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SFAAT Army commander Lt. Col. John Allen in a bunker during a rocket attack at FOB Shank, Logar Province, Eastern Afghanistan

Leadership Lessons From The U.S. Army In Afghanistan

Here are five tactics the U.S. Army is putting to use in Logar Province to help move the Afghan military and police toward greater independence.

As the saying goes, if you want to learn how to lead, join the military.

Officers are given huge amounts of responsibility at the youngest of ages. A 23-year-old platoon leader, for example, is expected to lead 40-odd men into battle. Where his peers in the corporate world will be filling out spreadsheets and compiling PowerPoint presentations, the lieutenant will be making decisions that have life and death consequences. The same goes for enlisted troops. In ways totally unheard of in the private sector, a 23-year-old sergeant will be responsible for all aspects of the health and welfare of the soldiers under him or her, even when they’re technically off the job.

The leadership challenge among troops working with Afghan forces is exponentially more difficult. International troops, including the U.S., are pulling out next year. Forces have been dispatched across the country to help get the Afghan security forces strong enough to hold the country after 2014. But there is no command-and-control relationship between NATO’s advisers and the Afghans they’re trying to help. Anything the advisers accomplish is due solely to influence and persuasion. Which, admittedly, is not much different than the challenge faced by many leaders in the civilian world. More often than not, the only way to achieve your goals is by nudging, cajoling, and inspiring teams who don’t belong to you.

To that end, here are five tactics the U.S. Army is putting to use in Logar province to help move the Afghan military and police toward greater independence.

1. Get Out Into the Dirt.

This summer, Afghan security forces in the eastern part of the country kicked off a major offensive. Units from the army and police spread out across several provinces, and for days on end, hunted down insurgents and searched for weapons caches. In some cases, American troops accompanied the Afghans into the field, but always in a supporting role. This was an Afghan operation through and through.

On the first morning of the operation, Lt. Col. Justin Hadley climbed into an MRAP, one of the giant armored—and desperately uncomfortable—vehicles the military uses on the ground in Afghanistan. Hadley is the commander of the 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment (the "6-8 Cav") of the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division. At the time, it was the lead combat unit in Logar and Wardak provinces.

Hadley was heading out on a daylong recon mission to survey the operation’s progress. His five-vehicle convoy climbed to hilltops to confer with Afghan leaders. They drove to remote ruins where troops who’d been moving since the middle of the night had retreated to small slivers of shade to take shelter from the noonday sun. Hadley led his team down narrow village alleyways and across dusty country roads not made for lumbering vehicles like the MRAPs. Indeed, late in the morning, one of the vehicles got stuck on a bridge, and Hadley spent more than 90 minutes under sweltering summer skies, wearing a combat kit weighing more than 60 pounds, working to get the thing free.

SFAAT Army commander Lt. Col. John Allen

Hadley didn’t have to be out there. He could easily have followed the battle from the comfort of his command center back on Forward Operating Base Shank in the heart of Logar. He was not needed in the fight itself. And while he did gain additional intelligence by getting out on the ground, that wasn't the point. The point was relationship-building. American troops are taught that, in Afghanistan, relationships are solidified during long meetings and endless cups of tea.

But Hadley believes there’s just as much value in spending time with his counterparts on the battlefield, especially when you don’t have to be there. At one point, for example, Hadley swung by the makeshift command post of a senior local police official. A large tent stood overlooking a village where Afghan forces were going door to door. Hadley and the officer exchanged a few words before the lieutenant colonel set off again. “The five minutes I spent talking to him out here is worth more than a week sitting around and drinking chai,” Hadley says. “It shows we’re out here with them. We’re sharing in the hardship.”

2. Use Peer Pressure.

In late June, a couple dozen soldiers in the 4th brigade of the 203 Corps (the “4/203”) of the Afghan National Army completed an engineering course. There they had learned how to defuse explosives and hunt for hidden roadside bombs. (Think the Afghan version of the team in The Hurt Locker.) They were a ragtag bunch with mismatched uniforms and missing name tapes. But the job they would be performing is crucial. Roadside bombs are one of the leading killers of Afghan security forces, who patrol the country in standard issue pickup trucks rather than the heavily armored MRAPs used by American troops.

