Small Wars Journal

Bypassing the Graveyard: A New Approach to Stabilizing Afghanistan

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 7:20am

Bypassing the Graveyard: A New Approach to Stabilizing Afghanistan

Scott Mann

"To counter the spread of violent extremism requires not simply one-off missions designed to eliminate senior leaders; what is required is steady, long-term engagement to build up indigenous institutions capable of keeping order on their own." - Max Boot, New York Post


Our current policy in Afghanistan is failing and our transition plan is putting our National Security at unacceptable risk.  Unless we make significant changes to our current approach, the U.S. will be another headstone in the Afghan Graveyard of Empires. It doesn't have to be this way.  There is a way to bypass the graveyard.  In a world where policymakers and security experts profess only three inappropriate options:  Counter-Insurgency, Counter-Terrorism, or complete withdrawal - there is a better and more cost-effective, fourth option.

To achieve relative stability in Afghanistan we need to adopt a long-term, small-footprint, Remote Area Foreign Internal Defense (FID) strategy.  This whole of nation approach, led by the U.S. Country Team, includes U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces advising regular and irregular host nation forces to achieve relative stability in a country largely dominated by informal, clan society.

There are a lot of frustrated people who support this fourth option.  I talk to them every day.  I wrote this essay for them.   Near the end of the war, around 2009, like-minded-passionate special operations advisors, civilian stability practitioners, academics, and some senior leaders started collaborating to change stability in Afghanistan.  We had a strong network.  Unfortunately, current policy has diluted this network, and the collective clamor for the exit is drowning our voice. 

In light of a floundering Afghan policy and weak transition, we need this network to come together more than ever before.  We need unprecedented collaboration from D.C to remote villages, and across the rest of the vast network to illuminate a path for viable stability in Afghanistan.  We almost did this in our initial attempt, and we can do it this time around. 

It takes more than theory.  It takes a network to bring about change.  That is the purpose of this paper and why I founded the Stability Institute.  We broker knowledge and connect stability professionals from all walks of life around tough stability challenges.  We need you actively participating in our network to inform good Afghan policy and help light the dark path for relative stability in this violence – riddled country.

In this essay, I will cover our evolution from top-down security to bottom-up stability in Afghanistan, over the last decade of Counter-insurgency (COIN) leading up to transition, the emerging strategic threats we face beyond 2014, and finally, thirteen points that we should improve upon if we are going to stabilize Afghanistan.  This isn't the last word on Afghan stability.  In some of these points, however, it may be the first word. 

I invite you to consider these points, but more importantly, to join our collaborative network as we come together to develop a bottom-up approach to stabilizing Afghanistan.  With your input we'll craft a way ahead that is achievable and effective.  But, before we consider the way ahead, let's start by looking at how we tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. 

Square Peg in a Round Hole

The U.S. and its allies have fought valiantly in Afghanistan, but fighting courageously in this unfortunate country does us no more good than it did for Alexander the Great.  The Afghan Campaign (2002 – 2014) following the initial SOF-led Unconventional Warfare Campaign of late 2001, evolved into an obscenely large and disconnected military endeavor for the type of threat and instability faced in this violent place. This top-down military campaign involved large-scale and unwieldy unilateral counter-insurgency forces projecting a war of attrition against shadow extremists who were embedded among a grievance-riddled clan society we did not care to understand.

This top-down approach continued for almost a decade until SOF tried something different – not new – getting back to the roots of Special Forces.  By stepping back, and defining relative stability as largely bottom-up informal civil society handling its own affairs, SOF began to live and work within rural Pashtun villages to help locals stand up against extremists.  This program is known today as Village Stability Operations (VSO).  This SOF-initiative under-pinned the Afghan-led program of Afghan Local Police (ALP) and put power in the hands of rural folks, the way it always was.  It also sought to connect rural villages to their government in minimalist ways - ways that the locals accepted.

VSO was not a silver bullet and it was never designed to win the Afghan campaign.  It was designed to address the critically important element of informal civil society, especially in Pashtun tribal areas, that the Coalition and the Afghan Government were not suited to address.  In places like North Afghanistan, where civil society was less fractured and loyalties to the government ran deeper, VSO was not as effective.  VSO had problems of its own, however, its strength was that it was based on local realities. 

