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.
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.
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.