- Karl von Clausewitz
Over the course of America’s 235 year history she has declared major war five times and has been involved in over 180 small conflicts (Boot 2002). The United States has experienced every facet of warfare in almost every geographical setting on earth (Boot 2002). Extensive archives of military strategy which could undeniably provide potential solutions for the strategic problems we are facing in warfare today are as easily accessible as a Google search. However it took the United States over eight years of fighting in the austere terrain of Afghanistan before the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) finally proposed the strategy of the Civilian Defense Initiative (CDI). Within less than a year’s time this strategy was renamed and finally rested with the title of Village Stability Operations (VSO). Today Village Stability Operations is the premier strategy touted by the current US administration and is considered by many the strategy for success in Afghanistan.
When first tasked with implementing what is now called the Village Stability Operations (VSO) strategy in April 2009, a proposal of what the strategy should roughly resemble was forwarded through the 7th Special Forces Group’s chain of command to Operational Detachment Alpha 7224 (ODA or “the Detachment”). The briefing that was included in the mission description was established by input from Dr. Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation and Brigadier General Reeder, the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan Commander (CFSOCC-A). The proposal depicted the typical counter insurgency (COIN) mission under the overarching mission in Afghanistan of Foreign Internal Defense Mission (FID). Special Forces conduct both of these mission sets on a routine basis. However the VSO mission differed from the usual mission of train, interdict, and disrupt which the Special Forces and conventional counterparts had been waging since the inception of the war in Afghanistan. The ODA realized that the VSO strategy proposal was essentially a combination of COIN and FID, and was similar to tenants that are taught in the Robin Sage portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).
When the Detachment started its initial planning on how to operationalize VSO, it conducted a historical study of some of the proposed tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and came to realize that some of the key components harkened back to the Special Forces’ strategy of Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) in Vietnam. CIDG was one of Special Forces’ greatest success stories in American history and by far the greatest example of how to fight unconventional warfare with an economy of force approach and modest foot print. Amongst all the different theories, schematics, and pillars of counter insurgency, the CIDG experience was American made and executed with precision.
During the period from 1954 to 1971, the longest COIN/FID mission ever conducted by an American force was directly implemented by the US Special Forces (USSF) in South Vietnam. In the initial stages of American USSF involvement in Vietnam, President Kennedy emphasized to new Army lieutenants graduating from West Point “[t]hat this is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin - war by guerillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him” (Arnold 2009). President John F. Kennedy stated that pure military skill is no longer enough to address the current defense challenges that our nation is facing (Olson 2011). He further elaborated that a full spectrum of military, paramilitary and civil action must be blended to produce success (Olson 2011). President Kennedy’s proposal of a whole new military strategy was considered to be ahead of his time by many. He displayed an innate ability to recognize the future of modern irregular warfare and identify it as one of the greatest existential threats to the United States beyond that of high intensity conflict. Many who have done the thorough analysis would agree that President Kennedy rather than a visionary could have been a tremendous steward of US military small war history.
Various Special Forces elements operated under the auspices of military advisory groups in South Vietnam as early as July 1954, just three months after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu (Kelly 1973). From 1954 until 1957 there were roughly 342 trainers in country, advising, training, and assisting the fledgling South Vietnamese Army (Kelly 1973). By 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group had trained over 58 men of the South Vietnamese Army which formed the trainers of the elite Vietnamese Special Forces units (Kelly 1973). With the exponential growth of the Viet Cong insurgency, the counter insurgency strategy drastically needed to be expanded and it came to be known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (Kelly 1973).
The Civilian Irregular Defense Group took place in rural villages where Special Forces would set up area development centers and focus on local defense and civic action. Primarily the CIDG strategy resulted in an ODA occupying a village after they made their initial assessment which encompassed tribal elder wishes with rapport building. That ODA would be responsible for establishing a village security force comprised of roughly 10-12 men per village depending on populace size and enemy activity in the area (Kelly 1973). A larger village within that same province would have a more fortified position with the construct of a Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) and civil action platform. The MIKE force was essentially a 35 man element or larger of a more highly trained indigenous force (Kelly 1973). The MIKE force’s main mission was to provide a counter offensive strike capability to defend villages, local defense forces, and the ODAs in them. The MIKE force was trained, advised and led by an ODA.
