Apex Predators: Why Few Security Institutions are Masters of their Environments, and How to Help the Afghan Security Forces Become Masters of Theirs
by Eddie Banach
Nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan have yielded very mixed results at best, and poor results at worst, for the United States and the Afghan government. The tenuous peace agreement signed in February appears to be failing. Just this year, some experts have even concluded that “the Taliban is stronger now than at any point in recent memory, controlling dozens of Afghan districts and continuing to launch attacks.” Many have questioned how the world’s greatest military, with almost 20 years of diligent effort to refine its counter-Taliban strategy, produced merely mixed or even failing results. The silver lining is that, in twenty years of failures and blunders there have also been significant successes and victories. While certain security institutions such as the Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniformed Police are consistently criticized for failures throughout Afghanistan, others such as the Afghan special military and police units and the National Directorate of Security are consistently highlighted for their effectiveness.
This phenomenon of opposite results among organizations, even within the same country, isn’t unique to Afghanistan, however. Another, similarly turbulent American-led security effort, playing out in Iraq since 2003, possesses so many of the same hallmarks as Afghanistan: widespread successes most prominently in the audacious and capable Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, but shocking failures in the hands of much of the rest of the national defense organizations. In Iraq, the gap between the elite and capable CTS, and the more typical and ineffective security forces of the Iraqi Army and police, is massive and well-documented. In fact, this “elite approach” phenomenon is so well known to U.S. military trainers and policymakers that it was intentionally factored into the CTS’ creation. Though separated by geography, culture, and political climate, the common trends are too great to ignore. The security efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have much to offer the discussion of effective security development, and the analysis of these nation’s most capable forces need not rely on theory but on hard, brutal lessons learned against their respective nations’ most dangerous adversaries, the unkillable Taliban and the explosively powerful Islamic State. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, prominent security organizations of different flavors have risen to achieve heroic successes even as their larger sister-organizations collapsed around them. Why is this, and what could we learn from these capable few?
The Taliban’s Grand Strategy
The Taliban has proven, time and again, why it is the organization that has survived for so long and is outlasting a two-decades long counterinsurgency. By evolving to meet its environmental demands, the Taliban has “frequently dictated the war’s tenor and tactics,” and it has no reason to yield when its entire end goal is ultimately to put an “immense degree of pressure on enemy decision makers, causing them eventually to capitulate, regardless of success or failure on the battleﬁeld.” They simply seek to “outlast” their foes, and are therefore “winning by default.” While the fact that an ultra-conservative insurgency of religious extremists may seem apt to evolve their organization with shocking flexibility may seem ironic, it really is not. Its many changes have been necessary for survival. The Taliban’s seemingly inconsistent, and perhaps even contradictory, actions all form a clear vision with logical strategic goals upon further analysis, and this is well documented in several deep dives of Taliban literature. For instance, its campaign of high profile, mass casualty terror attacks on populated centers may seem at odds with its well-documented effort to earn locals’ support and win hearts and minds., Why would an insurgency, trying to draw popular support from the people, also wage a high-profile campaign that quite literally blows large numbers of them up? In reality, High Profile Attacks feed the never sated core political narrative of the Taliban; it publicly illustrates the Afghan government’s inadequacies and fosters a poor security environment, serves as a recruiting tool for disenfranchised youths, and even projects Taliban political power in order to “gain leverage in ongoing peace talks.” Additionally, other tactics are routinely employed to project power at the local level, from effective parallel government systems (directly related to “shadow governments”) and Taliban propaganda machines. In fact, these two strategic campaigns are not contradictory in nature, they are complementary. One feeds the other.
Iraqi Security Providers
10 June 2014 was a dark day for the nascent Republic of Iraq. Islamic State fighters had begun a deliberate operation to seize their latest prize, the strategically important city of Mosul, just five days earlier. Its capture would not only accomplish key ideological objectives and provide its caliphate with an unprecedented religious platform at the Al Aqsa Mosque, but also yield the gateway to the Euphrates River Valley and the heartland of Iraq, provide ample booty in Iraqi Army weapons and vehicles, and even give the invaders new sources of revenue from looting and taxing, as well as access to legions of new recruits. The Islamic State force of 1,500 fighters at most overran more than 30,000 Iraqi defenders. Two entire Iraqi Army divisions, as well as all of their Mosul-based Federal Police compatriots, were effectively wiped out in less than a week. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi later admitted that 2,300 Humvees, many of which were battle-ready and up-armored, were captured by ISIS, along with an unknown number of small arms, grenade launchers, many armored vehicles, and various other bits of gear. The Iraqi Army, as well as Iraqi Federal Police, have long been criticized for their ineffectiveness, and examples abound of their results in the field – mixed at best, and poor at worst. However, to address all their shortcomings would be superfluous. The undisputed disaster at Mosul alone makes an adequate case for their ineffectiveness. The 2014-era Iraqi Army and Federal Police, despite over a decade of U.S. and Coalition training, funding, and support, are proven ineffective security institutions.
Contrasted with the abysmal Iraqi Army and police who allowed the unmitigated disaster in Mosul, is the widely respected, successful, Iraqi CTS (Counter-Terrorism Service). At the same time the Iraqi Army retreated to, and then collapsed in, Mosul, the CTS was putting up a valiant fight at the “critical Bayji oil refinery in June 2014,” despite being outnumbered five to one and in a dire situation. In fact, despite multiple Iraqi Army and police failures, the CTS consistently “fought much better” than the rest of Iraqi Security Forces and won multiple victories. Additionally, despite the “extraordinary test” placed on the CTS and its subordinate Iraqi Special Forces as the desperate Iraqi government began over-using their only capable units, CTS forces have excelled according to RAND Institute researchers. How and why did this one element of the Iraqi security apparatus prove so effective, when its larger, significantly more substantial parent force prove seriously inadequate?
