Lead Or Die

Lead Or Die  B


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.

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.

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.

For full story http://www.fastcompany.com/3019224/leadership-afghanistan-marines-treglia-army#!


Author: Angela Grant

Angela Grant is a medical doctor. For 22 years, she practiced emergency medicine and internal medicine. She studied for one year at Harvard T. H Chan School Of Public Health. She writes about culture, race, and health.

65 thoughts on “Lead Or Die

  1. Obviously, nobody likes war, but all the same, this is encouraging news!

    Another thought: In the military we were trained to follow orders and not to deviate (programming) yet Treglia managed to be a free thinker. I get the idea about following orders (can’t have all of us doing our own thing) but in his case it seems to be working. Thank you for sharing this, Angela.

    1. Hi Lynda, I thought that was kind of neat. He is a LEADER! I’ll give you another thought : Could a female have done the same thing today in the military? The question is just food for thought, I see complacency, acceptance and submission to rules, norms and roles that make absolutely no sense. He spoke a language in which he got support. Could a woman have spoken a similar language and received similar support.? This is all hypothetical,,,

      1. Oh for crying out loud, stop cherishing the goddamn leadership. Leaders are poison!

        Could a woman have done the same thing? I know what you’re after, oh Soft Warrior Angela, but my answer is: “Hopefully not!”

  2. Lmao! The Russians were thrown out of Afghanistan after many years of combat without accomplishing anything substantial. Now it’s the turn of the Americans, who were even longer battling the Taliban and others, to leave that country with their tails between their legs. Two superpowers defeated by only a few men in a undeveloped and chaotic country. And still the Americans come up with advise of how to beat the Taliban? Lmao indeed!

      1. Don’t believe. Research and find out.

        People coming up with stuff like “Is this guy a good motherfucker?”, you should never believe!

        1. Roald, are we still arrogant? Could the Taliban not be the image painted by the media in western nations?

          Push people into a corner, expecting them to be like formers…

          For some reason, I would like to hear THEIR side. Could we attempt to reason with the Taliban? Ignoring others is never a good strategy… You would think 911 taught us that yet we are still confident in our ignorance of certain groups.

          I say it’s time we at least listen to the other side…unfiltered.

        2. Roald, are we still arrogant? Could the Taliban not be the image painted by the media in western nations?

          Push people into a corner, expecting them to be like formers…

          For some reason, I would like to hear THEIR side. Could we attempt to reason with the Taliban? Ignoring others is never a good strategy… You would think 911 taught us that yet we are still confident in our ignorance of certain groups.

          I say it’s time we at least listen to the other side…unfiltered.

          1. I listened to them, and they’re very dedicated to their quest. I was amazed by how relaxed and determined they spoke about their fight, life, and fate. They have no need to accomplish what they’re after during their lifetime, convinced as they are that others will take up and finish what they eventually weren’t able to. Still, I’m not at ease with their philosophy of life, culture, and what their religion dictates them to do.

            1. Roald, do you know Talibans? Or are you generalizing based on western media propaganda? These people are beyond pissed…their culture pre-dates Western cultures…I can’t imagine there aren’t insiders who would not like to be part of the action..

              As for the religion, Islam, it’s like any other subject to abuse by a few..

            2. When I say “I listened to them”, you have to take that literally, otherwise I wouldn’t have formulated it like that!

              Any religion, abused or not, can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.

            3. Hmmm…..interesting.

              Yes, religion is a good portion of culture but culture is even more. In a sense, culture is individually defined in space (context) and time.

              So the individuals, you so desire are uniquely defined by their cultures; their numerous individual experiences, affiliations and interactions: shaping, molding, and interpreting…

              Wow, you lived to talk about it! You are Mr. Bad Ass!….:)

          1. I don’t want to build bridges with people who deny women to even get a minimum of education and/or are living by a dogma I despise.

            I don’t care how the world sees any body part of mine.

            1. MBA, I am disappointed…that is THEIR culture.

              Are we so inclusive of women, ALL women?….Don’t we re-write history and deny the heritage and contributions of entire cultures and racial groups?…people in glass houses should not throw stones and we do live in glass houses, wouldn’t you say?

            2. I don’t know about “we”, but I throw stones when it suits me, and if someone is angry or brave enough to smash in the windows of my glass house, I’ll deal with it, again in a way that suits me.

              I don’t respect any culture. I can respect individuals, but that’s all.

            3. “don’t respect any culture. I can respect individuals, but that’s all.” Really? What is culture? Don’t confuse it with any one thing, it’s unique to each individual, it’s just that a few are great at dictating dogmas and an overwhelming majority don’t question them.

            4. Like I said, I go with individuals. Culture in whatever form can go to hell.

              Still there is something which Fromm called “Sozialcharakter”, defining a greater or lesser part of individuals. I keep that in mind when throwing my stones.

            5. “Sozialcharakter” sounds like integrity…

              …”defining a greater or lesser part of individuals. I keep that in mind when throwing my stones.” Is this a softer you, Roald?

          1. My lovely Angela, this is the time to tell your friend Chip about the power I have over people and can make them do things they never expected to happen.

            1. You call him smart, I call him a whiner. Here’s my latest comment in BOC after one of his known and boring lectures of more of the same.


              >>>>>> You are judging all the time Chip. Maybe you turn a blind eye to this, but you do.

              You don’t want change Chip. Like all conservative people you are defending the status quo with BIG WORDS and only want to fix things.

              And you talk too much, failing to listen. <<<<<<


  3. Like I already said in this thread a while ago, leaders are poison. Especially the ones that stay at home. Here’s an example of it. Enjoy. Very inspirational too, wouldn’t you agree?