The original concentration of Special Forces targeted the rural areas in Vietnam because roughly 90% of the population at the time in Vietnam was rural (Arnold 2009). The early CIA studies also verified that the rural peasant population was not ideologically committed to either the Viet Cong or South Vietnamese cause and was thus impressionable (Booth 1992). The Special Forces soldiers found that they should focus on recruiting members of the Montagnard tribes to build the main concentration of irregular forces. The Montagnard tribes of Vietnam are the indigenous people of Vietnam and at the time made up roughly 3 million people in Vietnam. Throughout the war the Special Forces had immense success recruiting people from these tribes as the communist insurgency of the Viet Cong were highly suspicious of the indigenous tribes (Booth 1992). Not only were the Montagnard predominantly Christian in faith because of the early colonial efforts of the French but they also were oppressed by the Vietnamese in both the south and north. The Special Forces found that providing medical assistance to the tribes and rural populace garnered them almost immediate support from these tribes. By 1961, the CIDG forces had grown from a mere few hundred villagers to 40 villages defended with a total of 14,000 villagers, over 1000 trained local defense forces, and a more than 300-man strike force (Kelly 1973).
In 1962, the most prominent CIDG success was the Buon Enao village project in the Dar Lac province and took place under the command of CPT Shackleton and his five other ODA members. In essence the detachment minus offered only training and some medical and weapons resources to the Montagnard tribe in the central highland province. The key factor of the whole program, which is the underpinning for today’s VSO strategy, is that they did not offer pay to the Montagnards for their dangerous undertaking as a local defense force (Booth 1992). The ODA’s tremendous rapport building skills, cohabitation with the tribe, and inseparable commitment resulted in establishing the most famed CIDG site in the war and in turn assisted the exponential growth of the strategy. In one of CPT Shackleton’s after action reports he displayed just how effective the CIDG program was; “As more and more villages were trained and armed, the Viet Cong lost more and more support. The accessibility and freedom of movement they once enjoyed no longer went neither unnoticed nor unreported. The Viet Cong were now forced to revert to repressive measures: seizing rice, conscripting men, and taking hostages in their desperation to survive. But even with terror, the guerrillas most potent weapon and a standard part of his strategy, they lost popular support. They were soon without communal sanctuaries for regrouping after military defeats. The Viet Cong now had to devote a majority of his effort merely to survive.....this program released Vietnamese regular army units to conduct offensive operations in force against the Viet Cong. Otherwise, these forces would find themselves confined to garrison cities, entirely encircled by a hostile countryside. ... the protection of the Montagnards was no longer a military responsibility. The village defenders were responsible for their own protection and security" (Shackleton 1975). Shackleton’s report resonates with multiple other accounts from other ODA’s in Vietnam at the time and seemed to prove President Kennedy’s aforementioned statements absolutely correct.
Though the CIDG program was initially a tremendous success, the outside assistance from China, Russia and other communist soviet bloc countries bolstered the growth of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army. By 1963, the Viet Cong were able to more effectively mass forces, conduct large scale subversion, perform assassinations, and escalate direct attacks on a greater scale of success. CIDG efforts did thwart many of the Viet Cong insurgent efforts but the outside state actor involvement from communist countries, and their efforts of communist expansion, began to worry the corrupt South Vietnamese administration. This anxiety was felt by the heads of State Department and the US ambassador in Vietnam. In turn that concern was transferred to senior US military officials and the Johnson Administration. Though most post-World War II presidents agreed with the strategy of containing the spread of communism, the US administration under President Johnson possessed a fundamentally different strategic view from that of President Kennedy. Shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination, the pressure from the conventional Army built and President Johnson gave in to their desires to assert a conventional Army commitment in Vietnam (Arnold 2009).
