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The South Asia Channel

Going old school: U.S. Army Special Forces return to the villages

The shooting yesterday of two American civilians by a suspected Afghan National Army instructor at a shooting range in northern Afghanistan has thrown into sharp relief one of the challenges of trying to quickly build effective Afghan security forces capable of securing the country. In part as a response to the slow growth in size ...


The shooting yesterday of two American civilians by a suspected Afghan National Army instructor at a shooting range in northern Afghanistan has thrown into sharp relief one of the challenges of trying to quickly build effective Afghan security forces capable of securing the country. In part as a response to the slow growth in size and competence of the Afghan National Army and Police, the past year has seen a growing international effort to create security at the village level in Afghanistan by working directly with villagers. This effort has been through both formal programs such as the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) and less formal ones such as support reportedly given to members of the Shinwari tribe in the Achin district of Nangarhar. Perhaps the most ambitious and controversial of these efforts is the Local Defense Initiative (LDI), a program created and run by Special Forces. In early June I was in Afghanistan to conduct research on LDI, including lengthy conversations with several special operations commanders responsible for these operations. Most importantly, I was able to spend six days embedded with a joint special operations-local defense team in the Khakrez district of Kandahar.

The Local Defense Initiative, as originally envisioned by RAND political scientist Seth Jones and Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, called for the use of special operations teams, principally but not exclusively U.S. Army Special Forces, to create volunteer village level defense forces to fight against insurgents and, as a sort of compensation for resisting insurgents, to bring development to the village. This was a return to the Vietnam era experience of Special Forces, where programs such as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) placed Special Forces teams in remote villages to perform an almost identical mission. As in Vietnam, this type of program is controversial; some in both the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the Karzai government view it as potentially creating militias that will weaken the central state in the long run. The Afghan government has approved the plan, however, partially based on the condition that the local forces be administered by the Afghan Interior Ministry.

Once in place, a team is to apply a five step methodology, based on acquiring detailed knowledge of the area and its power relationships, securing and developing the area, expanding security across a larger area, and finally transitioning the responsibility for security to the Afghan government. The teams are generally composed of a twelve man U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) with attached enablers such as civil affairs and, ideally, an Afghan partner force. The detachment is thus equipped to defend itself, patrol its area of operations, collect intelligence, and provide development, the latter through civil affairs using Commander’s Emergency Respond Fund (CERP)

The plans for expanding the programs are ambitious. According to one commander there were five teams at the end of March; by mid-June there were twelve, and his goal is to have twenty-three by September. In addition to political hurdles, this expansion will present substantial logistical challenges as focus areas tend to be rather inaccessible. Another issue is that of team rotation. This duty is austere and labor intensive yet requires continuity to ensure that relationships are maintained. While eminently sensible, ensuring continuity would require a substantial adjustment by Army Special Forces Command, which is responsible for providing SF ODAs worldwide.

 An outpost of progress in Khakrez

Khakrez district, where I embedded in northern Kandahar, has largely had no conventional coalition force presence, and little Afghan security force presence, with a single company of Afghan National Army (ANA) troops partnered with a U.S. Special Forces ODA, fewer than 100 local police officers, and some Afghan Highway Patrol checkpoints. Unsurprisingly the district has been highly permissive for insurgent movement and activity, which has facilitated activity in the districts Khakrez borders (Ghorak, Maiwand, Shah Wali Kot, Panjwayi, and Arghandab) as well as into Kandahar City itself, which is only a few hours’ drive away.

In February 2010 a team was introduced to Khakrez district. It was initially based at an unused clinic in one of the villages in a cultivated area known as "the Green Zone." The clinic was deemed too small and the team moved to an unused school, where they were based when I visited in June. The school is adjacent to one village, with others to the north and south. The embed site (as the small compound is known) is austere and vulnerable in comparison to most Coalition bases, lacking imposing barriers and blast walls. Yet this relative vulnerability makes the site approachable for the villagers, some of whom work fields immediately adjacent to the school.

The team’s Afghan partner force, the first Afghan Special Forces ODA to be created in a new program, had arrived a few days before I did. The U.S. team was excited about their new partner force, which would need mentoring but would also greatly enhance the U.S. team’s ability to interact with villagers. The Afghan team, which was accompanied by the sergeant major for the nascent Afghan Special Forces, was equally motivated. 

Both teams were highly dedicated to the mission. The U.S. team captain had immersed himself in the Koran and understanding village life. He knew the villagers and their stories, including who had a son or cousin in the Taliban, and had such a rapport with the villagers that he was asked several times when he was going to convert to Islam and settle down with them. The civil affairs team had completed dozens of projects, most having to do with the provision of water through refurbishment of wells or karezes (underground irrigation canals). The team learned a great deal about the area in the process. The Afghan team, mostly non-Pashtuns who were not as familiar with the area due to their recent arrival, was quickly acclimating. During one patrol to the village north of the embed site, the Afghan sergeant major in particular quickly connected to the population, holding one of the village’s babies while villagers put a garland around his neck- he subsequently gave the garland to a sick little girl in another village. In short, one could scarcely ask for a better combined team to execute the village stability mission.

Yet despite the combined team’s dedication and proficiency, the Green Zone area had not generated a community watch and, while the team’s patrolling had certainly made the area less hospitable, insurgents could still move across the area. Indeed, the first night I was at the embed site it was attacked by insurgents firing from the village to the south. The villagers were subsequently unable and/or unwilling to provide much information about the attack. The team was got some intelligence from elsewhere in the Green Zone, but it was still limited.

What explains this relative lack of success despite having a team executing the Village Stability Program mission in textbook fashion? The answer reveals the limits of U.S. ability in counterinsurgency environments. Put simply, the conditions in Khakrez were not propitious for this type of program. For one, much of the wealthier population who actually owned the land around the Green Zone had fled to Kandahar City. Those left behind were mostly share-croppers who were not by tradition and inclination community leaders. The area was tribally fragmented, with both Popalzai and Alikozai populations. The Popalzai (the tribe of Hamid and Ahmed Wali Karzai) dominate the district government (the police chief and district sub-governor are from the same Popalzai family) and are perhaps not as solicitous of the Alikozai as might be hoped, producing resentment the insurgents could exploit. Moreover, this called into question to some degree the development portion of the program’s model- if the district government was part of the problem, would connecting the Green Zone to that government actually be positive? The bottom line is that while the population liked the team and its activities, there was not a critical mass of villagers willing, as of mid-June, to stand up to the insurgency and form a community watch.

This was made clear at a shura a few days after the attack on the embed site. One of the villagers, a former Taliban sub-commander, argued that the villagers should meet with the insurgents and work out a solution whereby the embed site and Green Zone would not be attacked. If that failed he proclaimed himself ready to take up arms against them. His statement was publicly echoed by other villagers at the shura, yet he candidly acknowledged to the team after the shura that few in the area besides him would really do so. There was relatively little else the team could do to try to incentivize the Green Zone population, and the team could not change the composition of the district government.

Of course, the program works out differently in different geographical and cultural environments. The team I was embedded with was originally slated to go to Achin district in Nangarhar to work with the Shinwari tribe. Whatever the Shinwari’s faults, unwillingness to fight is not one of them — indeed they are quite willing to fight ISAF, the Taliban, and sometimes each other. Had the team gone to Achin, they likely would have dozens of men in the community watch within a short period of time, even if they would then have had the headache of managing intra-Shinwari rivalries. The open question is whether most Afghan districts are more like Khakrez or Achin. I hope the latter, but fear the former.

Austin Long is an assistant professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and a member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

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