      1. Such is the plight of blogging…introspection is a lonely process. I imagine our soldiers often feel a sense of not belonging quite a bit in foreign countries and in their own countries when they go home. This may be perceived and not reality.

        PTSD is the next destination as veterans become shells with difficulty forming new relationships and maintaining old ones. This is real PTSD, not insomnia or anxiety b/o trauma.

      1. Not about heroes but the insanity of war and turning loving and decent people into senseless warriors forced to commit atrocities by their hypocritical and corrupt leaders. Some of these men and women are able to keep their abused integrity and humanity alive (as is shown in the video, which btw is a clip from “Black Hawk Down”) but most will get lost and drown in the violence forced upon them.

        The title of the song is “Gortoz A Ran”. Translated from Brezhoneg to French it’s “J’Attends” which means “I’m Waiting” in English.

        1. War and humanity don’t mix very well. Compassion and empathy for the enemy will get you killed all the time along with your squad.

          Can you imagine the consequences of pissing off a commander? It is almost like being in the hood, everyone assumes. I wonder, how many soldiers who die in combat actually die in combat as opposed to being murdered? The violence, the images or memories of death, savagery and the culture of total obedience are perfect ingredients for mental illness and psychopaths.

          Over a third ( I believe the percentage is higher) of soldiers on the field were on antidepressants while on the battlefield, they were also on PAIN MEDICATIONS: they were depressed or anxious soldiers fighting while injured and in pain. Their ability to make sound decisions impaired. We will not win many wars like this, I think?

          People wonder why the rise in suicide among veterans? Sub-standard medical care , exacerbated by depersonalization ( not having feelings or inability to feel emotions) induced by anti-depressants, just my hypothesis.

          1. I was not in a war, but still, I made fun of a few commanders in my time, pissed them off whenever I could, and showed them how laughable they actually were. The end result was………wait for it……..yes it’s coming……..that it was I who they came to and asked if I would agree that the squad I belonged to would go outside with them for some exercising or drill.

            For clarity: To pull this off, one has to be seen as a skilled and ruthless warrior by these commanders, know the rules extremely well, and not giving a rat’s ass about eventually being court marshaled. In short, one has to make oneself “untouchable”.

            When it comes right down to it, Angela, it’s not the leadership, but the followers that decide if there will be war or not! The bottleneck? It’s not easy to come forward, stand alone, and find a few to stand with you no matter what. But it can be done! It simply sits in some people to act like that. Alas too often these people, once succeeded, also fall for the negative side of power, and follow in the footsteps of those they were fighting. Most revolutionaries I know off became corrupted and hypocritical rulers once the battle was over.

    1. It belongs to the body language of a bloody self-proclaimed motherfucker convinced he’s doing the right stuff while (unconsciously) losing his humanity. This also is possibly one of the reasons why so many are suffering from PTSD.

        1. It’s the feeling of abandonment which is a major cause of suicide for people who have a need to belong to a society, a group, a family. Genuine sumbitches, badasses, and hardcore mofos will never take their own life because of that.

            1. Read my comment more attentively and you’ll realize that the context doesn’t matter. It’s the need to belong which makes the difference. I for one don’t have that need. Many people do, even to the extent that some say it’s a universal human need.

              The suicide rate among TS-people is staggering. Not many people care, or even know this, which creates even more feelings of abandonment, and more suicide attempts.

            2. Roald, context always matters that is why I question blanket statements. Your non-explanation was good enough for me to comprehend.

              I would have used the term lack of connectedness instead of a sense of abandonment. However, I can see why in the military the emphasis in on abandonment as opposed to a lack of connection to others or oneself.

            3. “….context always matters…..” is a blank statement as well.

              “Abandonment” is an overwhelming emotion, surpassing loneliness and stuff alike by light years, while “lack of connectedness” doesn’t do anything to me and is just that, no connection. Could be a phone.

              Btw, fuck the military. I was not talking about that.

  4. Roald Michel

    “….context always matters…..” is a blank statement as well.

    “Abandonment” is an overwhelming emotion, surpassing loneliness and stuff alike by light years, while “lack of connectedness” doesn’t do anything to me and is just that, no connection. Could be a phone.

    Btw, fuck the military. I was not talking about that.

      1. Maybe in your world it is. Judging from your comments within this context, it’s the “other-directed” one. Riesman et al pointed that one out already in their study dating back to 1950.

        I’ve met people who felt totally connected and still felt immensely abandoned. Personally I’m disconnected but don’t feel abandoned at all.

          1. The problem with a lot of words/concepts = ambiguity. Abandonment seems to be one of them. It has a different meaning in law, philosophy (existentialism), and daily life. Your “to feel left behind” comes close (if not identical) to my use of it.

            Now ponder this: Only when there’s a connection (physical and/or mental/spiritual) one can feel abandoned. No connection, no feelings of abandonment.

            1. “Now ponder this: Only when there’s a connection (physical and/or mental/spiritual) one can feel abandoned. No connection, no feelings of abandonment.”

              Roald, why should I ponder what I said? 😉

            2. Caramba sugah, because you didn’t say that! You connect “lack of connectedness” to abandonment, while I disconnect the two.

            3. Roald,
              That is what I have been trying to say. However, it’s interesting, we have almost identical thoughts and definitions yet two opposing points of view. At least now you understand mine which was the intent.

  5. “Yes, it is the sense that the world has left you behind and no one cares…”

    Um…….almost there. Juicy detail: But only when connected to that world.

      1. Maybe in your world, but………..as I see it? Nope! Nothing of the sort.

        See? Contrary to your belief, you didn’t understand me at all! Or…….

        1) you simply don’t want to admit we disagree.
        2) you love to be a brat.

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