There are many key differences between the general Iraqi Security Forces and the CTS. Firstly, the CTS was intended from the beginning to be a unique entity, acting outside the typical Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior, answering only to the chief of the Iraqi government. It is insulated from an entire layer of bureaucracy and has a direct line to the Prime Minister, as well as its own autonomy to conduct funding, training, and recruitment. So great is its independence, that there were even concerns for a time that the CTS’ far-reaching power and autonomy would enable its becoming a “secret police” and “that it could be used to pursue the prime minister’s political interests.” Whether its original designers in the 2006-2007 time frame, both amongst Iraqis as well as their partner U.S. Army policymakers, foresaw that the CTS would eventually become a truly unprecedented national level, strategic force, is difficult to say, but surely everyone involved knew that what they were constructing was something unique.
The Early Counter Terrorism Service
Founded originally in the wake of the Iraqi invasion as a special operations wing of the new Iraqi Army, and modelled after the U.S. Special Forces model, the pre-cursor CTS emerged by 2006 as a very small, but very competent mutli-ethnic, secular institution built around commando battalions. These battalions were at first led, and subsequently trained and mentored, by U.S. Green Berets, given U.S. and Jordanian special warfare training, and enjoyed “extremely high” morale with only marginal desertion rates according to a thorough study by Brookings Institute researchers. The training was often performed at a one-to-one, instructor to student, ratio, and constant rehearsals and reach back to trainers allowed a slow but steady increase in proficiency. Even by this time, they were already one of the few “bright spots” among the otherwise inadequate Iraqi Security Forces, as an Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq concluded, citing the Special Forces as “the most capable element of the Iraqi Armed Forces.” What happened next was unusual, for it isn’t every day a small but highly trained, lethal group of professional commandos becomes an autonomous federal agency practically overnight.
In preparation for the eventual departure of U.S. troops, and in need of some sort of solution to bridge the clear gap between law enforcement policing and conventional military warfighting as ethnic militias prowled troubled Iraqi streets, these commando battalions were given unique responsibilities to better serve Iraq’s unique security environment. “The CTS was theoretically envisioned as a civilian ministry, but it was commanded by an Iraqi three star general and later became a four star level organization,” and although its duties were originally supposed to be split with a parallel formal military command, this concept was abandoned in less than a year to streamline the scope of the CTS. Following this, successes in the field bred greater funding and support, which in turn appears to have fed future successes, and therefore more support, and the cycle repeated. Continuous authorized manning increases, funding and land allotments for additional command and training centers, and even generous special duty pay all contributed to the health of the force. In fact, it’s telling that this cycle of success was finally only interrupted not by intrusive politics nor government bureaucracy, but instead by the CTS itself. Its recruiting standards were so high and training standards so rigorous, that by June 2010 the CTS was manned only at 62% with 5,725 servicemen, despite being allowed to recruit off the street completely independently, and even pluck exceptional cadets from the regular Ministry of Defense.
The Counter Terrorism Service Evolves
What emerged following the founding of the CTS was a remarkable, unprecedented security institution. Like all successful armed organizations, from the French Foreign Legion to the Taliban, the CTS is an evolutionary organization, and it evolved over time to adapt to its political, as well as its battlefield, environments. The CTS that was given responsibility to counter ISIS while the vastly larger Iraqi Army and police failed to, and ironically spearheaded the 2017 liberation of Mosul itself, did not start out as the golden child of Iraqi Security Forces it would become. It was born a commando unit, and midwifed by U.S. Green Berets, specialists both in training and unconventional military approaches. It evolved into an entirely new species around 2007, and entered its second evolutionary phase, as a particularly unprecedented, hybridized security institution: military commando in training, structure, and culture, but civilian institution in operational scope, political hierarchy, and domestic law enforcement jurisdiction. Were a small American special forces unit to be reassigned from the Department of Defense to its own, independent Federal agency akin to the FBI, given massively increased funding, manning, and a direct line to the President of the United States, maybe only then could an American audience appreciate the remarkably unique evolution that occurred in Iraq in 2007.
From 2007 until around 2014, the CTS performed effectively as a security institution, conducting “large-scale counterterrorism activities” with a high operations tempo, a “highly refined targeting process” with “cyclically developed intelligence” that fed future operations, which in turn drove future intelligence collection, and then further future operations, and so on. This included even during the tenuous U.S. withdrawal of 2011. This repeating cycle of intelligence and direct action may seem almost mundane and routine to an outsider, but the remarkable difficulty of perfecting this feat, continuously and indefinitely, in as complex a security environment as Iraq during this troubled era cannot be overstated. As one special forces commander described Iraq at the time, security forces “fought Sunni extremists, Shi’a radicals, Iranian subversion, Syrian interference, and Al Qaeda,” all sometimes working together, sometimes against one another, often in “mangled alliances, in separation, or a combination,” all the forming a “highly complex and very lethal operating environment.” Simply navigating the extraordinary complexity of Iraq at the time was quite a feat, and the CTS excelled at it. Of course, this phase of the CTS lifecycle was still far from perfect. Despite being a largely effective institution, with no noteworthy retention issues and “very few casualties” considering the scope of hostilities they faced on a daily basis, the CTS still suffered a decline in quality of training once U.S. advisors departed, as well as “widespread misuse” of their service. In the words of expert David Witty of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the CTS “was viewed as Iraq’s most capable force and thus became the answer to all problems,” including manning checkpoints, escorting convoys, and guarding prisons and voting centers. CTS personnel were even given the arduous duty of carrying out politically and ethnically sensitive arrests, often encouraged by former Prime Minister Al-Maliki on his opponents, fairly or unfairly earning the CTS’ reputation as a Praetorian Guard and even a “Death Squad.”
