4th and Long: The Role of Civil Affairs in Village Stability Operations

4th and Long: The Role of Civil Affairs in Village Stability Operations

By Capt. Neiman C. Young
Originally published in the July-September 2011 edition of Special Warfare

Upon arriving in Afghanistan to conduct their 2010 rotation, the team leaders and team sergeants of Company A, 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, were unaware of the pressures on their mission until they attended a briefing by Colonel Donald Bolduc, incoming commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force–Afghanistan, or CJSOTF-A.

"Our nation is at a crucial point where our actions this summer will directly impact the collective perception of the Afghan people, the enemies of Afghanistan, the international audience, and the U.S. homeland. These critical audiences will begin to make their mind up as to whether or not to continue this fight. … Pick your sport: 'fourth and long,' 'bottom of the ninth,' 'overtime' … all appropriately convey where the CJSOTF-A is in assisting the local populace and fighting insurgents. The context we are operating under is one of urgency."1 — Colonel Donald Bolduc


To deal with the urgency, CJSOTF-A was adopting a new strategy of village stability operations, or VSO, a bottom-up plan focused on delivering security, stability and governance to the rural villages of Afghanistan. VSO is founded upon a range of programs designed to stabilize a region and establish a link between targeted villages and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or GIRoA. Like every other component of CJSOTF-A, the Civil Affairs teams, or CATs, were going to have to figure out where Civil Affairs operations fit into VSO, and they were going to have to do it quickly.

The unit on the ground for VSO is the village stability platform, or VSP, the embedded security apparatus that works through and with Afghan leaders both formal (GIRoA representatives) and informal (village elders) to establish that link. According to Master Sergeant Dennis Pease, NCOIC of Co. A's civil-military operations center, or CMOC, "The majority of the insurgents don't live and operate in urban areas — they live and operate in the rural Afghan countryside. It is in these areas where the insurgency thrives. The rural population is under-secured and under-serviced by a government that is under-represented and under-resourced. In this gap lies a large Afghan citizenship with grievances that are both resolved and exploited by the insurgents on a daily basis. The CJSOTF-A emphasized this gap was going to have to be closed by coalition forces rather than our enemies."

To close the gap, VSO called for the CATs and Special Forces operational detachment-alphas, or ODAs, to move from their forward operating bases, or FOBs, into safe houses among the populace. Because the safe houses were not yet established, the CATs and ODAs would have to negotiate for them with the elders of villages that were known to be insurgent safe havens. "They were returning to basic special-operations doctrine: Get off of the (forward operating bases) and out there among the local populace," Pease said. Major Matthew Ziglar, commander of Co. A, stressed that the focus on a direct link to the population plays into the strengths of CA forces. He also noted, "The CJSOTF-A commander's policy and guidance for village stability falls directly into the very tenets of Civil Affairs doctrine. Therefore, Colonel Bolduc asked for us to think of new and unique ways to create this capability at each VSO location."

Tied into the CJSOTF-A commander's vision was a robust support network able to push assets and information across the battlefield to leverage the CJSOTF-A's unique capabilities. Key subcomponents that the CJSOTF-A commander and subordinate commanders of the Special Operations Task Force, or SOTF, have at their disposal include the SOTF S9s and the civil-military operations center, or CMOC. Both provide direct support to VSO locations across the battlefield, including those that have no CA representation.

The SOTF S9s plug into the SOTF staff to provide situational awareness to the SOTF commanders for all things related to civil-military operations, or CMO. One the SOTF S9's primary responsibilities is accountability for the expenditure of funds under the Commander's Emergency Response Program, or CERP. CERP funds allow operational units to tap into a monetary resource for immediate effects. Some best practices of CERP are low-cost, high-impact projects to demonstrate to local communities that SOF bring needed resources to local villages. Always wary of creating a dependency, units using CERP will transition those types of activities to the host nation as soon as the local government can continue them.

The CMOC serves as the clearing house for information received from teams on the ground. Working with the CJSOTF-A staff, the CMOC provides details for operations at VSO locations. While CATS generate the majority of the CMOC's reports, the CMOC can pull information from other organizations and units. Some of those reports include key-leader-engagement worksheets, nonlethal-targeting packets and storyboards. Once processed and checked for accuracy, those reports are uploaded in the Afghanistan database of record, CIDNE, where they can provide all units with situational awareness, analysis and historical documentation of reports and projects.

