You wouldn’t think that porta potties would be a key indicator of fitness in the U.S. Armed Forces. But they were in Afghanistan in the fall of 2012.
A team of 33 U.S. Marines had landed in Helmand Province that summer. Their job: mentor an Afghan army brigade. They were one of about 400 such teams deployed across the country, helping to make local security forces strong enough to maintain control of the country after international troops leave in 2014.
This team was mentoring the Afghan army’s 1st brigade in the 215 Corps (the "1/215"), and they worked with them on everything from planning operations to building intelligence practices and managing logistics. But they were also part of the larger international coalition that paid for much of the maintenance at Camp Garmsir, the 1/215’s headquarters—including generators, vehicles, spare parts, water, fuel, and, yes, porta potties.
By the time the team arrived last year, the Marine Corps had started shutting down bases in Helmand as part of the larger drawdown of U.S. forces across the country. For the last few years, the Afghan brigade had worked with a series of advising teams, who rotated in and out of deployments. But it was unclear if another team would be assigned after this one. So the team (known as the 1/215 Security Force Advisory and Assistance Team, or the "1/215 SFAAT") decided they would simply act as if they were going to be the last. As if, after them, the brigade would have to stand on its own.
Among other things, the Afghans would eventually have to learn to support themselves financially. The advisers decided not to wait, but to turn off as much of the cash flow as possible themselves—just to see how much the Afghans could handle. That included the money for servicing the bathrooms.
"Every team before us had done a phenomenal job," says Maj. Christopher Bourbeau, the 1/215 SFAAT’s executive officer, or the second-in-command. "But they were never faced with a deadline." Historically, advising teams had been generous, arranging underwriting for a range of equipment and services. After all, the Afghans’ budgets were tiny. The new team, however, suspected the Afghans were much more resourceful than they actually let on. It was just human nature to let the foreign consultants do the hard work, especially if they were there, ready, and willing. "We needed the Afghans to prove what they could do,’’ Bourbeau says.
Being a military adviser in Afghanistan is one of the toughest consulting jobs on the planet. The stakes couldn’t be higher—the fate of an entire country, and possibly an entire region, depends in part on whether you succeed or fail. You have no control over the units you’re advising—your chief tool is persuasion. Try doing that when you don’t even speak the language of the people you’re working with, much less understand most of their culture and values. Everything gets filtered through translators (called "linguists"). As if that weren’t enough, most of the troops assigned to these teams have never advised before—they’re pulled from other units, like intelligence or logistics. And they get almost no training in how to sit across the table from an Afghan officer who might be 20 years their senior, with five times as much military experience, and convince him to pay attention.
To succeed, then, requires ingenuity, flexibility, and innovative thinking. As with any entrepreneurial endeavor, you have to be able to operate amid a high degree of uncertainty, and the solutions don’t always come from obvious places. Which brings us back to the porta potties.
Cutting off the money spigot included putting an end to funding contracts paid to private companies that serviced the toilets on Camp Garmsir. For three months, Capt. Jake Owens, 30, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was the lead adviser for infrastructure matters, and his deputy, Lt. Alexander Sawsienowicz, 29, told their Afghan counterparts that the contracts were coming to an end. They tried to get the Afghans to work on a new plan for managing sanitation. But the Afghans didn’t believe them—with good reason. The United States and its coalition partners have footed the Afghan National Army’s bill over the past decade. Why would the officers at Camp Garmsir expect any of that would change?
Owens and Sawsienowicz stood firm. And one day, the porta-potty maintenance trucks just stopped showing up. That’s when the Afghans got the message. They scrambled to rustle up contracts on their own. But they just didn’t have the money. That’s when the Afghans got creative, just as U.S. advisers had suspected they would. Still, no one on the U.S. side could have imaged the solution the Afghans came up with.
Within a matter of weeks, the Afghans knocked out a section of the base’s outer wall and in its place installed a solid block of cement stalls—the equivalent of the garderobe toilets in medieval castles. In the Afghan design, the waste fell outside the base, into an area no one ever went (the base is surrounded by miles of desert). Still, it seemed like a preposterous idea—at least to the Americans. Not just because there was no immediate plan to treat the waste. But what military cuts a hole in its perimeter?
"It’s not the solution we ever would have devised," Sawsienowicz says, explaining that the design of the stalls didn’t end up compromising security. "But it worked for them."
The great porta-potty test of fall 2012 is only a small example of the many challenges the U.S. faces in incubating the Afghan National Army’s new infrastructure. U.S. advisers and their Afghan counterparts are tackling plenty of other issues with equally surprising solutions.
Take morale. It’s a problem every large enterprise faces. (Brigades typically have about 5,000 soldiers.) But it’s not one the cash-strapped 1/215 can solve with classic Western approaches, such as higher salaries or better benefits. But a cell-phone tower—that might actually do the trick, in an unexpected way.