Living among the people through VSO taught us things about clan society that we didn't understand when we were driving to work from built-up fire bases.  Because it was synchronized with local realities, VSO grew quickly and had significant impacts on senior al Qa'ida and Taliban Leaders.  Unfortunately, the program started too late and was short lived.  Starting in 2013, the Afghan Transition marked the end of VSO as Afghan Local Police continued.  Green Berets, SEALS, and Marines were pulled out of villages and consolidated in the regional urban centers.  As these SOF teams departed the rural areas, many key communities fell to the extremists, and brutal retribution against many locals ensued.

Now, we are withdrawing under unfavorable circumstances. This withdrawal, which will lead to zero force presence, puts our country at unnecessary risk by giving a moral victory to Qa'ida.  It places the full load of stability on the shaky shoulders of the fledgling Afghan state and its battered informal civil societal skeleton.

An Inconvenient Enemy

Al Qa'ida is not defeated - and they are not done with us. As much as the Obama Administration would like to make the Pacific Pivot strategy away from the Middle East, our enemy still has us firmly by the belt buckle - even if we choose to ignore this fact.  Despite all the loss of U.S. blood and treasure, al Qa'ida is still one of the most determined, dangerous enemies we face.  

Consider Iraq, where we completely withdrew U.S. forces and botched the transition.  It is a likely harbinger of Afghanistan's descent into chaos.  With Iraq's current implosion under failing State functions, escalating religious and ethnic grievances, and growing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) activities, it is not hard to see how things will similarly fall apart in Afghanistan if we stay on the current path.

Whether it's in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria - the U.S. and the West are in a protracted war with ideological Islamist Salafists who, despite numerous setbacks, remain extremely committed to their cause of global expansion.  "We might be tired of the Global War on Terror, but the Global War on Terror is not tired of the West.[i]" says Walter Russell Mead, Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College.

Al Qa'ida is expanding.  "The stated strategic AQ objective is a Pan-Islamic caliphate," explains long-time al Qa'ida Terrorism Expert Jimmie Youngblood.  “They are students of history.  Their focus on Afghanistan is no accident.  Strategic safe haven in Afghanistan is a critical part of al Qa'ida caliphate expansion.  It always has been, and it always will be – if we uncover from this area, we make it even easier for them.   And they will come for us.

Al Qa'ida and their Salfist affiliates have a proven method for establishing safe havens.  They think globally but act locally as they embed within the local population using egregious intimidation, such as beheadings and public beatings.  Other techniques include peaceful co-opting of sympathetic Islamic populations through compelling narratives such as "Islam under attack[ii]

In other areas, they exploit the disconnected, top-down actions of the U.S. such as drone strikes or sloppy, high-dollar development programs.  Our ill-conceived departure from Afghanistan gives al Qa'ida and their affiliates, a clear path to re-establish a strategic safe haven and project violent attacks us against spurred by honor-induced, tribal revenge.

"American Forces are headed for the exit in Afghanistan.  But new U.S. Intelligence assessments say that the terrorist threat there is on the rise."  This article by Eli Lake of the Daily Beast in late May 2014, cites recent intelligence reports along with commentary from House Armed Service Committee members, Republican and Democrat, that the al Qa'ida threat grows in Afghanistan.  Rural areas in Konar and Nuristan Provinces, as well as parts of Northeast Afghanistan are growing concerns.[iii]

Thirteen Points to Bypass the Graveyard

Considering the gathering Salafist threat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond - our collective attitude toward complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is alarming. To the beleaguered stability network that is out there still doing the heavy lifting, along with our political and military leadership, and our citizenry who hold them accountable, I offer the following thirteen point recommendations to bypass the Afghan Graveyard and render global violent extremists irrelevant.    

1-Set a Policy and Strategy We Can Live With

U.S. and NATO Policy has never been effective or coherent in dealing with Afghanistan.  The emotional aspects of 9-11-2001 and a range of other factors caused U.S. Leadership to make uninformed choices in the early days of the Afghan interim government.  For example, we helped install many of the same armed warlords that had torn the country apart and had terrorized local populations.