Retention and organizational health for the CTS can only fairly be evaluated as excellent. With only marginal desertions, and not even a “single ‘insider attack’” at least between 2003 and 2010 when U.S. Forces were actively training Iraqi forces, organizational health was clearly high. It was tested in the war against the Islamic State, as were all regional security institutions. Though the CTS’ total force was at a strength of about 13,000 in 2013, it had been massively degraded by battlefield casualties to only 6,500 by January 2015. This number was thankfully raised again to somewhere around 10,000 by December 2017 due to prioritization of recruitment and training, both to replace the many wounded or killed as well as to keep up with continuing high casualty rates until ISIS’ defeat. It is likely retention issues played a role as well, though this data does not seem publicly available. Consistent, back-to-back combat deployments against ISIS would have been a lot to ask, even of Iraq’s premier and patriotic elite commandos. However, the huge rise in personnel in 2017 illustrates the CTS’ ability to bounce back as soon as it was given the chance.
The Counter Terrorism Service’s Third Phase
Following the arrival of ISIS in Iraq, the CTS had entered its third evolutionary phase. Despite casualties sometimes well over 60%, and the abuse the CTS suffered in its misuse as a front-line combat unit, the reality is that the CTS once again evolved into what it needed to be to meet its security and political environment. Though high attrition rates in the fight against ISIS nearly exhausted it, it proved it was up to the challenge. The CTS “performed missions it was never designed for, being employed as any other ISF unit, except it was effective” compared to much of the rest of Iraqi forces. Thanks to its intense training, the empowerment of even its low-level commanders to seize the initiative and make decisions, and the CTS’ high quality of personnel, the “CTS was able to adapt to being used in a conventional role in taking and holding terrain in prolonged operations,” according to one prominent Iraqi security expert. Put simply, the CTS successfully adapted because it was given the tools to adapt, unlike so many of its partner forces. With U.S. and Coalition air support, and Iraqi Army and Federal Police often guarding its flanks, the CTS spearheaded repeated victories against ISIS in the field, as well as in cyberspace on social media. The CTS went head-to-head with the Islamic State, the latest and most deadly insurgency-turned-army in the world, and though it was challenging it ultimately emerged victorious.
Following 2014, the public image for the CTS changed dramatically. The CTS’ mixed reputation was abruptly and dramatically altered once ISIS arrived. The public, valiant acts of defiance by the CTS against encroaching armies of Islamic State fighters beginning with the stand at Bayji, especially in contrast to the rest of the Iraqi forces, immediately projected the CTS as the darlings of the Iraqi people. The CTS and its subordinate Iraqi Special Operations Forces have been celebrated in popular songs and poems, “college students wore T-shirts with their [CTS] logos, and social media sites displayed their images” as the vanquishers of ISIS. Clever CTS officers “used social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even a smartphone app to further promote their organization, fully shedding the early secrecy that had enshrouded it.” The battle for – and noticeable victory of – the domain to win hearts and minds among the Iraqi people is clear. The CTS excelled where the Islamic State’s media machine failed. Indeed, decades of authoritative literature demonstrate the criticality of popular support to insurgencies, and one widely cited study of the ISIS media machine even concluded that ISIS’ media ultimately “gives ISIS the fuel it needs to establish a lasting state,” acting as a “vital instrument” for the organization. Academic studies and military analysts noted, as early as 2015 as ISIS rose to its height, the futility of merely tracking and deleting or censoring individual ISIS social media accounts or online publications. Experts instead recommended that the only winning strategy to counter the core ISIS media narratives lied in creating new, more powerful “counter messaging strategies,” based on religious, moral, and factual grounds. In another extensive ISIS study, experts concluded that ISIS media is far more than the sum of its parts, instead serving as an extraordinary tool by which ISIS leverages deep seated socio-religious issues in its favor to suit its needs. By cleverly wielding its media force, ISIS had “capitalized on the political vacuum created by weak states and the failure of national governments to address core socio-political grievances, disenfranchisement of youth and marginalization of particular segments of the population.” While, unfortunately, little verifiable polling data exists to prove the effectiveness of the CTS media strategy at the expense of the ISIS media strategy, the CTS appears to have effectively challenged the core ISIS media narrative in just this way. Measurable data may be impossible collect, but there was clearly something powerful happening in Iraqi society, when youths started sporting CTS tee shirts, proudly, on social media, while the Islamic State shrunk from a multinational force to a rump guerrilla force. It is either the result of insightful CTS officers, or just an extraordinary coincidence, that these events occurred when and how they did.
