Cross-Functional Team Staff Structure in the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency

By Grigsby, Wayne W.; Johnsson, Mark E. et al. | Army, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Cross-Functional Team Staff Structure in the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency


Grigsby, Wayne W., Johnsson, Mark E., Ledford, Ed, Callery, John, Smith, Paul P., Rothstein, Michael, Fisher, Gail, Army


A converted yellow gymnasium on the north side of the Kabul International Airport Is headquarters to the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command (IJC). Inside is a labyrinth of hallways with multicolored wires climbing the walls. The rooms are large with rows of long desks, computer screens and scattered papers. There are no privacy dividers. Staff officers sit inches apart conversing, making and refining plans, building briefs, translating ideas, and turning guidance into tasks and intent that become actions on the ground.

The general officers work in similar conditions: There are no private offices with secretaries, aides or military assistants. Like their staff off icers, the generals sit in a large room around a horseshoe-shaped series of tables in what is called the Situational Awareness Room. The only difference is that they enjoy a few feet of space to themselves.

For six to 12 to 15 months - for some, longer - staff officers work 16 to 18 hours a day in these collaborative rooms, directing operations, sharing information, coordinating and planning with their counterparts in the Afghan National Security Forces and international community to develop and refine plans and concepts to synchronize and implement counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

From the Beginning

In June 2009, GEN Stanley McChrystaI, the new commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), initiated a top-down review of the coalition force, its strategy, how it functioned, and what needed to change in order to stem the insurgent advance and seize the initiative. About the same time, a small group of staff officers gathered at the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USF-A) headquarters in Kabul to get ready for what promised to be a most-demanding task: Design a highly functional staff structure for a NATO-led multinational operational command headquarters that would command and control coalition forces and partner with Afghan national security forces to regain the initiative in the counterinsurgency and to bring peace and stability to the Afghan people.

In designing this structure, the staff was instructed to throw out "the way we've always done it" thinking. Instead, they would determine - based on an understanding of the insurgency, Afghanistan and counterinsurgency operations - how the staff should be structured to best support the troops on the ground, down at the district level and below, where, in the future commander's view, the coalition would succeed in protecting the Afghan people and helping them beat the insurgency.

"It wasn't a matter of change for change's sake," one of the staff members remembers. "It was the fact that what we have been doing has not been working. So, let's start from scratch and see what we come up with. If we came up with the same thing, then that would have been fine, if that is what we thought would work best," he said. "We had the freedom to design something that would respond to (he top-down-guidance and bottom-up-refinement imperative of this counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Remember, this was not a discreet effort but part of a larger revision of the coalition strategy and a way of fighting the counterinsurgency. Everything was being reexamined. Nothing was sacred."

Agreeing that a traditional functional and combined staff structure would be too slow and cumbersome to act quickly and responsively, the group devised four crossfunctional teams (CFTs) to flatten the staffing process, expand information sharing to the greatest extent possible and promote better, more efficient processes, collaboration and communication. The four IJC CFTs were: Current Operations, Future Operations, Future Plans and the Information Dominance Center.

In the IJC CFT model, officers from the various functional staff sections not only sit side by side with operational planners but also work directly for the CFT chiefs, all of whom work for either the deputy chief of staff for joint operations or, as is the case for Future Plans, the deputy chief of staff for plans and policy. …

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