Lead Or Die

One Marine officer concluded that the U.S. way of advising the Afghan National Army was hurting more than helping. So he came up with his own solution and changed the course of the conflict.

Lead Or Die
Photographs by Teru Kuwayama

One day in September 2012, about 80 Taliban fighters rolled up to a mosque outside of Marjah, one of the major hubs in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Toting AK-47s and RPGs, the men announced they were there to take back the town, which U.S. forces ripped from insurgents’ grip in 2010 during President Barack Obama’s surge of troops into Afghanistan.


More recently, the Americans have lowered their profile, part of a wider effort to let the Afghans secure their own cities and towns. In Marjah that leaves local police in charge. They are more like a paramilitary force than a squad of beat cops, but they still lack the discipline, training, and firepower of U.S. troops. They can’t always be counted on to put up a fight. That’s why the Taliban targets towns such as Marjah.

But two curious things happened on that day last year.

Soldiers in the Afghan National Army, part of the 1/215 brigade in the Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The red sticker on the butt of his M-16 is part of the flag of Afghanistan.

First, the police in Marjah took a stand. As the Taliban massed to the north, the locals hopped into their trucks and went on the offensive. Then came curious thing number two: The Afghan army showed up for support. If Afghanistan’s government is going to hold the country after 2014, this is exactly the kind of inter-force cooperation that will be required. It doesn’t always happen. The point to remember is that, on that day in 2012, the Afghan police and military rallied–on their own.


A two-day battle ensued. The police went field to field, compound to compound, hunting down insurgents. The Taliban fighters, who were outsiders, tried to regroup but couldn’t. They kept getting cut off by the locals, who knew the area better. Meanwhile, the army backfilled, setting up checkpoints and reinforcing positions. By the time it was over, the bullet-ridden bodies of about half of the attackers lay strewn across town. The other half, still living, high-tailed it back up north.

“They just dogpiled them,” says Marine Lt. Col. Phil Treglia, the leader of a team of military advisers working with units from the 1st brigade of the 215 Corps (1/215), which is responsible for the southern part of Helmand. “The Taliban got slaughtered. And it wasn’t funny-slaughtered.” Treglia knows from urban warfare. He spent four weeks in 2004 fighting his way through Fallujah during one of the fiercest battles of the Iraq war. Treglia now stands in his shoebox-style office on Camp Dwyer in Helmand, pointing out the Marjah battle movements on a large map. “There were bodies in the cornfields and bodies in houses,” he says, warming to the story as if recounting a particularly stupendous rout by his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. “The Taliban had come in, kicked some people out, explained how they were badasses and how they were going to attack Marjah,” Treglia says, now on a roll. “By the time the police got done with them, it was awesome.” He beams, sounding half proud papa, half teenage gamer describing a sweet session of Call of Duty.

Lt. Col. Phil Treglia shook up the way military advisers worked with their counterparts in the Afghan National Army (ANA). “If you put 19 Marines in one area, that means there are 19 Marines working to get things done,” he says. “And that means there are 19 ANA who aren’t doing their job.”

Why would a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Marines, with years of combat under his belt–with Force Recon, one of the Marines’ elite-most units–be impressed by a two-day street fight? Because what he saw confirmed an unorthodox strategy he’d been pursuing, one that superiors in the chain of command never explicitly condoned. Treglia’s bold approach is now changing the course of events on the ground in Afghanistan. Indeed, it may be one of the best hopes we have for enabling the Afghan Army to protect its country effectively when U.S. troops withdraw in 2014.


Two months before that battle, Treglia and his team of 33 Marine advisers–known as the 1/215 Security Force Assistance and Advisory Team, or the 1/215 SFAAT–had been deployed to the fractious Helmand province. It’s home to poppy growers, whose fields fund the insurgency, and smugglers, whose trails across the southern border allow fighters to ferry in weapons and other supplies from Pakistan. It was about this time when Treglia began hatching an audacious idea.

