Village Stability Operations: More than Village Defense

Village Stability Operations: More than Village Defense

By Col. Ty Connett and Col. Bob Cassidy
Originally published in the July-September 2011 edition of Special Warfare

Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan

The purpose of this article is to explain village-stability operations, or VSO, and their role within the overall campaign in Afghanistan. Joint and combined special-operations forces, or SOF, elements of the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan are the proponents for VSO. The information in this article is derived from the operational concept that the joint/combined SOF command designed as a critical and effective corollary to the demanding and diverse operational environment in Afghanistan.

"Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of behavior, shapes daily life through obligations of honor, hospitality, revenge and providing sanctuary. Jirgas and shuras — which are decision-making councils — remain instrumental at the local level, where state legal institutions are virtually nonexistent."1

VSO: More than village defense

VSO are one of several national priority efforts currently conducted by joint/combined SOF teams in rural village areas across Afghanistan in support of the International Security Assistance Force's, or ISAF's, comprehensive campaign of counterinsurgency, or COIN. The ultimate goal of the COIN campaign is to foster an enduring stability for the people of Afghanistan. Performing what are commonly described as "bottom-up" stability efforts, SOF teams contribute significantly to that strategy by conducting VSO in strategically important rural areas, in villages and in village clusters, along the lines of security, governance and development, to undermine insurgent influence and control. VSO are specifically oriented toward insurgent-controlled or -contested rural areas where there exist limited or no military or police elements of the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF. VSO enable local security and re-establish or re-empower traditional local governance mechanisms that represent the populations, such as shuras and jirgas (decision-making councils), and that promote critical local development to improve the quality of life within village communities and districts. In theory and practice, SOF efforts at the village level expand to connect village clusters upward to local district centers, while national-level governance efforts connect downward to provincial centers and then to district-level centers.

"Top-down reconstruction strategies may have been appropriate for countries such as Japan after World War II and Iraq after 2003, both of which had historically been characterized by strong centralized state institutions. But they do not work as well in countries such as Afghanistan, where power is diffuse."2

Through concurrent bottom-up and top-down efforts, re-empowered traditional, local-level governance, with the consent of the people, becomes a critical part of the effort to improve local security and governance in Afghanistan. In general terms, the insurgency in Afghanistan is rural and, by design, the VSO approach aims to project stability to those insurgent-controlled or -contested rural areas by focusing on the center of gravity — the population. VSO are the embodiment of comprehensive COIN, conducted in partnership with the populace — in other words, through and with the population and local security forces. VSO, where conducted, are creating isolating and delegitimizing effects that undermine insurgent influence with the population and simultaneously improve the people's perceptions of the government's legitimacy.

How SOF conduct VSO

Joint/combined SOF teams apply a methodology that provides a versatile, pragmatic, conditions-based model for VSO. The methodology comprises four phases: shape, hold, build, and expand and transition. In addition to providing a standard for measuring the progress and status of the various village-stability-platform, or VSP, missions of the SOF teams, the model provides common terminology for reporting the effects of VSO to senior decision-makers. It is worth noting here that VSO take a "conditions-based" approach, and the methodology must be adaptable to the varying and sometimes unique conditions faced by the VSPs. In other words, the methodology may not always follow a linear progression or adhere strictly to a predetermined timeline. For example, a village or village cluster may have progressed from the shape to hold phases as desired, but subsequent changes in the local situation, resulting from insurgent action or other variables, may require a reassessment that dictates additional shaping.

Shape. While shape is the first phase, it may also be the most critical. During this phase, operational elements assess threat conditions; develop a clear understanding of the human terrain, local history and other critical details related to the village/area; and begin engagement to prepare for long-term success. The goal of the shape phase is to gain local consent and invitation for the SOF team to embed within the village. SOF elements can achieve that only by earning the trust of the villagers and village elders. Entering a village without the elders' consent would, in all likelihood, not lead to long-term success. Areas with potential for VSP embeds are areas in which elders have asked for coalition forces' assistance or have previously demonstrated a willingness or capacity to defend themselves against insurgent violence. To be considered for VSO, the village or area must offer operational or strategic value to the Afghan government and ISAF, because of limited SOF resources. Moreover, even though SOF are ideally suited, organized and trained for operating in remote areas, leaders and planners must be circumspect about a potential VSO site's operational and logistical sustainability.

Many factors contribute to the success of the shaping effort. As previously stated, the SOF team must understand the potential VSP location's history and human terrain. Tribal dispositions, power brokers and insurgent shadow leaders can affect the success of shaping efforts and the selection of embed locations. It is important that the populace not perceive the embedded VSP as partial to one tribe or group at the expense of the others. To be successful, the VSP should endeavor not only to engage all power brokers effectively but also to mitigate any potential negative influence.

In many instances, particularly when SOF elements have identified areas of insurgent influence or strategic importance, ANSF and coalition forces may need to conduct clearing operations as part of shaping efforts to create conditions conducive to progress. SOF best accomplish these clearing efforts through coordinated efforts with ANSF and coalition forces. SOF-partnered Afghan commandos are the principal forces for those operations. The commandos have proven to be extremely effective in creating the requisite security conditions, given their inherent capabilities for communicating with the population, identifying threats and directly engaging local elders.

