of his national parliament, the majority of whom had minimal if any previous experience in government, or, for that matter, with any other form of executive management. Exacerbating his initiative further was his reliance upon a Soviet-trained civil service bureaucracy accustomed to being paid very little, and producing even less.

Deployment of the Canadian SAT produced immediate results with respect to helping the Afghan government get started. Over the next three years, Canada provided three rotations of military-generated SATs, gradually refining its mandate into one of capacity development at the executive level throughout numerous ministries and government agencies. Eventually, after three years, the SAT was transformed into a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) - contracted initiative. This initial Canadian effort placed a dedicated team right at the centre of the Afghan government, dealing exclusively with ‘Governance’ at a time when threat levels prevented any other viable civilian based effort from addressing the ‘Governance’ sector. It is from the experiences of the Canadian SAT that the following deductions and observations are drawn with a view to recommending the best way ahead in establishing and operating a NATO Governance Support Team.


The sooner an effort is made in turning around, or establishing, government services, the sooner a general populace will throw its support behind the government, and withdraw itself from any insurgency. Therefore, the sooner governance development assistance can be rendered, the better. As previously mentioned, there are periods within a conflict where a military-generated GST, exclusively focused upon the Governance sector, would be a great advantage as the only viable capability deployed in the absence of any other Governance development effort. In this case, a NATO-generated GST, by its very nature, would be able to deploy into a theatre during periods when a given threat level may be unacceptable to other non-military actors. Additionally, military personnel are accustomed to living in austere environments that a civilian team may find far too disconcerting to enable a concentrated level of sustained effort. Not only would a NATO GST be able to deploy, it should be able to remain in support for a considerable time, whatever the local conditions.

One of the great mistakes made in the Afghanistan operation was an initial influx of “Fly-by MBAs [Masters of Business Administration].” These highly paid ‘governance’ mercenaries, hired by various well-intentioned third parties, “ arrived on a Monday, observed for a Tuesday, wrote a report on a Wednesday, presented it Thursday, and departed on Friday.” They were neither willing nor able to stay in Kabul for any great period of time. By no means did they gain the trust of the members of the government or the few functioning civil servants. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. They were, for the most part, treated politely while in country, but, once gone, their advice was usually ignored. Conversely, a NATO-generated team able to remain in place despite risky austere conditions would engender respect and trust, thus enabling it to assist in Governance development and a resulting restoration of governmental services.

One of the great traits of NATO military culture is its training/mentoring orientation. This embedded trait is ideal for the task at hand; to train and/or mentor mid-to-high level bureaucrats to become effective managers. Military officers are always training their subordinate officers, both formally and informally. Thus they tend to be well-suited for this type of work.

A new government, supported by an atrophied bureaucracy, and faced with attempting to establish government services in the midst of a conflict or post-conflict environment, can view its national situation as overwhelmingly complex. A military Governance Support Team, drawn from well-trained and experienced staff officers, can apply either their own national processes, or a NATO planning process, to help render a complex situation comprehensible. More importantly, it can assist the host government in developing national strategic and operational level plans, which would also assist in the provision of government services.

NATO GST Operating Principles

The following are some operating principles that should be used to generate forces, and then to conduct, a NATO GST mission.

Royal 22e Régiment soldier is swarmed by local Afghan children during an early morning operation in Panjwa’i District to clear several small villages and compounds

DND photo IS2011-1017-07 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor.

Royal 22e Régiment soldier is swarmed by local Afghan children during an early morning operation in Panjwa’i District to clear several small villages and compounds

Create trust. This type of effort, although potentially having strategic ramifications is, by- and-large, conducted on an ‘individual-to-individual’ basis, i.e., a GST member assisting a host government member. It can only be successful if the target training audience believes that the GST truly has the trainee’s national and personal interests at heart, and this belief can only be established through trust. It is imperative that each GST member works towards gaining this trust, and, once gained, retains it.