The CTS’s widely uncredited role in countering the ISIS core narrative, such a critical element of ISIS’ warfighting strategy, must be underscored and given credit deserving of its strategic brilliance. To defeat a terror-based army on the battlefield and in the digital world, simultaneously, is a masterful coup no other anti-ISIS actors have accomplished, and a noteworthy paradigm shift in counter-insurgency. Researchers have noted that the highly sophisticated and efficient ISIS media machine began using its own ballooning success as a core element of its strategy. Its own media, as well as international media coverage, fed the ISIS strategic narrative by continuously “building the image of ISIS as an unstoppable force, capable of standing up to the international system.” This has been assessed to be a very intentional goal by ISIS researchers, including two leading academics in the field as early as 2016. Put simply, ISIS purported itself as a snowballing force that couldn’t be stopped. The CTS, therefore, in addition to routinely defeating Islamic State fighters on the battlefield at the tactical and operational levels, also defeated this core ISIS narrative digitally, in turn dealing the Islamic State a critical, digital, strategic defeat as well.
Afghan Security Providers
Though various iterations of military and security strategies have been pursued by the United States and the Afghan government since the liberation of the country from the Taliban in 2001, the strategy always has, and continues to, revolve around the core basis of counterinsurgency. Nation-building, security assistance, ‘surge’ operations, counter-narcotics, and many other concepts, have been employed to varying degrees as presidents, commanders, and Afghan prime ministers have come and gone, but since at least 2010, the primary grand strategy in Afghanistan has revolved at its center around an “an archetypal population-centric counterinsurgency approach.” In general, the strategy of the Afghan government, and its NATO backers as they train, advise, and assist Afghan forces, is to facilitate an adequate security environment in which Afghan security providers can strengthen their own capabilities and autonomy, Afghan government programs and NGOs may operate freely to develop the troubled country, and Kabul can enforce its sovereign control of its borders.
In the case of Iraq, there was one decisive, litmus test of security effectiveness. The encroaching challenge of ISIS, and specifically the trial at Mosul, provided the ultimate test for the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and Counter-Terrorism Service. There is no such single trial by combat to be found Afghanistan. While there have been pitched battles and enduring campaigns over the many years since 2001, including the embarrassing defeat in Kunduz of the Afghan Army in 2015, effectiveness in security is largely dependent upon which part of the country one is talking about. Effectiveness varies even within the same organizations that answer to the same central authority in Kabul and often even among those wear the same uniform. Decentralized power-brokers, in positions of military leadership and government service, too often have treated their Afghan military, police, or paramilitary forces as private militias. The recently assassinated General Abdul Raziq of Kandahar, for instance, is widely credited with “keeping the Taliban in check in Kandahar” as a powerful anti-insurgent leader. However, he also is a known torturer and human rights abuser, and stands accused of being a so-called warlord, as he openly maintained his own private militia in addition to maintaining his military rank and role. It is clear that Raziq made his security organizations effective in safeguarding Kandahar, and not the other way around. Power in Kandahar during Raziq’s tenure revolved around the individual, the warlord, as it does throughout the country. Individual security organizational bureaucracies, such as those of the National Police, Civil Order Police, Afghan Army, et cetera, are not the nexus of power, and instead individual powerbrokers are.
The Afghan Army and Afghan National Police have also often been cited as succumbing to “bribery, corruption and regionalism” at the cost of any theoretical “patriotism and professionalism” they may have. The army has repeatedly been assessed as being “poorly trained” and suffering from “low morale, a high rate of desertion and drug addiction,” despite two decades of training and assistance by NATO forces. The latest shift to a territorial army model attempts to address this, but it is far too early to tell if this long-term shift will improve the army. One military analyst has even concluded that, in contrast to even the 1980’s era Democratic Republican Army of Afghanistan which, despite ultimately losing the war against insurgents, still enjoyed several critical tactical and strategic victories, “today’s ANA… lacks a unifying ideology and common purpose,” and it is for this reason they remain “poorly trained, unsoldierly, and inept.” One policy strategist has noted that, even when analyzing data favorable to the Afghan Army’s performance, there is no way to measure the degree to which they were supported by other, more capable entities, such as NATO airpower or Afghanistan’s “elite ground troops.”
The Afghan Army and police are the primary security providers for Afghanistan, and yet independent analysts have assessed that 19% of Afghan districts were directly under Taliban control, with a whopping 47% being actively contested, as of March 2020. Not only are key provincial and district centers, hubs for Afghan security and governance, routinely threatened and besieged by Taliban fighters, but violence levels remain high. The ebbing and flowing of commitment to the Taliban peace deal have not hampered the Taliban’s aggressiveness either. In a 24-day period in March 2020, following the end of a period of “reduction in violence” by the Taliban, 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces experienced Taliban attacks, with at least 405 Taliban-initiated attacks in total. US military reports also warned, in 2019, that Taliban overall Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ attrition, due to desertion, separation, and casualties, was outpacing recruitment and retention numbers. A comprehensive RAND Institute study conducted between 2009 and 2010 sheds light on the Afghan public support dilemma. In addition to other grievances such as lack of respect for private homes and recurring civilian casualties, corruption and a lack of actual security contributed greatly to Afghan civilians’ lack of support for the Afghan forces generally. Endemic corruption, for instance, “motivates support from the Taliban,” and 63 percent of Kandahar Province residents agreed that corruption makes them look for government alternatives in 2010, and a majority of residents believed that the Taliban were incorruptible. While this does not mean that 63% of residents were willing to join the Taliban and wage war on the government, as the paper goes on to discuss the nuance associated with the data, these figures are still quite telling. Additionally, though dated, there is no indication to believe the numbers have changed much in recent years. The overall Afghan police and army can comfortably be called ineffective security institutions due to their poor retention, lack of widespread control, inability to reduce enemy-initiated violence, and lack of widespread public support.
