Small Wars Journal

Village Stability Operations and the Application of Special Warfare Across the Contemporary Global Operating Environment

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Village Stability Operations and the Application of Special Warfare Across the Contemporary Global Operating Environment

Alex Deep

Village Stability Operations (VSO) combines aspects of unconventional warfare (UW) and foreign internal defense (FID) into a comprehensive counter-insurgency (COIN) methodology, which focuses on leveraging traditional village-level constructs against anti-government forces.  The four phases of VSO (shape, clear/hold, build, expand/transition) provide Special Forces Operational Detachments – Alpha (ODAs) with the framework by which to plan and execute a nuanced COIN strategy in areas often under the tacit control of an enemy command and government structure.  As such, VSO incorporates aspects of a US sponsored insurgency by attempting to expand government influence and administration to areas under the de facto or physical control of an occupying power.  This paper will define VSO in terms of its relationship to both FID and UW, exploring the progression of an ODA through its four phases and associated lines of operation within a five-month period, which altered the security, governance, and development paradigms in an austere and contested region of Eastern Afghanistan. It will then broaden this concept to the contemporary global operating environment beyond Afghanistan in conjunction with the ARSOF 2022 vision of the application of Special Warfare.

Joint Publication (JP) 3-05 defines UW as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”[i]  However, limiting the definition of UW to the disruption, coercion, or overthrow of a foreign government or occupying power does not account for a situation where a friendly country contains pockets of denied areas in which a shadow government controls the population in either a covert or tacit manner. FID, defined in JP 3-22 as “participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security,”[ii] would normally match efforts to combat this type of threat to a government’s internal security.  However, if said government lacks the combat power to alter the control structure within these areas, then a UW construct allows for the growth of government security forces from the population at large.  In this case, an ODA must work with and through what essentially amounts to an auxiliary, underground, and guerrilla force that will become part of the government security construct once able to evict the shadow government or insurgent elements from their staging areas or strongholds.  Therefore, FID and UW methodologies overlap with an ODA simultaneously developing village-level support for the legitimate government through an officially sanctioned guerrilla force, while utilizing existing government systems to leverage support for these local security solutions.

Based on this definition of the relationship between internal security and insurgent influence, VSO becomes the means by which an ODA accomplishes FID tasks under a UW construct.  An ODA must utilize existing security forces, logistics systems, and government officials in order to expand security, governance, and development through traditional mechanisms.  Accordingly, the phases of VSO correspond to the phases of a U.S. sponsored insurgency, but under the auspice of an overarching government structure, which might normally be absent under traditional UW scenarios. Therefore, an ODA must accomplish two missions in parallel: developing village-based security, government, and development constructs, which correspond to traditional guerrilla, underground, and auxiliary concepts; and bolstering the influence of the friendly government security forces, institutions, and ability to provide rule of law.  These two missions have mutually beneficial effects as the security provided by local guerrillas increases the legitimacy of the central government, and the efforts of the official government to provide security, rule of law, and basic needs create popular support for the guerrilla elements amongst the population.  The efforts of the ODA to defeat the Taliban (TB) and Haqqani Network (HQN) led insurgency in Paktya Province, Afghanistan under the aforementioned concept offers an example of how a SOF team[iii] can utilize aspects of FID and UW into a coherent COIN strategy. The most important amongst these efforts proved to be the concepts of understanding the ethnographic distribution of a target area; integrating the guerrilla elements into the national security construct through the support of key government and security leaders; and developing the ability of Afghan forces to generate organic intelligence and conduct unilateral operations.

Beyond Afghanistan, the ODA’s use of FID and UW in concert is indicative of what ARSOF 2022[iv] defines as a complex and dynamic future operating environment that SOF teams will face across the world.  SOF teams will be expected to act in “multi-dimensional, hybrid environments, which will require the force to operate within, and seamlessly shift between, ethnic enclaves in the center of sprawling megacities and austere rural villages.”[v]  The concept of combining SOF core activities into a coherent special warfare strategy will be the formula for success to address the unconventional challenges in regions that are either ungoverned, controlled by forces hostile to American interests, or lack sufficient presence of the central government.  The experience of the ODA conducting COIN under FID and UW constructs displays how a SOF unit can be “capable of conducting sabotage, subversion, and insurgent activities for extended periods in denied areas” while simultaneously “advising, assisting, and training partner-nation forces in COIN and Special Operations.”[vi] The ability of a SOF team to combine the concepts of UW into other mission-sets will determine the success or failure of SOF to address the persistent, emerging, and unconventional challenges inherent to the contemporary global operating environment.

Phase One: VSO Shape / UW Preparation, Initial Contact, and Infiltration

A firm understanding of the operational environment in which an ODA will conduct VSO is essential to its success.  Accordingly, initial planning considerations under the military decision-making process (MDMP) must focus on the core attributes of the existing government, population, enemy, and tribal dynamics through appropriate areas studies.  Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) and the delineation of mission phases by key task and endstate proved the most important aspect of MDMP during the ODA’s approach to combat operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom XIX.

The ODA intelligence fusion cell (IFC) focused on three aspects of the target district during IPB: historic and current enemy activity, ethnographic and tribal dynamics of the population, and traditional power structures from which to garner legitimacy for both the central government and local security forces.  TB and HQN insurgent elements utilized the district as a transit zone for cross-border movement in support of high-profile attacks (HPAs) in Kabul and Khost Provinces respectively.  Local activity took the form of attacking coalition force (CF) convoys traversing the district, and intimidating local elders, villagers, and district officials into offering tacit support for insurgent transportation operations.  Therefore, insurgent elements established a de facto denied area for Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) proponents looking to reassert control over the district. Apart from enemy activity, the IFC developed a nuanced understanding of the tribal dynamics that divided the district into two sub-tribal areas: Hasan Kheyl and Ahmed Kheyl. The traditional rivalry between these two Pashtun factions further allowed the insurgency to exploit gaps between elders, tribal leaders, and district officials, and perpetuate insurgent control over the major lines of communication (LOCs) through the district.  Finally, the IFC uncovered the underwriting powerbase in the district in the form of historic affiliation with Hezb Islami as realized during the Soviet-Afghan War.  The Hezb Islami backbone along with associated subgroups stemming from the original Peshawar Seven would allow the ODA to exploit long-standing gaps between insurgent groups operating as a fractured alliance of convenience in Eastern Afghanistan that lacked central guidance or direction based on the varying goals of entities like TB, HQN, and Hezb Islami Gulbuddin (HIG).[vii]However, these traditional Hezb Islami powerbrokers were formerly not able to counter insurgent influence from TB and HQN due to the rifts between sub-tribes and the inability of the district government to unite potential enemies of the insurgency.

With this information in mind, the ODA developed a plan for the phased expansion of GIRoA influence into the district according to the phases of VSO: shape, clear/hold, build, and expand/transition.  The ODA would continue to refine these phases as the deployment progressed, but adhered to the basic principle of accomplishing key tasks during each phase, which led to respective endstates according to VSO milestones.  Each phase utilized means by which the ODA as counterinsurgents could act directly on insurgent leadership, indirectly on the conditions that are propitious to an insurgency, infiltrate the insurgent movement and try to make it ineffective, and build on the GIRoA political machine.[viii]The shape phase began with preparation and planning, included initial contact with district government officials, and ended with the execution of the validation shura, which allowed the ODA to initiate Afghan Local Police (ALP)[ix] training in earnest.  The hold phase began with the execution of Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan (SOJTF-A) sanctioned white space operations (WSO)[x], included the vetting, validating, and organization of ALP candidates, and ended with the initiation of the first training class of ALP Guardians[xi].  The build phase began with the first training class; included basic confidence patrolling with an ALP partnered force; relied heavily on Advanced Special Operations Techniques (ASOT); and ended once the ODA completed training of the entire district tashkiel[xii].  Finally, the expand/transition phase began with the completion of ALP training, included combined combat employment across ANSF proponents in the district, and ended with the transition of the district to complete GIRoA control.  Developing and adhering to this phased plan, which included all phases of a U.S. sponsored insurgency under the UW construct, allowed the ODA to remain focused during each step of the VSO process, maximize efficiency of effort in accomplishing key tasks, and consistently strive towards sub-endstates throughout the deployment.

The ODA deployed with this plan, and arrived at a Village Stability Staging Area (VSSA) in a neighboring district as a platform from which to conduct shaping operations into the target district.  The ODA followed the metric of a US-sponsored insurgency by preparing the environment in the district and establishing initial contact with district officials through persistent patrolling to the district center.  The ODA had to break overwhelming perceptions of American and central government inaction and inability to establish a strong presence in the area.  This stemmed from constant promises from American units of a forthcoming outpost without any action along these lines.  However, the ODA facilitated a meeting with local powerbrokers through the ASOT network that ensured conceptual support from key individuals prior to the ODA arriving into sector.  Through a combination of this underwriting by local elders and persistent key leaders engagements (KLEs) with district officials, the local government agreed to accept US assistance in the form of VSO.  However, it would be oversimplifying the situation to state that the ODA’s responsibilities were limited to assisting the established government in combating “subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security,” as per the definition of FID.  On the contrary, the insurgency was so well established in the district that GIRoA influence did not extend beyond the confines of the district center, with insurgent elements providing the population with the true semblance of a government structure.  However, utilizing the concept that VSO is merely FID and UW executed in concert, the ODA began the process of influencing the establishment of a guerrilla element capable of defeating the established insurgent network: the ALP.