There’s a bank on the base, where troops from other bases travel to get paid. Most send large chunks of their pay home. But before the cell-phone tower was put in, the troops had trouble calling home to find out how much money their families wanted or whether the transfers had gone through. Now that they have cell-phone access right next to the bank, those calls are a cinch. The tower also provided faster Internet speeds to the bank, so they could process transactions more quickly. More troops could be paid each day, which meant they could also be paid more frequently.
The improvements didn’t only make the troops happier. "It also improved my force security," says Lt. Col. Phil Treglia, the leader of the 1/215 SFAAT. Over the last few years, there has been a rise in "green-on-blue" killings, murders of American troops by Afghan ones. While some of the violence is politically motivated, part of it comes from soldiers who are simply disgruntled. Happier troops are less likely to take their frustrations out on Americans.
Even just figuring out where to invest your energy when you’re on an advising team is a challenge. In a typical business-world consulting engagement, you get specific marching orders—figure out how to cut a client’s costs by 10% or restructure their purchasing processes to run four times more efficiently. The mandate to adviser teams all across Afghanistan is pretty general: Do whatever you can to make the Afghan forces as independent and sustainable as possible.
Treglia quickly devised a simple decision matrix: "I’d ask: Is what you want to do going to hurt Marines?" says Treglia. "No? Will it hurt the ANA [Afghan National Army]? No? Is it going to make the ANA more independent?" Yes? Then go for it.
It was an amazingly unstructured approach for the military, in which orders are usually handed down from on high, and lower-level troops usually have almost no latitude in deciding where to invest their energies. It’s almost as if the Six Sigma-loving General Electric spun off a unit and let them make up everything as they went along.
Take Lt. Dominic Chiaverotti, at 25, was the youngest officer on the team. He had barely finished his training as a communications officer before he was tossed onto the SFAAT and sent overseas for his first deployment. Normally lieutenants are kept on a tight leash. But Chiaverotti and his team were given free reign when it came to the Afghans’ radios, computers, and networks. "Lt. Col. Treglia would say, ‘I’m cool with you executing whatever plans you decide,’ " says Chiaverotti. "He doesn’t know communications, so he would let me run that."
Credibility with the Afghans, however, was another thing. Afghan culture values seniority, both in age and status. Many of the U.S. advisers were young and junior, and about a third had never deployed before, which meant they’d never been in combat—one more strike against you when your clients come from a warrior culture. One of the team’s most experienced officers was Capt. Richard L. Shinn, 34, who’d been through five deployments already, including two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He’s an infantry officer with heaps of combat experience—"No one understands better what will and won’t survive first contact [in a firefight]," one of Shinn’s fellow Marines says. And yet, as the operations lead, his job was to work with a lieutenant colonel who’d been in the Afghan army almost as long as Shinn had been alive. (Though crippled over the years, Afghanistan’s military has nevertheless persisted in one form or another since the 1979 Soviet invasion, which started the country’s descent into turmoil.)
By now, the ANA’s tactical skills, across the country, are fairly proficient. But they still have a long way to go before they can execute complex operations involving large numbers of troops and multiple locations. One of Shinn’s jobs was to help the Afghans get better at organizing such operations. Shinn worked with his counterpart during group planning sessions. But in a pattern familiar to worker bees throughout the corporate world, leaders from on high would sometimes drop in with little understanding of the matter at hand or appreciation for the context of what had come before. In one such case, it was an officer from the 1/215’s parent unit, the 215 Corps who big-footed the meeting. "He acted like a CEO coming in and shit-canning the whole process he hadn’t given any guidance to," Shinn says. Early on, the officer from the 215 Corps started attacking Shinn’s Afghan counterpart, the lieutenant colonel, who did nothing to defend himself or the team’s work. It’s not the Afghan way to challenge someone with more power. So Shinn stood up and argued on his behalf. "I explained to the guy from Corps all the ways he was a jackass," he says. Taking the side of his Afghan counterpart helped forge a tighter bond. "He sees I’m willing to burn this bridge to support him."
"Advising is a people business," Shinn explains. "Relationships always matter most."
If the Afghan security forces are going to be sustainable in the long run, they need to develop mechanisms for transmitting practical and institutional knowledge. Much of the 1/215 SFAAT’s work focused on building "schools" within the brigade—training teachers and building curricula so the unit could retain and pass on the expertise it was gaining from the advisers, particularly technical skills, such as radio repair and generator maintenance. It was tough going. The Afghan army doesn’t have a culture of investing in soldiers at the lower ranks.
Capt. Owens knew the Afghans often communicated through parables, and he had inherited a favorite from a mentor. He holds up an apple and asks, "How many apples do you see?" Most people answer, "One." "How many seeds are in the apple?" asks Owens. Say you guess eight. "What happens if you plant those eight seeds?" You get eight trees and, of course, all the apples they produce. "So how many apples am I holding in my hand?" Owens asks again.
"I practiced that parable over and over and over with my linguist," Owens says. "Until I got it right."