Arrive culturally aware. Gaining the trust required to establish a personal relationship with the target training audience can be greatly assisted by arriving in-theatre culturally aware of host nation social practices. As first impressions tend to last, GST members commencing work with an understanding of the cultural nuances of day-to-day living with respect to the target trainees will expedite the process of gaining trust.

The host nation agenda is paramount. The GST must be fully committed to the national government agenda, whatever it may be, other then, obviously, anything unethical or illegal. The team cannot be seen to be undermining or co-opting any governmental initiative. The GST must endeavour to assist the government in determining its priorities, offer constructive suggestions towards attainment of those priorities, and then actively support the attainment of those priorities.

Leave no fingerprints. The GST must be selfless and virtually invisible in its efforts, and, at all times, must not seek any specific recognition. It is extremely important that, while developing the Governance capability of a host nation, the GST does not undermine the individual or collective credibility of the host nation’s government. In other words, all credit for successful governance must be retained by the host nation.

Become completely a part of the office. Embedding in the working offices of the government is essential, and by embedding, it is not sufficient to just co-locate. To gain clear insight into the daily routine of a host ministerial office, one must be completely embedded therein, in daily work routine, in dress, and with respect to the social aspects of the work environment. With regard to security measures, the principle of ‘blending in’ trump overt kinetic operating methods. Of note, this approach may well demand an acceptance of a higher level of risk from operational/tactical level NATO commanders.

Facilitate intra-governmental networking. It is natural for most institutional members to become ‘bogged down’ by the day-to-day aspects of their own specific ministry. A synergistic effect can be created by combining the efforts of various ministries to attain a more comprehensive approach. A NATO GST, comprised of team members from various ministries, would be able to take a more strategic view to discern the possibilities of a combined ministry effort. Once ascertained, the GST can suggest, at the highest level possible within respective ministries, that undertaking a combined ministerial approach would be beneficial.

Do not do their work for them. The GST will be viewed by some members of the host government as a means to lessen their work load, if not to avoid it completely. On the other hand, it will be tempting to members of the GST to implement a governmental program themselves, as opposed to coaching a host bureaucrat into becoming capable of doing so himself. That said, on occasion, the urgency of an issue will warrant direct action by a GST member. The trick is to know when to do so, and when not to do so. Retaining ‘credibility’ within the office should be the guiding principle when making a decision to become directly engaged.

Feed Success. In all likelihood, the GST will be faced with a mentorship task of extreme magnitude. In keeping with the ‘No fingerprints’ principle, the GST, by necessity, will be small in size, so as to blend in with the government staff, but not to overwhelm it, and therefore, it will only be able to field a limited number of officers. Given this limitation, the GST cannot afford to waste effort. Ministries will vary in their acceptance of a NATO GST initiative. Invariably, some host bureaucrats will neither be willing nor capable of accepting GST assistance, either due to a personal perception of the GST member(s) as a threat, or as a result of intellectual incompetence. In either case, if, after various efforts of negotiation between the GST commander and the host ministry management, a given situation is unresolved, remove and deploy those GST member(s) affected to another ministry, preferably one that is progressing favourably, due to GST support.

Engage all levels of Governance. To the extent possible, given the personnel manning of the GST, this effort should be applied, not only at the ministerial office level, but also at the sub-ministerial level (i.e. provincial as well as district and city level). By engaging all levels of governance within a given ministry/government service sector, the GST can ensure that the success it may effect at any given level of government is not rendered ineffective by a lower or higher level of administration’s lack of capacity.

Stay awhile. Host nation bureaucrats will be aware that you are a foreigner with good intentions, but that you invariably are returning to your home country. When faced with this premise, if the bureaucrat believes that you are only on the ground for a brief period of time, unwilling to invest long-term in their efforts, he/she will be somewhat unwilling to accept the support of the GST. Therefore, it is extremely important at the outset to express the intention to remain with the ministry for an extensive period of time, or until the ministry feels that GST support is no longer required.