After approximately three weeks of shaping patrols that were essential to garnering local government support for the concept of VSO, the ODA executed a combined embed operation along with the Area of Operations Command (AOC)[xiii] element in order to establish a new District Stability Platform (DSP) on 01 OCT 12, co-located with both the district center and Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) station.  For the next month, the ODA focused on gaining the support necessary from district officials and local elders/powerbrokers to execute a validation shura, and thus initiate the ALP program in the district.  This included a detailed human terrain mapping of supportive and malign actors in the area, which the ODA would use to develop future targeting efforts with the support of Afghan Special Operations Kandaks (SOKs) and other Coalition Force Special Operations Forces (CF SOF).  Apart from the requisite support of elders for the execution of the validation shura, these individuals would also form the eventual auxiliary support base for the ALP Guardians, without which the program would inevitably fail.   

During this time, elders and district officials were reticent to support the development of the ALP due to fear of retribution from the insurgent base that was prevalent throughout the district.  The ODA understood that if the insurgent was able “to dissociate the population from the counterinsurgent, to control it physically, to get its active support, he will win the war because, in the final analysis, the exercise of political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement of the population or, at worst, on its submissiveness.”[xiv]In order to counter this insurgent intimidation and information operations (IO) campaign, the ODA leveraged bulk Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds to develop a temporary guard force to provide immediate space in which supportive elders could operate.[xv]  The ODA recruited, vetted, and validated these Critical Infrastructure Guards (CIGs) from the local population, which served to empower elders who the ODA identified as future leaders both within the ALP and the district government.  Specifically, the ODA identified the future leaders of the ALP from both the Ahmed Kheyl and Hasan Kheyl sub-tribes, and drew CIG members from these individuals’ support bases.  The ODA assumed a great deal of tactical risk by sanctioning the development of essentially a friendly guerrilla force to combat the influence of the insurgency, which would bridge the gap between elder acceptance of the ALP and the graduation of the first training classes. However, the ODA mitigated this risk through a detailed understanding of tribal dynamics, careful vetting utilizing ASOT and special intelligence (SI), and persistent interaction with key elders at the village level.  In addition, the lack of any viable guerrilla base without the establishment of immediate security gains represented a risk to mission that may have resulted in a withdrawal of elder and powerbroker support for the ALP.  Although still in the shape phase of the operation, creating the CIG set the conditions for what would become the organization of a “resistance cadre” from which the ODA would draw the leadership and key individuals that would comprise the future ALP force.

From front to back – District Center, ANA/ANP Compound, and District Stability Platform (DSP).  Co-locating DSP with other security and government infrastructure gave the ODA constant access to key leaders throughout the VSO process.

A SOF Civil Affairs Team (CAT)[xvi] partnered with the ODA to identify and address civil vulnerabilities at the district level in support of VSO.  The CAT identified a significant disconnect between the local villages and the district level of sub-national governance regarding the district’s ability to provide basic services.  The CAT utilized the District Development Plan (DDP) to engage local elders/powerbrokers to prioritize the district’s infrastructure needs and thereby empower the local communities.  The local communities, led by their village elders, and overseen by district development officials executed small-scale water karez and retaining wall projects through CERP.  The CAT used CERP funds to purchase the building materials and the local villages provided free labor, as opposed to an outside contractor.  The CAT ensured that district officials were heavily involved with the quality assurance/quality control process in order to empower the district level of sub-national governance and increase the connection between the district center and the outlying villages.  The CERP-funded projects not only supported and empowered the pro-ALP villages and leaders, but also provided an opportunity for the district officials to increase their sphere of influence and demonstrate their willingness and ability to provide for the local populace.

With the CIG force in place and CERP projects empowering key elders, undecided powerbrokers began to support the concept of increased GIRoA control in the district through the development of the ALP program.  However, a number of elders from areas in which the insurgency held a firmer grasp of the population still refused to support the establishment of the ALP.  The ODA differentiated between elders who lacked the traditional influence to counter insurgent pressure, and those who overtly supported insurgent efforts in the district.  The ODA assessed that the first group would gradually acquiesce to GIRoA control as security increased due to the expansion of the ALP program.  However, the ODA actively marginalized the latter group by influencing the district governor (DGOV), district chief of police (DCOP), and supportive elders to remove them from the district shura, minimizing their influence over official and unofficial governing and development bodies.  The ODA followed this action by conducting WSOs in areas of responsibility of these negative actors.  Specifically, the ODA leveraged the 2nd SOK for the execution of a commando operation in an insurgent-aligned village, home to the most malign elder in the district and an area in which the insurgency held the greatest influence over the population. 

The District Governor addresses villagers during a 2nd SOK clearing operation targeting an area of insurgent activity in the district.  This GIRoA follow-up was essential to achieving lasting effects from commando operations.

This operation proved an example of the interdependent nature of the FID and UW efforts in the conduct of VSO.  The ODA coordinated with a sister ODA partnered with 2nd SOK as a primarily FID force in order to fuse the intelligence picture of this village, which would allow the VSO ODA to maximize the expansion of GIRoA influence to the village after the operation.  By doing so, the Afghan Commandos executed the operation with the proper level of force based on individual targeted areas of interest or persons of interest.  For example, the commandos separated elders identified by the ODA as potential supporters of the ALP from those identified as insurgent sympathizers or shadow government officials. The ODA therefore accomplished a nuanced exploitation of insurgent vulnerabilities by bolstering support from the local population while utilizing the power that the central government could bring to bear in a specific area.  This included the reinforcement of the district government through direct interaction between government officials and village elders throughout the operation, which denied the insurgency the ability to spread negative IO themes to this same population after the conclusion of the kinetic portion of the operation.  This point is essential to the success of VSO in a COIN context as the insurgency need only prove lack of presence to display the inadequacies of the central government.[xvii] During these follow-on KLEs the ODA discussed the future of this village as part of the GIRoA district structure with the former group, and transferred the latter group to the Provincial National Directorate of Security (NDS) for additional exploitation.  These actions marginalized the malign actors in the eyes of the population while empowering those who formerly held less prominent positions in the village. 

With supportive elders empowered and malign actors marginalized, the ODA and district government executed a validation shura with participation from SOJTF-A and GIRoA national officials on 10 NOV 12, thus initiating the growth of ALP in the district.  This shura allowed elders from each major village cluster, including those from the site of the aforementioned commando operation, to voice their support for the ALP program, further separating the insurgency from the population.  Although the mere conduct of the validation shura did not defeat the insurgency in the district, it did set the conditions for the expansion of GIRoA influence through the ALP while simultaneously delegitimizing insurgent IO against the central government.

Phase Two: VSO Clear and Hold / UW Organization

The second phase of the operation began with the execution of the validation shura and continuation of WSOs, and ended with the successful initiation of the first class of ALP Guardians.  This phase included efforts to expand the ODA’s influence in the district from previous WSOs, while recruiting, vetting, and validating ALP candidates provided by local elders and powerbrokers.  In addition, the ODA planned and executed the enrollment of the entire 200-man ALP tashkiel for the district into the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) system through the standard In-processing Team (IPT)[xviii].

Elders and ODA exchange greetings during ALP Validation Shura.

The ODA understood that support of the ALP depended on elders being willing to “accept the risks and responsibilities of organized violence,” against the insurgency due to the same reasons Robert Taber gave in 1965 for the expansion of an insurgency: “they must believe first that there is no alternative; second, that the cause is compelling; third, that they have reasonable expectation of success.”[xix]With area elders having accepted the ALP construct as a concept, the ODA shifted focus to expanding this nascent support amongst undecided and malign powerbrokers, while simultaneously vetting and validating recruits from across the major tribes in the district.  Much like the organization phase of UW where the proper selection of potential guerrillas may dictate the means by which an American SOF team can employ this force, the recruitment of properly aligned, tribally diverse, and locally representative ALP Guardians was essential to the success of VSO in the area. Therefore, the ODA's efforts along these lines matched the ethnographic distribution of the district with representatives from each of the major sub-tribes assigned as the commander of respective areas of responsibility.  The goal of the ODA during this phase was to create an environment in which the ALP was so engrained into the population that the insurgency would lose the ability to conduct attacks that “would bring the support of a village, or implicate its population against the counterinsurgent.”[xx] Once the ODA identified leadership from amongst the original supporters of the ALP program, the ODA worked with and through these traditional leaders to assign squad leaders at the village and clan level that matched the tribal and ethnic identity of the district. However, the ODA ensured that leaders did not display tendencies towards a warlord mentality of developing a personal militia that would have been to the future detriment of the central government.  From here, the ODA's efforts expanded to rank-and-file ALP Guardians recruited both from their resident tribes and villages in order to ensure that future ALP Guardians would both represent and secure areas in which they would enjoy broad-base support.  In addition, this created a hostile environment for insurgent attacks, as any incident that led to the death of an ALP Guardian would have negative ramifications for the insurgency within an entire village, clan, and/or tribe.

