Taking a Stand: Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police
By Lt. Col. Basicl Catanzaro and Maj. Kirk Windmueller
Originally published in the July-September 2011 edition of Special Warfare
"My duties were simple; I was to encourage the local inhabitants to stand up for themselves." - Former British officer & diplomat Alec Kirkbride, 1971
Out of a population of more than 28 million, more than three-quarters (21 million) of the Afghan people live in rural areas.1 The Taliban is a rural-based insurgency and uses remote towns and villages beyond government reach for sanctuary, freedom of movement and to launch attacks into the major population centers. Efforts by the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or GIRoA, to secure the population can reach only so far. There are simply not enough Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, to secure the tens of thousands of remote towns that dot the Afghan landscape. Many of those fragmented communities are isolated and disconnected from any central governance, making them vulnerable to insurgents. Increasing the capacity of trained ANSF to expand central-government control continues to be a time-consuming process.
In an effort to help bolster the central government's authority in these vast uncontrolled and under-governed areas, the Coalition Forces Special Operations Component Command–Afghanistan, or CFSOCC-A, initiated a pilot program beginning in the fall of 2009 to bring stability to a network of villages in remote areas of the south, west and east. Village stability operations, or VSO, originally known as the local defense initiative, aims to bring special-operations forces, or SOF, into local villages and help them establish stability in the form of security, development and governance. These teams of Soldiers in Special Forces, or SF; Civil Affairs, or CA; and Military Information Support Operations, or MISO, actually live in the villages at the invitation of the village, tribal and district leaders who have chosen to stand up to the intimidation tactics of the insurgents. Critical to the VSO concept is teaming with lightly armed villagers to provide local security. This partnership force, known as the Afghan Local Police, or ALP, is helping to drive out the Taliban influence and set the conditions for political and economic improvement from the ground up.
Nature of the Insurgency
Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, the Taliban have transitioned from being ruling dictators to being insurgents and have moved to many of the rural areas of Afghanistan. As has been the case in most every insurgency in history,2 the insurgent Taliban have operated from those rural areas to execute a campaign to control the local population through fear and intimidation.
To date, the GIRoA, international community and coalition forces have focused their efforts on "top-down" approaches to bring stability to Afghanistan. These efforts have been predominantly aimed at securing major population centers. However, since the current population of Afghanistan is approximately 76 percent rural, these programs will have limited affect. In the near term, the Afghan government cannot project security across the country. As such, CFSOCC-A's VSO "bottom-up" approach was developed to extend security across the insurgent-affected gaps and seams, which complement these centralized top-down initiatives and confront sources of instability where they have the strongest hold — in rural villages.
Current top-down strategies are able to extend their reach to provincial- and possibly district-government levels. The result is a security vacuum between the district government and the people at the village level. It is in this vacuum that the insurgents exploit the local populace, capitalizing on the drivers of instability, such as land grievances, lack of state services and monetary disputes. Often, when land or water disputes arise amongst local families or subtribes, the district and provincial level GIRoA representatives take a very long time to render justice and are often corrupt. However, the Taliban will very quickly and efficiently act as arbiter, determine an outcome, and then enforce judgment over that decision. Thus, in absence of the state's capacity for justice, the Taliban is acting as a shadow government and conducting functions that ought to be conducted by GIRoA.
VSO and ALP: A Bottom-Up Approach
VSO's goal is to work in the area between the district and the village and connect the villagers back to their district and provincial government. That concept is rooted in SF doctrine under what are called "remote area operations." According FM 3-05.202, Special Forces Foreign Internal Defense Operations, "Remote area operations take place in insurgent-controlled or contested areas to establish islands of popular support for the host-nation, or HN, government and deny support to the insurgents."3 That complementary approach to GIRoA top-down programs is not new and is, in fact, based on successful historical paradigms in Afghanistan.
A range of traditional local protective forces — such as arbakai, chalweshtai, chagha, and mahali satoonkay — have historically been used by Pashtun communities to police and defend themselves. They are not militias, as the term is often used in Afghanistan — large offensive forces under the command of individual warlords. Instead, they are defensive, village-level policing forces under the control of local shuras and jirgas (councils) developed out of necessity to protect themselves from outside forces and influences. These defensive forces were always temporary measures: When the threat subsided and the local defenders were no longer needed, they were stood down by their shuras. These local defense concepts were used successfully from 1929 to 1978 under the Musa Hiban dynasty, which was Afghanistan's most recent stable period.4
Khakrez VSO: A Model of Local Stability
One of the best examples of the execution of VSO is in the district of Khakrez in Kandahar province, where the VSO team partnered with local leaders and ANSF to build a local defense force and address civil vulnerabilities. That has led to more secure villages, and the region as a whole is ushering in stability and development.
Khakrez district is a rural agrarian community with a population of more than 20,000 located in north-central Kandahar Province. It is the home to the Shah Agha Maqsud Shrine, one of the oldest historical Islamic sites in Afghanistan, which has been a destination for thousands of tourists. Being close to Kandahar City and having a significant tourist population, Khakrez' economic center was once a booming hub of commerce.
