Small Wars Journal

Innovation in Integration: Task Force Iron Ranger and Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan 2010-11

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 3:30am

Abstract: Integration of Special Operations Forces and General Purpose Forces in combat at the squad level has been a rare or non-existent occurrence for the United States Military.  Increased violence in Afghanistan has inspired a ground-up approach to improving governance.  To execute this strategy on a wide enough scale for it to be effective, Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan were augmented with a combined arms battalion in villages all across the country. This paper examines the experience of Task Force Iron Ranger, the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, as a case study of innovation in integration during combat conditions that provides us advantages and disadvantages of the pairing of Special Operations Forces and General Purpose Forces in support of Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police programs. 


Large institutional bureaucracies are infamous for changing at a relatively slow pace, even when the need for change is clear.  Different groups within government fight to maintain jurisdictional boundaries to protect funding, personnel allocation, and future roles.  During times of crisis however, there can be a brief window of opportunity for change to business as usual.  The United States’ experience in Iraq in 2007 is an example of such a crisis, where paradigms were shifted to align assets toward the achievement of the overarching mission, at the expense of individual institutions.  While the exact cause of the success of the Iraq Surge is debatable, the results were not. This is not to say that Iraq does not have problems, but the level of violence decreased and the counterinsurgent force created an opportunity for good governance to emerge (Ricks 2009).

The success of the Iraq Surge led to the hope that it could be replicated several years later when the conflict in Afghanistan reached a similar crisis point. Again, the Army leadership realized that to achieve success, changes had to take place.  One of these changes was an emphasis on control of the population, something that would require a large expansion of security forces in Afghanistan and a concurrent increased NATO presence.  The expansion of security forces at the national level had been slow and mixed, and many consider the efforts to grow the Afghan National Police to be a failure (Perito 2009).  This led to a movement to grow security forces at the grassroots level, in the village.  The perfect force to accomplish this was the Special Operations Forces, particularly Army Special Forces, with their long background in Foreign Internal Defense.  Unfortunately, these units had other important missions such as direct action missions and training Afghan commando and SWAT units.  There were simply not enough of Special Operations Forces to spread out into the countryside to raise militias on a scale large enough to have any impact. 

The need was clear but the solution was not, unless the Army as an institution could stretch.  And stretch it did.  For the first time in its two hundred and thirty five year history, it blended elements of its General Purpose Force with the Special Operations Force during 2011 to reach into all the regions of Afghanistan to increase security and facilitate Afghan governance.  This paper is a case study of a very successful integration of two distinct unit types during combat and a model of possibilities for the future.

Background and Theoretical Literature

To understand the importance of the role the integration of Special Operation Forces and General Purpose Forces played in the operational plan for Afghanistan, a short review of the theory that supports the creation of local security forces is helpful.  The concept behind Village Stability Operations and the creation of the Afghan Local Police stem from a paradigm shift away from the idea that the state should be the sole provider of security.  Due to a different developmental history, Afghanistan does not have the level of centralization for state-provided security to be effective, as seen in the continual warfare of the last several decades.  A short review of how security became a core state level task explains the Afghan government inability to provide this basic need for most of its population. 

The examination of security and order begins with the Hobbesian concept that people voluntarily enter into societies to establish security for themselves against threats from the violent state of nature (Hobbes [1651]1996).  Disparate smaller groups such as city-states joined together to form states as a consequence of violent relations with others (Tilly 1992).  The more successful a state was at war, the larger and stronger that state became.  The four activities essential to long-term state survival were statemaking (institutions), warmaking, providing protection, and extraction of resources from the population (p. 96).  Once a state could dominate these four areas, they could claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to dominate their territory (Weber 1946: 82-83). 

The disappearance of non-state actors providing security within geographic regions dates back several hundred years according to Tilly (1992), who described the phenomena as the reorganization of coercion.  Warning us to not underestimate the significance of this change, Tilly pointed out that nobles prior to the seventeenth century always had the right to settle differences with weapons and warfare with whomever they disagreed or had been wronged.  Tilly argued that as states increased in size, they tore down interior fortifications and disbanded interior armies to build them up on their frontiers.  The state’s expansion of their armed forces at the expense of local powers made it a foregone conclusion as to the eventuality of internal disarmament.  At this point in European history, Tilly felt Weber’s famous description of the state and its monopoly over the legitimate use of force became valid (p. 68-70). 