The ODA established an early standard of accepting an Afghan solution to the problem-set of recruiting the proper amount of ALP Guardians from each sub-tribe in the district.  Rather than attempting to impose a solution from an American perspective, the ODA worked through the district government and security bodies to develop a distribution plan based on the relative strength of each sub-tribe and the traditional leaders within each of these groups.  What resulted was a balanced ALP force, representative of the populace, and accepted by the local population.  The ODA's role during this process was to ensure that local leaders provided the requisite number of recruits, that these recruits were from the tribal and village groups that area elders claimed, and that enemy forces could not infiltrate the ALP program. The first of these roles required a constant interaction with the local population at the village level and persistent patrolling to these villages in order build a relationship with traditional leaders, gain the trust of the populace, and establish the ODA as a member of the local government, security, and development constructs. These efforts displayed a respect for the traditional leadership structure within Afghan tribes and an understanding of Afghan culture through a commitment to a negotiated solution rather than a dictated plan of action.  This technique allowed the ODA to develop a relationship with local leaders that facilitated a greater ability to shape the final composition of the ALP based on direct influence over Afghan elders and government officials.

The ODA focused patrolling on determining the true disposition of ALP recruits by traveling to local villages, linking up with area elders and CIG members who provided escort through their area of responsibility, and physically confirming the residence of each ALP recruit.  This allowed the ODA to ensure that the future ALP force reflected the profile of the population, while simultaneously mapping the major villages in the district.  This technique resulted in a detailed understanding of each village, which allowed the ODA to utilize local contacts to facilitate the targeting of enemy personalities residing within the district. In addition, the ODA could monitor a wider segment of the village by referencing the information garnered from these population-centric patrols and discussing topics of interest with the people living in specific areas.  Whereas General Westmoreland used the single word “firepower” in response to defeating the insurgency in South Vietnam, this actionable intelligence became the “firepower” by which the ODA could defeat the insurgency in the district by creating a hostile environment for malign actors at the village level.[xxi] For example, if the ODA received information about a local mullah spreading anti-GIRoA propaganda, the ODA could utilize a variety of sources from the specific village cluster to confirm or deny the information, monitor the mosque itself, access the mullah at his residence, and potentially conduct positive inform and influence activities (IIA). Although this process was often tedious and required a great deal of time and patience to ensure the participation of local elders, it proved essential to the successful employment of ALP in the district.  In addition, the persistent presence of the ODA at the village level and the interaction with local powerbrokers forced the de facto support of fence-sitters, as they became increasingly invested in the success or failure of the ALP program through highly visible population-centric patrolling.

First class of ALP Guardians with ODA trainers.

The final responsibility of the ODA during this phase of the operation was the vetting and validating of ALP recruits in order to avoid any potential infiltration by enemy forces attempting to execute insider threat attacks against US or Afghan forces.  This process required the vigilance of conducting proper counter-intelligence (CI) screening, biometric enrollment, elder guarantor statements, NDS investigations, and persistent monitoring of recruit behavior.  In addition, the ODA utilized other ALP candidates in order to garner additional information about fellow candidates as to avoid a common situation in theater where elders will support malign actors due to cultural norms and traditions within their tribes.  This often proved the most effective means by which to prevent enemy infiltration as fellow ALP candidates understood the danger in which the insider threat would place them if they allowed such individuals into their organization.  The efforts of the ODA along these lines combined with the population-centric patrolling to confirm ALP residences resulted in a vetted ALP force that proved difficult for enemy forces to infiltrate.

The ALP falls within the Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) of the Ministry of the Interior.  Provincial AUP support for village and district-level ALP is essential to the longevity of the program.

The longevity of the ALP program depends on AUP infrastructure and leadership, especially the DCoP and Provincial Chief of Police (PCoP), taking ownership of the logistical maintenance of the ALP.  In addition, these individuals must continue the VSO methodology established by the ODA, including the recruitment, vetting, training, and employment of current and future ALP Guardians.  A precursor to this assumption of responsibility is the successful transition of ALP salaries from US SOF-based funding via Afghan Security Force Funds (ASFF) to MOI payrolls and control.[xxii]  The ODA identified the efficient enrollment of this developing ALP force into the MOI as a key task to ensure continued support of a GIRoA-sponsored security apparatus that would last beyond the departure of US forces.  Therefore, the ODA front-loaded the enrollment of the 200-man tashkiel for the district into this system through the MOI IPT to coincide with the graduation of the first training class of around 30 ALP Guardians.  This was only possible since the ODA relentlessly pursued the recruitment, vetting, and validation of ALP candidates throughout the process of gaining requisite elder support for the program at large.  Accordingly, the ODA was able to establish a list of 200 confirmed ALP candidates by the time the first training class of ALP recruits began rather than relying on continuous recruitment during training cycles.  

By enrolling both trained and untrained ALP Guardians into the MOI system near the beginning of the subsequent training of the entire ALP tashkiel, the ODA removed the normal two-month lag-time with the assumption of pay by the MOI.  Therefore, the MOI had processed all the paperwork and initiated payment independent of US-based funding by the time the ODA trained all 200 ALP Guardians for the district.  The ODA assumed some risk during this process by enrolling individuals that had yet to attend ALP training, but mitigated this risk through the aforementioned vetting and validation process, and by developing and maintaining a close relationship with the Provincial Recruitment Officer (PRO), through whom all ALP recruitment passed.  This singular relationship between the ODA and the PRO proved vital in ensuring the correctness of all ALP recruitment paperwork, allowing the ODA to shape the composition of the ALP, and providing the ODA and district officials the provincial support necessary to process both administrative and operational requirements of the ALP force efficiently.

With the entire ALP tashkiel for the district enrolled into the MOI system and the first training class of ALP Guardians complete, the ODA was prepared to transition to the next phase of VSO, during which time the focus would shift to training, supporting, and expanding the nascent ALP force.

Phase Three: VSO Build / UW Build-up

Over the next two months, the ODA trained, equipped, and employed the remainder of the 200-man ALP tashkiel utilizing the MOI-approved program of instruction (POI) to classes of 50 ALP Guardians at a time.  The ODA worked with and through the tribal commanders of the district ALP force to allot appropriate class space to specific sub-tribes and clans in order to spread the influence of the ALP proportionately across the district in a manner that allowed the maximum expansion of GIRoA whitespace.  In addition, the ODA permitted ALP commanders to select squad leaders from each sub-tribe, clan, and familial faction in order to tie the entire community to the ALP force, while simultaneously building a chain of command that represented the population.  This also meant that individual villages had a point of contact that they knew and trusted to whom to report insurgent activity within that squad leader’s area of responsibility.  This methodical build-up resulted in ALP squads comprised of between ten and 20 ALP Guardians for each village in the district, responsible for the areas in which they resided, but inherently linked to both their overall tribal commander and the DCoP at the district center.  In addition, the ODA trained the ALP as what the Draper Committee (The President’s Committee to Study the United States Military Assistance Program in Vietnam) described as “small, mobile, lightly equipped units of the ranger or commando type” that could focus on COIN rather than defeating an external aggressor.[xxiii] Therefore, the ODA did not allow the ALP to become a force that fought insurgent activities from stationary and well-defended checkpoints, but rather through persistent patrolling, a link to the local population, and support from local powerbrokers who were essential to the tribal system that underwrote the success or failure of the district government.

ALP Commander addresses graduating class of ALP Guardians.  The ODA worked with and through these area commanders during the ALP recruitment process.  This facilitated an equitable distribution of ALP Guardians across the district.

As the ODA began to expand the MOI-sanctioned ALP force, it became necessary to demobilize the CIG that was essential to gaining the initial support of area elders and powerbrokers.  The ODA approached this sensitive task by allotting ALP tashkiel space for the CIG members and enrolling them into the MOI system during the aforementioned IPT visit.  Therefore, once the first class of ALP Guardians graduated from the MOI POI, the ODA demobilized the CIG, included them into the next training class, and transitioned them to ALP upon graduation.  This resulted in a seamless evolution of the CIG force to ALP while maintaining the influence these individuals held with the local population and the social credit the ODA was able to garner from their initial employment under US funding.  By utilizing this technique, the ODA was able to expand the footprint of the ALP quickly with experienced fighters who held significant influence with both the population and area powerbrokers.  This also removed any potential tension during the transition phase, which is always the most tenuous and sensitive during any unconventional operation of this manner.