With the rise of the Taliban insurgency, life in Khakrez altered dramatically. The Taliban quickly expanded into Khakrez and began exploiting the local population and using the town for sanctuary and staging operations and attacks on Kandahar City. The Taliban were easily able to move men, money, weapons and equipment to shape and strategically affect Kandahar City. Their tactics resulted in a population afraid and unable to stand up to the insurgents. Predictably, the result has been a lack of overt, visible support by the population for GIRoA. That was neither preference nor ideological support for the Taliban but merely a support coerced out of fear of Taliban reprisals and a sense of self-preservation on behalf of the locals.
However, since the 2009 establishment of the VSO in Khakrez, the local villages have been empowered to protect themselves, have begun to reverse the effects of the Taliban's control and have transformed their area into a more secure environment. That has permitted development projects and strengthened ties to the district, provincial and national government.
The transformation began when SOF began organizing and empowering locals in a neighborhood-watch program to act as a "tripwire" or early warning network in the event of Taliban activity. SOF partnerships with the ANSF (police and army), working in conjunction with the neighborhood watch, have helped the local population stand up and reject the insurgents in their villages.
Since the VSO team has moved in, they have conducted dozens of key-leader engagements, shuras, training of locals to defend themselves and training in spot-reporting and how to contact ANSF or coalition forces to aid them if threatened. The VSO team continues to leverage its relationship with the population and local leaders to establish a defense force of men from local villages. In only a few months there has been a significant reduction in insurgent attacks as well as a return to normalcy for the local populace.
Some visible signs of improvement in the security situation are displaced persons moving back to Khakrez, local shuras resolving conflicts, increases in tourism, an influx of projects and the increase of businesses and merchants at the bazaar. According to a recent survey, every week one or two families return to Khakrez from Kandahar City because of, in their own words, an increase in security.5 The surveys were conducted as part of the Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework, or TCAPF.6 TCAPF is a planning framework developed by the Office of Military Affairs, a division of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Additionally, on Feb. 28, 2010, a group of children from the local area approached SOF to inform them of Taliban messages on the radio.7 The open interaction of children with coalition forces is often an indication that locals are free from intimidation to openly interact with CF.
Another example of how improved security has affected life in Khakrez is the increased tourism to the Shah Agha Maqsud Shrine. Thousands of tourists descended on this pilgrimage site during the recent new-year celebration. Pilgrims arrived from all over the country, and even international visitors attended the celebration. SOF estimated that there were more than 20,000 visitors present.
Six months ago, Khakrez was virtually a ghost town with no commerce. Through the hard work of the VSO team, in concert with the ALP and local ANSF, security has been the catalyst for prosperity. Today the local bazaar in Khakrez touts more than 40 shops and stores. That is a testimony to the local populace standing up for themselves and their rejection of the ideology of the Taliban.
With respect to local governance, the VSO team has seen an increase of conflicts being brought to local shuras, which are recognized as formal legal governing entities by GIRoA for conflict resolution. For example, locals were spreading accusations that an ANA commander was illegally selling land. The issue was brought to a shura, and the matter was settled and apologies rendered.8 By empowering the traditional Afghan subnational governance institutions at the local level from the bottom up, this acts to counter the Taliban's "shadow court."
While there are many reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the improvements in the security situation in Khakrez, the insurgents continue to test, target and intimidate the local population. The Taliban do not like losing control and influence over the area, and they will try desperately to regain power. For example, we have recently seen the insurgents conduct episodic acts of violence against the local populace and coalition forces in the area. In spite of those attacks, the local populace remains stalwart in its opposition to the insurgency and in the support for the GIRoA. With the advent of the fighting season, the spring and summer of 2011 will continue to test the VSO's enduring viability.
Future of VSO
The VSO program represents the best practices in foreign internal defense and counterinsurgency. The VSO concept also utilizes SF, CA and MISO in the capacity for which they were designed — to conduct operations at the grassroots level in villages in towns where the contest between the people and the insurgents is an everyday reality. The VSO teams focus first on bringing security to usher in development and a connection of local traditional governance to the formal governance at the district level and above.
Khakrez is but one example of the effectiveness of the VSO program. CFSOCC-A is currently implementing this program in 17 Afghan districts, and it includes more than 3,000 local defenders. VSO complements other programs currently being implemented by the GIRoA, coalition forces and the international community. VSO in Khakrez and other sites in the surrounding areas are proving to be invaluable in securing the countryside and helping to improve the everyday lives of the locals. If we are to be successful in defeating the Taliban, bottom-up programs in rural areas must be supported and spread throughout the country.
Lieutenant Colonel Basil J. Catanzaro is a Civil Affairs officer currently assigned as the civil liaison officer for the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade. He has more than 24 years of enlisted and commissioned service in the Army. Most recently, Lieutenant Colonel Catanzaro served as a member of the J35 Local Defense Initiative Focus Team for Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan. He has also served as a CA team leader and battalion S3/operations officer in the 96th CA Battalion and the brigade S9 for the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. He holds a master's in defense analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a bachelor's in Russian studies from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Major Kirk Windmueller is a Special Forces officer and the executive officer for the 4th Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group. Most recently he served as a member of the J35 Local Defense Initiative Focus Team for Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan. As a detachment commander in the 10th Special Forces Group, Major Windmueller completed a tour in Kosovo and two tours in Iraq. He has also served as the chief of Special Forces doctrine at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. He holds a master's in defense analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a bachelor's in biology from the Citadel in Charleston, S.C.