The Nuts and Bolts of Village Stability Operations
By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Stephen N. Rust
Originally published in the July-September 2011 edition of Special Warfare
Village-stability operations encompass a variety of activities intended to stabilize a village and link it to healthy formal governance. The lack of government presence in many rural areas of Afghanistan makes them susceptible to control by the Taliban. Without VSO, Operation Enduring Freedom will likely fall short of success.
Control of villages ebbs and flows with the flavor of the day, and the population's allegiance lies with whomever provides for and protects it. A key component of VSO is building the capability and capacity of village- and district-level officials to support the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or GIRoA. Those officials are the crucial link between the people from an assortment of tribes and the formal government controlling the country.
Because of the internal strife between neighboring tribes, there has to be a link that will pull the country together to form a unified nation without fear of reprisal from previous rivalries or squabbles. VSO have been put into play to promote GIRoA officials' engagement with the populace. Personnel in special-operations forces, or SOF, hold and participate in key leader engagements between village elders and GIRoA officials on a regular basis to discuss issues affecting governance, security and development. SOF employ small, well-trained detachments of Soldiers from the coalition forces, or CF, who live and operate in remote villages.
Within those villages, small security elements have been formed as local police. Those elements are leveraged by SOF to work with elders and district officials to promote governance, security and development across an expanded network of surrounding villages. An argument from the VSO sites and the areas where shaping operations are taking place is that GIRoA lacks the capacity to effectively govern and is not in touch with the local elders. Mentoring the district and provincial officials will permit them to become self-reliant and provide good governance and development, ensuring long-term viability and success at the local, district and provincial levels.
Principles for stability operations
Several principles are common to VSO in any environment:
· Engagement of the community is paramount with respect to the tribes in the area.
· Care needs to be taken to avoid empowering one tribe over another.
· Understanding tribal and ethnic dynamics is vital. Engagements with local tribal elders may take time to build trust and participation, but engagements pay dividends in the long run.
· VSO success depends profoundly on the local populations' acceptance. Without the support of the people, VSO are doomed before they start.
· An effective operation diminishes insurgent influence in the village and provides security to the area.
· Villagers are easily persuaded by Taliban propaganda when there are no representatives of the GIRoA in the area with a constant presence.
· VSO empower local representative governance through shuras utilizing the most locally-appropriate form of representatives; these may be village elders, maliks or members of community-development councils.
· GIRoA-sponsored small-scale development projects led by the community act as a medium for effective governance.
· More often than not, VSO are about community action and confidence-building.
· A reward for successful operations and repelling insurgent influence should be developmental projects that will allow the villages to flourish and create unity of the populace.
· Empower traditional structures within the Afghan culture, making sure elders or others are accountable to the villages and districts they represent.
· VSO should be used as an enabler for reintegration but not as an incentive for it.
· Improvements in security, local governance and development will bring increasing opportunities for reintegrating former insurgents into the community.
· VSO and the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program are separate but mutually supporting programs.
Afghan face on protection
There is no message more powerful than Afghans standing up to defend their homes against the insurgency, participating in legitimate governance activities and creating local stability in hopes of a brighter future. VSO seek to coordinate the actions of coalition forces, GIRoA and nongovernment organizations in order to best promote security, governance and development initiatives from the village to the district level.
Living in the village is the surest way to earn villagers' trust and gain an advanced knowledge of the local human terrain. But the choice of a specific location for VSO is one of the most far-reaching decisions made by a SOF team. Villages across Afghanistan vary greatly; each site will look different and will have different requirements, and the VSO implementation techniques may be different for each VSO site.
In one area, SOF may choose to embed near a minority tribe's village but not in it. That would allow them to provide overwatch that would ensure that the village is treated fairly, without aggravating existing prejudices against the tribe. At the same time, having a physical link with the dominant subtribe would allow the team to exert greater influence over the direction of that population. In another area, a team may choose to embed at a district center because it considers the district governor to be a competent individual and will work through him to stabilize the district. That would also allow the team to address a major cause of tribal dispute in the area: the over-representation of a dominant tribe at the district level.
Areas such as Shah Wali Kot pose a greater challenge because they have historically been ruled by the Taliban. The criteria being used to determine a location includes: safeguarding of forces, logistics, the population's desire, population density, tribal compositions, security and economic effects and the likelihood of being able to expand influence beyond the initial site.
Credible authorities in charge of protection
There is a definite need to build a credible and honest unit of the Afghan Local Police, or ALP, within the villages. The ALP seeks to establish a security bubble in the villages that will shape conditions for initiatives related to development and governance. Members of the local police are nominated by the local shura council and vetted by coalition forces. They receive three weeks of training that focuses on the Afghan constitution and ethics, as well as security-specific training, then they are monitored closely by units of the local coalition force and the community's elders.
The approaches to building these forces vary between sites. Presence patrols by coalition forces exhibit a continued commitment to village defense and support shaping operations by enhancing GIRoA credibility. A properly trained and equipped village defense force can deter and weaken the insurgents' ability to influence the local population. Many villages desire to defend themselves but do not have the weapons required to engage the Taliban. Using arms from a neighboring country will aid in economic stability in the region and provide a sustainable logistics system for the future. Supplying Western arms and munitions could lead to logistics problems or cause the feeling that Western influence is being pushed upon the country.
Village defenders working hand in hand with Afghan National Security Forces and coalition forces have proven that they are capable of defeating insurgents. In one incident, the strategy was to be even-handed in approaching the tribes for a local guardian force. The CF members convinced elders to agree not to prevent young men from joining the force. It also identified a comparatively neutral businessman who could broker arrangements with influential men to bring their kin into the guardians. The result was relatively even tribal representation among the force.