During this phase of the operation, the ODA identified the need for an organic counter improvised explosive device (C-IED) capability in the district due to the growing asymmetric insurgent tactics consistent with the growing influence of the ALP.  Therefore, the ODA recruited, trained, and employed a Civil Mine Reduction Group (CMRG) force in the same manner as the ALP in order to fill this requirement.  Looking forward to eventual transition once again, the ODA recruited these individuals within the ALP tashkiel in order to allow for eventual transition of this C-IED force into a permanent fixture of the district security apparatus.  The ODA employed the CMRG effectively throughout the district, independently reducing over 20 IEDs in a month and a half including command wire improvised explosive devices, remote control improvised explosive devices, and general unexploded ordinance.  Once the ODA had trained the majority of the district ALP tashkiel with the exception of the CMRG force, the ODA demobilized this C-IED element, trained them utilizing the MOI POI, and employed them as ALP Guardians across the district.  This legitimized the C-IED force within the GIRoA construct through the ALP, and maintained a crucial C-IED capacity within a district rife with IED threats from an increasingly marginalized insurgency.

As the ODA trained the district ALP force, area commanders had an increased ability to project combat power to local population centers, which allowed other ANSF in the district to escalate their own patrolling.  The coalescing of ALP, CMRG, and other ANSF elements into this patrolling began the evolution of the VSO program from defensive to offensive at the village level.  Whereas the ODA would previously lead patrols to local population centers in order to interface with key tribal and district elders, facilitate key leader engagements, vet and validate ALP recruits, confirm or deny developmental projects, and execute enemy-based targeting; the paradigm shifted to ALP leading such patrols to their areas of responsibility.  The ODA assumed tactical risk by allowing the ALP into the planning process, but mitigated this risk by limiting the lead-time between the establishment of a patrol plan and execution of the patrol to a specific area.  In addition, this technique ensured that the ALP assumed ownership of persistent patrolling across the district, displayed mutual trust between the US SOF force and the ALP, and confirmed the overarching support of US SOF to ALP Guardians willing to execute daily patrols.  The risk of operational compromise was worth the increasing consistency of ALP patrols over the next month, which eventually became a daily and nightly occurrence throughout the district, without the direct supervision of the ODA.  These patrols broke government forces away from its role as a defender of physical infrastructure to a COIN force actively seeking to correct the conditions that allowed the insurgency to flourish in the first place, and thus displaying the strategically offensive nature of VSO.[xxiv]As the population perceived a break in the insurgency’s power to influence the village level based on the growth of the ALP security apparatus, local villagers began openly providing the intelligence required for the ANSF to refine targeting against malign actors.[xxv]

In addition to partnered patrolling with the growing ALP force, the ODA worked with ALP commanders, ANSF leadership, and GIRoA officials to establish permanent security checkpoints throughout the district from which the ALP could conduct persistent operations.  CJSOTF-A provided a shell “checkpoint-in-a-box” in order to accomplish this concept, which resembled small combat outposts (COPs) complete with Hesco barriers and guard towers.  However, the ODA determined that such robust security checkpoints in other districts encouraged the ALP to become tactically defensive in the conduct of their duties and responsibilities, opting to fight from stationary checkpoints rather than execute dynamic patrols.  Therefore, the ODA worked through local contractors and the MOI representatives at the provincial level to form a low-cost alternative to the CJSOTF-A “checkpoint-in-a-box” that would provide force protection for stationary ALP Guardians, while encouraging the ALP to remain tactically offensive.  The ODA worked with and through district government and security officials, ALP commanders, and local elders and powerbrokers to determine the appropriate locations of six such checkpoints across the district, which, much like the ALP force itself, came to resemble the ethnographic distribution of the population.

ODA inspects progress of ALP Checkpoint construction. Local elders, powerbrokers, and ALP Commanders built six checkpoints throughout the district at minimal cost to the ODA.

Accordingly, the ALP commanders provided free labor for the construction of these checkpoints since the establishment of such infrastructure only served to bolster both their influence and that of their responsible elders.  In addition, the ODA limited the checkpoint to a single concrete structure capable of housing between ten and 15 ALP Guardians, complete with bedding, heating, and cooking supplies.  The provincial-level MOI provided bunk beds, blankets, and pillows through Afghan funding sources, which quickly allowed ALP Guardians to staff the checkpoints permanently upon construction.  Therefore, apart from the cost of building materials and skilled labor, the ODA only provided wood-burning stoves, floodlights, and power generation from US-based funding, which proved significantly more cost effective than the CJSOTF-A “checkpoints-in-a-box.”  Since these checkpoints were not platforms from which the ALP could remain stationary and hope to defend against significant insurgent assaults, ALP Guardians utilized them as staging areas from which to conduct both day and night patrolling within their areas of responsibility.  Therefore, the checkpoints themselves were never true targets for insurgent aggression since they only served as temporary platforms for ALP Guardians to gather prior to conducting persistent patrolling.  They also provided the local population with a fixture to which to report insurgent activity and to rely upon for consistent ANSF presence at the village level, which is a grievance all too common in rural Afghanistan.

DGOV (far left) addresses population of formerly malign village.  The expansion of the ALP provided the district government the required space to influence the local populace.

With the security line of operation continuing to develop, the ODA could begin to expand its efforts along the government line of operation, which had previously been focused on security and basic needs, rather than rule of law and administrative functionality.  The access to government and security officials that utilizing a DSP provided to the ODA allowed persistent engagement with the individuals upon whom the success or failure of the district government depended.  Most importantly, the ODA was able to mentor the DGOV on a daily basis on topics ranging from tribal disputes to humanitarian aid distribution to public works projects.  In addition, the expansion of the district security apparatus made it possible for district government officials to travel outside of the district center, which provided the local population with greater access to their representatives within the central government.  The ODA encouraged district officials to accompany both ODA and ALP patrolling to village centers across the district so that the DGOV could reestablish the link between the official government and the traditional tribal and ethnic powerbrokers.  With an increasingly marginalized insurgency no longer an existential threat to the district government, security forces, or supportive elders, all parties could normalize relations.  As a result, district government, security, and development shuras at the district center flourished and village-level jirgas between tribal elders and government officials became prevalent to adjudicate minor disputes.  The space previously occupied by the insurgency due to rifts between tribal and ethnic groups in the district steadily closed as the population became willing to work with district officials and security forces and accept negotiated solutions to longstanding issues.  This development would not have been possible if not for the representative and all-encompassing nature of the district ALP force, within which every member of the district could draw some connection.

Within the realm of DGOV mentorship, the focus of conversations began to shift from the overt struggle to regain control of the district from the insurgency, to the means by which to disseminate the efforts of the district government to the population.  Since the insurgency could no longer rely on highly visible operations to remain relevant, it became increasingly dependent on IO to delegitimize the central government and intimidate the local population.  As such, “when war is fought across the full political, media, and moral spectrum, it cannot be won by firepower.”[xxvi]To combat these efforts, the ODA leveraged the SOTF-E Military Information Support Operations (MISO) cell to provide a tactical radio station (TRS) that district officials could use primarily for public service announcements (PSAs) regarding the efforts of GIRoA in the area.  Once the TRS was operational, the ODA trained members of the district government on proper use of the system and encouraged district officials to address the population with relevant activities pertinent to the daily lives of local villagers.  This allowed the district government to remain relevant on a daily basis, as the district radio station became the prevailing form of entertainment for the average family.  Rather than disseminating ODA-focused IIA messaging regarding enemy targeting, the ODA focused on government functionality with the DGOV providing the majority of PSAs including speech recordings during district shuras; upcoming agricultural seminars; humanitarian aid distribution plans; successes of the district security forces against the insurgency; and initiation or completion of developmental projects.  This constant propagation of a voice for the central government denied the insurgency the ability to impose its own version of events in the district in areas beyond the everyday reach of security forces.  What resulted was a more legitimate and relevant district government in the eyes of the population that was able to respond directly to concerns established by the local populace.

ODA interviews ALP graduate for dissemination over TRS.  These types of PSAs projected the influence of the GIRoA throughout the district.

The winter months provided the ODA with the operational whitespace to train and equip a robust 200-man ALP force capable of denying the population as key terrain to the insurgency.  However, with this force in place and the Spring fighting season approaching, the ODA shifted focus from establishing security through the ALP, to capitalizing on the efforts of the past four months and leveraging the relationships the ODA developed with the local population to combat any attempt by the insurgency to reclaim control of the district.

Phase Four: VSO Expand/Transition / UW Combat Employment

The expansion and transition phase of VSO in the district began with the successful growth and training of 200 ALP Guardians and ended with the transfer of authority for the security and governance of the district to local officials.  The key task during this phase was to prevent the insurgency from reasserting itself within the local population, thus undermining the efforts of the ODA to legitimize the central government along the governance, security, and development lines of operation.  Based on the relationships that the ODA garnered with GIRoA officials and traditional elders and powerbrokers in the region, the ODA was able to develop what would become a cooperative targeting methodology to remove higher level insurgent personalities from the battlefield while simultaneously offering a local reintegration option to low-level fighters or the “accidental guerrilla—fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours,” and potentially influenced by insurgent information operations and organized by external actors.[xxvii] The ODA focused on defeating the remaining insurgency in the district rather than on direct kinetic activity with insurgent cells on a daily basis.  This often meant accepting a traditional Afghan sense of reintegration for non-hardline fighters who may have been recruited into the insurgency due to factors other than ideology.  However, in exchange for a willingness to accept the traditional justice offered by Afghan partners, the ODA was able to target more significant insurgent leaders with the support of area elders and powerbrokers.