The notion that the state should maintain a monopoly on force is changing recently in post-industrial countries and in developing countries.  Johnston and Shearing (2003) viewed contemporary security programs from a governance perspective rather than policing, arguing that the notion of “a limited number of specialist (state) agencies” providing security to the population was too narrow (p 6).  Police have been the primary instrument of state power to reproduce order for several centuries, meaning that the state has given them the minimum coercive power to maintain order in a functioning society (Marenin 1996).  The amount of effort expended to reproduce order is of a much lower scale than the effort required to create order out of anarchy.  Any determined assault on lightly armed police causes their collapse as effective security forces, as exemplified in the Iraqi cities Fallujah, Baghdad, Ramadi, Samarra, and Tikrit in 2004 (Perito 2011:4).   This type of atmosphere creates the incentive for other armed groups to compete for the ability to define order on terms different from the government. 

Kilcullen (2009) studied several recent insurgencies over the past twenty years using the participant observer method and interviews in the field as an anthropologist. According to Kilcullen, “failure to deliver services, widespread corruption, poor coordination between central, provincial, and local authorities, abusive behavior by some local officials and lack of government presence creates space for non-state armed groups and criminal networks” (p. 47).  Kilcullen agreed with Fall ([1965]1998) that losing control of an area indicates that you are being out-governed, not outfought.  The government that fails to provide for its population, particularly the essential desire for order and respect for property, cannot be considered legitimate. 

Government establishes control over the population normally through the institution of the police.  Bayley (1985) defined police as “people authorized by a group to regulate interpersonal relations within the group through the application of physical force” (p. 7).  This implies that the act of policing is done by more than uniformed police.  Contract guards, off-duty policeman, neighborhood watches, and multinational corporations provide policing to communities and areas around the world today.  As discussed already, order maintenance is a function of policing, but police are better at recreating order than creating it (Marenin 1996: 313-25).  Once a situation has descended into lawlessness, how can order be reestablished?  Our recent experience in Iraq has taught us that putting police in checkpoints in violent areas is definitively not the answer.

If a high level of violence is antithetical to the maintenance of police forces, what can be done when there are not enough conventional military forces trained to maintain security? Frequently in the past, governments turned to sanctioned militias to fill the security gap (Kalyvas 2006).  Legitimate governments enlist militias reluctantly as it is perceived as a sign of the state’s weakness, and a poor precedent for the rule of law.  States voluntarily ceding their monopoly of the legitimate use of violence are often afraid of opening Pandora’s box; the immediate question becomes how do you return these armed groups back into the box when they have served their purpose.  The history of state formation has been in the direction of eliminating armed non-state groups within their territory, not arming local groups in the hopes they will gain dominance over a select population (Tilly 1992).  Nevertheless, the militia strategy is used frequently in civil wars because in the words of Kalyvas, “militias are a rather effective weapon against rebels” (2006: 109). 

Kalyvas developed a theory about violence in civil wars that based its framework on the concepts of control and collaboration.  While these two factors are self-reinforcing, Kalyvas demonstrated that control is a strong influence on collaboration.  Militias are a popular tool in civil wars because they extend the national government’s ability to control sovereign territory and this ability eventually spawns the type of collaboration required to harm the guerrillas’ cause while firming up support for the government.  Regardless of previous political orientation, extended periods of control eventually increase levels of collaboration among the enemy’s former and current supporters until the area swings toward full support of the government, and vice versa.