Uninformed policy sets us all up for failure.  "Afghanistan's government remains fragile precisely because it goes against the grain of historical Afghan traditions and successful governance, says renowned Afghanistan expert Dr. Thomas Barfield.[iv]

We confused governance for government.  Ignoring the critical role that traditional governance plays in rural areas, our Coalition relentlessly pushed a corrupt Afghan Government onto a skeptical and traumatized Afghan civil society.  These outlying areas severely distrusted this government.  The results were an ostracized population and a ready-made strategic narrative vehicle for the Taliban that we left for them in the parking lot, doors open, with the engine running. 

Don't Leave Your Friends    

Regardless of where the fickle winds of politics might blow, it is not a good idea to do this in personal life or politics. This includes the rural folk who stepped up and risked their lives for VSO in Afghanistan, the interpreters who fought and bled with us, and the brave Afghans who defied extremism to attempt to re-build an Afghan Government.

Perhaps our greatest loss from this transition is the trust and credibility we had built in so many rural communities on a local, personal level.  This is currency in an honor-based society.  It's the stuff that allows you to move forward on seemingly impossible stability tasks when top-down efforts previously failed.  Relationships are everything in life.  To think that they don't matter in state craft and security operations is uninformed and dangerous.

In this age of globalization and trans-national terror groups exploiting honor-based societies, trust, commitment, and reputation matter more than ever.  "You can't surge trust."  These words spoken by the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, have never been truer than in the honor-based clan society of Afghanistan today. 

This is not golf.  We don't get a "credibility mulligan" when we decide to change our policy on a dime.  There are bigger issues here than our own policy.  This is the stuff that prevents us from looking in the mirror at night.  In Special Forces, your reputation – good or bad - precedes you.  It's no different in this game.  Whether we are in a bustling D.C. Beltway or a remote Afghan village, our credibility is based on our actions and how we treat people.  And right now, our score is pretty low.

Emerging hotspots like Syria and Libya indicate that U.S. strategic interventions at a local level are in our future. It's tough to make a case for getting a local villager to stand up against extremists when you just abandoned a guy in another country who was doing the same kind of activity.  People pay much more attention to the things we do and the promises we break than we think they do.  "It's just business" or "It's time for you to handle it," as extremists crawl like cockroaches over the walls, are Western euphemisms that we should be ashamed of and never utter again. 

Deal Sternly With Pakistan

No matter how much we change the game in Afghanistan, relative stability will be impossible if Pakistan is allowed to provide sanctuary to violent extremists and foment instability into Afghanistan.  It's time for us to toughen up on Pakistan.

Pakistan is providing sanctuary to our enemies.  They are actively working against Afghanistan and the Coalition by proxy Taliban, Haqqani network members, and other insurgent groups, while simultaneously accepting billions of dollars in U.S. aid to supposedly help us fight terror.  My Grandfather used to say this type of duplicity meant someone “was pissing on your back while telling you it was raining.” 

We have a range of instruments of national power that can be brought to bear in this situation - at a minimum foreign aid - which, to date, has been recklessly employed.  We’re better than this.  We should at least stop aid, impose sanctions, and possibly pursue even tougher military measures if Pakistan is going to campaign against Afghanistan-and us.

Informed policy is good policy.  This begins with senior leaders opening their minds to appreciating local realities.

2-Stop Projecting Western Biases and Get Real

Afghanistan will likely never live up to our Western expectations.  Who cares?!  That's not the point.  We're looking for a country that can handle its own affairs and is inhospitable to violent extremists with global reach.  As we examine the way forward in Afghanistan, we need to re-learn some basic steps in appreciating local realities.  We need to flush what we think we know about that country and really look at reality.  It starts by defining relative stability. 

Most people think that the critical step in Village Stability Operations was moving into villages and standing up local militias.  Not true.  The first important step in VSO was Dr. Seth Jones and the original CFSOCC-A Headquarters defining Afghan relative stability. This opened our eyes to the importance of rural, informal civil society in Afghanistan. We need to scale this effort up and do it again for post-2014 Afghanistan – only with more collaborative horsepower.