Before engaging a village or its elders, SOF teams must be aware that once they begin shaping efforts, they and the combined team incur a moral obligation to protect the village and its people. The village elders must perceive the team's commitment as genuine, not only to gain their consent for embedding, but also to help galvanize the village's commitment to self-defense that will be required at some point. The village must be willing to contribute to its own defense and to resist insurgent control with some help. We must reinforce that willingness, and the consequent village-defense efforts, because they represent an Afghan-initiated effort to solve Afghan challenges at the local level. Village elders fully understand that allowing SOF or other coalition elements to embed within the village is a clear sign to the insurgents that the village has made a decision to resist. Assuming that the SOF analysis and area assessments are accurate, we can expect that embedding efforts will precipitate increased insurgent violence against the population. It would be unreasonable to expect any village to make that decision without complete confidence in the commitment of SOF, the coalition and the Afghan government.

Hold. VSO have drawn the attention and concern of the Taliban and have created what General David Petraeus has called "tactical effects with strategic implications."3 Successful shaping efforts create some security "white space" by decreasing direct physical threats to the village or area, but that may be only temporary, given insurgents' intentions to reassert some form of control and influence. The embedded SOF team, with the support of the coalition, the Afghan government support and the ANSF when available, must focus its efforts during the hold phase on accruing security effects and building the village's capacity to protect its population. It is critically important that the SOF team view the village as its own and seek to protect it 24/7. The village and elders must also view the SOF team as an important, contributing member of the community. The absence of insurgent efforts to intimidate leaders and members of the population is a key indicator of positive security. Consistent and durable security effects will ultimately promote the governance and development components of stability.

Afghan Local Police, or ALP. "Everything ultimately has to be turned over to the Afghans."4 VSO from the outset, have sought to enable Afghan unilateral capabilities to create Afghan stability at local levels. Initially, SOF elements are looking for villagers and elders who will provide information to the SOF team or to the ANSF on activities (or persons) that are threatening their security. In fact, a small-rewards program exists to encourage that behavior. However, at some point during the hold phase, SOF teams will encourage village elders to initiate and incorporate a temporary locally partnered security force to defend the village from insurgents and other threats.

The ALP program, officially sanctioned as an Afghan government program in August 2010, is part of the overall VSO effort. SOF teams conducting VSO support those local government efforts under the direction and administration of the Ministry of the Interior, or MOI. Answering to the chief of police for their district, ALP members are vetted by the local shura and enrolled biometrically before they are trained and equipped. The vetting process includes the village elders, who recommend candidates they believe have a vested interest in protecting the village in which they live. SOF teams provide training focused on the Afghan constitution, the rule of law, police ethics and morals, basic rifle marksmanship and first aid. According to Fred Kagan, a student of the war in Afghanistan:

The emergence of a functional and credible local security program in 2010 is perhaps the most striking and unexpected development — and potentially one of the most important. The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program is designed to extend the reach of the Afghan and coalition forces to rural areas rather than to replace them. … This program offers a promising view of what at least part of the ultimate political solution to this conflict might look like.5

The ALP program represents a mobilization of the communities in which it is implemented, and it has the effect of separating the insurgents from the populace. Through the MOI's sponsorship and provision of equipment for the ALP, the program also provides tangible evidence of the government's interest in the well-being of the population.

In keeping with the moral requirement to protect resisting villages, VSO must remain responsive to emerging security threats that outmatch local capabilities. In the absence of other coalition or Afghan military or police elements, the most responsive forces for those in-extremis purposes are the SOF-partnered Afghan commandos. The same capabilities that the Afghan commandos bring to bear during shaping operations are also of value for disrupting ongoing or anticipated insurgent actions against the villages.

Build. The build phase of VSO involves the challenging but critical steps of establishing bottom-up links that will promote durable stability. Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and local defense forces, has observed:

Although creating a strong centralized state, assuming it ever happens, may help ensure long-term stability, it is not sufficient in Afghanistan. The current top-down state-building and counterinsurgency efforts must take place alongside bottom-up programs, such as reaching out to legitimate local leaders to enlist them in providing security and services at the village and district levels. Otherwise, the Afghan government will lose the war. Experts on state building and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan fall into two competing camps. … The first believes that Afghanistan will never be stable and secure without a powerful central government capable of providing services to Afghans in all corners of the country. The other insists that Afghanistan is, and always has been, a quintessentially decentralized society, making it necessary to build local institutions to create security and stability.6

The capabilities of Civil Affairs, or CA, support the bottom-up efforts. While VSO simultaneously re-empower traditional means of local governance, the full range of CA-coordinated development efforts can strengthen the connection at the district level. Development involves a host of efforts, including small cash-for-work projects under the auspices of the Commander's Emergency Response Program; medical projects, veterinary and agricultural seminars; major contract projects made possible by the United States Agency for International Development; and contributions from other partners within the international community.