The United States had little contemporary experience working with militias until the Vietnam War, which saw the extended use of militia forces in a counterinsurgency effort.  Sheehan (1989) described the development of indigenous regional and local security forces by American military forces in Vietnam but was very critical of the implementation policies.  Former CIA Director William Colby (1990) agreed with Sheehan about the strategic failure of the U.S. and its conventional focus in Vietnam, but argued that the effectiveness of local and regional forces in the rural areas against the Viet Cong has long been overlooked.  Colby felt that a more vigorous campaign at the village level would have proved more effective than General Westmoreland’s search and destroy strategy.   Both Sheehan and Colby described a dichotomous war, being fought at the macro level and at the micro level with little link between the two wars.  In fact, there were tremendous difficulties in tying conventional military operations into civil activities, including marshaling indigenous efforts (Kitson 1972).  The integration of military and civil efforts (including policing) to create order is still problematic today as seen in the Balkans (Friesendorf 2010).

In the past few years, practitioners in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the use of militia forces to fill the expansive manpower needs in order to perform security functions.  The U.S. military is currently using the term Village Stability Operations to describe the use of local militia forces (called Afghan Local Police) and advised by the military, to create order and extend the reach of the government into rural populations (Special Warfare 2011).  This practice was influenced by Jones’ (2011) theories advocating a bottom-up approach to establishing legitimacy for the national government, starting with local security forces at the village level to complement the conventional top-down approach conducted in normal interventions. 

Jones’ theoretical framework argued that by pushing up from below to the regional level, local efforts could meet top down government efforts to increase government services, and thereby, government legitimacy.  The requirement for local security to accomplish this linkage was impossible to fill with Afghan security forces or International Security Forces; as a result, militias were experimented with to determine if they could expand the reach of government into insurgent dominated areas.  One drawback to the use of militias has been the accusations of human rights allegations (Healy 2011).  The best way to influence militias toward positive development as a security force is to assign them professional advisors and mentors.  This is exactly where Special Operations Forces have a role in executing U.S. Army doctrine.  

The U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine is highly influenced by David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare Theory (1964).  Based on Galula’s personal experience as a French counterinsurgent in Algeria, population centric counterinsurgency focuses on protection and isolation of the population from the insurgent.  Galula tried to sum his theory in a single sentence: “Build (or rebuild) a political machine from the population upward (p 16).”  Special Operations Forces create a multiplication effect of training local security forces to create the kind of control necessary for local governance to flourish despite the interference of Taliban insurgents.  Once a certain level of control has been reached, the assumption is that local governance can begin performing the myriad of mundane tasks that keeps a society functioning.  The one problem with executing this mission is manpower – the Special Operations Forces cannot accomplish this kind of mission by themselves.  This is where the integration of Special Operating Forces and General Purpose Forces can act as a possible solution.

Case Study - Afghanistan 2010

1-16 Infantry, a battalion stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, was having a tumultuous 2010.  As the Army shifted resources around to support higher priority missions, the Iron Rangers, the moniker of 1-16 Infantry, went through a series of task organization changes that might have broken other units.  The beginning of 2010 found them training MiTT teams for Iraq and Afghanistan before the Army ordered 1-16 Infantry to stand up as a combined arms battalion for a Fall 2010 Iraq deployment.  1-16 historically has been an infantry unit in the 1st Infantry Division, earning fame as one of the original members of the “Big Red One” and participating in the North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy invasions.  The transition back to being a mechanized unit required extensive gunnery training on their redrawn tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.  No sooner had they completed the transition to a combined arms battalion, the unit’s mission was changed again as the Brigade was tasked with an Advise and Assist mission that did not require them to bring 1-16 Infantry.  Left behind at Fort Riley, they began testing the Nett Warrior system for the Army.  In November of 2010 they were alerted to yet one more change in mission: to deploy to Afghanistan and integrate with Special Operations Forces (SOF) to support the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program, with a deployment date in the middle of January.  Faced with their third mission change in a year, the veteran leadership of 1-16 Infantry went through a hurried but methodical reorganization.

Since the unit was half tank and half infantry, the smaller tank platoons needed to be rounded out with infantry squads, creating roughly 30 man platoons across the battalion.  Although the SOF did not request support assets to deploy, Battalion Commander James Smith knew that these assets were essential for his mission and he spread his headquarters support company’s medics, cooks, and mechanics throughout the battalion’s units.  This move would pay huge dividends in the future.  Lieutenant Colonel Smith and his Command Sergeant Major put the unit through small unit situational training lanes and live fire exercises in the short amount of time they had before deployment.  In the 46 days between notification and deployment, Task Force Iron Ranger spent twenty days out in the field training for the generic mission of supporting Special Operations Forces all across Afghanistan.  The remaining days were spent conducting the normal administrative requirements for deployment.