Relative Stability Defined

Although it was still a donor state, Afghanistan was a fairly stable country before the Soviet occupation.  The environment was inhospitable to the kind of violent extremists we are intent on defeating today.  What did relative stability look like prior to Soviet Occupation (1920's-1970's) - what does it look like now - and most importantly, what does relative stability look like beyond our 2014 transition? Answers to these questions shape our policy.

Don't get me wrong here.  I am not advocating a return to some false utopia.  I realize the damage that has been done to the fabric of Afghan society. What I am saying, however, is we should start by understanding the Afghan reality of what was acceptable to Afghans in better times - not some mirror image of our own society.  Isn't an informed notion of relative Afghan stability better than some Western – biased, Jeffersonian model that is completely foreign and unacceptable to the Afghan people at a community level?    

I define relative Afghan stability like this:  The Afghan government and outlying clan areas are inhospitable to al Qa'ida and their affiliates.  There is a long-term balance of locally appropriate connections between the Afghan government and informal civil society.  These Afghan formal and informal systems are resilient enough to function with minimal external U.S. and Coalition involvement.

If you don't like this definition, fine.  Let's get a new one.  But, let's get one.  We've got nothing right now.  If I were to put 10 Senior ISAF Military Officers in separate rooms and ask them to define the Afghan endgame of stability I'd get ten different answers.

3-Look at Other Models of Success

We should stop treating Afghanistan as the first insurgency we've ever dealt with in a budget-constrained, high-risk environment.  We've actually got a history of doing these types of activities successfully in places, like El Salvador, the Philippines, and Colombia, just to name a few. 

In the winter of 1997, as a young Special Forces Captain in 7th Special Forces Group, I conducted my first Special Forces deployment to another host nation fighting an insurgency, Colombia.  Our mission was to work with the U.S. Embassy Country Team, DEA, and Colombian Counter-Narcotic Forces to stem the production of cocaine.

Seven months later I returned from that mission completely disillusioned and convinced that Colombia and our efforts there were doomed to failure.  The U.S. Counter-Narcotics Policy was a joke.  The Embassy inter-agency squabbling was paralyzing.  The Colombian President, Pastrana, gave the FARC a government - sanctioned safe haven the size of Switzerland, from which they projected violence and unrest all over the country.  The Colombian Army would not leave their bases for any reason.  It was a horrible. 

I remember riding home on that airplane thinking Colombia was on its way to becoming a failed state and a foreign policy disaster.  Look at Colombia today.  It is like a different country.  In the last decade, Colombia has undergone a radical transformation that has resulted in a robust economy, an invitation to participate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and an enhanced capacity to project security assistance in our Western Hemisphere.  Yes, there are still problems.  But, there is much to learn from this effort.

4-Get the Long – Term Mission Right  

Since COIN didn't succeed in Afghanistan, Counter-Terrorism (CT) is emerging as the primary mission.  Many Senior Leaders like Vice President Biden, are huge proponents of this approach.  CT in Afghanistan consists of drone strikes and Special Operations Raids.  Even our host nation capacity building is focused on direct action forces.

These types of attacks on terror cells are not as clean as they appear on grainy screens in command centers.  Local village populations where extremists live view drones and surgical raids as direct violation of their honor - an apostate's way that violates, "codes of honor and revenge will lead to escalating global violence," says Akbar Ahmed, author of the Thistle and the Drone.[v]"  Islamists mobilize entire clans to seek badal (revenge) against us.  Clan revenge isn't just local.  Look at how TTP are projecting into the urban centers of Pakistan. 

SOF raids aren't much better.  These types of attacks, usually at night, also have a profound negative effect on local communities, especially during home invasions.  A captured extremist from a special operations raid on an Afghan compound is often a pyrrhic victory that will likely mobilize many other family and community members to pursue revenge against us for lost honor.

And let's not forget the "zero option," which appears to be the Obama Administration's follow-on operational footprint following 2016.  Total disengagement from any at-risk area where global Salafists are establishing safe haven is a bad idea.  Our complete dis-engagement from Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation and the nightmare scenario of civil war, Taliban rule, and 9-11, that followed should give us a clue how bad the "zero option" is for post – 2016 Afghanistan.  Sure, we can always send in a few hundred observers after things go to hell, like we're doing Iraq.  This puts advisors at greater risk and since Afghanistan is an honor-shame society, where relationships matter greatly – throwing in advisors after things spiral out of control will be a poor choice as well.