Effective Afghan Security Institutions
There are two security institutions however that consistently have been celebrated for their success and are relied upon when the Afghan Army and various policing services consistently fail. It is telling that following the 2015 Taliban sack of Kunduz, while the Afghan Army, Afghan National Police, and Afghan Local Police fled, it was the widely successful Afghan commandos of Afghan Special Operations who eventually came to the city’s rescue. Afghan Special Forces are also credited with largely defeating the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, especially during a time when the spread of ISIS seemed infectious even in the central Asian republic. So prolific is the reputation of Afghan Special Forces, that senior U.S. officials have boasted of their never having been defeated. Similarly, though sometimes criticized and sometimes praised, the Afghan NDS (National Directorate of Security) intelligence service is still considered “one of the most capable branches” of the Afghan Security Forces. Unclassified information on this organization is much harder to come by, intentionally so as when it comes to the NDS, “transparency does not exist.” These two organizations, the ANSOF (Afghan Special Operations Forces), working closely in conjunction with the Afghan NDS, provide a bulwark against the Taliban, fusing a direct action commando function with intelligence collection and operations, picking up the slack where everyone else fails. These two organizations are, generally, the country’s emergency response forces (some of the Kabul-based units are literally named “Crisis Response Units”), keeping the Taliban from winning any massive, overt victories along key Afghan centers of gravity, such as regional capitals and large bases. They are the stopgap for when the Afghan Army and Afghan police fail. The Afghan army and police may routinely allow isolated checkpoints to be overrun, small tactical defeats, but the Taliban’s seizing of a major city or large base would of course be a major defeat, nabbing international and domestic headlines, and seriously hindering Afghan government strategic aims.
In fact, the ANSOF’s Crisis Response Group, a combined situational awareness team, has “stopped the Taliban from taking any District or Provincial Centers” in 2019, the long-time military objectives of the Taliban, serving as key centers of gravity for the Afghan government and military. In an otherwise unoptimistic evaluation of the ANDSF, a 2019 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress highlighted the “most impressive” work by the ANSOF response group, as the group’s latest integration effort “improved their independent operational capability by utilizing an indigenous intelligence picture they have built to go after enemy in locations that the security pillars deem to be of high value.” As the primary provider of intelligence, it is highly likely that NDS analysts provided the overwhelming majority of such intelligence to the new, joint-agency team. Since 2015, ANSOF and NDS have been effective in their primary role of responding to major Taliban attacks, and thwarted any efforts to seize large, strategic targets such as Provincial Centers. If the 2019 report to Congress is to be believed, it appears the two complementary organizations have finally evolved into a highly effective bulwark security force.
Afghan National Special Operations Forces
In terms of structure, ANSOF are directly modelled after their U.S. Special Operations counterparts, and they fall under the division-sized Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, with teams being given one of three primary responsibilities: either as special response forces at the regional level, nation-level strategic forces, or direct-action commando strike forces. According to 2019 U.S. Government reporting, ANSOF is a corps-level organization that falls under the Ministry of Defense, organized into the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, much like the U.S. service command system. Four special operations brigades, separated into various regional commands and mobile strike elements, as well as a strategic-level force, the National Mission Brigade, serve as the tip of the spear in the counterinsurgent fight. These units “increase the Afghan Government’s ability to conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations and, as directed, execute special operations against terrorist and insurgent networks,” and collectively can and have responded to multiple “simultaneous crises across the country.” Recruits are recruited both from the street and from within the military, with nearly half of recruits having been current or prior service. The training, facilitated by U.S. and NATO trainers significantly less now than at the height of U.S. involvement in the war, consists of several intense weeks-long courses. Their training surely feeds directly into their effectiveness as a security provider. Even aside from their vociferous praise, the ANSOF units have indeed lived up to expectations beyond day-to-day tactical victories.
Exact retention numbers for the Afghan Special Forces are difficult to come by, but Department of Defense reports have “noted that sustained violence and casualties among Afghan forces was impacting attrition and ‘outpacing recruitment and retention,’” an expected outcome considering the 30,000-strong force of commandos has endured a never-ending, very high operations tempo., Although it is not publicly known exactly how much of these victories are due exclusively to the Afghan Special Forces and their NDS intelligence partners, consider that in 2018, U.S. Army reports acknowledged that Afghan Special Forces conducted “approximately 70% of offensive operations” on insurgents, “including responding to attacks on the provincial capitals of Farah and Ghazni,” two very large, dramatic attacks on key Afghan provincial centers in 2018. It seems clear that, at least as recently as 2018, the ANSOF, widely considered the elite bulwark against the Taliban, are the primary security force applied in the worst of security situations, when entire Afghan cities are at stake and under attack by Taliban fighters. The fact that the majority of offensive operations were conducted by the Afghan Special Forces also illustrates the severe reliance – even overreliance – on the troubled Islamic Republic’s security institutions. When push comes to shove, command-level and national-level Afghan decisionmakers generally send their best. The poorly performing, general Afghan Army or various police units, can only be expected to hold their ground in defense at their best, never mind conduct offensive operations to drive out Taliban fighters.