One morning, the Afghan brigade held a graduation ceremony for the students. It was a simple affair. The troops lined up in the open gravel pit where they’d learned their craft, saluting as they were handed paper certificates.

About a half dozen of the 4/203’s American advisers attended the event, including executive officer Maj. Christian Thompson and the senior enlisted officer Master Sgt. Matthew Pizzi. They didn’t have to come. They all had long lists of other things they needed to do that day. But they showed up for a very specific purpose: They wanted to make sure the senior leadership of the 4th brigade also appeared.

Master Sgt. Matthew Pizzi, 4/203 SFAAT (Security Forces Advise and Assist Team), U.S. Army

Status is central in Afghan society, which means a senior officer might not take the time to pay homage to a bunch of enlisted soldiers. But, Pizzi explains, having the brigade leaders participate in the ceremony would generate important returns. It would raise morale, cement loyalty, and goose the soldiers' willingness to fight. “It will trickle down to other soldiers,” Pizzi says. “These guys will tell their friends, ‘I just heard Col. Sami talk, and he shook my hand,” Pizzi says, referring to the Afghan brigade’s executive officer, Col. Abdul Sami Bakshi.

Which is why the Americans showed up. “Their leaders are more likely to go if we go,” Pizzi said. “When we make it important to us, it becomes important to them.”

3. Play Teams Off Each Other.

Earlier this year, the 6-8 Cav's C Troop was dispatched to Baraki Barak, a combat outpost in Logar province. (A "troop" is the cavalry version of an infantry company.) By the time they arrived, the Afghan security forces they were assigned to mentor were pretty far along. They included units from both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP), a quasi-national police organization. The units had many of the combat skills they needed to secure and hold the area around the outpost, but the problem was that they weren’t always putting those skills to use.

“They weren’t doing a good job of expanding their influence,” says Lt. Jeff Hart, an officer in C Troop (also known as “Chaos” Troop). Like urban gangs back in the U.S., the Afghan security forces and the local insurgents had divided up the local territory and implicitly agreed not to cross each other’s lines. “When we told [the Afghans] we wanted to go four kilometers south, they were, like, ‘We don’t usually go four kilometers south,’” Hart says.

That wasn’t going to work. Like a business that needs to grow its market share in order to thrive, the Afghan army and police need to extend the areas they control if they hope to prevent an insurgent resurgence after 2014. So the soldiers in C Troop started playing the ANA and AUP against each other.

“We’d tell the ANA: ‘The AUP is going to go five kilometers to the south. You’re going to go with us, right?’ ” Hart says. “They’re very prideful over here. So they’d say, ‘Yes, of course we’re going to go.’ ”

In this way, the Americans helped the Afghan forces slowly push into areas they hadn’t been yet. “The AUP would say, ‘If the ANA’s going to go 10 kilometers away, we’re going to go 11,’ ” Hart says. “They weren’t going to let each other be outdone by the other.”

4. Show Off Your Safety Nets

It’s clear to any adviser that the Afghans’ war fighting skills need help. What’s not always apparent is that, even after the Afghans have built up particular skills, advisers also need to work on the Afghans’ confidence--their own belief in themselves.

Last spring, Afghan forces prepared to enter the Tangi Valley in Wardak Province, one the most dangerous insurgent strongholds in all of Afghanistan. The place is so intransigent that U.S. forces had given up on it two years before. Now, the Afghans were preparing to go back in. In addition to the forces on the ground, they had set up an artillery battery at a nearby outpost to provide additional support.

One evening before the operation started, the artillery battery, for practice, shot off an illumination round—kind of like a single bright firework the purpose of which is to light up a particular slice of land. Suddenly, shots rang out across the valley. But it wasn’t the insurgents. It was the Afghan forces. “The Afghans in the valley started shooting tracer rounds from every weapon system they had,” says Maj. Thompson. An Afghan officer told him why: The Afghan troops knew the big guns were there, but they’d never seen them in action. Which meant they didn't believe the artillery would actually be there to back them up. When the troops saw the illumination go off, they finally understood the guns would, in fact, work. “Now they know they can conduct operations," the officer told Thompson, "because they know they have artillery to support them."