The CATs were partnered with their peer SOF elements: SF ODAs and military information-support teams, or MISTs. Those SOF elements combine with various support elements to form VSPs, where each element is responsible for certain portions of the VSO strategy. The CATs, when present, were held accountable for the governance-and-development portion of operations. It is important to note that while each element carried traditional responsibilities, the responsibilities often blended. That ultimately required each element to perform nontraditional duties to meet mission requirements. Without the actions of each SOF element, the VSP would not have been successful. In most instances, ODAs, because they have the greatest battlefield presence and are uniquely suited to VSO, have been called upon to provide the lion's share of the operational requirements.

After learning about the locations in which they were to operate, the VSPs relocated to their areas of responsibility, or AORs, and began developing tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs, to accommodate the four phases of VSO: shape, hold, build, and expand and transition.2

VSO phases

Shape. Shaping, the first phase of VSO, begins with an assessment of the VSP's region. The VSP must first determine from established benchmarks whether the area is suitable for VSO:

· Are village elders willing to stand up against the insurgency?

· What is the terrain's value to the insurgency?

· What is the terrain's value to the GIRoA?

· Can the region sustain a VSP logistically and operationally?3

The success of shaping depends upon human-terrain mapping — an essential task of the CATs. The seven CATs were equipped with tools to quickly engage, document and analyze the local populace. Included in that specialized skill set are training in advanced negotiations and civil-information management, and certification on the Asymmetric Software Kit. These tools allowed the CATs to assess local citizens, identify their amount of influence, and establish relationship links between these individuals and people of interest. With that information, the VSPs were able to pursue CJSOTF-A's directive to gain entry into the area and obtain the trust of the village elders and residents.

The VSPs quickly learned that the village elders' commitment did not come without costs. CAT 115 conducted a pre-deployment site survey, or PDSS, to gain local leader buy-in for the VSP and to persuade the village residents to provide the VSP a location in which to live and operate. The team sergeant for CAT 115 explained, "During our first meeting with the elders, we were informed of a coalition-force operation conducted six months earlier. When the coalition forces arrived in our targeted region, they confiscated all of the fertilizer the locals had on hand and destroyed the stock to mitigate the use of fertilizer in the construction of improvised explosive devices." As a result, when the farming season arrived six months later, the local farmers did not have enough fertilizer or seed to sow crops. CAT 115 identified this need as a project that could be used to give the VSP access into the area.

Redeploying to the FOB, the CAT purchased the seed and fertilizer approved for agricultural use in the region. Three weeks later, the CAT returned to the village and hosted a shura to allow local elders to decide how the seed and fertilizer should be allocated. The goods were distributed equitably, and the VSP was granted favor. "The elders gave us access to an abandoned school. From there we began our village stability operations," states the team sergeant. "Four months later, we came upon a group of farmers while conducting a presence patrol. The farmers invited us to sit down to a meal of vegetables that were reaped from the seed and fertilizer distributed during the initial shura. This was an act of appreciation for the supplies we had provided them earlier that winter."

Following CAT 115's success, the other six CATs, identifying the formal leaders of their regions, began to recognize another element whose containment would be critical to completing the shaping phase. Sergeant 1st Class Scott Smullen, team sergeant for CAT 113, explains, "We began to realize that there were powerbrokers who managed the decision-making process behind the scenes. These individuals acquired influence from sources outside of the formal channels of GIRoA — personal wealth, family lineages and, sometimes, just plain popularity amongst the citizenship. The powerbrokers in the region often held more sway with the people than the village elders. … Establishing a relationship with the powerbrokers not only helped us achieve our objective of establishing ourselves in the village, but also [helped] with gaining critical information later throughout the operation."

With the safe houses obtained and permission granted to operate in their targeted regions, the CATs were able to complete the shaping phase and move forward to assisting the VSP with stabilizing the region.

Hold. After the VSP has secured access and placement in the region, it initiates VSO's hold phase, whose primary focus is security. The hold phase is perhaps the deciding point for the strategy's success or failure in the targeted region, as the VSP's relationship with local nationals is in its infancy, and credibility has not been established. During this period, the insurgents ramped up their acts of violence against coalition forces and the local nationals cooperating with the VSP.

CAT 114's team leader explained, "Initially, the village residents were apprehensive, as we were foreigners requesting them to stand up against insurgents who are often their own brothers, uncles and cousins. In response, the local residents would remind us of their suspicions that the Americans would abandon them after the coalition forces grew weary of the war. According to the elders, the mujahedeen were betrayed by the Americans after the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and they did not intend for that happenstance to reoccur on their watch."

