- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense southern Afghanistan correspondent
One of the commonly cited potential game-changers in Afghanistan is the Village Stability Operations-Afghan Local Police (VSO-ALP) program: a village-level security concept that aims to empower local Afghans to self-police and ultimately protect against Taliban infiltration and influence, especially in rural communities. The Afghan villager, after all, is the local expert on the surrounding geographic and human terrain; he should be "the perfect counterinsurgent." While Special Operations Task Forces (SOTF) have conducted village stability operations for several years now, what is gaining momentum is the role of conventional forces in accelerating the concept. I’ve had the chance to explore the evolution of this concept at the tactical level with 1-320th Field Artillery Battalion in the Arghandab River Valley. Although an artillery unit, 1-320th is fighting as a provisional infantry unit; it is also conducting effective counterinsurgency, of which the ALP is a critically important part.
Since mid-November, the commander of Combined Task Force 1-320th, LTC David S. Flynn, has worked to develop rapport with the local malik, or de facto village leader, from Charqolba in the Arghandab River Valley, known as "Ibrahim." Charqolba has been uninhabited since June, when the Taliban conducted an intimidation campaign and drove the villagers out. Nearly 50 percent of the village had been destroyed in the crossfire between the Taliban and U.S. forces. Like the others who fled, the Charqolba malik had moved his family to Kandahar City, but he was interested in reclaiming his home and his village.
Following the tough "clear and hold" fighting campaign in the RC-S over the fall, Flynn and his company commanders began to attend the local shuras several times a week to build relationships within the community. Flynn’s rapport-building efforts were starting to pay off. On New Year’s Day, he walked into the local shura room to meet the villagers who were already sitting on the bright red cushions they’d picked out when Flynn’s team helped build it earlier that fall. Flynn’s newest "best friend," Malik Ibrahim, had rallied six of his former neighbors, village friends who had also been evicted from Charqolba and who wanted to reclaim their homes. In addition, another local malik had come to scope out the ALP concept for his village nearby.
Flynn entered the shura with a big smile, moved toward Ibrahim, and offered his best Pashto greeting in a confident voice revealing his deep Massachusetts accent. Flynn worked his way around the circle, offering the same customary handshake and greeting. He was struck by the gentle manner with which Afghans greeted each other, no matter the circumstance. Just two nights earlier, Flynn had sat through a post-brawl shura led by a nearby village malik. "The malik had presided over five bloodied villagers who had beaten each other with shovels and picks over wood cut during a cash-for-work project. The dispute was resolved when the younger men approached the older man and kissed his hand. The kiss was returned by the elder with a kiss on the head, and all was well. This occurred after two hours of arguing and wrangling, but at least the show ended with pleasantries exchanged, Flynn summarized. But that day’s shura was a much more sanguine setting. They weren’t resolving a dispute; they were forging a way to reclaim their village and take a stand to prevent the return of the Taliban.
Ibrahim, the young malik and well-connected relative of important local police officials, was frustrated by the lack of progress in the previous shura meetings and had taken the initiative earlier in the week to convene many villagers at his home in Kandahar City to garner support for the ALP. He told Flynn that in addition to the six others in the room, he had identified 13 other villagers who were interested in starting an ALP program in Charqolba. It was a breakthrough, after only seven weeks of effort. Flynn knew Afghan initiative and leadership were critical and was elated when two of the men in attendance stepped forward to volunteer to spearhead the effort.
There was palpable energy in the room as the conversation progressed. Ibrahim told Flynn that the village of Charqolba had three mosques and that the villagers who had agreed to join the ALP all belonged to one mosque in particular. Some of the mosques had been damaged in the summer crossfire between the Taliban and Flynn’s Top Guns. "I replied that we would work through the government and ensure that those people would be rewarded by a new mosque for their participation." The competition was on. If Flynn had learned one thing about Afghans, it was that envy was a motivating force for mobilization among villagers. He hoped it would galvanize interest from other villagers. Flynn told the Afghans that if they were truly committed, they should meet the ANA and his A/1-320th company at Charqolba the following Thursday (Jan. 6) to begin training for their duty as ALP.