In another area, the local embedded unit experienced initial trouble convincing village elders to nominate members of the local police. The unit remained patient and continued to engage village shuras. Eventually, the local elders realized the value of the police to their community, nominated participants and played an active role in overseeing the unit.
Managing the power with tribal disparity
Powerbrokers can be impediments or facilitators to VSO success. Units need to identify key leaders and develop a plan for successfully managing powerbrokers. In some cases, a malign powerbroker may be balanced through fair-minded consideration of all senior individuals in the community; in others, they may need to be marginalized or opposed. In one village the powerbroker may not hold a formal position of authority but instead exert influence from behind the scenes. He may eventually be marginalized but may be too powerful to be ignored in the short term. The best strategy may be to build an alternate center of village influence that will eventually rival the powerbroker. Elsewhere, the powerbroker may be a district chief of police with whom units must work. The short-term solution would be to keep him close, embedding at his location to promote his accountability to the population.
Tribal disputes need to be managed without aggravating disparities. VSO is a community-engagement program, but tribal power struggles are a monumental hurdle in Afghanistan. Tribal disputes occur in many areas and require management to achieve stability without aggravating existing rivalries. In one region, coalition forces separated the elders of the rival tribes and eventually unified the tribes by serving as an honest broker to help them work through their grievances. In another region, rival tribes had established separate territories. Coalition forces held shuras in neutral locations, such as the district center or firebase, to allow individuals to come together and work out tribal disputes.
Money to build a cohesive district
Funding for development projects is and will continue to be a highly contested part of VSO. Units must consider ways to harness the effects of money so that projects will build unity and not encourage corruption and power politics. Following through with promised developmental projects builds trust and faith in the GIRoA. Community development councils should be identified and linked to community projects whenever possible. An underused resource for providing an Afghan solution to Afghan development issue are the rapid-deployment teams from the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
In one village, projects of the Commander's Emergency Relief Program, or CERP, were used to build the credibility of newly established maliks. After a lengthy process of identifying representative maliks for its villages, the embedded unit used small projects to demonstrate the capability of these leaders. In another district, CERP funding was used to finance projects on which the shuras could begin working together. Shura leaders were responsible for all CERP programming, from selecting the project to allocating work days and number of employees.
Balancing lethal operations
Lethal operations may be unavoidable when responding to Taliban or insurgent intimidation or attacks. Those operations must be handled carefully to reinforce, rather than disrupt, permanence. Most VSO sites have reported that lethal activities are necessary to demonstrate to the population that their security can be ensured. Living in the village constitutes a restraint on the overuse of lethal action: Teams must live with any mistakes they make, and villages have protracted memories. In one incident in southern Afghanistan, insurgents attacked members of the local populace and wounded several. The VSO team and partnered Afghan and border police led a counterattack and helped medevac the wounded. The event led to the discovery of 20 pressure-plate IEDs and a surge in the confidence of the local population and the partner force, both of whom continue to speak about the "victory" of GIRoA and SOF that day.
In the west, teams conducting a show of force against Taliban elements were escorted by local elders to demonstrate their support. When the embedded CF unit needed to move against an insurgent position, it avoided the breaching of doors at all costs. Instead, the elder would knock on the door in order to de-escalate the situation if at all possible. Bringing GIRoA officials (e.g., district subgovernor, provincial governor, Afghan National Police chief, Afghan National Army commander) helps dispel tales and affords an avenue for positive effects of information operations. That also applies to representatives of the U. S. Agency for International Development, Department of State and other outside agencies. Many tribes and villages do not trust GIRoA because of systemic corruption.
Expectations of the force
Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission, and DoD must be prepared to conduct them throughout all phases of conflict and across the range of military operations. They may be conducted to establish civil security and civil control, restore essential services, repair and protect critical infrastructure, or deliver humanitarian assistance until it is feasible to transition lead responsibility to other U.S. government agencies, foreign governments and security forces, or international governmental organizations. In such circumstances, DoD will operate within U.S. government and, if appropriate, international structures for managing civil-military operations, and it will seek to enable the deployment and utilization of the appropriate civilian capabilities.
Since most stabilization operations occur in less-developed countries, there will always be a long list of needs and wants, such as schools, roads and health care, in an area of operations. Given the chronic shortage of U.S. government personnel and resources, effective stability operations require an ability to identify and prioritize local causes of instability. The focus should be on the perceptions of the populace and ways to influence those perceptions.
Stability operations require prioritization based on progress in diminishing the sources of instability or building on sources of stability. For example, if U.S. government personnel believe that access to information about Western culture will undercut insurgent recruiting and work to provide a village with an Internet café, despite the fact that village elders say they need more water, then the village is not being effectively stabilized.
By ignoring the village elders, U.S. personnel are undermining the legitimacy of the village elders and hindering their ability to maintain order, further contributing to the instability. Access to information about the West via the Internet café may create expectations that cannot be met by the village elders or the host-nation government. There may be disputes over access to the Internet café or excessive use of it by some villagers at the expense of others. Again, the U.S. government's desire to make things better and to share technology with others can lead to more, not less instability. Understanding the causal relationship between needs, wants and stability is crucial.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Stephen N. Rust is currently assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 1st Battalion, 7th SF Group, as the officer in charge of the special-activities cell. Rust has eight years of Special Forces experience, having served as an SF medical sergeant and an SF warrant officer at the detachment level.