To overcome the credibility obstacles, CAT 114 began investing heavily across its region, giving it strong points for arguing questions about the VSP's intent. "I asked the skeptical elders if they had done any recent traveling in the region," the team leader said. "Immediately, I highlighted the repairs we made to the Chutu Bridge. I pointed out the road improvements we made from Deh Rawood to Tarin Kowt. I asked them if they noticed the refurbishment of the Deh Rawood Bazaar. After the locals began to realize the VSP and GIRoA were providing them large services the Taliban couldn't match, the locals quickly began accepting the VSP presence and the idea of a GIRoA governed Afghanistan free of the Taliban."

Capitalizing on its success, the team began using the information gathered from human-terrain mapping to identify citizens' needs across the district that could be met using CERP projects. In addition to resolving local concerns in a timely manner, properly targeted projects served other purposes, including:

· Legitimizing the credibility of GIRoA and its ability to quickly service its constituents.

· Providing low-cost/high-impact opportunities for validating the VSP's presence.

· Providing opportunities for coalition forces to show respect for Islam and the Afghan culture.

· Boosting the local employment and economy.

CAT 114's team leader explained that the heartbeat provided to the GIRoA representation via bulk CERP funding played a critical role in gaining constituents' loyalty. Shuras were organized to begin accepting requests for development projects from constituents. The district governor approved each project and funded them with CERP money provided by the VSP. With a GIRoA representative publicly managing each phase of the region's development process, the GIRoA gained credibility, and the VSP's relationship with local nationals flourished into one of trust.

With those feelings of trust and confidence, VSP objectives became more palatable to local citizens, and the village security "bubble" took form. Individuals once cool to the VSP presence began to request assistance from the coalition forces. The VSP began receiving daily reports of insurgent activities by the locals, and the identification of IEDs by local citizens increased by 20 percent. These reports translated into lives saved and restrictions on the insurgents' freedom of movement in the district.

Build. During the build phase, the VSP begins establishing the legitimate link between the village and GIRoA. According to the CJSOTF-A VSO directive, the build phase does not end until there is a clear connection between the village and the district in regard to security, development, governance and reintegration. "When we first arrived, there was dissention between the GIRoA representatives and village elders," said CAT 112's team leader. "The village elders accused the district leaders of corruption and opaque financial transactions. Issues like these degraded the confidence of the local residents in their government officials."

To resolve those suspicions, CAT 112, working with the ODA, developed the Sub-Governors' Pilot Program, a strategy designed to make all the district leadership's financial transactions transparent. The program's rules included:

· All labor on projects was to be performed by local contractors.

· Project budgets and statements of work were enforced and made public.

· Before-and-after pictures were filed with the district center and made available upon any constituent's request.

· Project sites were subject to inspections by representatives of the district governor's office.

The program is unique because of its indigenous nature. "Every aspect of the Sub-Governor's Pilot Program is Afghan led," CAT 112's team leader said. "During previous development efforts, there was always an American face somewhere along the process. With the new program, the responsibility of development efforts was handed over to the district government. Therefore, whenever a local resident had a need, they went to see their GIRoA representatives rather than knocking on the doors of the VSP safe house."

After witnessing the stability delivered by the VSP, the region's powerbrokers approached SOF. "The local elders and ex-mujahadeen commanders felt that it was time to develop a way ahead for their district. They felt that it was time to write peace resolutions and call upon their brothers in the insurgency to assimilate into the new Afghan society," CAT 112's team leader said. In response, the ODA in the area assisted the powerbrokers with hosting the Voice of Peace Jirga in Paktia, a provincial conference that focused on solidifying the peaceful resolutions envisioned by the powerbrokers.

To assist in promoting the jirga resolutions, the leaders of the Voice of Peace Jirga established the Peace Shura Member's Council, which began traveling throughout the province to villages that were nonpermissive to coalition forces. That resulted in Afghans, rather than coalition forces, assuming the responsibility for diplomatic efforts with the enemies of Afghanistan.