The CIDG program in turn was quickly placed under the command and control of the conventional minded Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC-V) which directed Special Forces elements to utilize both their local defense forces and MIKE forces as offensive irregular entities (Booth 1992). This caused a systematic change in the focus of the CIDG strategy. Local defense forces and MIKE forces found themselves shifting from the primary responsibility of denying enemy freedom of maneuver, defensive operations, and protection of their local villages, to the conventional coveted missions of “search and destroy” (Arnold 2009). This same mistake is being made today in Afghanistan where the conventional Army refers to the same tactic in a different vernacular, calling present day missions “sweep and clear” (Johnson and Mason 2009).
Though the strategy was critically changed, the USSF command worked diligently to save what was left of the CIDG program and maintain its importance throughout the remainder of the war. From 1963 through 1969, the Special Forces had trained a total of 72,000 personnel in the CIDG force, 5,700 personnel in the MIKE Force, and protected over 200 villages in rural Vietnam (Kelly 1973). They performed gallantly in various missions like operation Attleboro and Blackjack 33 where many of the conventional commanders sang great praises for their prowess in battle and ability to locate the enemy (Kelly 1973). On any given quarter with in a year the CIDG and MIKE forces were killing roughly 1,300 enemy personnel and capturing half that many (Kelly 1973).
In 1970, the CIDG program and MIKE forces were either disbanded or assimilated into the South Vietnamese Army. The integration program was termed “Vietnamization” by President Nixon (Booth 1992). Vietnamization was a policy where the US military force escalated training and equipment issue to the South Vietnamese Army so they could assume more of the lead role in combat. This required the irregular forces to become part of the South Vietnamese Army or disarm and disband. When the Special Forces were ordered to abandon the local defense forces and MIKE forces, 16 years of rapport building and loyalty were destroyed. While many Montagnards were Christian, the Vietnamese still looked down upon them and referred to them as savages. The CIDG tribes and personnel were looked upon as ineffectual by the South Vietnamese Army even though that opinion could not be further from the truth. In reality the South Vietnamese army was highly intimidated by the successful CIDG and MIKE force units. Within a few years the conventional army pulled out and handed the military mission over to the South Vietnamese Military. In 1974, the remaining indigenous personnel of the CIDG and MIKE forces were, along with their tribes, systematically hunted down and murdered by the North Vietnamese when they took over the South.
If we fast forward to present time we see that the same mistakes are being made in Afghanistan. In the Vietnam War it was not until 1969, roughly 15 years after initial US involvement and the inception of the CIDG strategy, that General Abrams admitted that pacification was the “gut issue” of Vietnam (Arnold 2009). Abrams further stated that, “if we were successful in bashing down the VC and the Government can raise its head up, the villages and hamlets can maintain their militia units and keep a few police men around and people are not being assassinated all the time, then the government will mean something” (Arnold 2009). Like Abrams, it took our current conventional commanders in Afghanistan roughly 8 years of protracted war until VSO was initially implemented in the Day Kundi province of Afghanistan. They had finally realized, like in Vietnam, that the populace was the ticket to winning the war rather than focusing solely on large scale centralized nation building.
The initial stage of the Afghan war was predominantly a Special Forces focus. As they are trained to do, the Special Forces covertly invaded Afghanistan, joined the irregular force of the Northern Alliance, and sought about destroying and overthrowing the oppressive government of the Taliban. This was a key demonstration of the unconventional warfare prowess which Special Forces pride themselves on. The involvement of the conventional forces quickly followed the Vietnam storyline and the pressure to shift focus to a sweep and clear operational strategy coupled with large scale centralized government nation building became the norm (Johnson and Mason 2009). The Special Forces maintained some latitude of operational independence until they lost control of battle space or more commonly known as joint special operation areas (JSOAs). The conventional Army asserted its control over these areas and mandated that everyone operate under the command of battle space owners within the different regional control areas of Afghanistan.