Anticipating deploying with Special Operations Forces at the platoon level, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) Commander’s aggressive expansion plan to spread the VSO concept throughout Afghanistan required the battalion to break down to the squad level and operate with sub units of a normal Special Operations team.  For example, the Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) teams from Army Special Forces were split in two to handle the expansion and each half paired with a squad from 1-16 Infantry.  Soon, the combined teams were in 58 locations in all regions of Afghanistan.

Unintended Benefits

Originally designed to augment the Special Operations Forces as junior partners to fill the ever-growing need for Afghan Local Police mentors as part of the Village Stability Operations, the soldiers of Task Force Iron Ranger proved to be capable of much more.  There were a series of unintended consequences that in the aggregate were positive for the mission, and are discussed in the following paragraphs.


Quantity has a quality all of its own.  It is difficult to believe that the Village Stability Operations concept could succeed at the large scale needed to make an impact on security and governance without the ability of Special Operations Forces to spread themselves extremely thin.  The initial success of the integration led the Army to choose a second infantry battalion, 1-505 Parachute Infantry from Fort Bragg, to continue the augmentation of the SOF teams.


With the additional manpower came embedded leadership from the battalion level down through the platoon level that relieved the SOF from many administrative burdens.  The battalion command team ran promotion boards, awards and evaluations, disciplinary actions, and environmental leave rotations for the augmented soldiers.  Many of these tasks were done through tools like Skype, due to the dispersion of the battalion, in order to keep mission distractions at a minimum. 


Previous logistic support for the SOF units was never a problem, due to the robust air assets and delivery systems available to them.  To term this procedure cost-effective or efficient would not be true.  In one case, an SOF unit was relying on air resupply as their primary resupply when an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) unit was within sight of their location.  The battalion’s Forward Logistic Element (FLE) at each sub-center was able to streamline the logistics process for the outlying elements.  Logisticians found SOF containers with maintenance parts from dozens of systems, which were then inventoried and cross-leveled for use elsewhere. An ordering system for parts, a standard part of any Army battalion, was now easier to achieve.  The FLE at Regional Command-West regularly ran a 14-day combat logistic patrol to supply all of its sites and was fully integrated with the SOF General Support Battalion.  Finally, the battalion’s female medics were able to support Cultural Support Teams when needed. 


The battalion command team enjoyed the flexible personnel policies of the CJSOTF and used it to their advantage.  They were able to rotate soldiers with family issues to the rear to resolve them more readily, and to bring new soldiers forward beyond the normal restrictions.  Smith was able to rotate in young leaders late in the deployment, allowing them to gain some experience that will allow them to train better for their next deployment.  The Sergeant Major was also allowed to send lower level leaders to professional schooling for long-term benefits to the individual and the unit.  One added benefit for the SOF was the deployment length of the Task Force, which was the standard 12 months.  Contrasted with the seven-month deployment of the SOF, the General Purpose Force provided a level of continuity that enhanced the mission and eased the SOF transitions in theater. 

Good Governance

The addition of regular infantry battalions to Village Stability Operations allowed for an enhancement of the governance improvements that are supposed to derive from the new security provided by the Afghan Local Police.  An important priority for Task Force Iron Ranger was assisting Afghan provincial officials to move securely through their area to conduct much needed civil administration.  Also, working with Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), the platoon and company leadership could utilize funds from the Commanders Emergency Reconstruction Program (CERP) that were not available to the PRT, who have a different and more elaborate funding process.  This was accomplished through liaisons provided from Task Force Iron Ranger to the PRT and with the approval of the battalion commander.  In order to leverage other assets like USAID, the Task Force acted as an escort into the battle space to overcome State Department restrictions on movement security requirements.  This improved ability to enhance local Afghan governance could make a large impact on the success of Village Stability Operations. 

