Small Wars Journal

VSO versus DSO

Tue, 03/19/2013 - 3:25am

"The Village Stability Operations (VSO) initiative is a bottom-up Afghan Ministry of Interior program that facilitates local security and development at the village level, connecting the local population to district level governance.  VSO is grounded in the tradition of rural Afghan villages providing for their own security and focuses on Afghan communities with the will—but not the means—to resist the insurgency through grass-roots initiatives, especially in areas that have limited ANSF and ISAF presence"[1].  Any feasible timeline and procedure for successful VSO in Afghanistan must take into consideration the landscape, enemy forces, and public support in an area intended for future operations.  In mountainous Afghanistan, current stability operations are actually occurring at the district level, not the village level.  For the purposes of this discussion, Helmand and Paktiya Provinces will be compared. 

Helmand Province is situated in Southern Afghanistan.  The terrain is generally flat with rolling hills and mountains on the northern edge of the province.  Villages are located throughout the province, with the majority along Route 1 and the Helmand River Valley.  It is common to travel 10 or 15 kilometers through farmland between each village.  These villages are composed of numerous qalats[2] large enough to shelter several families.  At this point in the war, the predominant insurgent group in the area, the Taliban, has lost a significant amount of support from many Afghans and has changed to a strategy that reduces the amount of civilians killed or injured by their operations conducted against NATO forces.

VSOs in Helmand Province have been successful for SOF elements embedding into these villages, able to move directly into a secure qalat and begin activities linking villages to the district level. These villages, which have plenty of standoff from enemy forces, are often easily persuaded by newly-arriving SOF elements offering salaries for future ALP members, while promising to connect the village to the district levels and using additional entities to provide immediate development projects.   The elders in these villages are aware that some of the benefits of the ALP program include security from insurgents, money coming into destitute villages, and improvement through development projects once the village is able to secure its boundaries.  These villages have no problems nominating 20-30 able-bodied males to fulfill the role of ALP and protect the village from the Taliban insurgents who transit the area. 

Paktiya Province, on the other hand, is a mountainous region that lies in Eastern Afghanistan.  The terrain is much the opposite of that in Helmand Province; the only flat areas are limited to valley floors between the mountains.  Because of the elevation restrictions, farmlands lie in the valley floors with villages built on the mountain slopes.  This constraint reduces the number and size of qalats, commonly seen in other areas, to mere houses built into the slope and big enough for a single family.  Additionally, the distance between villages is significantly reduced to two or three kilometers between villages, routinely causing disputes between the villages, such as land use, water and lumber rights.

VSOs in Paktiya Province have been as successful as those in other areas, but require an extended timeline and alterations to the initiative.  SOF elements are not afforded the local support for embed seen in other areas, and the villages in the mountainous regions lack standoff from an enemy force that holds no consideration for Afghan citizens.  The Haqqani Network, the major insurgent group in Paktiya, is based and trained in Pakistan and is largely built of fighters from countries surrounding Afghanistan.  The Haqqani Network makes no effort to avoid civilian death or injuries and will often target Afghan citizens they feel assist NATO forces. These insurgents make this fact apparent in an attempt to dissuade any assistance to GoA or NATO forces. 

SOF elements operating in Paktiya cannot follow the condensed timelines initiated in other areas of Afghanistan.  SOF elements in mountainous regions do not have the luxury of renting a qalat or moving directly into a secure site.  This requires them to build an embed site while dealing with village elders who are hesitant to support the ALP program, fearing for their families’ safety.  In a region that wants to support the VSO initiative, but fears insurgent retaliation, SOF elements are required to find a centralized location, being considerate of tribal dynamics so as not to cause any disenfranchisement or segregation.  The restrictive, mountainous terrain gives the enemy tactical advantage and is often a further obstacle to the SOF element attempting to embed into the area. 

The area of operations for these SOF elements is not a village and its surroundings, but rather all the villages in the district.  SOF elements operating in this capacity are conducting VSO simultaneously in several villages from a centralized location, ultimately conducting District Stability Operations.  A suggested definition for a District Stability Operations initiative is a mid-level program that facilitates simultaneous local security and development for multiple villages in a district, while connecting district level governance to both the village and provincial levels.  In instances such as this, ALP is increased from 20 to 30 ALP per village to 300 to 400 ALP per district.  KLEs, rather than being attempts to persuade village elders to talk with the district, are, in this instance, more often conducted at the district level.  The discussions focus on security, development, and governance with district governors, district chiefs of police, and district ALP commanders.  These KLEs are focused on pushing the district officials to talk with both their constituents and their next higher level of government at the provincial level.

Conducting DSO requires more coordination and finesse than conducting VSO.  SOF elements that conduct VSO often have no consideration for tribal dynamics as they apply to standing up an ALP force.  Moreover, conducting DSO requires a fair distribution of ALP slots to ensure one tribe is not favored over another.  Projects that work well with VSO, such as CA building a village well, may not work as well in DSO.  Larger projects such as roads, radio stations, and schools would be more appropriate, uniting the villages and helping the district gain relevance.    

Differences in the terrain, enemy and local support dictate the timeline and procedures by which stability operations can be accomplished and must be taken into account.  Flat terrain with villages spread 10-15 kilometers apart are more likely to support SOF elements embedding into villages, living in qalats, and building ALP forces.  These villages can easily defend themselves from Taliban enemy with the standoff afforded by the flat terrain, allowing a fast turnover of Village Stability Operations.  Mountainous terrain restricting villages to valley floors requires a slower District Stability Operation initiative.  DSO is conducted when SOF embeds in a centralized location, builds a District Stability Platform and trains an ALP force sufficient to support the district against an enemy that masses and attacks villages from a nearby position while simultaneously tying governance to the village and provincial levels.

[1] Taken from Page 61 of the Department of Defense Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan and United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces dated April 2011.

[2] According to Wikipedia, in many areas of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly in tribal areas with pre-modern building practices, the qalat compound is the standard housing unit for multi-generational families. Qalats can be quickly constructed over the course of a single season, and they can be extremely large, sometimes covering several acres. Towers may be placed at the corners or points along the walls to create a more defensible position, but most qalat compounds consist only of the walls.


About the Author(s)

CW2 Christopher Wilkerson is assigned to an Operational Detachment – Alpha in 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa, Japan.  He completed the Special Forces Qualification Course as a Medical Sergeant in 2002 prior to volunteering and selection as a Special Forces Warrant Officer in 2010.  To date he has conducted combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines, while conducting FID, COIN and SA operations throughout SE Asia.


Martin Doyle

Tue, 03/19/2013 - 6:13am

Our author has inadvertently identified a major clue to successful operations in remote areas - clans and tribes have different structural traits and thus different functions.

The former premised on heterarchic principles will have elders who advise, adjudicate, or council with other clan members' problems but are not 'leaders' in the stereotypical western concept. In simplest terms, clan elders are constrained in their actions by reverse dominance behavior(read that as rule from the bottom). Their ascendancy to either headman or big man role is accomplished through complex informal consensus. They possess no identifiable power in the clan. They are equals among equals. Clan leadership cannot rule but they can lead.

Tribes are hierarchic with leaders selected from tribal membership often expressing considerable coercive capacity. Think of the tribal leaders as first among equals, selected or elected to their positions through formal processes. Tribal leaders may rule, lead, or both.

Since these basic structural differences exist,negotiating strategies need to account for these variations. Defensive and offensive strategies of these two communities is first, a byproduct of membership numbers, second, conditions of their refuge areas, and third, social acclimatization to norms of blood revenge vs blood feud.

Just my observations from a lot of time in the Caucasus Mountains.