With the decision to put all forces under the command of regional battle space owners, the overarching mistake made in Vietnam repeated itself. Like in Vietnam, the conventional Army leadership in Afghanistan attempted to transform the root Special Forces’ mission into a more familiar conventional mission with clear battle lines drawn, a forward line of troops, and clearing pieces of land of little strategic value (Johnson and Mason 2009). Special Forces were pressured into focusing on direct offensive action and measuring metrics of success through body counts and improvised explosive devices dismantled (Johnson and Mason 2009). The premise of counter insurgency seemed to be shelved and lessons learned from the past forgotten, including the fact that insurgents do not care about territory. Afghan villages were subsequently forgotten with the populace within them. Special Forces found themselves building overly fortified fire bases like the conventional forces and left only when they set about to interdict and destroy the enemy. After the successes of the initial invasion of Afghanistan, the subsequent eight years brought dwindling progress and pundits, policymakers, and the American people began to question if the US military could be victorious.
The implementation of the VSO strategy quickly brought about real benefits to the rural populace in terms of security because it used sound COIN policy tailored to the Afghan culture. This was evidenced when ODA 7224 implemented the prototype for VSO in the Day Kundi Province in July 2009 (Maurer 2009) (Naylor 2010). When the ODA infiltrated the province they were greeted with tremendous fervor. The Hazara tribal populace of Day Kundi had in place very pro-western leadership and even possessed the country’s first female mayor in the district center of Nili. Within weeks of implementing similar tactics, techniques, and procedures utilized by the first CIDG teams in the Darlac province of Vietnam, the ODA was able to establish rapport with the tribal leaders, local mullahs, and attend jirgas and shuras on a regular basis. This rapport proved fruitful for the men of the Detachment as they were able to foster several local village defense sites and train an exclusive counter offensive force that resembled the MIKE Force (based on the author’s personal experience).
The beginning stages of operationalizing VSO did encounter complications. Some of the initial phases of the early implementation of the operation were saddled with confusion about funding methodologies not to mention the challenging logistics. In the initial phases of the operation, the ODA coordinated with the combined joint special operations task force’s (CJSOTF-A) staff to address these issues and comprise a sound methodological approach to implementing the strategy.
The initial implementation strategy very much resembled the outline currently being used – that of “shape, hold, build, transition.” First, the ODA assesses the human terrain to determine whether a particular village will accept the proposition of defending themselves – in other words, shaping the battlefield. This is the most important part of the process because the VSO strategy cannot be forced on the indigenous people, to do so would negate the whole principle of the strategy. Once a location has been selected, the village holds a Jirga or Shura to decide whether to accept the proposition. If accepted, the ODA lives amongst the people and holds the village and surrounding territory through influence, deterrence, and the advent of a local police or militia. In the build phase, the ODA connects the village or villages under its control with the district and provincial government. This phase resembles the larger control hub or civic action platform utilized in the CIDG program. The villages, local population and local police feel that they are then part of the larger national government. This in turn establishes a feeling of relevance in the legitimacy of the system going forward, a sense of nationalism, and produces an actual or perceived notion that the local villagers are firmly committed to something greater than themselves, in essence the establishment of the social contract.
The final phase of the VSO strategy is the transition phase. This phase is one of the most delicate phases of the operation and can be compared to the latter stages of the CIDG strategy when Vietnamization occurred. During the transition phase, after certain metrics of success are met, the Special Forces team will hand the local defense force over to the Afghan national police (ANP), the Afghan National Army (ANA), or the local forces will disband, disarm and reintegrate into society. Thus far few VSO sites have transitioned. The few sites that have transitioned have been seen as feckless by the ANA or ANP and have been mistreated in much the same way the Montagnards were treated by the South Vietnamese Army.
In the first month of VSO implementation in the Day Kundi province, ODA 7224 was recovering improvised explosive devices both pressure plate and remote activated. They also recovered various caches for Taliban and armed group resupply. The ODA had determined that much of the area was a rest and recuperation (R&R) area for Taliban and anti-coalition forces during the winter seasons. During the fighting season, roughly from spring to fall, the enemy would trickle back across the mountain ranges to target US-Coalition forces throughout southern Afghanistan. Enemy activity in the area was not immense but was commonplace throughout the central province.