Concerns with Integration

There are reasons that SOF integration with GPF at the team level has not occurred in the past, and I examine these concerns next.  There are vast levels of differences in training, capabilities, age, culture, services, and education for the two different forces.  Many of these differences could create problems that could have a large impact on small units operating at a vast distance to their higher headquarters.  The following areas are just a few of the most pressing issues.

Unit Cultures

Culture is a set of shared values and beliefs that are often deeply rooted and informally taught by the group to its own individuals in a rather tacit manner.  This invisible code can cause friction when blending different groups.  An added difficulty was that there are the varying cultures among the many different SOF elements, which come from every service.  Task Force Ranger found the new Marine SOF to be the easiest to adjust to as they had strong infantry backgrounds similar to the battalion.  Navy SEAL teams were a bit more difficult to adjust to because of service cultural difference, including staffing and role differences.  Colonel Smith called the initial stages of integration a series of “butt sniffing encounters,” cautious meetings with the intent of sizing each other up.  Task Force Ranger elements would have to prove themselves to their SOF counterparts in order to be trusted, understandable in a combat environment.  Four months into Task Force Ranger’s deployment, SOF elements conducted a massive change-over with incoming SOF units.  This transition made the Task Force the subject matter experts on local SOPs and political dynamics, and gave them credibility in the eyes of the incoming SOF units.  Units experienced in conducting a Relief in Place in combat know to listen to the sage advice of the even the lowliest outgoing private, since local information can be more important than experience and rank.


Given the limited preparation time that Task Force Iron Ranger had for the mission, a good assumption would be that the GPF soldiers needed to rely heavily on their SOF counterparts for cultural competency, language, and higher level combat skills.  This proved to be true for the most part, but the gap was not as great as expected.  First, SOF had been consumed in the past with Direct Action missions against high value enemy targets and their foreign internal defense skills had been infrequently used.  The expansion of SOF had created a younger cadre of NCOs than the Master Sergeant heavy teams that existed in the past.  Most of the SOF teams were not specialists in the area, having language skills other than Pashto and Urdu and were as reliant on translators as the GPF.  While the SOF were culturally adept at the village stability mission, GPF leadership also had experience in Iraq and Afghanistan with working with local security forces and civilian governmental officials. 

Our military has experimented with Village Stability Operations before, primarily during the Marine Combined Action Platoons of the Vietnam era.  In Bing West’s classic The Village (1972), describing the impact of one Marine squad on their local militia and their village, he described how concerned the military leadership was about the exposure of small units to large enemy units.  Once their sanctuary had been taken from them, with limited freedom of movement making taxation of the peasants difficult, the Viet Cong acted quickly to try to eliminate the threat of the small interfering unit.  Occasionally massing into battalion-sized elements, the enemy was occasionally able to penetrate security and cause casualties.  More often, however, the squad and their militia were able to beat off the attacks of larger forces with good security procedures and higher-level assets.  Usually this success was due to their access, thanks to the village, of superior local intelligence of upcoming attacks. 

In Afghanistan, this dynamic seems to be repeating itself.  Task Force Ranger suffered mild casualties during their deployment, suffering three seriously wounded soldiers from improvised explosive devices in two different strikes.  In the majority of their contacts, the GPF operating with their SOF counterparts were able to inflict severe casualties on large enemy formations due to their enhanced access to SOF dedicated air assets and the proliferation of air-ground liaisons (JTAC) at each of the locations, which made it difficult for the enemy to exploit their numerical advantage against the small U.S. elements. 

Depth of Integration

The GPF ended up being integrated into the SOF teams at an estimated 90% level according to Task Force Ranger’s post-deployment assessment. Along with providing static security, GPF made up around 75% of each patrol and were involved in all aspects of the mission, to include meeting key local officials and maintaining relationships with them.  1-16 members were also allowed to adhere to modified grooming and dress standards to blend in with their SOF counterparts and mask any differences to outsiders.  To demonstrate the level of integration that was achieved, General Petraeus – then the ISAF Commander – effusively praised a group of soldiers he thought were SOF and gave them prestigious commander’s coins before being told by the SOF element that they were members of Task Force Iron Ranger.  He was just as pleased by this knowledge, possibly more so (Smith 2012).

