One day in September 2012, an Afghan soldier at an Afghan army base in Helmand Province climbed into a guard tower, pulled out a rifle, and started shooting at a pickup truck he thought was carrying U.S. Marines. It wasn’t. The passengers were civilians who worked on the NATO side of the base.
Fortunately for them, the soldier wasn’t an expert shot. The vehicle was hit, but no one was injured. Other Afghan soldiers quickly disarmed the young soldier and took him into custody.
Word quickly traveled to an American compound next door. It belonged to U.S. Marines whose job was to advise the Afghans. Maj. Christopher Bourbeau, the team’s second-in-command immediately headed over to the Afghan base. And once there, he did something that might seem contrary to common sense: He took off his body armor.
It was the first time the Marines advising the brigade—the 1st brigade of the 215 Corps, known as the "1/215"—experienced what have become known as "green-on-blue" attacks, or attacks on coalition troops by Afghan ones. The NATO-led coalition has had to wrestle with the troubling reality that Afghan soldiers sometimes attempt to murder the very international troops deployed to work with them.
At least 13 coalition troops have been killed in these so-called "insider attacks" so far this year. But these kinds of murders spiked in the summer of 2012. By the end of 2012, the attacks accounted for 15% of all coalition deaths—up from just 2% in 2010. U.S. commanders scrambled to figure out how to protect their troops who, by the very nature of their work, would be exposed to Afghan troops.
In the startup world, risk and failure are often viewed as inspiration, a necessary component of innovation. In some circles, it’s even celebrated. Not in this case. Military advisers are the lynchpin of the international coalition’s plan to depart from the country at the end of 2014. They are key to getting Afghan forces strong enough to hold the country on their own. Failure in situations such as these means chaos, war, and more death.
Still, there are lessons for people in the business world in the way these Marines tackled this challenge. Any colleague or partner could be your best ally or your worst enemy. You simultaneously need to cultivate relationships with the people you want to influence, while protecting yourself from those who would turn against you.
In Afghanistan, any solution to the problem of green-on-blue killings had to manage a delicate line. The Marines’ top priority had to be protecting their own people. But they couldn’t just throw up walls against anyone wearing an Afghan army uniform. To be effective as advisers, the Marines had to give the appearance of trusting the Afghans they were working with.
Like adviser teams across the country, from the beginning, these Marines had put in place a set of defensive procedures to ensure their own safety. The Marines were based at Camp Dwyer, one of the main military hubs in Helmand. Their compound directly abutted the Afghans’ base. It made it simpler to work together. But the proximity also made the Marines vulnerable. It would be alarmingly easy for a disgruntled soldier (or a Taliban-influenced one) to climb the wall between them and shoot down into the Americans’ compound, wryly dubbed "Camp Alamo." To protect themselves, the Marines put guards on duty at night. But, says Bourbeau, they shaped their patterns to make it look to their Afghan partners as if they were guarding against attackers from the outside, rather than from the soldiers next door.
All of that worked well enough for the Marines as long as they stayed on their own turf. But the bulk of their work took place at the Afghans’ compound, called Camp Garmsir. On the Afghans’ turf, the numbers were decidely stacked against the Americans—it was just a few of them surrounded by hundreds of Afghans. A conventional mind-set might see that as a risky ratio. But Bourbeau—and Lt. Michael LeBlanc, who was responsible for the security of the advising team—saw it as exactly the opposite. You’re going to have many more friends on that base than enemies, says LeBlanc. A soldier who wants to attack Americans is the rare exception, rather than the rule. Sometimes the killings are motivated by politics. But other times, the assailants are simply trying to avenge a perceived slight. In Afghanistan, issues of honor are sometimes settled with violence.
So the key to safety is not to armor up. Instead, it’s to figure out how to turn the rest of the Afghans you’re working with—the ones who wish you well—into your de facto personal bodyguards.
"It’s called ‘soft targeting,’" explains LeBlanc. It comes down to investing in relationships. "If the Afghans have a relationship with you, they’re going to be looking out for threats," he says. Because the Afghans know their own people and their own culture so much better than the Americans, they’ll actually pick up on emerging threats a lot faster than the Marines.
For that reason, the Americans eschewed body armor when they went to Garmsir. Flak jackets might seem like the objectively safer choice. But the Marines decided it would send the wrong message to the very people with whom they were trying to build bridges.
When the shooting started that day last year, the Marines set in motion a prearranged emergency plan, one they had rehearsed dozens of times, knowing that an attack might someday come from the Afghan side. They took up positions and prepared to defend against oncomers, if the shooting was part of a larger attack.
Bourbeau, though, needed to find out what was happening. And so he set out for the Afghan side. Like the rest of the Marines, Bourbeau kitted up with helmet, body armor, and rifle. Then he walked over to the Afghan base, with two Marines, similarly armed and armored, trailing beside him in a truck.
Once inside, Bourbeau found some Afghan officers he knew and learned that the shooter had been upset by anti-Islam videos that had appeared on YouTube (the same ones that set off riots in the Middle East last year). More important, Bourbeau learned the shooter had acted alone. That’s when Bourbeau did something that might seem counterintuitive for a Marine on the scene of a fresh attack—and certainly one that’s counterintuitive to the military, which generally armors up in the presence of a threat: Bourbeau took off his body armor. "As soon as I saw that the ANA [Afghan National Army] had it under control, I unkitted and put my stuff in the truck," Bourbeau says.
Bourbeau was playing the long game with principles that are as relevant for undermining threatening coworkers as they were to offsetting presumed allies secretly aiming to put a bullet in your back. Bourbeau was aware of the power imbalance between him and the Afghans. Sure, he was on their base. But U.S. forces still generally have the upper hand in Afghanistan. They are better armed, for one. And, even though they are on soil that does not belong to them, American troops are allowed to do what they need to do to protect themselves. Taking the armor off sent a message of respect to his ANA counterparts, Bourbeau says. "I wanted to show them we weren’t invading."
"Throughout our training, it was the common thread we heard from day one," Bourbeau says. "Rapport, rapport, rapport." Over the course of his deployment, Bourbeau worked on forming relationships with everyone he met on the Afghan base. He even invited one of his counterparts back to Alamo and used FaceTime to introduce him to his wife back in the States. "You have to create that emotional bond which leverages people to care."
And though it sounds simple, it wasn’t always easy. Bourbeau’s regular jogging routine took him by the very same guard tower from which the shooting eventually took place. "I would go out by myself, in shorts and a T-shirt, with my pistol and my camelback," Bourbeau says. He was conscious of how vulnerable he was. "I would be very, very nervous that there was a guy up there with a rifle who could take me out at any moment."
And yet he still went.
"I always told myself this is part of my job," Bourbeau says, "to show this level of trust."