The populace quickly worked with the Detachment to expel enemy forces. The mutual respect that was established between the ODA and the local forces led to the Detachment’s first line of defense – the populace. Once the first local police/militia force was implemented, enemy activity was severely reduced and the province shifted from a non-permissive to semi-permissive environment (personal observation). ODA 7224 was able to conduct most travel throughout the entirety of the province in non-armored pick-up trucks, remain lightly armed, and meet with the locals on a regular basis. Operational Detachment 7224 was essentially able to exert control over a province comprising over 18,000 square kilometers with roughly 18 US forces, 120 CIDG personnel, a 24-man pseudo MIKE force, and 100 Afghan National Police. This confounded many naysayers of the strategy as the ODA was the first overt American force to establish a long-term presence in the province since the inception of the war. But, the strategy was a proven success and was quickly coveted by the higher command as the way forward in Afghanistan (Mann 2011).
From 2009 to 2010, various segments of senior US military leaders advocated for the VSO strategy until final approval was codified in a presidential decree by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in September 2010 (Bolduc 2011). The only VSO sites that existed in 2009 were the primary site of Day Kundi and two others that were established shortly thereafter in western and southern Afghanistan. By 2010, the number of sites had grown to nine around the country of Afghanistan.
In late 2009-2010, another site of prominence and success was Khakrez, Afghanistan. The Khakrez district is a rural agrarian community with a population of approximately 20,000 people 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 and a popular tourist destination (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). Because the location is in close proximity to Kandahar City and it has tourism interests, Khakrez’s economic center was once a booming hub of commerce prior to the onslaught of repressive Taliban policies. Through the hard work of the VSO strategy, prosperity grew within about six months, an incredibly short period of time (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). Shortly after the implementation of VSO, the local bazaar in now Khakrez touts more than 40 shops and stores and is thriving with commerce similar to the golden ages of Afghanistan (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). The VSO example in Khakrez is testimony that if the local populace is protected and in turn empowered, then they will reject the ideology of the Taliban and other repressive regimes. Not only have businesses improved but the security in the area has allowed the displaced populace to move back to Khakrez. As the ODAs rotate through the area, they continue participating in local shuras to resolve conflicts, increase tourism, coordinate with the national government and renew civil action projects (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). As happened with the CIDG strategy in Vietnam, the Taliban is furious that it is gradually losing control over the populace. It continues to escalate its acts of terror against the populace which does nothing more than cement its resolve towards a brighter future of Afghanistan.
Currently there are about 70 VSO sites and each site consists of approximately 12 local police. The total force in Afghanistan to date is about 800 local police and is a far cry from the proposed 10,000 sought out by President Karzai and NATO/ISAF forces (Jalali 2010). The MIKE force option is still gaining traction. Currently the commando elements in Afghanistan are being utilized to fill that void, but the unfortunate side is that the commando elements are a national force and lack the cultural bond in some areas in which they operate even though they are from the same country. Afghanistan is a tribal state which has four main ethnic groups and over 60 Pashtun tribes and sub tribes. The CIDG strategy in Vietnam concerning the MIKE force differed from the VSO strategy because the MIKE force was typically made up of the local villagers. In the case of Afghanistan, the commando forces are smatterings of people from all over the country. What VSO sites do exist and have been transitioned are having difficulty integrating and have been mis-utilized by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) because of this lack of tribal bond.
The parallels between the two strategies of CIDG and VSO are indisputable, although there are also distinct contrasts. The cultural and geographical aspects of the two countries where the strategies were and are located are vastly different. Those aspects, while important, do not change the overall strategies and the tenants of the strategies. If the US continues to study its own small war history and understand that it does not have to repeat the same mistakes of the last war, then success will be achievable. The underlying focus should be to recognize the aforementioned mistakes in the Vietnam War and why CIDG was hampered. If the US were to make the strategy of VSO the main military effort then positive results will undoubtedly increase.