It was a new idea to the Americans. American soldiers have faith in their systems. If you tell a team of soldiers that artillery canons are going to be there, they will believe the guns will be there, even if they never see them. Not so for the Afghans. As with anyone taking a big risk, they were more inclined to do so once they knew safety nets would be there to catch them if they got into trouble.

The American advisers soon incorporated the confidence-building measures into subsequent operations. On certain occasions, they would call in U.S. jets or helicopters to do what are called “show of force” flights, or low--and often loud--passes to demonstrate that they are present and prepared to go into action. “When they see a jet coming by, [the Afghans] are, like, ‘Yes, the Americans are here to support us,’” Thompson explains. “Then they get aggressive in the fight.”

5. Create Space for Decompression.

Lt. Col. John Allen (standing) and Master Sgt. Matthew Pizzi (left, foreground), Maj. Christian Thompson (sitting at the computer in front of Allen), and another soldier at FOB Shank

Advising the Afghan military is one of the toughest consulting gigs on the planet. There is no playbook. You have to figure out everything as you go. The stakes are high--the fate of a country rests in part on your success or failure. You rarely can talk directly to the people you’re trying to help; you usually have to use translators. And giant gaps in culture mean that half the time you’re not even certain your counterparts are getting your drift. Toss in a determined leader like Lt. Col. John Allen, the officer in charge of the 4/203 advisers, and you know you’re going to be working hard. “I told my team we would exhaust ourselves trying to make the Afghans better,” he says.

Which is why Pizzi set up a fire pit. The advisers live in a small compound on FOB Shank that consists of about half a dozen tents. Giant concrete T-walls protect the team from the endless barrages of rockets that insurgents hurl at the base. A bunker sits in the middle of the compound for the same purpose. Next to the bunker is a small open space. That’s where Pizzi set up a small fire pit, surrounded by folding chairs.

As the senior enlisted officer, Pizzi is in charge of the soldiers’ morale and welfare. Troops at war don’t get a lot of down time, and when they do, there’s very little to do other than to work out at the gym or watch movies on their computers. The fire pit, however, offers the guys a space to come together in the evenings, to hang out, play music, and compare notes on what had or had not worked during the day. It was an unusual idea—one I’d never seen anywhere else in Afghanistan. But it did the trick. “I knew we’d be working hard, and it would be easy to burn out,” Pizzi explains. The fire pit, he says, “gives us a way to release stress.”

[Photographs by Teru Kuwayama]

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5 Comments

  • moth

    So boot out the NSA dead weights that have proven for decades that they won't get the job done and replace them with 23-y-o former platoon leaders who have proven that they did get the job done.

  • Koushik Radhakrishnan

    Well captured insight on decision making with often life or death consequences - good lessons to learn on leadership which often is seen as number crunching intelligence

  • JRA

    Liza, thanks for the positive article, the support and the sacrifices you made the get this story. On behalf of the entire 4/203rd SFAAT Team, Task Force Vanguard and CJTF-101 thank you. Respectfully, LTC John Allen (aka. The determined leader).

  • Retired Soldier

    Excellent insight - thanks for spending time with our troops and telling their story. We're at a critical juncture in Afghanistan right now. Many American men and women (and our international partners) have sacrificed to try to improve the lives of Afghans and to rid the region of the insurgent threat. The Advise and Assist mission is probably THE toughest mission in the military today. You are absolutely right when you say the level of responsibility given to our military men and women is unheard of in the private sector. I retired from 21 years in the US Army a few years ago and I work a 40 hour week. I still feel like I'm 'half-stepping' and not putting in a full days work because I used to work 10-12 hour days on a regular basis. I'm adjusting, but it's still a daily struggle. God Bless our men and women in uniform and I pray for their safety every day.