The 1/215 SFAAT, like many adviser teams across the country, had been tasked with helping build their Afghan counterparts into a sustainable fighting force. According to protocols, military advisers are supposed to work side-by-side with the Afghans, helping them become stronger and more competent. That could mean anything from teaching basic skills, like how to patrol or read a map, to more strategic skills, like how to spend months planning a large operation or how to manage logistics. Advisers often function as sugar daddies, too, facilitating the acquisition of everything from trailers to generators that Afghan National Army (ANA) units can’t source as easily as the Americans.

By 2012, the overall goal was to put Afghan security forces “in the lead.” The term meant Afghans, not the international forces who’d been fighting the Taliban and other insurgents for the past 12 years, would now be responsible for security in their respective areas. International forces would transition into assisting roles. When Treglia and his team arrived in Helmand, though, the Marines still held bottom-line responsibility for the region.


Treglia’s idea was to turn all of this on its head. The point of putting the advisers with the Afghans was to help them grow stronger and ultimately make them independent. One way or another, they’d soon be on their own anyway. But what if, Treglia wondered, for the Afghans all this help was not really helping? What if by being there all the time, the Americans were actually getting in the way? What if it all amounted to the military version of helicopter parenting?

Treglia’s brigade advisers worked with Afghan army leaders, but he also managed adviser teams of 20 to 30 guys that were embedded with the Afghans at the battalion or “kandak” level in Afghan parlance. Treglia’s theory involved yanking those lower level teams out. In their place, he wanted to leave two- or four-man liaison teams, called “LNOs.” It wasn’t a new idea. It was used in Vietnam. But it was new here. With LNOs, the Afghans could have the freedom to start operating on their own, while the Americans still had a few people on hand to monitor their progress and send up smoke signals in case the Afghans were in danger. “Our opinion was, if we do this now, we’ll see failure now and [be able to] reinforce,” explains Capt. Richard L. Shinn, Treglia’s operations officer. If the Americans waited to see where failure popped up until after they’d left, they’d lose the ability to plug the holes. “We’d just be left on the sidelines to watch,” says Shinn.

The big problem Treglia’s plan was that it clashed with the advising paradigm set out at the highest levels of the NATO coalition. Advising was supposed to be all-or-nothing. Either you had a full adviser team or you had nothing. How would teams of two or four be able to protect themselves? And not just from outsiders. All of this was happening at the height of “green-on-blue” killings–murders of coalition troops by Afghan soldiers.

Marine Lt. Col. Phil Treglia (fourth from left) with his Afghan counterpart General Muhammad Ali Sujai (third from left), a former Mujahideen commander who fought against the Soviets.

Treglia knew the risk he was taking in bucking the prevailing setup. So did his second-in-command, the team executive officer, Maj. Christopher Bourbeau. They’re both fairly determined personalities. Bourbeau is a helicopter pilot whose call sign is “Ike”–which reportedly is not a reference to Gen. Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower but an abbreviation for the phrase “I Know Everything.” “Treglia pulled me into his office early in the deployment and said: ‘By the end of the week you might be the CO [commanding officer] because they’re probably going to fire me for this,’” Bourbeau says. But they weren’t just taking personal and career risks. Rather, they could be wrong about the 1/215 as a whole. Maybe the Afghans weren’t as ready to operate on their own as they thought. If the Taliban were able to overrun the 1/215, the Marine Corps would not forget that it was Treglia and Bourbeau who had let it happen. Worse still, after countless lives lost and billions spent, they would have lost the lower Helmand to the insurgents. The outcome could be catastrophic.

The story of how the 1/215 became one of the first brigades in Afghanistan to truly step out on its own–and to demonstrate that some Afghan units can and will be capable of holding on to the country after the coalition leaves–is a classic tale of innovation and leadership. But this is no Silicon Valley scenario. The leader at its core is a person who sees opportunities where others don’t and who makes pivotal decisions in a risk-averse environment like no other.