'Old School' FID

"The model that American policy makers should look to for appropriate engagement of foreign governments in conflict zones is the Foreign Internal Defense (FID) and irregular warfare conducted by special operations forces.[vi]"  This comment by Steve Thomas in his essay on Rugged Diplomats emphasizes the type of mission set needed for Afghanistan.

Foreign Internal Defense is a whole of nation, light foot print, long-term approach to stability that has worked in a range of other countries.  It is a proven way to stabilize contentious areas over the long haul.  Foreign Internal Defense is well-suited to deal with violent extremists who embed deep in informal clan societies around the world, whether urban or rural.

We still need COIN, but it should be conducted by Afghan Security Forces, not Coalition Forces.  CT is also important.  There are irreconcilable extremists who must be captured or killed. But, this should not be our lead approach.  Instead, it should be nested within a larger Foreign Internal Defense Campaign that shapes efforts to stabilize rural areas, not targets them.

5-Get Our Story Straight

Once we straighten out our policy and mission set in Afghanistan, let's craft a story that communicates this to critical audiences – and tell it well.  This is story-telling 101, man.  And we suck at it!

Whatever our goals are in Afghanistan, we will fall completely short of them if we don't re-establish a connection with key audiences by telling a compelling story of who we are and what we are doing.  Key audiences should include, at a minimum, our own Countrymen, Afghans, and violent extremist networks.

In concert with the Afghan Government and informal leaders, let's develop a central narrative that resonates fearlessly from our National Leaders in a way that demonstrates we are with Afghanistan and her people until they are ready for us to leave. 

Local villages overcame their fear of retribution and stood beside SOF in many VSO sites.  They did this not because of words.  They did this because these SOF who lived in their communities, went to the roof tops and fought when danger came. They actually cared about daily village grievances.  They backed up their word with local action and deed.  This attitude is needed at every level, not just villages.

Here's an easy thing we can do right now.  Let's stop pissing off the Afghan President.  Don't call him corrupt.  Don't call him crazy.  Don't threaten him.  Whether it's Karzai or someone else, he's an ethnic or tribal leader in a clan-based society swimming upstream in a river of patronage and honor.  Instead of tossing him a life jacket, we toss him anchors.  Our negative public discourse gives him nowhere to go but down.  No surprise he makes anti-U.S. remarks, tells SOF to get out of rural villages, and won't sign bilateral security agreements. 

Our enemies should see our leaders jointly proclaiming a combined approach to stabilizing Afghanistan over the long-term.  This is potentially devastating to extremists salivating over future control in the next few months.  Our persistent bi-lateral cooperation, informed by leaders in the right places, shows determined growth of societal capacity from the inside out which renders violent extremists irrelevant in the eyes of locals. 

6-Leverage the Network

Have you looked at an ISAF Command chart lately?  We are far more organizationally complex than any terror network.  Collaboration is critical.  Afghanistan's social problems are so wickedly complex, that no one entity can address them alone.  Afghan civil society issues come from security, development, and governance – not just security.  They are formal and informal –most of us, however, only understand the formal grievances.  But, they must be dealt with.  These grievances are fuel for the extremist fire.  Helping Afghans overcome these broad challenges will require the integration of all U.S. instruments of power - Instruments that usually don't play well together.     

At an informal, community level – where the extremists run amok - there are numerous sources of instability. These are not government shortfalls.  The government didn't provide these services in the best of times.  These grievances result from a degraded clan civil society fabric torn apart by three decades of war.  We barely understand these issues. At policy and strategy levels, senior leaders are completely detached from them.    

These rural grievances such as dispute resolution often exceed the scope of most tactical military advisors.  Government Civilians also lack understanding of informal civil society issues.  Those that do understand them, often can't get to these areas due to security challenges. Therefore, a whole of community approach is needed to connect the rural advisor with the expert.  In many cases, Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) will be much better suited to address wicked sources of instability than a government organization.  Collaboration across all disciplines is key.

