Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned While Working with Foreign Security Forces

By Matt Lensing

U.S. Army units are now regionally aligned to geographic areas of responsibility where they conduct annual training exercises with foreign militaries, and serve as rotational forces in South Korea, Europe, and the Middle East. Instead of combat tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria junior leaders today partner with foreign security forces to build combined readiness.

In my current job as a combat advisor I interact with foreign army officers helping to solve their challenges. Unfortunately when I was a young lieutenant I lacked patience and empathy working with foreign partners. I now realize that I have to employ the following tenets to build stronger relationships:

  1. Know your partner’s language and culture 
  2. Listen to your partner’s interests and motivations 

Language and Culture

One of the challenges the U.S. Army faced when transitioning troops to reconstruction efforts after combat operations ended in Iraq and Afghanistan was teaching Soldiers to partner. Previously U.S. forces were predominately in the lead, but to rebuild these countries U.S. Soldiers had to act by, with, and through their host nation partners. As a young lieutenant my first deployment was in Afghanistan, seven years after initial offensive operations ended. There I developed several bad habits I had to unlearn as operating in the Indo-Pacific theater.

As a platoon leader in 2008 I saw partnership as a means to an end. By this point in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) coalition forces were strongly discouraged from conducting unilateral operations, so I needed to go on patrol with Afghan National Police (ANP) or Afghan National Army (ANA). I planned a mission then went to a local checkpoint to grab my partners. I rarely gave them much warning because I was more concerned about keeping my operations secret to avoid tipping off the enemy to our scheduled patrols. Operational security is obviously an important risk mitigation technique but it did not strengthen trust or rapport between my partners and I.

I should have fostered a relationship before even suggesting patrols with the Afghan police or army by:

  • Conducting multiple key leader engagements (KLEs) or meetings to learn about the partner
  • Learning the language with a few key phrases to greet and say thank you. 
  • Properly using interpreters: 
    • Maintaining eye contact with the person you are talking to instead of the interpreter. 
    • Placing the interpreter to see your facial expressions to ensure they convey the correct message
    • Speaking slowly to allow the interpreter to understand what is being said in one language and encode it into another. 
  • Mirroring body language of your partner:
    • Lean towards the person speaking to show interest
    • Properly use hand gestures for the specific culture (i.e. hand over heart or clasping hands together during greetings)

Additionally, I should have learned more about the culture than the minimal pre-deployment training I received. 

As a lieutenant I did not consider my partner’s schedule when I needed to go on patrol. Even though Friday was a day of worship and rest in Muslim cultures I would rarely give it much thought if I had a mission scheduled. I would show up to the local checkpoint to go on mission without considering that being there on a Friday was similar to showing up at an American’s house on the weekend expecting them to go to the office. 

During those earlier deployments I started to align our weekly battle rhythm to coincide more closely with the Muslim calendar, which helped some but we were still accustomed to a Monday-Saturday work cycle. Sunday was often a lower activity day for religious services and to call home. This also caused problems when partners would show up at the base expecting to meet with U.S. leaders, but they were unavailable.

Now I take the local calendar and culture into consideration when I make plans with my partners by avoiding training and meetings on national or cultural holidays. Foreign colleagues may be too polite to tell you that they do not care to meet on a particular day. Hopefully by picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues both parties will better consider each other’s cultural differences when developing scheduled activities. 

Interests and Motivation

During my earlier deployments I put my mission and U.S. objectives above all else because I thought that was what I was supposed to do as an infantry officer. My partners’ interests where not usually prioritized because I assumed we both wanted the same outcomes. I already thought my solution was the best course of action before hearing what they truly needed.

Most of my missions in Afghanistan were planned to improve security in the local area. Our thought was that more patrols would discourage the enemy, which would allow the local population to return to schools or centers of commerce. Of course patrolling required ANP to accompany my Soldiers. 

My local ANP partner informed me that police were hesitant to go on patrol because they did not feel safe. Since I thought the reason was related to physical security I coordinated with another commander to help me put up a concertina wire fence and gate, similar to our own entry control points. In a short time we went out to the police checkpoint and told them we were putting up wire and a new gate to improve security. It was an amazing scene with U.S. Soldiers and ANP working together to build a tangible sign of protection around their checkpoint. I really felt like we accomplished something that day.

However, the next time I went out to visit I was shocked to see that the gate was not in place, its materials repurposed for other uses, and there was a hole in the perimeter to allow foot traffic to the local bazaar. It turns out the wire was more of a nuisance than an improvement.

I realized I had never asked the police chief what he thought would solve his problem of encouraging more police officers to join patrols. Instead I decided I would give him an American solution without even asking him what he wanted. My initial gesture of goodwill turned out to be a major setback in our relationship because I failed to listen.

In my current position I aim to actively listen to my partner during every engagement to ensure I am hearing their true desires. Previously when I thought I was attentive I was in fact only passively listening. I may have been quiet to allow the other person time to speak, but in truth I was only biding my time to formulate a response without considering what my partner was saying. 

Now to ensure I am actively listening I repeat back what the other person is saying and use those words and phrases in my response. This approach along with matching my partner’s language pattern helps to show empathy and build an emotional connection. Recently I used active listening to reveal my partner’s true motivations.

While working with my new partner overseas I received messages from him requesting updates on my team and our activities. This surprised me because I thought I had already provided this information at our initial meeting, but I obliged since my team and I were guests in his country.

After receiving the weekly requests for updates I eventually found out that the reports were important for my counterpart to submit to his superior. This made total sense since most of my job is reporting to higher echelons, so they can communicate to others outside the organization about our activities. Now that I knew the significance of the report I preemptively started sending a weekly update with the requested information. Listening attentively and asking why the requests were so important the first time would have strengthened rapport much quicker.


Recent history confirms that Americans don’t go to war alone, so relationships with partners and allies contribute to the U.S. military’s success. While it is important to be versed on the latest tactics and doctrine, the skills that Soldiers, especially leaders, must develop are: empathy and understanding. This is sometimes hard for Soldiers who are conditioned to achieve results as fast as possible, but often successful partnerships are not built in weeks or months. At the end of the day maintaining relationships is critical because offending foreign partners may encourage them to align with others who hold views and interests that conflict with our own.


Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.


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