Even in the context of armed conflicts, the stakes in Afghanistan are impossibly high. The international coalition has been holding the country together since 2001. But President Obama has announced that that the bulk of U.S. forces will ship out by the end of 2014. Troops from other coalition nations have either already left or are on their way out. After 2014, Afghanistan is on its own. Even if a minimal international force remains behind, it will be up to Afghanistan’s own security forces to fight the ongoing battle against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. It will be up to them to keep the Afghan people safe and create the kind of confidence that helps get economies humming. And it will be up to them to remain strong enough to stand up to the country’s neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. Without a sustainable army and police force, Afghanistan will most likely descend into chaos again, possibly bringing the whole region with it. In a talk at the University of California, Berkeley last year, author Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively about the region, said instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more dangerous to global security than the conflict in the Middle East. Everything the United States and its partners have fought for–and paid for, in hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands of lives–could still be for naught.


Soon after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the international coalition deployed advisers to army and police units across the country to help rebuild the country’s security forces. But they couldn’t supply, year after year, thousands of people trained specifically for the job (the Army’s Special Forces, for example, is equipped for this kind of advisory role but they don’t have the numbers). So instead, the military has been building its advising teams on the fly, requisitioning troops with certain types of expertise–like intelligence or logistics–from its regular units. It’s as if global consulting firm McKinsey & Company responded to its clients’ accounting, IT, or HR consulting needs by sending people from its own accounting, IT, or HR departments. Treglia was a former member of Force Recon–think the Marine equivalent of the Special Forces or the Navy’s SEALs. Bourbeau was a pilot. Neither had advised before. In fact, the work of advisers is so little known among conventional Marine forces that Bourbeau wasn’t even sure what it involved. He just volunteered, he says, because it offered a way to get back into combat.

For the most part, advising isn’t even something the average Marine is designed for. “This is not the primary concept you think of when you say, ‘I want to join the Marine Corps.’ It’s more blowing things up and killing people,” says Tony Atler, an analyst at the RAND Corporation who’s been studying advising in Afghanistan. Now toss in language barriers. “The ability to communicate cross-culturally is tough,” Atler says, “but when you don’t speak the language, it’s almost impossible.”

Advising might sound innocuous, even pencil-necky, but it’s actually one of the riskiest jobs in Afghanistan. Advisers spend huge amounts of time “outside the wire”–outside the protection of U.S. bases. And unlike other units, which enjoy the protection of infantry units when they head out, advisers have only themselves to depend on. They have to master a wide range of skills usually performed by individual specialists–everything from driving the monster armored trucks the military uses to move its forces from place to place, to manning the vehicles’ gun turrets, to being able to react if they hit a roadside bomb, to knowing how to shoot their way out of a building should they get jacked during a meeting with village elders. And since most of the guys on the advising teams don’t come from combat, much less infantry, units, there’s a lot to learn.


Some lieutenant colonels might get their nose bent out of shape at being put in charge of an advising team. After all, this is a time in their careers where they’re usually handed an entire battalion of 1,000 troops or more. A team of 30-something is more platoon-sized. Treglia, though, prefers to be close to the ground and in the middle of the action. Grabbing his rifle as headed out the door one day, he grinned at the disparity between his rank and duties: “I’m the highest paid lieutenant in the Marine Corps,” he said.

And so, in the spring of 2012, while the rest of his team entered the three-month adviser training program, Treglia kicked off what would become a string of unorthodox decisions: He hopped on a plane to take a look at the 1/215 and the area they were responsible for. While this was routine for the leaders of combat units, Treglia didn’t know of any previous adviser who’d taken such a trip. And when he tried to get some of the other team leads to come along, he says they declined, saying they couldn’t get their bosses to sign off. To Treglia, not making a trip would have been sheer madness. How can you prepare properly if you don’t know anything about the environment on the ground? “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “It what’s the professional would do.”

What he saw in Helmand convinced Treglia that the instruction his team was receiving needed rethinking. The Marines’ program is run by troops with previous advising experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both. At the time, the curriculum was one-size-fits-all. It didn’t matter where you were headed in Afghanistan (the north, culturally speaking, is significantly different from the south). It didn’t matter if you were going to be advising a border police company or an army brigade. It didn’t matter if the area you would be working in saw firefights every day or was basically quiet. Everyone got the same training. And much of that training didn’t focus on advising. The bulk of the drills focused on “survivability”–the kinds of defensive skills that allow troops to come home alive.