Elite Soldiers and Police as Strategic Forces
It is also worth noting that the Ministry of the Interior’s ASSF (Afghan Special Security Forces), under the command of the General Command of Police Special Units, serves as a parallel, law enforcement analogue to the MOD’s ANSOF. The ASSF, like the ANSOF, also has a combination of National Mission Units to achieve strategic objectives, and regional special units and intelligence detachments. Similar to the ANSOF, ASSF conducts everything from “high risk” arrests and counter-terrorism operations to crises response, with its highly trained National Missions Units being the “first choice” for crisis response, especially in the nation’s capital. Both ANSOF, and more recently ASSF, maintain national mission units, strategic forces capable of securing threatened key centers of gravity such as government and military centers. These National Mission Units are assessed to be the “most capable law enforcement component” by U.S. government reporting, and “the best-performing Afghan National Security Forces” by RAND Institute researchers. These elite response forces are what have prevented another 2015 Sack of Kunduz. They are the loyal shipwrights who, time and again, plug the holes in the leaky hull that is the Afghan National Defense Security Forces. As Taliban fighters mass to attack FOBs, provincial or district centers, or wage High Profile Attacks in major urban areas, the National Mission Units (as well as any of the 33 elite Provincial Special Units spread throughout the provinces) come to the rescue., These units are an evolution beyond what U.S. forces were capable of during the troop surge, when prioritization of “key terrain districts” meant that some areas were well protected at the expense of others, demonstrating marked improvement in counter-Taliban strategy. Military analysts complained that emphasis exclusively on these key focus areas during the surge era detracted from overall security. Today, the ANSOF have made the system work for their country, even if it isn’t ideal. It’s a system of elite national and provincial-level teams that form a bulwark against Taliban fighters, with conventional Afghan forces serving only to blunt many Taliban attacks, if they can even manage that.
The ASSF sounds extraordinarily similar to the young 2007-era CTS in Iraq, a heavily militarized but highly trained and effective national force with a mission set so diverse it includes elements of law enforcement, special forces direct-action, de facto conventional warfighting, peace and stability operations, and probably a dozen other different concepts that there just aren’t names for. It is telling that U.S. government reporting admits that “the biggest challenge” to the increasingly successful SSF, as its national mission grows, will be in keeping it a “policing unit, working within Afghan law, and not becoming another paramilitary force.”
The National Directorate of Security
The NDS has been described by researchers as “a strong, capable organization but [it] lacks professional and skilled staff,” and is held back by “limited funds.” In fact, though the expansion of formal education throughout the country in recent years has surely affected the education levels of incoming NDS officers as well, the bulk of NDS personnel were still “mainly either ex-Soviet trained or ex-mujahideen” as of at least 2016. Though technically overseen by the National Security Agency of Afghanistan, the organization answers directly to the President of Afghanistan. The NDS was first founded in 2002, its training directly fostered by the U.S. CIA. Though few details are known about the exact processes and internal structure of the NDS, just as the Afghan Special Forces were modelled directly after and trained by U.S. Army Special Forces, the NDS similarly modelled themselves internally and received direct training by CIA benefactors. Employing key figures from the former Northern Alliance, and hiring on many former communist intelligence officials who had themselves been trained by the KGB, researcher and author of Directorate S, Steve Coll, quotes key NDS founders as flatly rejecting any form of corruption among individual staff. This does not mean that the NDS founders were saints, however, having been many of the same men who “operated torture chambers and prisons [and] intimidated citizens across the land.” There are also other key differences between the highly Western staff of the CIA and other U.S. national security agencies, and the equally professional, if ‘rougher,’ members of the early NDS.
The NDS, Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence agency, wields a tremendous and complicated web of intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination, and U.S. trainers have “worked to help connect these intelligence assets with Afghan SOF at the tactical level,” despite intelligence-sharing not being “the norm” in Afghanistan. In fact, the main source of intelligence collection in Afghanistan is “is interaction with tribal elders and villagers through local commanders.” This may seem ‘amateurish’ to snooty Western intelligence officials, but the reality is that this form of human intelligence collection is every bit as critical and sophisticated as any other intelligence discipline – and in the opinion of some senior U.S. military intelligence officials, even significantly superior to non-HUMINT collection disciplines in counterinsurgency environments. Brig. General (Ret.) Russel Howard, founder of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point and senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, has asserted that imagery and signals intelligence are not directly suited to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, and that instead “increased HUMINT capabilities” are what is required “in waging an effective campaign against Al Qaeda and like-minded terrorist groups.” While certainly not fitting the perfect model of an intelligence officer to a Western analyst, the NDS has struck upon a primarily HUMINT-based model that works for them. In fact, they reportedly “face no difficulty in gathering intelligence,” a testament to their capabilities. There is surely room for improvement, but its intelligence still feeds ANSOF operations. Some NDS officers may not be formally educated, are unorthodox by U.S. standards, and may not understand much of the more technologically savvy collection methods that the U.S. Intelligence Community takes for granted, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely effective experts in counter-Taliban operations.
The Apex Predators
Technocrats Reign Supreme
Put simply, the technocrats, the proven specialists in highly complex security environments with thriving insurgencies, must be prioritized. The CTS evolved in three distinct phases, each time mastering their role in their security environment. By luck, fate, or prudent leadership, each time the CTS grew into a new specialty somewhere within the massive grey area between conventional conflict and domestic policing, it took on new masteries. It launched counter-terror commando raids under U.S. guidance until around 2007, then mastered powerful counter-insurgency tools in an extraordinarily complex operating area until around 2014, and finally passed the ultimate test in spearheading ISIS’ defeat most recently, incorporating all its previous overlapping skillsets, as well as persevering through punishing urban battles as conventional elite mechanized infantry.