The Future of SOF and GPF Integration in Foreign Internal Defense

It might be easy to dismiss the results of this experiment in integrating conventional units with SOF as a one-time event, restricted in applicability to Afghanistan and the large-scale counterinsurgencies that we will “never” be doing in the future.  Commentators sure of this fact should think about our past: the last three major conflicts have all required our military to train local security forces in order to control the population and support improvements of governance.  We continue to believe that we will never be intimately involved in nation building, yet have successfully participated in helping German, Japan, and Korea all become economic power houses after complete devastation.  Our forces for the future need to be prepared to take the lessons learned from our current operations and apply them to the future. 

In addition to capturing these continued improvements in counterinsurgency capability, we need to also remember the lessons of innovation in integration.  Robert Komer wrote in his after action review of our counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam “institutional change tends to be forced in the wake of what is widely perceived to be catastrophe, when accepted patterns of behavior are severely challenged as having failed (1972: p. 153).”  We cannot wait for catastrophe in the future to inspire our attempts to work as team to complete the mission; instead we must overcome our natural tendency to be homogenous and simple. 

A recent study from a prominent think tank in Washington D.C. predicts that the U.S. Army will shrink in size dramatically and have to cut many of its modernization programs.  At the same time, however, the Army “should build greater advisory and regionally oriented capabilities (Barno et al 2012: p 7).”  There is no doubt that the Army will be used to support our allies around the world in fending off enemies that are smart enough to use proxies and insurgent tactics to create unrest and revolt.  When this happens again, our military will be involved in conflict without the benefit of deploying large conventional forces to dominate battle space.  What we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan about leveraging our Special Operations Forces to create and sustain allied military capability will be immensely important.  We cannot forget that our Special Operations Forces cannot do this work alone in the quantity that we need, and that General Purpose Forces are critical to thickening their ranks and capabilities.  At the same time, these conventional soldiers bring assets to the table that makes the mission more likely to be successful. 

In the future, we need to practice this integration before deployments.  Integration in combat is far from ideal, and the positive performance of Task Force Ranger against a well-respected enemy like the Taliban might not be repeated in the future. The Army’s high command was very concerned that this integration on the fly was a high-risk operation.  That assessment was correct.  What reduced the risk in this case study was an amazing confluence of leadership in both the Special Operations Command and in the Task Force.  Strong personalities knew what needed to be done to eliminate obstacles to integration and this leadership carried the day in this case.  As we have learned in the last two wars, that leadership is not always present.   

An important task for the General Purpose Forces is to carefully vet the personnel it has and to weed out people unlikely to do well in this environment.  The force cap that limited the amount of soldiers 1-16 was allowed to bring created a mechanism for the command team to leave the right folks behind. Others units were not as fortunate, as the 2-3 Infantry (Stryker) found out in Afghanistan when they had a squad leader working in the Village Stability Operations kill seventeen Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province (Whitlock and Morello 2012).  This incident inspired President Karzai to suggest getting American forces out of the villages, a move that could derail any success that Village Stability Operations might have.

Despite this setback for Village Stability Operations, the program seems to be a bright spot for improving local governance and tying the Afghan people to their government during a time of high pressure from a rival group.  Although this program needs more formal assessment, it has a strong theoretical basis behind it as discussed earlier in the paper.  The mentorship of the Afghan Local Police requires the culturally sensitivity and training capabilities of our Special Operations Forces.  The best way to continue this progress on a large scale is to institutionalize the practice of SOF integration with General Purpose Forces. 

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About the Author(s)

LTC (R) Craig Whiteside served for twenty years in the United States Army as an infantry officer and retired in December 2011.  He is currently the Claudius and Mary Johnson Graduate Fellow at Washington State University in International Relations.  He lives in Pullman, Washington with his wife and three children.



Thu, 02/07/2013 - 5:17am

Not sure how to contact the author, but wondering if he'd like to do an email Q & A for a blog: Had some questions regarding VSO and if had any insight (beyond what's in the article) on how successful Iron Raider was in their efforts in conducting VSO. I realize that wasn't the intended focus of the article, but would like to get the author's thoughts if willing and available.