But Treglia had seen that, unlike other parts of the country, southern Helmand was comparatively quiet. Yes, there were still plenty of insurgents in the area. And yes, roadside bombs–known as “improvised explosive devices” (or “IEDs”)–continued to pose a threat. But there wasn’t going to be nonstop fighting. “We hit 15 IEDs in one day of training,” Treglia says. “I’m like, really?” Treglia is normally pretty easygoing, but sarcasm is his primary mode of communication when he thinks you’re being an idiot.

Two Afghan soldiers from a Kabul-based artillery unit with a U.S. Army soldier in combat outpost Baraki Barak, in Logar province.

With Bourbeau, Treglia argued to his superiors that the training should be adjusted to include fewer combat drills and more focus on the skills the team would need to accomplish the core of their work–the soft skills of mentoring, inspiring, and selling. After all, Afghan units are under no obligation to implement anything the Americans suggest. Any gains Treglia’s team made would be due to their ability to persuade. “I wish I could have sent my guys on three months of sales calls,” Treglia says.

The fact that Treglia and Bourbeau–completely new to advising–thought they knew better than the seasoned officers leading the program did not go over well. “There were some people saying maybe Lt. Col. Treglia is not the right leadership, that the team was too unconventional, too outside the box,” says an officer familiar with the situation. But with the backing of more senior leaders, Treglia deployed with his team in July of last year.


From the beginning of the assignment–and at the heart of Treglia’s subsequent creative thinking–was one big conundrum. Unlike managers at private corporations, or even outside consultants working to turn a company around, advisers in Afghanistan aren’t given specific targets to hit. There was no list of deliverables for what the Afghan brigade should be able to accomplish by the time the SFAAT left. The advisers, like teams across the country, received only the vaguest of guidance: to make the Afghans as independent as possible. “I remember Gen. Gurganus coming down and sitting on our porch,” says one of Treglia’s captains, referring to Maj. General Charles Gurganus, the then-commander of southwestern Afghanistan (officially known as “Regional Command Southwest”). “He said it’s your job to give the Afghans the capabilities to be independent after we leave.”

In principle, Treglia’s team could have focused on making incremental improvements, which is the approach most adviser teams take. But by the summer of 2012 the Marines were starting to pull out of Helmand. Outposts were being shut down. Gear was being shipped out. It was unclear whether another adviser team would follow. That led to a radical decision. “Phil and I decided we had to take the approach that we would be the last adviser team,” says Bourbeau.

Luccio and Treglia confer at a meeting with Col. Khan Baba (left), commander of the 3rd kandak, and Col. Muhammed Salwar (second from left, sitting), the executive officer of the 1/215, in Marjah.

That upped the ante. If this was the end game, it became doubly important for the advisers to figure out where to invest their time. What end state should they aim for? What should “independent” look like? There was no way the Afghans would become as proficient in the time remaining as the Americans. That would take decades–if ever. And there’s no roadmap for this stuff. Adviser teams essentially function like startup entrepreneurs: They are counted on to just make it up as they go along, pulling from best practices when they can, but otherwise just using their own smarts to figure out where to double-down on their efforts.


Like many eureka moments, the answer came in part from what on the surface appeared to be a failure. Because of resource constraints, one kandak in the 1/215–the 3rd–didn’t have any advisers. Yet, oddly, of all the kandaks, that one actually seemed to be doing the best. They had security under control. They were actively collaborating with the other authorities in their area. Insurgents weren’t making any inroads. Indeed, it would be forces from this kandak, based in Marjah, that helped trounce the Taliban that day in September 2012. “We wondered if that was an indicator,” says Bourbeau. What he and Treglia saw as they watched the battle unfold seemed to confirm it. Maybe keeping the advisers around wasn’t helping the Afghans as much as they thought. “Maybe we were actually slowing things down,” Bourbeau says.

It was basic human nature. “If you put 19 Marines in one area, that means there are 19 Marines working to get things done, and that means there are 19 ANA who aren’t doing their job,” Treglia says. The Marines are stronger and better trained. Why wouldn’t the Afghans defer? But that approach only solves the problem of the day. “Strategically, to win this war, the ANA must have confidence and must be able to show that they can succeed,” Treglia says.

