Being asked for the first time to create or lead a Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental or Multi-national (JIIM) Task Force might be a bit unnerving; this article outlines some lessons that should assist you. These same lessons are applicable to anyone looking to stand up a new organization or office, particularly in a military construct.

In August 2009 I was asked by General Stanley McChrystal, then Commander ISAF in Kabul, to start building a task force as we awaited the arrival of Sir Graeme Lamb from the UK Army who was retiring as a Lieutenant General. Our organization’s focus was to assist in creating an Afghan-owned and Afghan-Led reintegration program and to garner international support for it. The team would be known as the Force-Reintegration Cell or F-RIC.

Never underestimate the power of personal relationships and trust as you start building your JIIM team

Upon hearing the news of my reassignment from one of the many aides to the ISAF commander to the sole military assistant and advisor to Sir Graeme Lamb, I sat with General McChrystal to gather his vision and insights. I had known Stan McChrystal for close to 2 decades at that time, so our private conversation was quite short, due to our familiarity with each other and because I understood the overall campaign plan from my previous 3 months at his side. Stan’s guidance to me was to start building the reintegration team, from soup to nuts, over the next couple weeks. His advice on working with Graeme was equally concise, he said, “Graeme gets to the heart of the problem and he is good at cutting deals.”

Get Educated Quickly

With the commander’s vision and some insights into my future Task Force leader’s strengths, I sat down to plot out my way forward. My first challenge was to get my head around modern and historical reintegration models and to learn about what had already been tried in Afghanistan. I had been in planning sessions with the UN and Japan from 2002-03 as they dealt with Reintegrating, Demobilizing and Disarming the Afghan militias (better known as DDR). That gave me some insights, but I needed a lot more to determine how to build the team and our resources. Luckily, I had an ace card on our team.

I sat with one of the ISAF commanders’ Afghan-American cultural advisors and interpreters and he kindly gave me hours of history of the reintegration efforts in Afghanistan from 2002-2009. You can likely find a resource like this somewhere in the world that can fill you in quickly…you have to find them and use them, or you will flounder. But if your task is somehow the equivalent of discovering fire, then you will need to crack the books and scour the internet and get smart. From there, I wandered around the ISAF HQs camp and talked to every person that was in any way related to the task ahead and picked their brain. As I met with generals, colonels, sergeant majors, political advisors, protective service leaders, and a myriad of other folks I made a list of their skills and weaknesses in case Sir Graeme wanted to poach some of them into his team.

If the Personnel Office Doesn’t say you Exist, you Don’t Exist

With some insights into reintegration history and some ideas about the personnel we would need to make the mission work, I went to the J-1 or human resources section. I had two main asks at this point. Who would NATO require us to hire to make the organization NATO qualified, so we wouldn’t look like a UK-US only operation? Second, I needed to know the exact process and timeline for getting official status as a NATO ISAF organization so we could hire people against our approved roster. They were accommodating and thankful I came to them first before we started hiring personnel and acquiring real-estate. Getting this correct allowed us to hire quickly from outside Afghanistan and to poach effectively from inside the country. This also allowed me to request real-estate, office supplies, IT and communications gear, vehicles, lodging, meal plans, and a myriad of other critical resources we would need to get started.

Prioritize your tasks and Hire slowly and wisely

Within 10 days, now in civilian clothes, my boss arrived. I only knew Graeme via emails we had sparingly exchanged and the ones I had been cc’d on as he and Stan McChrystal talked about his mission. We sat down in our F-RIC office, part of an entire floor I had started to wrench away from other units, and plotted out the next few months of activities.

I presented him with the work I had done as I awaited his arrival. I had a list of key tasks we needed to conduct to clarify our mission and ensure it meshed with Afghan government desires. Next, we reviewed a roster of people I thought he should hire and a list of people he would need to quietly manage in Kabul to ensure they didn’t sink his mission. Then we reviewed, and he prioritized the people (mostly Afghans) we needed to meet so we better understood the aims of the Afghans when it came to possibly reintegrating Taliban fighters back into society.

After we reviewed these products, we worked on two more tasks. We reviewed the administrative tasks that needed to occur to finish standing up our unit and the longer-term milestones for becoming fully operational. As he was a retiring General and I was a Captain, we would have to share the Chief of Staff duties to ensure we became effective quickly; we put the appropriate rank towards the right task. Finally, we sat down for a couple of days and drafted what we thought would be the NATO, U.S. and eventually international community white paper for helping the Afghans create a reintegration program that could also kick-start the peace talks, or reconciliation, between the Afghan government and the Taliban movement senior leaders. It was almost exactly what you have seen unfold over the last decade, I realize now exactly why Stan McChrystal asked an old friend like Graeme to start his retirement hanging out with a Captain/FAO-in-training in Kabul.

