For most of the 12 years that international troops have been in Afghanistan, they’ve focused on fighting the Taliban and maintaining security in the country. No more. That responsibility has now shifted to the Afghans. The primary focus of the international coalition, including U.S. troops like this Marine officer, is now to train the Afghan security forces in everything they need to know--from firepower to payrolls--so they can be self-sufficient by the time the coalition packs up and leaves at the end of 2014.

A Pentagon report released in July said Afghan security forces had “yet to demonstrate the ability to operate independently on a nationwide scale.” This member of the Afghan security forces was part of a clearing operation in the eastern part of the country in June. Though his unit was technically “in the lead,” they were accompanied by U.S. Army soldiers, who provided backup and support.

The Afghans and Americans participating in the clearing operation were dropped into their target areas in the early morning hours by U.S. Army helicopters. The Pentagon report released in July questioned whether the Afghan military would be capable of “more complex operations,” including air operations, by the December 2014 deadline.

Though these American soldiers were out in the field with their Afghan counterparts, the bulk of the operation—the knocking on doors and searching for insurgents—was left to the Afghans themselves. Increasingly, U.S. troops are spending less time “outside the wire” and more time teaching their Afghan counterparts how to manage and run their organizations.

Many of the more senior officers in the Afghan army are not new to this game. Some have decades of military experience, either from serving in the country’s army itself or as part of one of the mujahideen groups that first fought the Soviets and then battled each other and the Taliban in the ensuing civil wars. This colonel had been in the army so long he had originally received military training from the Russians.

Recent media reports have made much of the declaration that Afghan forces are now “in the lead.” But being “in the lead” and being willing and able to operate without hand-holding from the U.S. and other coalition troops are two very different things. If the Afghans are going to be able hold the country after most of the coalition departs at the end of next year, they are going to need to be able to operate by themselves, across the country, without the on-site support of international troops, like these U.S. soldiers.

To stand on its own, the Afghan army doesn’t just need to know how to shoot and bust down doors. They also have to master basic management skills, like reducing attrition. The number of Afghan soldiers quitting this base went down after Marines helped them install a cellphone tower, so that the soldiers—for whom family is paramount—could call home and stay in touch with relatives.

U.S. advising teams are made up of troops pulled from diverse units. The fact that team members usually don’t know each other, and have almost never worked together before, is just one more hurdle they have to overcome in order to perform effectively.

As at many corporations, Afghan brigade leaders hold morning meetings to get updates on key operational issues--in this case, everything from the number of enemy attacks in the past 24 hours to sanitation issues. While illiteracy is a profound problem at lower levels, the Marines said these officers’ PowerPoint skills put their own to shame.

American advisers aren’t just teaching Afghans combat skills. They’re also passing on everything from base maintenance to basic computer skills, so they can upgrade their communication and record-keeping processes. The young Afghan officer second from the left in this image was the top student in his radio maintenance class, and as a result, he became the brigade's new instructor, responsible for teaching other soldiers what he had learned.

As if language barriers or the ever-present risk of attack weren’t challenges enough, U.S. troops in many parts of the country have to contend with narrow country roads that can barely support the giant monster trucks (called MRAPs, for "mine-resistant ambush-protected") the troops use to protect themselves from roadside bombs. During an otherwise routine trip to take a U.S. battalion commander to a meeting with a local leader, this MRAP accidentally slid down a dusty embankment and threatened to fall completely into an irrigation canal. Six hours later, two dozen Marines still had not managed to get the 15-ton, half-a-million dollar vehicle back up on the road.

Supply chain issues, often complicated by graft, continue to plague the Afghan army. Not all troops can count on being as well equipped as these. In some of the more remote bases, troops don’t have proper boots, much less weapons and body armor. Solving the logistics puzzle is one of the advisers’ toughest challenges.

The Pentagon report said that, while the Afghan security forces had made significant progress over the last two years, they will require “continued assistance” from the international coalition through the end of 2014, to help them become fully independent and “improve long-term prospects for stability.”

Many American professionals worry about getting stabbed in the back, figuratively speaking, by competitive colleagues. But in Afghanistan, the rise in “green on blue” attacks means some U.S. troops have actually been murdered outright by the Afghan soldiers they were working with. The U.S. military has developed a “guardian angel” system where at least one soldier or Marine acts as a bodyguard during visits to Afghan bases. The angels stay on the lookout for possible threats, so the other troops can focus on the work of advising itself.

Afghanistan: The World's Most Complicated Consulting Gig

Risk. Failure. Innovation. For the U.S. troops helping Afghans build a fully functional fighting force ahead of a planned withdrawal in 2014, leadership is a matter of life and death.

Congratulations. You’ve been tapped to turn around an organization of 350,000 people—one that hasn't been fully functional in more than 30 years. They're plagued with operational and training problems. And even when they get everything they need, they don't always work independently. Oh, and some of them want to kill you. Literally. You've never done this before, and you've only got until the end of next year to pull it off, because the organization's sugar daddy—the one that’s been propping it up, and even flat out doing its job, for the last decade—is finally pulling the plug. You see, you're in charge of getting the Afghan military back on its feet. The stakes? Oh, just the fate of an entire country.

Got it? Good. Go to it.

The U.S. military has taken on one of the toughest consulting challenges on the planet, one that would send shivers up the spine of even the most jaded McKinsey & Company veteran. To get Afghanistan's army and police shipshape by the end of 2014, when the bulk of international forces head home, the U.S. and its coalition partners have dispatched small teams throughout the country to work one-on-one with individual Afghan units. But they're not, for the most part, the kinds of professional advisors, like the Army's Special Forces, who spend years learning how to stand up foreign militaries. Instead, these troops are plucked out of their regular jobs—in artillery, for example, or engineering—and given the bare minimum of instruction in advising before being catapulted into their new assignments.

We're calling this series "Startup Afghanistan" because American advisors in Afghanistan are tackling problems, disrupting business-as-usual, and innovating at a speed that would make Silicon Valley’s head spin. There are lives, not just livelihoods, on the line here. And even as some of the advisors have proven themselves agile and adaptive in one of the most extreme leadership challenges in the world, they still answer to the world's largest bureaucracy. To see what they've learned, we'll take a look at one particularly effective team of Marines that has, despite the odds, accomplished the seemingly impossible: The brigade they've been advising is now operating essentially on its own, one of only a handful of such units in the country—and we'll tell you what leaders in almost any industry can learn from the way they do business.

We'll shift focus to the Army, too, whose leaders are tackling similar challenges under equally brutal conditions, and we'll hear what they've learned about how to inspire, persuade, and motivate an organization that doesn't report to them—and whose leaders are not always interested in what they have to say. By being flexible and using creative thinking, these advisors, too, are slowly but surely helping their Afghan counterparts move in the direction they need to go.

In the coming weeks, we'll also report on what we learned during our travels to Kabul, where we'll take a look at a construction boom devouring the city. We’ll see how the flood of new apartment buildings in a city once dominated by single-story family compounds is transforming the metropolis. And we’ll take a look at how the ban on music and parties under the Taliban has given way to a burgeoning wedding business. In an ultra-conservative society where people don't get out the way they do in the West, nuptials are major social events. And in the past few years, the number of elaborate venues catering to their needs has mushroomed—as have the huge, expensive celebrations where some Afghans can finally show they've arrived.

[Photos by Teru Kuwayama for Fast Company. See more of his work on Instagram.]

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1 Comments

  • Tim Flatley

    Great story by E. B. Boyd. Reminded me of comment from Badger Meter CEO recently that his best managers have a military background. Reason? Success in working with a team they don't get to hand pick.