So Treglia decided to take a risk: He pulled the advisers out and replaced them with the two- and four-man LNOs. “It was a brilliant move,” says one of Treglia’s captains, who stayed behind as an LNO team leader. At first, the Afghans hated it. “They’re like, ‘You guys suck. Why are you leaving us?’” says the captain. But after a couple of weeks of the Marines telling the Afghans they couldn’t do things for them anymore, it was like a light went off. “They were like, ‘We can do this.’” And then, “We don’t need any Marines.” And not long after, “What are you still doing here?”


What made the move even more audacious was the way the SFAAT pulled it off. Adviser teams are small, nimble, and creative. But they operate within a much larger, more structured organization. Regional Command Southwest included several Marine battalions as well as British forces and a command staff comprised of hundreds of Marines. Militaries like uniformity–for good reason. If you need to move large numbers of troops across a battlefield in concert, you want to make sure that each cog in the wheel is behaving in a precise and predictable way.

Afghan National Security Forces confer with U.S. soldiers in Logar, near FOB Shank. (The face of a translator has been pixelated to protect his identity.)

The implicit thinking in an organization like this would be that, if a commander wanted to make the kind of major tactical shift Treglia had in mind, he would run it by the regional command for its blessing. Treglia didn’t. A bureaucracy may very well have killed the idea, and he understood why: “There was a hesitancy among guys who’ve devoted limbs, arms, legs, and lives to the Helmand Valley to turn it over the Afghans, who suck compared to the Marine Corps,” Treglia says in his usual forthright way. But he didn’t share their doubts. He worked closely with the ANA and saw what they were capable of. “You can suck but still beat the Taliban,” he says, “because the Taliban really, really suck.” And though there was an increasing reluctance to put lives at risk, Treglia didn’t think the LNOs’ safety would be an issue. They’d be co-located with other Marine units who were large enough to look out for them.

“Confidence comes from building skills,” says Bennett, “but it also comes from seeing your actions succeed.”


So Treglia simply cleared the idea with his immediate superiors and proceeded apace. The SFAAT’s regular reports to higher command reflected the shift. They showed that, in places where there once were large teams, there now were only small ones. But it took a while for the change to register, highlighting a core principle of organizational behavior: If you’ve got a big bureaucracy above you, and you pretend everything’s normal, they’re probably not going to notice when you take a big turn to the left unless you call attention to it. “Phil was by no means trying to hide what he was doing,” says Bourbeau. “He was more like waiting for someone to tell him to stop.”

By the time staffers at the regional command fully grasped the change, the program had been humming along for two months and showing good results. Not that there wasn’t hell to pay. Flurries of emails and phone calls circulated, questioning just what the team had pulled off. “There were those who thought it wasn’t Treglia’s decision to make,” Treglia says. But the kandaks were doing great, and the organization soon embraced the idea–proving yet another principle of organizational behavior. Says Bourbeau, “Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

A year later, the 1/215 has proven Treglia’s faith in them. “They’re doing better than we thought they would have,” says Col. Barry Bennett, who’s in charge of military advising for Regional Command Southwest. He calls the 1/215 a “model” brigade. “We’ve seen them spread their wings and grow,” he says. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they’d lost a few positions to insurgents by now, Bennett says. “But they’ve held firm.” The Americans also discovered that the ANA can actually do a lot of things better than the Marines. “Those guys ran circles around us,” says Bourbeau. Counterintuitively, the Afghans moved faster and more effectively than the Americans, Bourbeau explains. “They know the terrain. They know the people. They can pick up on things faster. And they can pick IEDs out of the ground before you ever see them.”

A Marine with Afghan soldiers at the ANA base, Camp Garmsir.

As much as anything, the brigade has simply become more confident in their own abilities. “Confidence comes from building skills,” says Bennett, “but it also comes from seeing your actions succeed.” That confidence has translated into more initiative of the kind the coalition wants to see from all the country’s security forces. One of Treglia’s proudest moments came last spring when he checked in with his counterparts, and they told him offhandedly that they’d just completed a major operation. Not only had they not asked for help in planning or executing it. They hadn’t even given him a heads up they were doing it. That was the independence Treglia had been betting on.