Though less centralized, Afghan security providers, the ANSOF (and their newer police based ASSF comrades) as well as the NDS, are still proven technocrats. The ANSOF are skilled commando-style warfighters, excelling in raids of national-level, strategic importance, as well as intercepting and blunting large-scale Taliban attacks on key Afghan centers. The ASSF have filled the role of paramilitary, akin to a gendarmerie, despite the labels U.S. policymakers assigned. They appear to have recently come into their own as a militarized police response unit, a complementary force to the ANSOF commandos with intentionally overlapping mission sets. Finally, the NDS eschews all Western notions of what makes an effective ‘professional’ intelligence agency. Their intelligence collection and clandestine operations make them difficult to define in the Western sense, where there are clear, legal distinctions between foreign intelligence collection, domestic law enforcement agency intelligence, and national security organizations. That said, they have evolved into a mutli-function clandestine service, akin to a secret police with only some of the political baggage associated with that term, and they provide an invaluable service. They, too, are technocrats, specialized in counter-insurgency clandestine operations.
This study asked what makes a counter-insurgency institution effective, and how this could be applied in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Mastery in the overlapping skillsets required of counterinsurgency in complex security environments make security institutions effective. The Afghan and Iraqi Army and police have not even come close to mastery of their environments, while the ANSOF, ASSF, and NDS, as well as the CTS, have. Their models can be applied to reform and improve counterinsurgency in the troubled Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and provide a stopgap to the overwhelming Taliban movement.
The ANSOF and ASSF have formal National Mission Units, which are among its most celebrated success stories. The CTS is a de facto national mission unit. There is surely a good reason special operations forces and irregular troops of various types have so heavily been associated with counter-insurgencies, from before the fall of Dien Bien Phu until, most recently, the SOF-centric task forces of the American Iraq and Afghan wars. Similarly, it was infantry-based forces spread throughout FOBs that were the primary weapons system employed during the heyday of the Iraq and Afghan wars, not large armor columns nor Naval carrier groups. This is intuitive. Those most useful in waging counterinsurgency are infantry-based, and often unconventional forces. As the experts in modern insurgency from Mao Tse-tung to Dr. David Kilcullen have described in detail, insurgency is a population-centric form of conflict. Its form of warfare is human-based, and therefore population-centric warfare requires a human-centric solution. Highly skilled humans are therefore the primary weapons system, the appropriate weapons system for this sort of fight. Highly skilled humans are also, therefore, the masters of the counter-insurgency environment, the specialized technocrats of their field, and the effectiveness of the CTS in Iraq, and ANSOF, ASSF, and NDS in Afghanistan, is proof.
You need the appropriate tool for the appropriate fight. In large-scale, conventional conflict between peer-states, the premier technocrats most qualified to fight would be squadrons of skilled aviators in fighter and attack aircraft as well as flotillas of sailors in Navy destroyers. The premier forces in the Persian Gulf War were the large Army armor formations and ground-attack aircraft as they were uniquely skilled in annihilating legions of Iraqi Republican Guard vehicles. Those tank crews and A-10 pilots were technocrats in their respective field, but in vehicle-centric warfare. Indeed, many of the world’s most famous military victories can likely be traced back to a specialist, a technocrat: it has been said that the British longbows prevailed at Agincourt due to their uniquely skilled and uniquely suited abilities in killing the otherwise impervious French heavy cavalry knights. Therefore, it could be said the British archers of the 14th century were technocrats in knight-centric warfare, and that the widely cited Spartans of 490 BC were technocrats in heavy infantry, hoplite-centric warfare. These lessons of history, from ancient times until 2020, demonstrate time and again that technocrats prevail. But in Iraq and Afghanistan today, both hoplites and an M-1 Abrams battle tank are equally anachronistic, because only a master of counterinsurgency, an apex predator of their population-centric environment, can ever even hope to defeat a complex evolutionary insurgency like the Taliban. Only a high-quality, uniquely skilled institution of motivated specialists, insulated entirely from the corrupt funding streams, inconsistent training methods, and parasitic bureaucratic politics of the developing world, can thrive.
Key to the CTS’ success was overlapping skillsets, acquired at various times throughout their extensive evolutionary phases as a security organization. While the CTS’ overlapping skillsets were all internal, and varied only temporally, the ANSOF, ASSF and NDS also possess extremely similar, overlapping skillsets, just segregated by institution. The CTS possessed an offensive, direct action-oriented military commando background which gifted it high-quality soldiering skills, a rule-of-law mandated, internal policing mission born from its re-founding, and a highly efficient (if not comprehensive) intelligence function from its pre-ISIS counter-terrorism era. It adapted to its environment like a biological organism in a hostile environment, discarding vestigial anachronisms and embracing unique adaptations suited to its needs, because it was given the room and resources to grow, to fill the indefinably complex void, that is Iraqi security. Indeed, this is, at least is part, what its original designers were hoping to accomplish in its original creation. Instead of attempting the impossible task of training a force or series of forces for every eventuality in such complex security environments, the CTS model sought “to help them do what they do somewhat better.” Partly by intention and perhaps partly by accident, the CTS mastered their security environment.
In Afghanistan, the ANSOF are proven highly effective commandos. The ASSF recently have come into their own as highly militarized, but effective, police. And the NDS are efficient, if limited, intelligence experts. Therefore, Afghanistan already has effective soldiers, police, and intelligence. They simply need to fuse together, and not on the American model, to assume a similar role to the CTS, as apex predator of their security environment.