Flynn’s ANA partners were excited. His ANA partner unit had helped facilitate the shura meetings and would be involved in the training with the nascent ALP programs once underway. They knew they were too thin to cover all the villages in the AO themselves. In such remote rural areas, local police initiatives were going to be key to holding that terrain.
Flynn had to contend with the MOI constraint that it had to certify a site before weapons could be issued to the ALP. Weapons procurement is a sticky issue because of the potential to facilitate local militias, which, some fear, could lead to a decent into chaos. On a late December visit to 1-320th, GEN Petraeus had discussed the urgency of the ALP initiative with Flynn and others, and he explicitly reiterated that conventional forces could not provide weapons to the ALP until the site was certified by the MOI. Incidentally, the only site currently "certified" by MOI in Arghandab is Nagahan. The district is authorized up to 300 ALP personnel and has filled roughly 25% of that number in Nagahan. Recruiting efforts in Nagahan, however, seemed to have reached a saturation point, so other ALP sites in Arghandab will need to provide the additional personnel to achieve the critical mass envisioned by COMISAF.
Flynn knew that spring was approaching and along with it a possible resurgence of Taliban. His feeling was that there was no time to waste if he and his fellow battlespace owners were going to attract over 200 volunteers. Operating under the assumption that the site would eventually be certified, Flynn made the command decision to allow the small ALP cabal to practice with Alpha company’s M4 rifles until he could resolve the procurement issue and find a permanent solution for them. Since there is no connection between conventional forces and the MOI, Flynn’s companies will eventually receive weapons from a SOTF, which typically coordinates with GIRoA for weapons acquisition and distribution. SOTF detachment captains in the AO will provide oversight to his nascent ALP initiatives, including Charqolba and three others in the valley.
The following Wednesday morning, three ALP volunteers met up with a representative from Alpha company who escorted them to Command Outpost (COP) Nolen to link up with the acting commander, CPT Jeff Aebischer and three of his most talented and decorated 11B (infantry) NCOs who would lead the skills training. Once in the shura tent at COP Nolen, Aebischer made opening remarks and relayed the commander’s intent. He turned the show over to his ANA Company Commander partner who sat down with the attendees to discuss security initiatives. At the conclusion of the shura, CPT Aisbecher and his NCO ALP Training Team escorted the ALP candidates down to Charqolba to see their homes and mosque. After identifying their homes and the old mosque site and allowing them to witness the security Alpha company had established in Charqolba via a local strongpoint, Aebischer assured them that they would maintain the village security until the villagers moved back in and the ALP took lead for security.
The ALP volunteers and ALP Training Team returned to COP Nolen to conduct Basic rifle marksmanship, weapon orientation, weapon safety, and malfunction correction for the M4 carbine. The ALPs conducted live fire from the standing and kneeling positions. At the conclusion of the four-hour training, the men agreed to move back into Charqolba and attend training classes twice a week for the next six weeks. "They were all smiles," said Aebischer, wearing a grin himself. "The ALP were happy with their training and excited about the future prospects of their village."
LTC Flynn was optimistic but pragmatic, "I have a keen understanding of the many pitfalls that exist with our way ahead. This is not the book solution on ALP if there is such a thing." Inherent challenges remained: vetting the volunteers, providing rule-of-law ethics training to a group of men who thought beating "bad guys" was acceptable for a police force, acquiring weapons and other training materials, and recruiting a larger force. "I know we need to train them well enough to defend themselves and their village. And we need to protect them from any Taliban retribution that might upend the legitimacy of the ALP program in [our AO]. I’m not overly concerned with any of this because I know that my NCOs are capable of making these ALP smarter and more capable fighters than the TB," said Aebischer.
The coalition’s intent is to litter the south with ALPs ahead of the spring fighting season, and this has necessarily dictated a migration from the SOF-led initiative to a grander scale where conventional forces also take on this mission. If the VSO-ALP site establishments are the backburn against the return of Taliban fighters, Flynn’s team has lit an important fire.
Paula Broadwell is still a research associate at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership and will be author of the forthcoming (Penguin Press, 2011) book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Because her idea of a good time is knocking around a war in Afghanistan, she will be blogging from there through February.