With our tasks prioritized Sir Graeme Lamb then told me he was in no hurry to hire anyone. I mentioned the need to start hiring soon because of the lag-time in getting people deployed. He simply said, we will hire people as we need them. “We don’t need to rush to failure,” was a phrase I came to learn well.

Make your team JIIM Plus and more

Graeme had a few surprises in store in the personnel department that I didn’t anticipate. The UK Army has a system set up to literally parachute in key staff officers as needed into combat zones to serve for short periods of time. Literally in days we had blokes showing up ready to get cracking who were wildly overqualified for the jobs we assigned. It was perfect. So, while these super-staff officers from every branch and with sufficient rank to make magic happen started accomplishing the tasks on the white board, Graeme and I set about talking to Afghan counterparts and hiring long-term F-RIC members.

Graeme sent me off to poach people locally on the ISAF base while he worried about hiring the more senior folks. My sales pitch was golden and we started to get volunteers showing up to join our team once the word was out that we were hiring. We met our fully operational date with ease and continued to run at just the right pace as we built our airplane in flight a little more each day.

By the end of our initial hiring we had brought in members to our Kabul site or established off-site connections with diplomats, development workers, academics, UN officers, intelligence professionals, logisticians, engineers, special operators, targeting officers, strategists, planners, and of course lots and lots of Afghans. I called our team a JIIM Plus organization. I would go on to teach courses on this concept for many years. We went beyond the Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multi-national domains with this team. The “Plus” that we also connected with is the Non-Governmental Organization or NGO world, the press, elected and appointed executive and legislative government leaders, and even Super-Empowered Individuals/Influencers outside of government that can help you achieve your mission. The last one may have you scratching your head, but just remember that if you wanted to work on Sudan over the last decade, it would have been helpful to have George Clooney on your side of the solution. Our influencers were not that handsome, but moved some mountains.

We did build slow and we never got too unwieldy, yet we got all the right experts involved at exactly the right moments to make them effective. No one got bored and no one got overwhelmed. The team was diverse of thought and selflessly helped each other.

Ensure your vision is clear and then empower creativity and initiative

The most critical thing that Sir Graeme did was clearly tell each new member his vision for the team. It was basically “own nothing, influence everything.” He didn’t want to create some permanent staff section that got sucked up into the daily ISAF missions and never solved its own problem. We had to help the Afghans to develop a sustainable reintegration program that could allow fighters, criminals, and other bad actors on the battlefield to step off the field and rejoin Afghan society.

With that vision explained, Sir Graeme then told our team-mates to go forth and bend everyone to their will to make things happen. He told them he would forgive them for any mistakes as long as they were not breaking the law and they were trying to accomplish the mission. I have never seen a group of people take their orders to heart like that before. Everyone took off at a sprint and only asked for guidance when they truly felt they might be crossing a deadly red-line or if only the boss had the power to get past an obstacle.

The craziest part: It all worked. Within 10 months the Afghan government had drafted a Peace and Reintegration Plan (the APRP), created the institutions to support it, gotten Afghan approval of the policy via a Peace Jirga, secured international political support for the policy, secured long-term funding, and started to reintegrate taliban fighters off the battlefield. To this day I don’t think I have ever seen anything like this. The other plank-owners were absolutely stellar and I daily or weekly communicate with many of them.

Know when to turn over your mission to someone else

All great teams come to an end, so do great missions. Your teammates will need to rotate on for professional development and other critical missions, so ensure you set them up for success by supporting them on their way out. Likewise, if you are the leader of the JIIM Plus task force, prepare your successor as early as possible to replace you. Ultimately in the end, your mission itself will either be taken over by a permanent team or the host-nation itself, so all along the way you must be steadily preparing others to absorb your tasks into their larger organization. In many cases your mission, is to actually work yourselves out of a job. In that case do not hold up progress, work as fast as you can to accomplish your mission and send your people – now much wiser – on to other critical tasks.

Sir Graeme started plotting his exit as soon as he arrived in Kabul by identifying the next two replacements to lead the F-RIC, and also getting the UK Army to slate them for a tour of duty. We did the same with every position. Once you were in place you put out feelers to see who might be a good replacement for you. That freedom from the typical human resources method of hiring was critical to keeping a strong team in place and in ensuring everyone went home when they were spent.

You may never have the pleasure of standing up a brand-new organization, or the honor of closing one down. But if you do, I hope these few lessons that I have discussed with other F-RIC plank-owners over the last decade will help you to do it well.  Good luck and be flexible, almost nothing will work out the way you initially planned it, and that is OK, as long as you achieve the mission and build strong team-mates along the way.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He serves on the Board of Directors for 2 non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.