Expand and transition. During the expand-and-transition phase, the VSP begins expanding its influence and transitioning the responsibilities of governance, security and development from coalition forces to GIRoA representatives. According to the CJSOTF-A VSO directive, "This critical step of expansion usually begins when your village achieves a clear connection with the district center and ends when the entire district is considered stable and is being led and administered by GIRoA."4

After seven months of working through the previous three VSO phases, CAT 113 was able to implement the fourth phase in the Nagahan district of Kandahar Province. The region stabilized and soon was heavily targeted by international developmental agencies and nongovernment organizations. GIRoA established a competent governing body to service the residents. More importantly, the residents denounced the insurgency and stood up an independent force of Afghan Local Police, or ALP, to retain security in their villages. The new force is a legitimate arm of the central government. A recent Army Times article on CJSOTF-A operations states, "Unlike the first village protection forces, which U.S. officials often referred to as 'community watch' forces, the local police forces will not be independent, but will report to the district police chief and receive pay, uniforms and ammunition from the Afghan Interior Ministry."5

The ALP assumed the responsibility for securing their own villages. To establish a link with GIRoA, the ALP began reporting to the Afghan National Police, or ANP, for accounting and training. The CAT 113 team sergeant explained, "On any given day, a village resident is now likely to be approached by a patrol consisting of ALP and ANP rather than coalition forces. The residents appreciate the fact that they are being policed by their own rather than by outsiders. This made our jobs easier and the region more stable. Tying the VSP in with the ALP was a difficult task, but it was well worth the effort. The only role the VSP plays in the district's security piece now is one of advising and limited support."

While the ALP has been well-received by the local residents of the Nagahan district, it has seen its fair share of challenges. Two months after the ALP stood up, its resolve was tested by a suicide bomber's attack on the wedding of an ANP officer. "The insurgents specifically targeted ANP checkpoint commanders," CAT 113's team sergeant said, "however, they utilized a young and hesitant proxy to conduct the attack." The attacker wore a vest loaded with explosives that would be ignited by a grenade time-delay fuse. Failing to account for the five-second delay between the activation of the fuse and detonation of the explosives, the bomber was startled by the apparent failure of the bomb and ran away from his intended victims.

While the attack failed to kill any ANP members, it dealt a serious blow to the ALP. Standing in a group near the exit, members of the ALP inadvertently blocked the bomber's intended escape. Thirteen ALP members and 21 civilians died when the vest exploded. However, the ALP immediately responded to the attack by securing the site and notifying the VSP, possibly thwarting any follow-on attacks.

In the aftermath of the Nagahan wedding attack, the ALP thrives, and its influence continues to expand. CAT 113's team sergeant explained, "Prior to our redeployment, we began seeing villagers from other districts coming to our local shuras asking for similar programs in their area. They saw the success and prosperity in Nagahan and wanted that stability in their region. In the future, we are considering making recommendations to the CJSOTF-A to expand VSPs out to those areas."

CA way forward

Co. A has since returned from its mission in Afghanistan, and the mission to provide CA support to CJSOTF-A has fallen to another company in the 91st CA Battalion. The new company remains on course to leverage all of the positive aspects of VSO.

VSO do not lend themselves to a template. Every location is unique, and the phases cannot be pinned to a calendar. In some instances, progress is incremental; in others, it occurs rapidly in each phase. Because the VSO concept is relatively new, it is still difficult to fully analyze its effectiveness. But from the comments of the members of CATs who have completed a rotation at a VSP site, they firmly believe that it works.

It will take time to build on SOF's VSO successes. There is a realistic expectation that as we demonstrate success, we can emulate the SOF VSO concept on a larger scale. Applying SOF's best practices to the operations of conventional forces working in similar environments could multiply the VSO effects. But accomplishing that would require deliberate planning and training to ensure that conventional forces have abilities similar to SOF's. Ideally, we could foster the development of a VSO training plan to build the understanding and ability of Afghan forces. The long-term goal would be to ultimately transition the entire endeavor of achieving village stability to the people of Afghanistan.

Captain Neiman C. Young is the team leader of CAT 115 and recently completed a tour in Afghanistan with his team. Since completing the Civil Affairs Qualification Course in April 2009, he has served in various positions in the CA community, including battalion civil-information manager, company operations officer and deputy chief of a civil-military operations center. He holds a bachelor's and master's in business administration and a doctorate in public policy and administration.


1. CJSOTF-A VSO Directive (Version 2), August 2010, 2.

2. CJSOTF-A VSO Directive (Version 2), August 2010, 2.

3. CJSOTF-A VSO Directive (Version 2), August 2010, 3.

4. CJSOTF-A VSO Directive (Version 2), August 2010, 5.

5. Sean D. Naylor, "Program has Afghans as First Line of Defense," Army Times, July 2010, available at http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/07/army_specialforces_072010w/.

This issue

July-September 2011
Volume 24 | Issue 3

Special Warfare, July-September 2011

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official bimonthly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.