The ODA avoided the “all-too-convenient response to terrorism to inflict equal or greater pain on its perpetrators and all who support them,” by allowing local elders and powerbrokers into the targeting process, ensuring broad support to the district government’s efforts to marginalize remaining insurgents.[xxviii] This cooperative targeting methodology essentially combined the red-side targeting decks from the ODA, district government, and local elders into a single list, against which the ODA investigated each individual.  The ODA then presented these names to trusted elders from the villages and tribal groups from which these potential insurgents originated.  From here, the ODA gave elders two weeks to deliver these individuals to the district center for biometric enrollment, CI screening, and questioning by the district NDS personnel.  The individuals on this list fell into three categories: those falsely accused of insurgent links due to ongoing tribal disputes, fighters willing to reintegrate due to the resurgence of the district government and security apparatus or who elders could force to reintegrate, and committed insurgents who required direct kinetic targeting.  The ODA and district government processed and released the first group, worked through area elders to assimilate the second group, and coordinated with various SOKs, other CF SOF, and local security forces to target the third group.  What resulted was a sophisticated targeting system that did not waste time pursuing falsely accused individuals, gave former insurgents a means by which to return to normal life, and constantly pressured active insurgents by denying them traditional safe-havens within the district.

One such example of this cooperative targeting methodology that removed a key insurgent personality from the district occurred immediately following an unsuccessful apprehension attempt by other CF SOF through kinetic targeting.  Malawi Mohammed Shafiq was the ideological leader of TB and HQN elements operating within the district and posed a direct challenge to government efforts in the region as he focused on utilizing a local mosque as a platform through which to counter GIRoA IO themes.  Based on his connection to the local insurgency and the impact his removal would have on the greater area, other CF SOF attempted to detain him.  After this effort failed to place Malawi Shafiq into custody, the ODA began leveraging influential elders and powerbrokers within Malawi Shafiq's tribal group.  The ODA utilized both conciliatory and coercive means by which to convince elders to deliver Malawi Shafiq to the control of the ODA by offering reintegration with GIRoA in exchange for Shafiq's cooperation with both CF interrogators and provincial NDS officials. In addition, the ODA used the overarching capability of other CF SOF to continue kinetic targeting against Shafiq if elders failed to deliver him peacefully to the ODA's control.  The relationship the ODA had developed with elders and powerbrokers over the past five months allowed the ODA to speak candidly with these individuals and offer solutions that were amenable with the Afghan sense of insurgent adjudication at the local level.  As a result, local elders with historic ties to Hezb Islami arranged a meeting between the ODA, Malawi Shafiq, and these elders at the home of a former Hezb Islami commander in order to negotiate Shafiq's detention.

ODA participates in cooperative targeting shura with ANA, ANP, ALP, NDS, government officials, and local elders/powerbrokers.  This approach further alienated remaining insurgents from the population.

Rather than immediately placing Malawi Shafiq into custody during that meeting, the ODA allowed the key tribal leaders to speak their piece regarding the importance of Malawi Shafiq to local villagers and offer their endorsement of his eventual reconciliation with the GIRoA.  In addition, the ODA accepted these elders' guarantee that they would bring Malawi Shafiq to the district center the following day in order to allow him to make the necessary arrangements with family members during his follow-on detention.  The willingness of the ODA to accept the cultural obligation of local elders to follow through on their promise to deliver Malawi Shafiq displayed the ODA's understanding of cultural norms, trust in elders with whom the ODA had worked over the past five months, and confidence in the mutual respect between the two groups.  In turn, this allowed elders to maintain their own influence at the village level as they negotiated the cessation of invasive raids into area villages that would have continued if not for the detention of Malawi Shafiq.  The elders delivered Shafiq to the control of the ODA the following day as promised, and the ODA, in turn, transferred custody to other CF SOF for further exploitation.  The ODA worked closely with both other CF SOF and local elders over the next three weeks to monitor the status of Malawi Shafiq, mediate concerns of area leaders regarding his continued detention, and negotiate the terms of his reintegration with provincial GIRoA officials.  The result was a thorough exploitation by other CF SOF and provincial NDS, followed by an ODA-monitored reintegration under the supervision of trusted elders and powerbrokers.  Once returned to the village level, Malawi Shafiq ceased all anti-GIRoA propaganda within his mosque and became an outspoken critic of continued armed resistance to the national government.  The ODA was able to remove a key voice against the success of the local government through cooperation with the traditional power structure within the district; such a solution would not have been possible through independent kinetic targeting without such holistic support from government officials and local tribal leaders.

More importantly than high profile detentions, the cooperative targeting methodology provided local powerbrokers the ability to deliver low-level insurgents to the district center for questioning by district NDS officials.  This provided local villagers participating in the insurgency due to factors aside from ideology to cease their malign activities and return to normal life without the threat of detention or kinetic targeting.  As the local security apparatus became more capable of directly defeating insurgent cells and the local government increased its capacity to provide basic services and rule of law, it became increasingly hazardous to participate in the insurgency and less essential to maintain personal well-being.  The codependence of the security and government constructs shows that in an insurgency, political and military tasks often share a common importance that lead to the strengthening of the means by which to holistically conduct COIN.[xxix] As a result, these low-level insurgents displayed a willingness to part with the insurgency, but feared incarceration and targeting by CF and ANSF, which prevented them from cooperating with the local government.  Therefore, the ODA accepted elder guarantees of this group's reconciliation with the GIRoA in exchange for biometric enrollment and interrogation by district NDS focusing on insurgent leadership in the area.  The result was the removal of rank-and-file insurgents upon whom local insurgent commanders would depend to execute IED emplacement, indirect fire attacks, and harassment fire upon CF and ANSF positions.  In addition, these low-level insurgents provided a clearer picture of insurgent chain of command structure, which allowed both the ODA and district security forces to target those individuals for which reintegration was not an option.  This technique of “reconciliation within a tribal context, as a means of marginalizing extremist irreconcilable (sic) elements from more mainstream accidental guerrillas who often proved willing to reconcile,” provided insurgents an option other than fighting.[xxx]  This led to the continued alienation of hardcore insurgents within the district and further legitimized the strength of the local government in the eyes of the population.

As the cooperative targeting methodology continued to refine the ODA's understanding of key insurgent personalities within the district, the ODA began focusing on the complete integration of district ANSF elements through the establishment of an Operational Control Center - District (OCC-D)[xxxi].  The ODA worked with government officials, the DCoP, the ANA platoon leader co-located at the district center, and ALP leadership to form a common quick reaction force upon which any ANSF element could rely during persistent patrolling.  In addition, the ODA worked with and through the district NDS Chief as the coordinator for this common activity as organic information gleaned from the interrogation of low-level insurgents translated to intelligence-driven operations executed by multiple ANSF proponents.  The ODA steadily removed itself from daily patrolling and insurgent targeting operations as the district security apparatus became increasingly willing to work together towards a common targeting goal now that the NDS could provide real-time and accurate intelligence regarding insurgent personalities in the district.  In addition, since the ODA provided area elders the opportunity to deliver persons of interest to the district center without the need for kinetic targeting, anyone who refused to cooperate became an enemy of both the GIRoA and local power structure alike.  As a result, the insurgents targeted by the ANSF in the district could not rely on the support of tribal leaders since the local government and ODA incorporated these elders into its targeting methodology.  This created a hostile environment for insurgent actors in the district, further separated the insurgency from the population, and strengthened the posture of the district government at the village level.

Apart from the expansion of security gains during this phase of the operation, the ODA stressed the growth of government services and GIRoA-sponsored development projects that were sustainable after the departure of CF from the area. Prior to the establishment of the ALP, the district government lacked an understanding of the Afghan systems and processes necessary to provide basic services through development efforts.  The District Development Assembly (DDA) is the arm by which the district government would traditionally execute the district’s development efforts.  During the course of initial patrols to the villages and persistent KLEs with district officials and village elders, the team identified the DDA head as a malign actor along the development line of operation.  He had failed to complete any district-wide projects and had diverted the majority of provincially provided funds to his village and sub-tribe.  As a result, the DDA had not met in almost two years; and key elders and villagers viewed the DDA and district government as inept and ineffective.  Additionally, there were pervasive misperceptions throughout the district that the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development’s (MRRD) National Solidarity Program (NSP) funded projects were actually funded by a private citizen.  This was largely due to a lack of oversight by the district government and unwillingness by district officials to visit the outlying districts. 