The Afghan Army’s being modelled on the American system did not work for the central Asian republic, which is why it is now optimistically transitioning to a very different territorial army structure. Why would an American model work with the nation’s elite forces, if it has already failed the larger, significantly better funded, Afghan conventional force? In the United States, SOCOM, the FBI, CIA, and various other agencies, all backed by a highly trained conventional military force, are extremely effective institutions in their respective spheres of state security. That works for the U.S, a stable Western superpower. Why would it work in Afghanistan, a complex security environment with raging insurgencies and intersecting security demands? Intelligence integration was noted as a significant shortfall in the otherwise highly effective Afghan commando forces by military experts as early as 2015. The CTS model works in such environments, and the Afghans already have all the elements required to form an institution based on the CTS model.
This new Afghan security institution must be independently funded, and answer only to one central authority, to inoculate it from the competing, even contradictory, demands of separate government ministries and commanders. This of course does not mean one figure must be granted absolute power, as found in a secret police-type force. Military expert and CTS researcher David Witty once recommended that the CTS “be placed under the oversight of [Iraqi] Parliament,” allowing it to still remain a highly effective and independent entity, but this way “removed from the direct control of the prime minister to end questions about its legitimacy.” A similar arrangement in Afghanistan would ensure a clear chain of command, and that bills are paid and talent is retained, across the board. For instance, while the individual CTS officers’ pay has been generous, at one point at least double average Iraqi military salary, Kabul-based Protective Security Expert and security reform advocate Ghulam Mujaddidi has noted that NDS members’ salaries are “almost a starvation wage.” The NDS are one of the most effective anti-Taliban bulwarks in the country, acting as “the brain” of all of the “ANDSF’s body parts,” Afghanistan’s various police and military organizations, and yet they make pitiful salaries. If a government expects extraordinary results, it must pay extraordinary salaries – still a fraction of the overall cost of regular, conventional forces, as discussed earlier in the study.
This new Afghan security institution must be completely apolitical to insulate it from warlordism, from the awkward form of syncretic politics that Westerners perceive as a democratic neo-feudalism that’s possessed Afghanistan, as administrations change and politics fluctuate. More research must be conducted on this, as a shocking lack of formal study exists on a topic that Afghan expert Tamim Ansary noted as Afghan society’s “extraneous apparatus” as early as 2009. CTS personnel are, remarkably, required by law to be apolitical. They are forbidden from “sectarian expression of any kind,” cannot be registered for any political party, and fairly diverse, with Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Turkman, and other minorities serving. Kurds, for instance, at one point comprised 30% of an ISOF brigade. A similar solution could greatly benefit a new, diverse, Afghan security institution. This new model would be different from all of the other disparate attempts to form anti-Taliban organizations, and avoid the military factionalism that Afghan expert Amin Tarzi has noted, preventing the chaotic “punitive expeditions” that undermine any hope of central military authority and have “turned communities against the post-Taliban government but failed to provide security.” Instead, like the National Mission Units it’s derived from, it would be an institution exclusively serving an apolitical central authority, a force for ideological notions of sovereignty, and practical security.
Finally, this new Afghan security institution must be streamlined, and every effort be made to develop these human-weapons systems. Deployed as a strategic force, ANSOF and ASSF, as well as NDS detachments, already separately protect key centers of gravity at a national level (as found in the National Mission Units) and regionally (in response teams across provinces). A truly united entity – not merely ‘joint’ in NATO military parlance, but a single, distinct force – could capitalize on the Afghan’s existing effective institutions, mirror the CTS, and evolve into something greater: the ultimate sparring partner for the Taliban. It would be able to outlast and out-evolve their prolific insurgency, and prevail where countless other strategies, technologies, and security forces have failed. This new institution, perhaps a new special government security service with personnel recruited from the other effective organizations, or even a standing agency that pulls ANSOF soldiers, ASSF police, and NDS intelligence officers for reassignment to the new service for multi-year periods of time, could make all the difference. They would be the apex predators of their environment.
I have prepared this article with the help of many books, articles, and websites. I am extremely grateful to my professors and mentors, especially Dr. James Hess of American Military University, for his extraordinary support and guidance.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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 Ibid., 83
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 Austin Long et al., Building Special Operations Partnerships in Afghanistan and Beyond: Challenges and Best Practices from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia, 48.
 Ibid., 45.
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 Ibid., 13.
 David Witty, “Iraq's Post-2014 Counter Terrorism Service,” 5-6.
 Adrian T. Bogart III, Block by Block: Civic Action in the Battle of Baghdad, Hurlburt Field: JSOU Press (2007): 25.
 David Witty, “Iraq's Post-2014 Counter Terrorism Service,” 5.
 Ibid., 4-5.
 Austin Long et al., Building Special Operations Partnerships in Afghanistan and Beyond: Challenges and Best Practices from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia, 50.
 David Witty, “Iraq's Post-2014 Counter Terrorism Service,” 22.
 Ibid., 54.
 David Witty, “The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service,” 41.
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 Ibid., 118.
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 Ibid., 64-65.
 Ibid., 66.
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 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 78.
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 Ibid., 8.
 Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, New York: Penguin Press (2018), 125.
 Ibid., 124.
 Austin Long et al., Building Special Operations Partnerships in Afghanistan and Beyond: Challenges and Best Practices from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia, X.
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