Embedded deep inside key ministries of the Afghan government, a handful of senior Canadian officers -- all volunteers -- are stretching the definition of military assistance.
"We are unique from a military perspective," says Colonel Don Dixon, the team's leader, sitting in a bare-bones office in a nondescript house in Kabul where the group's 16 members live. "I'm not here in a war-fighting role."
But measured by long-term impact, the no-strings-attached expertise, strategic advice and basic organization the group is bringing to Afghanistan's sometimes chaotic ministries may have an effect as far reaching as the combat campaign being waged far to the south in Kandahar by a Canadian battle group of more than 2,300 soldiers.
The high-powered, low-key and ambiguously named Strategic Advisory Team is the brainchild of General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff. Gen. Hillier, an outgoing military man who commanded North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan in 2004, built a set of personal relationships while he was in Kabul that included President Hamid Karzai.
He created the concept of a small, experienced team of officers with high-level organizational and management experience and offered it to the Afghan government.
The second year-long rotation is under way. The formerly clean-cut officers, still neatly dressed in civilian clothes, are growing beards and settling in. Although they are far from Kandahar's battlefields, there are risks. They know they are being watched and vary their routes.
"Our best security is not to be observed," Col. Dixon said.
Mohammed Zia, Afghanistan's Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, has high praise for both the concept and the fact that Canadian advice -- like Canadian money -- comes without strings.
"What bothers us is the establishment of parallel structures," he said in an interview, pointedly noting that "almost the entire U.S. aid budget" comes with conditions, as does funding from other major donors such as India and Japan.
Mr. Zia, among the most active and dynamic of the Afghan cabinet, is known for getting out of Kabul and pushing hard to drive reconstruction money out to the communities where projects are picked by locally chosen councils. His ministry, along with the presidential staff, were among the first to be offered one of Gen. Hillier's hand-picked experts. Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Berry, the SAT adviser working inside Mr. Zia's office, said it was crucial to help "bring some organization to the system and provide some structure."
Afghanistan's National Development Strategy, a multiministry working group that charts progress and failures across the government, also has Canadian SAT members embedded.
Col. Dixon is both unshakably optimistic and keenly aware of the deep and systemic problems, notably corruption, plaguing some Afghan ministries. "We are aware of the dark sides and the negatives," said the colonel, whose military police career also including a stint advising NATO's secretary-general.
The officers all bring experience of managing major projects but even more important is what they are not.
"We're not a bunch of drive-by MBAs," Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Aubin, the group's chief of staff, said derisively of the steady stream of highly paid, short-term consultants that infest Kabul.
Gen. Hillier's experiment remains unique -- a new foray for the Canadian military and the Afghan government, which can tap a proven management resource.
"Hillier saw a need for consistent application of assistance and expertise to Afghan ministries," all of which were struggling with complex problems usually with limited staff, often with little background or experience in running big organization, Col. Dixon said.
"Our job is to work ourselves out of a job."
Part of the effort includes identifying and training some of the emerging stars inside the government. "There are some very bright young people who in five or six years are going to be [provincial]governors," Lieut.-Col. Bernie Derible said. "We're doing everything from showing them how to run a meeting to networking with internationals."
But the group's success -- it can't meet the demand -- has also ruffled some feathers, not least among some senior Foreign Ministry officials in Ottawa who believe Gen. Hillier is poking the military's nose too far into the diplomat's domain.
Operation Argus, for even this unusual project needs a military moniker, may mean that Canada's Defence Department is better informed and better placed inside the Afghan government than Foreign Affairs.
The group is also emerging from the shadows, although it remains conflicted about developing too public a profile. Too much publicity might compromise the group's effectiveness, since no government wants to be seen to be responding too closely to the advice of foreign military officers.
"Tooting our own horn might actually work contrary to what we are trying to do," said Lieutenant-Commander John Coppard, the new strategic communications adviser.