As a result, the team developed a strong relationship with the district MRRD representatives and ensured the DGOV and MRRD representatives contacted the provincial level MRRD head to begin the process of removing the DDA head.  Shortly after the validation shura, the provincial MRRD head visited the district center and convened a shura to remove the corrupt DDA head and elect a new one.  Once the new DDA head was in place, the team mentored him to maintain consistent communication with his provincial counterparts.  The DDA began holding regular shuras and developed a plan of action.  The DDA quickly identified one of the core grievances throughout the district as the DDA’s inability to execute development projects in an equitable manner.  The DDA identified the district’s only functioning medical clinic as the best opportunity to demonstrate to the local populace their willingness to execute development efforts in an equitable manner.  The clinic lacked electricity and was unable to see patients at night.  The DDA in conjunction with the DGOV, district and provincial MRRD representatives, the district health director, local village elders, and ALP leaders utilized the necessary Afghan systems and processes to leverage Afghan funds and extremely limited CERP funds to complete a solar panel project that provided enough electricity to power the clinic.  The execution of this project, coupled with broadcasts and interviews over the local radio station provided the local populace access to a centrally located 24-hour medical facility.  The collaborative effort between security forces, informal leaders, and GIRoA officials served as the template for the district to continue providing basic services in the form of Afghan funded development efforts.

At this point in VSO progression, the district government and security apparatus was capable of independently providing security, basic needs, and rule of law to the population, and the ODA had effectively removed itself from the targeting cycle against local insurgents.  This included an expanded link between the district and provincial levels of government now that GIRoA officials enjoyed freedom of movement along major LOCs in the district due to persistent patrolling by ALP Guardians.  The ODA encouraged this link along the security LOO through AUP reach-back to the provincial level in support of district security forces, along the government LOO through district official inclusion in provincial-level shuras, jirgas, and political seminars, and along the development LOO through Afghan-funded projects facilitated by the NSP and its implementing partners through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  With this construct in place, the ODA was prepared to transition responsibility for the administration of the district to the local government, including the transfer of the DSP to the control of local ANSF.  This process was organic as the ODA had already separated itself from the daily activities in the district center and only executed patrols planned and led by the ANSF.  The ODA fulfilled the necessary Internal Security and Assistance Force Joint Command requirements for the transition of infrastructure to the ANSF and transferred control of the DSP to the local ANA element on 06 MAR 13, approximately five months after initial embed. 

Based on reporting from AOC elements remaining in the province after the departure of the ODA, district officials and security forces expanded upon the gains realized during the execution of VSO in the area.  Local security forces actively combatted insurgent elements attempting to capitalize on the departure of the ODA, preventing these malign actors from spreading negative IO or disrupting the GIRoA's efforts to administer the district.  In addition, the local government continued to fuse formerly rival factions within the district tribal dynamics in order to ensure holistic support of tribal, village, and ethnic elders for the GIRoA.  The ODA's efforts along the security, development, and security LOOs over this five month period displayed how a SOF unit with a nuanced understanding of tribal dynamics and cultural norms can assert itself as a vehicle for the GIRoA to combat the efforts of an insurgent shadow government attempting to exert control over a district population.

Conclusion: Unconventional FID and Applications Beyond Afghanistan

The application of FID in rural Afghanistan has an unconventional basis when a SOF team attempts to bolster and expand the influence of the GIRoA to areas with either limited government administration or under the grip of an insurgent shadow government.  The concept of "disrupting, overthrowing, or coercing a foreign government or occupying power" translates to the micro-level as the ODA trained, advised, and employed what amounted to a state-sponsored guerrilla force in the form of the ALP.  This element allowed the ODA to progress along the security, governance, and development LOOs in concert with the district government to remove the formerly overarching insurgent influence across the area.  However, simply training the ALP as a FID force without a focus on tribal dynamics, key leader relationships, government functionality, and essential services would not have dislodged the prevailing insurgent shadow government from the district.  On the contrary, such a force would not have represented the tribal distribution of the area, garnered the support of local elders, or acted as a vehicle for the expansion of the government's influence in the district. Therefore, by applying lessons from the phases of a US-sponsored insurgency under an unconventional warfare construct, the ODA was able to execute unconventional FID, wherein the ODA reinstituted GIRoA's control over the district.

Although VSO is currently Afghanistan-specific, the concept of unconventional FID has broader implications in US-policy towards combating terrorism or insurgency in countries that lack a strong central government presence in disputed territory.  Working with and through a friendly government to build a security force capable of providing local officials the operational whitespace to expand basic services, rule of law, and development initiatives is an inherently unconventional task for SOF teams to execute in semi-permissive and denied areas alike.  The ability of SOF elements to approach FID tasks with an unconventional mindset including an understanding of local customs and traditions, tribal/ethnic distributions of local populations, relationships with traditional sources of power at the community level, and the concept of acting through district officials and security leaders, will dictate the relevance of SOF teams in COIN operations.  A SOF team that understands these means by which to accomplish the goal of defeating an insurgency will increase its likelihood of success, whereas a team that focuses on kinetic targeting of insurgents at the expense of building capacity will likely fail to make a lasting impact on the security and governance frameworks in a target area.

An ODA that is able to conduct a comprehensive special warfare strategy in the aforementioned environment, combining aspects of multiple Title X core activities, matches the ARSOF 2022 way-ahead for SOF teams throughout the world.  The critical capability that SOF teams must execute “activities that involve a combination of lethal and non-lethal actions taken by specially trained and educated forces that have a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, subversion, sabotage and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain or hostile environment,”[xxxii] is a summary of the ODA’s efforts conducting VSO in Afghanistan.  ARSOF 2022’s objective is to provide commanders with SOF elements capable of meshing special warfare and surgical strikes in campaigns to support joint and interagency partners, while providing the country a “precise and nuanced asymmetric capability.”[xxxiii] SOF teams must move towards building the requisite experience, training, and vision to match these requirements. Only those elements that focus on the broad spectrum of these priorities rather than limiting training to individual core activities will provide commanders with the strategic options necessary to apply SOF teams to complex, dynamic, and uncertain mission sets.

Works Cited

Army, Department of. (2013). ARSOF 2022: United States Special Operations Command. 1-32.

BG Schwartz, M. (2013, December 3). SOJTF-B DCG. (CPT Deep, A. Interviewer)

Department of Defense. (1971). Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of the United States Decision-making on Vietnam (Senator Gravel Edition ed., Vol. II). Boston: Beacon Press.

Galula, D. (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport: Praeger Security International.

Kilcullen, D. (2009). The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nagl, J. A. (2002). Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya to Vietnam. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2010). Joint Publication 3-22: Foreign Internal Defense. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.

Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2011). Joint Publication 3-05: Joint Special Operations. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office.

Poole, J. H. (2004). Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods. Emerald Isle: Posterity Press.

Taber, R. (2002). War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare. Washington DC: Potomac Books, Inc.

End Notes

[i]Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-05: Joint Special Operations, II-9.

[ii]Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-22: Foreign Internal Defense, ix.

[iii] Although this paper focuses on the efforts of a Special Forces ODA, these principles apply equally to a Marine Special Operations Team (MSOT) or Navy SEAL platoon operating under the same mission-set.

[iv] “ARSOF 2022 is a blueprint for change. It describes precepts and imperatives that will enable ARSOF to thrive in a future operating environment that is characterized by uncertainty.  The first half of the document provides the intellectual framework for the ARSOF 2022 vision, including a synopsis of the envisioned future operating environment and strategic guidance.  Building on these external drivers, the document describes a maturation of the foundational precepts including SOF Operational Art, the Human Domain, the 7th Warfighting Function, Special Warfare and Surgical Strike, while also defining the six enabling concepts that provide the framework to achieve the ARSOF 2022 vision” – LTG Cleveland, USASOC Commanding General.

[v] Department of the Army, ARSOF 2022:United States Army Special Operations Command, 4.

[vi] Ibid, 16.

[vii] Kilcullen, David, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Locations 1371-77 e-book.

[viii] Galula, David, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 44.

[ix] The ALP is a community-based security initiative where a SOF team facilitates the recruitment, vetting, training, and employment of security personnel who reside in the area in which they patrol.

[x] White Space Operations (WSOs) are normally executed by a SOK-partnered SOF team with the goal of clearing an area of insurgent activity in order to allow a VSO-focused SOF team to expand the influence of the GIRoA to the target area.

[xi] “ALP Guardian” is the term used to describe a member of the ALP

[xii] A tashkiel is the manning apportionment provided to a district ALP program originating from the Ministry of the Interior.

[xiii] Formerly known as Battle Space Owner (BSO).

[xiv] Galula, David, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 4.

[xv] Authorized under MAAWS-A CERP SOP March 2012, Annex E, p. 195: “Authorized Uses: In addition to the uses states in Chapter 4, CFSOCC-A units can utilize Advance Bulk Funds for Village Stability Operations (VSO) programs…VSO projects will be categorized as Temporary Contract Guards for critical infrastructure…Once their respective personnel are officially transferred under the control of the GIRoA (in this case the Ministry of the Interior) in the ALP program, CERP funding is no longer able to be used.”

[xvi] A SOF CAT embeds and supports the SOF team’s mission through the development line of operation.  This includes focused projects based on empowering key influencers based on dynamics in the region, and bolstering the ability of the GIRoA to provide basic needs to its population through Afghan funding sources and processes.