Making VSO the main strategic focus in Afghanistan will require military leaders to put the conventional and unconventional war fighting machine bias aside. Conventional forces will need to cede control and understand that the right tool for this job is an unconventional force-led strategy and not the large scale high intensity conflict strategy. Making this change will allow the populace to rally. VSO, like CIDG in Vietnam, must be granted time to mature and change the minds of millions of people who have seen nothing but war and atrocities for the entirety of their lives. As a nation and military we must come together under one clear goal and a unified effort. This unity will only take place once leaders put aside the self-centered goal aside of who garners the credit for success and instead focuses on the innocent lives that are at stake in Afghanistan and should be the real concern. Over the past 11 years in the Afghanistan War, millions of people have been given hope and a newfound resolve because of our presence and efforts. We have to pointedly ask ourselves if we are willing to desert millions of allies like we did to the Montagnards of Vietnam and witness their systematic slaughter and oppression, or will we make good on our promises and stand for something greater?
Unfortunately the strategy of VSO is one which is geared towards fighting an insurgency, and countering an insurgency effectively could take decades. If we continue to apply this strategy along with the task of westernized nation building, then it could take generations. Based on the aforementioned analysis we can surmise that VSO is not the proverbial silver bullet to the Afghan problem. It is however a viable alternative to the current strategy which has been given 11 years to succeed. If the US was to apply the current strategy in an economically scaled back fashion coupled with VSO it likely will produce concrete results. Some of the very dynamics will have to change and the main effort will have to be the VSO strategy subordinate to a USSF command. The US will also have to determine precisely what its goals are in Afghanistan and may have to be willing to accept an Afghan good enough approach. Combined, this hybrid strategy could provide the right formula for success over a period of time. This hybrid strategy could be accomplished with fewer forces than are currently on the ground, thereby providing the US an option which could be sustainable for an indefinite period of time, if necessary. The time issue cannot be overstated in its importance. An insurgency’s main weapon is time. Removing the hard timeline to remove all US troops would destroy the insurgency’s main weapon and demonstrate a resolve and promise to the world and the populace of Afghanistan.
The antithesis of a positive review offers a stark contrast and in most of those arguments the one question remains – if we continue an enduring presence, what is in it for the US and are the current and unforeseen costs worth it? The majority of the accessible literature seems to support that staying the course is worth the price. Stabilizing Afghanistan would stabilize the region, and a steady Afghanistan would result in economic and security possibilities that would in turn benefit US interests in Eurasia. In essence all theories positive or negative seem to support the idea that the costs of a premature withdrawal would greatly outweigh the costs of an enduring presence.
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 The term Montagnard comes from the French translation of “mountain people.” The Montagnards were comprised of roughly 5 different sub tribes (Shackleton 1975).
 Operation Attleboro (SEP 1966 – NOV 1966) occurred in the Dau Tieng district which is northwest of Saigon. The operation was a victory for the US and resulted in over 1,000 enemy casualties and the seizure of vast enemy logistical caches. The logistical caches were believed to be prepositioned for a Tet offensive in 1966. Due to the efforts of the conventional 196 INF and CIDG/MIKE forces these plans were thwarted.
Operation Blackjack 33 was a USSF led mission in 1967 to locate the 271st main force VC regiment so the 1st INF DIV could engage and destroy. The USSF led CIDG/MIKE force located elements which resulted in over 300 enemy killed and multiple members of their force being personally decorated for their efforts by Major General John Hay of the 1st INF DIV.
 Their ability on the battlefield did come at a price on various occasions and the proof of their effectiveness and courage in battle are recognized by the sheer amount of Medals of Honor and other awards for conspicuous gallantry presented to the Special Forces advisors of these brave forces.
 Command and control is imperative on the battlefield to prevent things such as friendly fire incidents or what is commonly referred to as fratricide.
 Jirgas and Shuras are assemblies or meeting with village elders and leaders.
 A non-permissive environment is one in which US troops do not have freedom of movement. In contrast, a permissive environment is one in which US troops have full freedom of movement. In a semi-permissive environment, troops have some freedom of movement but it is not free flowing.