The Afghan government and the international community can rely on those governance-and-development links throughout the district to understand bottom-up needs. The links assist the Afghan government in providing critical infrastructure needs and delivering essential services at local levels. Success in the build phase can yield exponentially positive effects on the quality of life for local populations and, at the same time, cultivate some confidence between the local and national levels of government. From the village-level perspective, VSO can provide a viable alternative to oppression and a compelling incentive for the insurgents to reintegrate.

Expand and transition. This phase of VSO should begin once a VSP has fostered a successful connection between the village and the district level of governance and development. The overarching VSO program has as its objective the creation of operational and strategic effects in support of the ISAF counterinsurgency campaign. Those effects ideally accrue as a consequence of expanding VSO efforts to other villages, until the entire district achieves enduring stability through empowered Afghan government leadership and administrative efforts. Historical examples of counterinsurgency, as well as the demonstrated propensity of the Afghan culture for raising local security forces, lend weight to the argument that, over time, VSO can achieve significant positive effects in Afghanistan. Fred Kagan has noted:

The premise of local defense initiatives is twofold: Counterinsurgency works best when local communities not only reject the insurgents but also agree to fight to keep them away; this principle seems especially applicable in a localized, rural and tribal society like Afghanistan where warrior spirit, independence and communal self-defense are prized traditions.7

SOF's organic capabilities of military information support operations, or MISO, can enhance the effects of VSO during the expansion phase. In addition to disseminating effective narratives to counter insurgent propaganda, MISO efforts also amplify narratives specific to the VSO sites' efforts and propagate messages integral to the information-operations campaign. VSO/MISO complementary communications, via established radio stations and disseminated radios in a box provide the population access to "tip lines," preferred entertainment, religious broadcasting and topic call-in opportunities.

Throughout all phases of VSO, the VSPs have recently begun incorporating effective cultural support teams, or CSTs, composed of female military personnel. Those specially trained female Soldiers are establishing people-to-people contacts with local Afghan females, which would be perceived as inappropriate if established by men. Furthermore, the CSTs provide direct-support activities that range from civic-action programs, to searches, to humanitarian assistance.

Village stability coordination

The development of VSO and its corollary ALP program has highlighted the requirement for a national-level network to synchronize and reinforce local-to-regional successes, to manage existing civil-military complexity and to promote the efficient expansion of VSO when feasible. The district-to-national-level network assists in leveraging all available civil-military expertise and capacity to address urgent needs in rural areas, needs which the VSP identify. The collaborative network extends from a national-level cell directly to regional-level cells. Regional-level collaborative cells comprise the existing VSPs and the supporting district and provincial advisory teams within the region.

To enable Afghan stability, SOF work to leverage numerous Afghan ministries, agencies and directorates, from VSPs to the national level. Key among the many entities with which SOF collaborate in VSO are the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, or IDLG, and the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, or MRRD. The MRRD, established to develop and implement programs that promote responsible social and financial growth, aims to reduce poverty among the approximately 80 percent of Afghans who live in rural areas. Established by presidential decree to improve governance and achieve stability, the IDLG is responsible for supervising provincial and district governors and respective subnational councils. The IDLG has established many policies and programs, including the Afghan Social Outreach Program, which has assisted local populations in establishing dozens of councils in critical provinces, connecting local traditional institutions to the central government.


Joint SOF teams are dispersed in remote, austere and often hostile areas of Afghanistan to execute VSO in a sustained way. To be sure, VSO are not without significant challenges and potential setbacks, as one would reasonably foresee under thoese circumstances, nor have they been without cost to our units and individual SOF Soldiers, Airmen and Marines. The effort is worthwhile, and it helps create real and potentially long-term positive effects. One expert on the region has observed:

Six in 10 Afghans today have a favorable opinion of the U.S. military presence in their country. They understand that the U.S. is a guarantor of a future that is somewhat better than the Afghan past. They are not, of course, expecting Afghanistan to be turned into a central Asian nirvana, but they are hoping for more security and prosperity.8

VSO are a crucial but corollary component of the overall comprehensive COIN campaign that seeks to bring security and stability to the Afghan people. In the end, our SOF units and personnel undertaking VSO in the most austere areas are contributing immeasurably to those efforts in effective ways and continue to do so through presence, patience and persistence to help build a hopeful future for Afghanistan and its people.

Colonel Ty Connett is a Special Forces officer assigned to the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan.

Colonel Bob Cassidy is the special assistant to Lieutenant General Rodriguez, commanding general, ISAF Joint Command–Afghanistan.


1. Seth G. Jones, "It Takes Villages: Bringing Change From Below in Afghanistan," Foreign Affairs, May-June 2010, 5.

2. Jones.

3. General David H. Petraeus, conference remarks, CFSOCC-A Village Stability/Afghan Local Police Conference, 9 April 2011.

4. Petraeus.

5. Frederick W. Kagan, Defining Success in Afghanistan (American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, 2011).

6. Jones.

7. Kagan.

8. Peter Bergen, "Why Afghanistan Is Far From Hopeless," Time, 17 March 2011, 1.

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.