[xvii] Taber, Robert, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare, 15.

[xviii] The MOI In-Processing Team is a group of Afghan officials who enroll ALP candidates into the MOI computerized system for payroll and tracking purposes.  This process is the precursor to ALP Guardians being paid directly by the MOI.

[xix] Taber, Robert, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare, 23.

[xx] Galula, David, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 34.

[xxi] Nagl, John, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, 200.

[xxii] Conversation with BG Mark Schwartz, Special Operations Joint Task Force – Bragg (SOJTF-B) Deputy Commanding General, SOJTF-B Headquarters, Fort Bragg, NC, 03 DEC 13.

[xxiii] Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of the United States Decision-making on Vietnam, Senator Gravel Edition, Volume II, 435.

[xxiv] Taber, Robert, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare, 19.

[xxv] Galula, David, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 50.

[xxvi] Poole, H. John, Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods, 221.

[xxvii] Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Locations 239-46 e-book.

[xxviii] Poole, H. John, Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods, 218.

[xxix] Nagl, John, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, 223.

[xxx] Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Locations 3604-10 e-book.

[xxxi] An Operational Control Center – District or Province (OCC-D or OCC-P) is a common tactical operations center for all ANSF entities that operate within the assigned district/province.  It provides a central location from which these units can coordinate activities, plan operations, and provide mutual support.

[xxxii] Department of the Army, ARSOF 2022: United States Army Special Operations Command, 10.

[xxxiii] Ibid, 9.


About the Author(s)

Captain Alex Deep is currently a Master of Arts in International Relations and International Economics candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on Strategic Studies.  Alex was previously assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  During his most recent combat deployments, Captain Deep served as a Special Forces Operational Detachment – Alpha Commander operating throughout Eastern Afghanistan, and Chief of Operations for Special Operations Task Force - Northeast. Captain Deep has been selected to instruct International Relations and Comparative Politics at the United States Military Academy upon completion of his studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.


Ned McDonnell III

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 12:44pm

While I must confess that I drowned in the acronyms and details, nonetheless, such a detailed account is not only necessary but fruitful. This writing will cluster with others to be integrated into shorter written guidance on Village Stability Operations around the world. The essay successfully ties in the necessity of integrating community policing from the beginning and insinuating it into an ongoing transition from conflict to a sustainable (i.e., legitimate rule-of-law).

While this article has been a chore to read, I wish CPT Deep's experience had been available in 2009, in Iraq, when MNSTC-I failed to prod the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki to integrate the Sons of Iraq into local policing forces through a top-down mandate to the many already under-funded and under-staffed facilities in Sunni areas of Iraq. CPT Deep's 'deep' analysis argues for a transition from kinetic intervention to rule-of-law to empower the moderate forces within the communities to detoxify local environments of extreme elements.

For example, in the case of Iraq in 2009, while concerns ran high about the bona fides of some of the Sons of Iraq, for good reasons, local selection committees would have been ideal to channel the 'good guys' into the local force with the other bad-faith 'Gunney-come-latelies' channeled into support roles (that would give them skills on which to build local businesses). The difficulty of such an application in a fractured country like AfghanLand might prove to be its labor intensity and cost; perhaps, the ink-blot idea would make sense after all.

They say you should write like you talk. If Mr. Deep talks like he writes he has never had a second date, and he never will. There that is my early morning smart aleck remark, but it is leading to an important point, very important in my view.

The work this unit and Mr. Deep did was excellent with touches of genius but few people will ever know because it is guarded from most of the world by an angry and impenetrable thicket of writing in the passive voice, jargon, acronyms and fashion of the moment bureaucratese. It is almost impossible to read, at least for normal people. Now that may not be objectionable for some, they may say that the target audience may not have any trouble with this 'writing'. The trouble with that is that this kind of dross makes it certain that maybe a more important target audience will never read it, the general reader.

My brother is an extremely intelligent and accomplished man. He has a strong interest in military affairs to include the current conflicts, but it is not his avocation. He can fully appreciate any concept you throw at him, but it has to be written in English, the kind Grant and Churchill would recognize. He does not have the time to interpret what purports to be English. That is a shame because my brother wants to know about and would appreciate the work of this unit and because of the way this article is written he won't. It is important that people like my brother learn about things like the work this unit did because people like him are opinion leaders and what they learn about they talk about and other people in turn listen and learn. That is important for the country and the military. But writing like this stops that cold.

Articles like this should be written with people like my brother in mind, the interested, intelligent general reader. Anything described in this article can be described in plain English, anything. There is no reason it can't be done. It has been done. McFarland and Smith did it well in describing operations in Ramadi that were every bit as complicated as the ops describe in this article.…

On another tack I think this article should be read together with and article published in the Small War Journal on January 5, 2012 called "You Can't Play Chess When the Taliban is Playing Poker". It is an excellent article that well describes the importance of shadow government in the village while this article gives an excellent description of how to dismantle that shadow government.

(I've always been surprised that nobody ever commented on "You can't play chess when the Taliban is playing poker". I thought it was great.)

One small thing that I thought showed a touch of genius by Mr. Deep and his comrades was when it came to building an Afghan Local Police outpost. The problem is those outposts can become little forts that the men will just stay in at the expense of patrolling. Mr. Deep and his men solved that problem by building the outpost so that it was indefensible (I think). Voila! Problem solved. If they want to stay alive they had better patrol because the building can't be defended. Touch of genius.


Tue, 04/08/2014 - 9:28am

One of the more successful programs in Vietnam was the Combined Action Program, began at Phu Bai by 3d Battalion 4th Marines. I was a new brown bar FO attached to Lima 3/4 and designated as one of two FOs for the two CAP units we formed in September 1965. Here was the situation:

--3d Battalion 4th Marine Regiment landed at Phu Bai Vietnam in May 1965 to establish a TAOR . The mission of 3/4 was to “occupy and defend assigned TAOR in the vicinity of HUE PHU BAI airfield and defend the 8th RRU compound…”
--Original Phu Bai TAOR assigned to 3/4 was considered tactically undesirable:
----Insufficient terrain to the north of vital installations
----Enemy could approach undetected and mortar airfield and base
--At the request of CO 3/4, Marines secured operation control of “A” Zone with population of 16,000 people
--Phu Bai was an agricultural community made up of four hamlets and had a population of about 15,000
--Phu Bai was revitalized when Marines arrived in May 1965 but continued to be a target of the VC
--Lack of interpreters made operational control of the Popular Forces (PF) platoons essential for population control
--Commanding General 1st ARVN Division gave operational control of six PF platoons to 3/4
--Marines assumed control of the area and 3/4 established radio communications with each village and hamlet chief who was linked with bilingual ARVN liaison in the Marine FSCC
--As the FO, I surveyed in and registered with smoke artillery concentrations in each village and were named for animals by the village chief
--Approximately one rifle company was assigned to control “A” Zone
--As an economy of force measure, Marines were permanently assigned to villages to achieve greater security and improve Vietnamese-American relations
--LtCol Taylor and the staff of 3/4 developed a plan to create a “Joint Action Company (JAC)” composed of Marines and Popular Forces
--A battalion officer and recent graduate of Vietnamese Language School was named Company Commander
--One T/O squad of Marines was hand picked from each of the four rifle companies to become a permanently organized unit – 1st Provisional Marine Platoon
--Six PF platoons were formed into a company and an ARVN officer named Company Commander
--The Marine platoon and PF company became the Joint Action Company with a Marine officer as the CO and the ARVN officer as the XO
--CAP personnel were hand-picked and interviewed for the job
--They were given very little cultural or language training. Much of what they learned was on-the-job training (OJT)
--For the first CAP units in Phu Bai, we started a week-long combined action school that included a crash course in Vietnamese political structure and culture
--Notably absent from the syllabus was any sort of language training, a weakness of the program that would continue throughout its existence
--Later, a formal school was set up in Danang, and the candidate CAP members went through two-week curriculum that included basic language instruction and cultural awareness
--The name of the Joint Action Company evolved to Combined Action Company with each of the village units called Combined Action Platoons (CAP)
--In each village, the Marine squad leader was responsible for operations of the integrated unit
--Operationally his commands are passed through the PF platoon commander to the Vietnamese
--The Marine squad leader always consulted his PF counterpart
--All matters pertaining to the village are accomplished through, and in conjunction with, the village chief
--The village chief was kept apprised of all tactical operations
--The Marine squad with corpsman lived in the village next to the village chief’s house 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
--The CAP unit living quarters was a bamboo and tin hut with fighting holes dug outside
--CAP Marines were highly motivated, idealistic, and sympathetic to the Vietnamese people
--We sent Marines with MEDCAP teams to the various Phu Bai villages to build trust and friendship and served to familiarized the CAP Marines with the area

--Destroy the communist infrastructure within the platoon's area of responsibility.
--Protect public security; help maintain law and order
--Organize local intelligence nets
--Participate in civic action and conduct propaganda against the communists
--Motivate and instill pride, patriotism, and aggressiveness in the militia
--Conduct training for all members of the combined-action platoon in general military subjects, leadership, and language
--Increase the proficiency of the PF so they could function effectively without the Marines

--Tactical Operations – Recon patrols, security patrols and ambushes (~20 per week)
--Intelligence – Reduced VC domination of the villages from 35% to near 0% and opened information flow
--Counterintelligence – CAP unit denied the use of the villages by the VC and propaganda dropped to near 0%
--Economic Influence – Became part of the community and assisted in civil action projects
--Psychological Operations – By word of mouth, CAP unit offers people friendship, civic action and protection as representatives of the South Vietnamese government
--Coordination and Liaison – Close contact was maintained with civil, military and police heads for mutual assistance in intelligence and operations


"The struggle was in the rice and among the people, not passing through, but living among them, night and day .... and joining with them in steps toward a better life long overdue."