But do not overstay your welcome. This principle is not contrary to the previous one. If the GST is successful in implementing a minimum level of competency within a ministry, it needs to remove itself. There will be hesitancy on the part of a minister and/or senior staff to let the GST go, as, in most cases, these ministries will always be faced with a minimum of executive resources, and will view the departure of the GST as a loss. However, below the ministerial level, the GST will be resented if it continues to provide unnecessary mentorship. Even more so, it will be especially resented if it is unwilling to undertake non-mentorship tasks, while adhering to the ‘Do not do their work for them’ principle. However, the GST must be particularly careful not to pull out of a ministry before an acceptable level of competency is attained, and, more importantly, before it is likely to be sustained without the GST present.

GST Composition

The initial deployment rotation of a GST should be made up of a balance of both generalist (i.e. combat arms planners) and specialist officers (i.e., engineering, legal, logistic). Regardless of the actual corps/branches/elements of origin, the members of the team should have acquired practical experience by virtue of employment with their respective DND staffs. This is not the same as having served on a military command staff. The experience of employment on a defence department staff, engaged in a civil service-based governance process, will be the basis to enable the GST member to mentor the development of the host nation civil servant. The mission of a GST is to create competent civil servants and effective government processes. It is not deployed to create military staffs and processes. Subsequent GST rotations may also look to the selective employment of reservist officers, who may have an expertise that could be applied to a specific host nation ministry.

Friction Point

There is one major friction point with respect to the establishment and implementation of a NATO GST. Traditionally, the area of Governance sector development is conducted via ministries of foreign affairs, development agencies, or NGOs, and it is understood and accepted that it is appropriate that these ministries/agencies should be considered the first priority for the execution of a Governance development mission. However, whereas they should be considered the first priority to deploy, when they cannot, it does not preclude the quick dispatch of a NATO GST. In establishing this capability, NATO must gain support at the highest levels of its member nations that a military-generated GST will be supported, and, at the earliest opportunity, replaced by a civilian-based equivalent capability, either under NATO command, or on a national bilateral basis.

Canadian Civilian Military Cooperation team leader shares a laugh with a local Afghan village elder

DND photo IS2011-1018-04 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor.

Canadian Civilian Military Cooperation team leader shares a laugh with a local Afghan village elder


At the earliest opportunity, NATO should establish on a standby deployable basis, a NATO Governance Support Team. This team, once established, should only be deployed when deemed that the Governance sector of a NATO Comprehensive Approach-based campaign is not being addressed by non-military actors. It should conduct its operation in accordance with the specified principles listed earlier, and hand over its operations to non-military agents as soon as practicable, with minimal disruption to the mentorship mission at hand. In establishing this capability, NATO should request that the Canadian Government, on a ‘Lead Nation’ basis, and premised upon its very successful Strategic Advisory Team experience, undertake the initial force generation task, with a view to handing the initiative over to the NATO Allied Transformation Command/Joint Warfare Centre.


It is clear that the future of warfare will invariably call upon a Comprehensive Approach at some point during the phases of a given counter-insurgency operation. NATO has, through its recent operational experience, accepted this fact. And while NATO has, to a great extent, engaged itself in executing a Comprehensive Approach to Security and Development sectors at the strategic and tactical levels, it has experienced limited engagement in the Governance sector, since the development of this sector has traditionally been conducted by non-military actors. Unfortunately, due to high threat levels, the traditional civilian-based engagement in developing the Governance sector has been lacking, especially at the commencement of a NATO counter-insurgency campaign. The establishment of a NATO Governance Support Team able to deploy on demand will close this void in a Comprehensive Approach until such time as a civilian-based effort can deploy.

Royal 22 Régiment, 9 Platoon Commander introduces himself to men from a local village during an early morning operation in Panjwa’i District to clear several small villages and compounds.

DND photo IS2011-1017-05 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor.

Royal 22 Régiment, 9 Platoon Commander introduces himself to men from a local village during an early morning operation in Panjwa’i District to clear several small villages and compounds.

Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Cooper completed the NATO Defence College course in July 2011, having served as a member of the Canadian Strategic Advisory Team (SAT) in Afghanistan from August 2007 to August 2008. He is currently an analyst at NATO’s Joint Warfare Centre Headquarters in Stavanger, Norway.