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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.

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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.

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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.]

About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan.

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