The LNO cells proved so successful that other advising teams in the area adopted the tactic, and not just American ones. The British, who until recently, were responsible for the provincial capital, flew Bourbeau to England for two weeks to explain the idea. “Today everyone [in Helmand] uses the term ‘LNO cell’ like it’s been around for a thousand years,” says Bourbeau. “But it was Phil who coined its use there.” And in August, after the conclusion of their deployment, Treglia and Bourbeau were informed that they had been awarded Bronze Stars, the fourth highest of the Marine Corps’s honors, for their work in Afghanistan.

The 1/215’s work is far from done. “They’re an immature army,” Treglia says. “They can do some things very well. They can do checkpoints. They can do static defensive positions.” But they’re not ready to take on a foreign army. If they got into it with Pakistan, for example, “the Pakistan army would roll them, crush them, and destroy them,” Treglia says. And so, even as Treglia pulled advisers away from the kandaks, they continued to work with the brigade leadership on higher-level strategy and basic organizational management issues.

The true test of an innovation is whether it’s replicable and scalable. There are those who argue that what Treglia’s team did in southern Helmand wasn’t necessarily applicable elsewhere in Afghanistan. The 1/215 was a particularly mature organization. They’d been formed years ago and had had time to gel. Other brigades are much younger. The 1/215 had been in their area for a long time. They knew it well. Plus, during the surge, U.S. forces had pushed most of the insurgents out of population centers. The 1/215 had effectively been given a running start.

Treglia declines to make generalizations based on the 1/215’s experience. But Bourbeau is more aggressive. He makes the case that units across the country should have similarly been set loose using a circular logic that is oddly compelling. “Is it replicable?” he asks. “It has to be replicable.” International troops are leaving next year. Afghan forces, Bourbeau argues, should have started operating on their own long ago so advisers could identify what their weak points were and doubled-down their efforts in those areas while they were still around to help. “American involvement in Afghanistan is not open-ended,” he says,” So you don’t have the flexibility to wait things out.”

A year later, the situation on the ground has changed dramatically. The U.S. military is closing down bases all across the country and pulling back troops in advance of next year’s deadline. By next February, the number of troops in the country will be half of what it was this past January. While a handful of adviser teams still function at the kandak levels, the bulk have pulled back to the brigade or even the Corps level.

Still, a Pentagon report released in July said Afghan security forces had “yet to demonstrate the ability to operate independently on a nationwide scale.” Discussions are continuing between Washington and Kabul as to whether any U.S. troops will stay on in Afghanistan after the NATO mission formally comes to a close. No matter what happens, though, there will be no Marines in Helmand. They are packing up and leaving now, with no intention of returning, no matter what gets decided for 2015 and beyond.

Whether the 1/215 continues to succeed will depend in part on how much support continues to flow from the central government. If the government collapses, and money for supplies and salaries dries up, all of the SFAAT’s work may come to nothing. Or it might not. Shinn, Treglia’s operations officer, points out that a healthy chunk of the world’s opium comes from Helmand. Farmers there have always paid protection money to someone. Most recently it’s been the Taliban. But the army could always implement their own form of entrepreneurship, stepping in and transforming the poppy fields into their own corporate bank accounts. “It’s not politically correct” to say that, Shinn says. But it could work for the Afghans. “It’s a third-world solution, not a first-world solution.”

Treglia’s team completed their deployment in June and returned to the United States in July. Treglia himself, having fought in the initial invasion of Afghanistan, almost literally lived up to the Marine credo “first in last out.” But even long after he’d convinced his commanders to turn over southern Helmand, long after other brigades had begun adopting the LNO idea, long after the 1/215 had proved their mettle, Treglia kept hammering away at his message. Shortly before his team flew home, a new Marine battalion arrived at Camp Dwyer. Treglia knew the incoming troops, born and bred to fight, would be chomping at the bit to get outside the wire and see some action. So one morning, before some of his team headed over to brief the new Marines on the state of the ANA, Treglia drilled his theme one last time. “The message to the new team,” he said, “is that this is the Afghans’ fight. They are capable of handling it. They can do it. And we shouldn’t do it for them.”