Memoirs of Gen. Lew Walt USMC, Retired

The VSO/ALP program that was initiated in Afghanistan 6 years after the conflict began was loosely based on the CAP concept. The big challenge in Afghanistan was that there was no formally structure home guard (Popular Forces or Regional Forces) as in Vietnam, but only the local Arbakai as a basis for a CAP-type unit. The CAP units in Vietnam were staffed by regular officers and enlisted Marines which the VSO/ALP are staffed with MARSOC and other SOF personnel. Had we paid attention to "Lessons Learned' from Vietnam and other insurgencies instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and had we begun the "transition" in 2003 instead of 2012, we might be out of Afghanistan by now.

From the middle paragraph of the author's "Conclusion:"

"Working with and through a friendly government to build a security force capable of providing local officials the operational whitespace to expand basic services, rule of law, and development initiatives is an inherently unconventional task for SOF teams to execute in semi-permissive and denied areas alike."

Critical and important questions:

a. Do the villagers understand that, by working with our special forces personnel, they are, in effect, working to undermine, eliminate and replace (with a foreign model) (1) their way of life, (2) their way of governance and (3) the values, attitudes and belief upon which these ways of life and governance are based?

b. Or is such information, of necessity, kept from the villagers?

These questions being relevant to -- not only the ethics of what we are doing -- but also to the question of exactly where village stability operations (VSO) might be employed. (To wit: only in the most backward and primitive regions; places where only the most naive, uneducated, vulnerable and, therefore, most exploitable populations might live.)


a. Should we consider our such actions -- in this modern age -- ethical? And

b. Aren't the places -- where this approach might be effectively employed -- rather limited, to wit: to only those places where the native population is least able to fend for himself; psychologically, communications-wise, materially, etc?

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 10:50am

A good overview of VSO and the application of UW techniques in a FID mission. As the title notes this is a good example of the application of traditional Special Warfare, something Special Forces, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs forces have been doing since their inception. I still believe that the doctrinal basis for VSO can be found in the now obsolete FID doctrine called Remote Area Operations:

Remote area operations are operations undertaken in insurgent-controlled or contested areas to establish islands of popular support for the HN government and deny support to the insurgents. They differ from consolidation operations in that they are not designed to establish permanent HN government control over the area. Remote areas may be populated by ethnic, religious, or other isolated minority groups. They may be in the interior of the HN or near border areas where major infiltration routes exist. Remote area operations normally involve the use of specially trained paramilitary or irregular forces. SF teams support remote area operations to interdict insurgent activity, destroy insurgent base areas in the remote area, and demonstrate that the HN government has not conceded control to the insurgents. They also collect and report information concerning insurgent intentions in more populated areas. In this case, SF teams advise and assist irregular HN forces operating in a manner similar to the insurgents themselves, but with access to superior combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) resources. (From FM 3-05.202 Foreign Internal Defense 2007.)

But we also should be very careful in thinking in terms of VSO as a model for how we are going to operate around the world. It is not appropriate in all environments. It is only one manifestation of special warfare and as Bob Jones correctly notes must be part of an overall comprehensive and effective strategy.


Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:25am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

Always the apologia for the Pak Army/ISI. At least you now consistently admit they are killing us rather than sidestepping the issue. I don't know if saying in effect we made them do it to us is a step forward but at least it is a step.

Our main problem of course is not to the suicidal path the Pak Army/ISI is taking, and taking at their of their own volition; they are after all grown up and quite capable of doing things on their own without without reacting only to American action. Our main problem is that the genii inside the beltway don't see that they are killing us and do something about it, at least to the extent that we stop buying them the explosives to blow off the legs and genitals of our men. I know it is quite progressive to empathize (I got accused of not having empathy for the Pak Army/ISI once-guilty I be) with the other guy but that is a bit much.

To say that popular friction to US foreign policy is our problem abroad is a combination of 'Gee, what can we do to make them like us?' and 'Aren't those little brown people cute?'. That attitude completely ignores that those people all have minds of their own and are very well able to determine where they want to go without reference to what the Yanks happen to be doing at the moment. Extremist leaders (Vlad the would be Magnificent) and ideologies come from that. Not to recognize that is naive in the extreme. It would be touching if it didn't get people killed. The devil opens the gates of hell once in awhile and lets out a Mao or a Stalin and there ain't nothing the Americans can do about that. The Jihadi/takfiri version of Islam comes from them and their religion, not from us, to think otherwise is the height of narcissism.

When these things happen and they come our way as they are, feeling for their 'plight' is no substitute for shooting them in the heart or making damn sure certain they know we will if they keep it up.

Doesn't it get hard to argue that it is as easy for the takfiri killers to operate in the post 9-11 world as it was in the pre 9-11 world, outside Pakistan that is? After all pre 9-11 the police forces in all those countries were asleep, post 9-11 they aren't at all sleepy. It is much harder now. In Pakistan though things are pretty much the same pre and post, the Pak Army/ISI still covers for them.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 9:43pm

In reply to by carl


I realize it is convenient to blame our failures on the deliberate acts of others, but it is our own deliberate acts that are the primary cause of our struggles in Afghanistan.

Of course the government of Pakistan conducts UW through their shared Pashtun population to exercise influence over Afghanistan. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan we shared their well-established networks and connections to frustrate the Soviet's efforts to replace Pakistani influence with their own. Then, during the post-Soviet, pre-9/11 era we largely ignored the region as Pakistan continued their long history of UW and influence. After 9/11 we very deliberately attacked the Pakistani system of influence - and then had the hutzpah to coerce/bribe the Pakistani's to work with us against their own system of influence.

Yogi Berra probably got it about right when he said "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" We presented the government of Pakistan with a fork in the policy road and they took both branches. Overtly they agreed to work with us, with little other choice than to risk being "against us" while sandwiched between two growing US Allies in Afghanistan and India. Covertly they continued to work their campaign of UW and influence. I'm not sure how else they could have played the had we dealt and forced them to play.

Yes, this is a strategic mess and has been from the beginning decision to wage war against a small collection of individuals and to then wage war equally against the places they happened to be operating from on 9/11 (well, except those places like Florida, California, Great Britain, France and the KSA - couldn't hardly wage war there...), and to blame the whole thing on radical ideology and extremist leaders and believe that efforts to "defeat" either of those ancillary things could somehow solve the growing problem of popular friction to US foreign policy that we were just beginning to wake up to. This probably required a strong, quick law enforcement response, a punitive military expedition or two, and a serious inward look at how to best implement foreign policy in the post Cold War era.

Now it appears some may think that making our peacetime foreign policy even more militarized with some global concept of VSO? Not a concept I would ever endorse. The reality is that a military solution to a justice/policy problem did not work to cure the problems the attacks of 9/11. A military solution is not likely to be the answer to leading our efforts as a nation at peace in the post-Afghanistan era either.


Mon, 04/07/2014 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C Jones:

You forgot to mention the most important reason of them all, Afghanistan and the US are targets of an unconventional warfare campaign directed by the Pak Army/ISI. You're right though, VSO can't overcome our fundamental strategic failure of failing to recognize who the primary enemy is and dealing with that threat.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 11:42am


An excellent and comprehensive lay down of the official position on VSO in Afghanistan. The only thing missing is that it doesn't work.

There are several reasons for this, but three of the most important ones are strategically fundamental to appreciating why so many years of tremendous tactical effort are failing to generate any kind of positive enduring strategic effect.

1. The idea that insurgents or ideology cause insurgency, and that it can somehow be cured "from the bottom up." The insurgency in Afghanistan is a revolutionary response by those dispossessed of patronage power by our action to grant that power to a Northern Alliance based faction. Our efforts to protect and preserve that monopoly has served to drive a resistance insurgency as well. These are both policy issues that must be addressed from the very top to get to political conditions that allow for good strategic effects from our tactical actions.

2. VSO supplants the political legitimacy of the Karzai government (as weak as that is in the regions VSO engages far more than it supports or adds to that legitimacy.

3. We confuse what we call things to best fit our mission and our paradigm for what those things actually are. Words like "legitimacy" and "COIN" and "sanctuary" are but three critical concepts that are horribly confused and abused in our routine lexicon in Afghanistan.

VSO isn't bad tactics, but it can't overcome bad strategy.