This collaborative approach will meet with resistance.  There are parochial people in every organization.  However, there are also catalysts and champions who will likely see the benefits of working together. VSO brought many of us together, from all kinds of disciplines and organizations.  You know who you are.  This is your call to action to get out there and go against the grain.  Work outside your comfort zones to keep building networks.  If you don't, all of our work in Afghanistan was for nothing.    

As an immediate example, consider the USSOCOM Academic Week training sessions. These collaborative venues brought thousands of stability practitioners from Government Civilian Agencies, NGOs, Special Operations Forces and conventional military units together.  They familiarized attendees with complex stability problems like tribal dynamics, low-tech agriculture, development programs, and insider threats. Instructors included U.S. State Department, USAID, USDA, and even leaders from three Afghan Ministries.

Academic Week consistently received survey feedback above 95% from operators as being "extremely useful to pre-mission training."  Pre-deployment connections were often cited as the greatest benefit of this training.  These events are no longer funded by USSOCOM or supported during Afghan transition.  They should be right-sized and re-implemented - not just in Afghanistan, but for other at-risk areas as well.

7-Put the U.S. Embassy in Charge

For a whole of nation approach to work, the U.S. Embassy, not the ISAF Headquarters should be in charge.  This is true in every other country in the world, except Afghanistan.  A large military headquarters ran the campaign in Afghanistan for nearly 14 years.  This structure marginalized diplomacy, development, and law enforcement.  It also delayed the normal interagency activities necessary to achieve whole of nation solutions in working with a partner nation.

Granted, the security situation in Afghanistan is terrible, making it very tough for Embassy officials to deal with stability.  In other countries, like Guatemala and Mali, however, there are Military Groups, Offices of Defense Cooperation, or supporting SOF structures that can be employed to deal with the larger than normal security challenges. 

It will be painful at first.  When you are the "800 pound DOD Gorilla", as our Civilian Counter-parts often refer to us, it's tough to give up control.  But let's face it, U.S. Foreign Internal Defense campaigns are generally unsuccessful when the military is in charge.  The sooner we wake up to this reality, the sooner we'll start to move toward viable stability in Afghanistan.

Now, a caution for civilian leaders.  You don't get a pass on ignoring Afghan reality either. Traditional diplomatic emphasis only on formal Afghan entities won't cut it.  "Unfortunately, in state-building scenarios such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the professional experience of most policymakers is limited to brief tours in the Green Zone or Bagram.  These places while technically in-country, have absolutely no resemblance to the larger situation on the ground," says Steve Thomas[vii].

For example, all current USAID community-focused economic development programs are scheduled to end in 2015[viii].  These village-focused programs that help build resiliency at local levels involving agriculture, dispute resolution, and other community resiliencies will leave a big gap between formal and informal society. 

As part of long-term FID, the Country Team should partner with Directorates and Ministries such as the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG), Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), and the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (MAIL), to conduct impactful, low-cost community-based governance and economic development programs in challenged rural areas.  A good example of this civ-mil, community focus is the U.S. Country Team in Peru and their inter-agency approach to integrate FID civilian programs with rural advisors in the Upper Huallaga Valley. 

Parochial stove-piping is unacceptable.  Afghan and Coalition Civilians and military advisors should collaborate and train together in the U.S. and in Europe to educate each other on these programs.  Advisors should be familiar with community-based programs and how to reach up and connect to them as part of a long-term, FID strategy.  Country and Ministry Civilians should be familiar with advisor capacity to serve as advocates and catalysts for these programs in the rough places.  This network for inter-agency collaboration is best built when risk is low, in pre-deployment training and mission preparation.  It doesn't cost much and the payout can be strategic.       

Diplomats and other Civilian Leaders who value informal civil society and their advisors are key.  Advisors in local levels can only help connect the rural communities to the Afghan government if they are empowered from the top.  Otherwise, a top-down Embassy approach, will be no more successful than it was from a NATO Headquarters.

8-Right-size Our Operational Footprint

Operational footprint refers to the size, disposition, and quantity of the people and organizations working in Afghanistan. This footprint is critical to a post-2014 Afghanistan.  Our footprint has been wrong for Afghanistan.  We need to right-size.

Right now, we're "spit balling" arbitrary numbers between the U.S. Administration, the Coalition, and the Military Theater Commanders. This is largely because of ambiguous policy.  The way in which our diplomats and warriors are waiting for Washington to give them guidance is appalling and should never be repeated. 

Let's stop worrying so much about numbers.  Until we define relative stability based on Afghan local realities, our force structure will be out of whack.  Our footprint should reflect the right people in the right places.  It should represent our renewed appreciation of local realities within Afghanistan, such as rural issues.  Get this right, and we are better - postured for long-term, relative stability. 

9-Focus on Quality Over Quantity

Geographic apportionment is overdue.  We moved away from this after 9-11.  Bring in advisors who have a stake in the country because they will return.  We need to emphasize language, culture, and micro-appreciation of local realities.  This work requires serious, seasoned professionals, who invest tradecraft in long-term, relative stability. 

We need an advisor cadre of open-minded, stability professionals from all lines of effort who can employ formal and informal solutions to their trade.  They must work as comfortably in a remote village with no running water, as they do in an embassy.  They should be network connectors and can-do "utility infielders".

The post – 2014 advisor and practitioner should possess the requisite lethality, tradecraft, and full – spectrum stability prowess to get into a local community, build relationships, identify sources of instability, local resilient actors, help these informal actors re-claim their own resiliency in the face of intimidation, and connect informal leaders to the appropriate formal entities. 

Whether it's a SOF or conventional advisor or USAID practitioner, we must select the right people for this work.  Today's embedded advisor is a mix between T.E. Lawrence and the guy on the Verizon Commercials.  These rough areas call for a catalyst who can apply pinpoint lethality against intimidating extremist networks, but who is also trained and prepared to connect across all disciplines.  A talented advisor with regional expertise can be a tremendous economy of force when numbers and budgets are on the line.  "Can you hear me now?"   

Advisors aren't enough. We also need policymakers and strategic leaders who understand and support them.  This means military commanders who care more about identifying community sources of instability than baseball cap and beard violations.  We also need government civilian support.  "If the world we live in is one that requires American presence around the globe, we will need civilians in the State Department and USAID who understand the full spectrum of operations, from the strategic to the tactical, and who are not afraid to gather ground truth themselves, says Steve Thomas[ix].  

This brings me to the current argument of who the advisors should be.  We need to avoid parochialism here. Some folks aren't cut out for this advisory work.  The stakes are too high.  Advisors should be specially selected and highly trained in FID tradecraft.  Pushing stability practitioners and advisors into this role, whether they are civilian, conventional military or SOF, who don't appreciate local realities and working in a low-footprint, sensitive environment is a catastrophe waiting to happen. 

The number and type of advisors isn't the only footprint consideration.  Where you put them also matters.  A well-placed, locally-embedded, small group of operators can often achieve more in a rural insurgency than a large formation tied to a built-up combat outpost or urban center.  More about that shortly.

10-Think and Act Long Term

Afghan relative stability is going to take time...a lot of time.  We desperately need to change our collective internal clock regarding Afghanistan.  We have a distorted view of time that is not only unrealistic, it is dangerous to the future of Afghanistan and our security at home. 

For a range of reasons, the last fourteen years in Afghanistan has created an impatient approach to stability indicative of our Western society of contract[x].  We approach our work in Afghanistan with a McDonald's Drive Through mentality:  "I want it fast, and I want it now!"

There is a saying that "the Coalition didn't fight a thirteen year war, it fought a one year war, thirteen times."  We try to win on one rotation rather than build incrementally on past gains.  Experience one Relief in Place (RIP) and Transfer of Authority (TOA) at any level in Afghanistan to see just how true this is.  This misguided time concept comes from the most senior levels of leadership and filters down.

Think about it.  Starting with the Saur Revolution in April 1978, it took over twenty three years of non-stop external meddling, civil war, warlord predation, abject poverty and a range of other instability drivers to bring Afghanistan to the point in which it's civil society was degraded and exploited by al Qa'ida - ultimately prompting our intervention. 

It's been another thirteen years of war and instability since we arrived.  That's thirty six years of non-stop warfare - longer than most Afghans have been alive!  In fact, many Afghans have never known relative stability in their lifetime- only war. With this in mind, we should abandon the urgent Global War on Terror timeline of pressure, pursue, punish to a more viable long-term approach of presence, patience and persistence.

Let's start managing expectations now.  The mantra should be "Fifty Years of FID."  It will be at least this long before we will see an Afghanistan capable of standing on its own with minimal oversight.  We are fooling ourselves if we think they will be ready by the end of 2014, or 2016.  This is more Western delusion to suit our own misguided policy.  It signals a complete disregard for the damaged Afghanistan Governmental capacity, lack of informal civil society resiliency, and massive localized culture of violence.  

A long-term approach places proper emphasis on relationships before transactions.  In an honor-based society, this long-term approach is essential to meeting our goals.  When organizations and people are apportioned to a specific area and know they will return, they will invest more in their relationships with Afghans.  This is much better than the current transactional construct that sees advisors establishing relationships that best support the narrow Jeffersonian objectives of their one year rotation. 

With a longer view, organizations and leaders are more focused on building on the success of those that went before them...and setting the next group up for success.   Small gains across all levels become big cumulative contributions on a long-term spectrum.  We should also take heart and know that persistence pays off as it has in many other at-risk countries as well. And it doesn't have to be the large-footprint, top-down COIN debacle from the last decade.

This is a leader issue.  Our Senior Leaders need to establish a long-term stability expectation between Afghanistan and the U.S.  This should be an effects-based approach, built under the context of Afghanistan's local realities, not a timeline that communicates to the extremists how long they need to wait us out.  The stability continuum should reflect the general direction and milestones necessary to achieve relative Afghan stability.  Within that timeline, we can apply bottom-up FID.

11-Re-start VSO and Community-Based Activities as Part of Remote Area FID

"Any attempt to bring peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Pashtun-inhabited areas requires a social repair process to help stitch the broken society damaged by the last 40 years of war, internal conflict, external interventions, and the arrival of an extremist ideology and the resultant unbridled violence that has damaged Pashtun tribal structure." -Dr. Khan Idris, Jirga:  The Pashtun Way of Conflict Resolution.

We need a FID strategy that orients on the aspects of a damaged rural society.  This is a bit different than most modern FID missions.  This approach should focus on building parallel capacity at formal and informal levels and then bring them together when the time is right - in a fashion that is locally appropriate[xi].  The VSO methodology can operationalize this FID strategy, as an economy of force.

The current top-down emphasis on building the Afghan security capacity is good. We are partnering with Afghan Security Forces at Senior and Regional Levels. We need this.  There is a lot of emphasis on systems and sustainability by the ISAF Commander, and elements of the Special Operations community[xii]

Strong capacity within the Afghan Security Forces, however, won't go far enough.  Improved Ministry functions won't help much either.  The Afghan Government simply can't control the rural areas where 75% of Afghans live, and where violent extremists exert their unmatched influence.  It never has and likely won't in our lifetime.

According to anthropologist Dr. Whitney Azoy, the nature of this insurgency hasn't changed much from past Afghan insurrections[xiii].  The rural areas are vital.  Unstructured plague these rural communities and offer exploitation opportunities to violent extremists.  Farmers are still killing earthworms, cousins kill cousins over water disputes, and the Taliban are resolving conflicts when tribal elders should be.  Our absence from the rural areas is contributing to rapid extremist expansion and tightening of the noose around the key urban centers.

"The experience of scores of guerilla campaigns in the era since World War II-indeed, of the American Revolution and of the Peninsular War in Spain (1804-14)-shows that it is virtually impossible to stamp out guerrillas in rural areas where they have room to maneuver and to hide, assuming that they also have the support of the rural population," writes Robert Taber in the Counterinsurgency classic, War of the Flea.

One Special Operator explained to me as recently as May 2014, that insurgents, bristling with small arms and RPG grenade launchers, are now openly walking through bazaars and previously secured areas not far from urban areas where Coalition forces are consolidating.  Other discussions with my Afghan sources reveal increased insurgent presence in previously held coalition areas. 

Some leaders dismiss these rural areas as "little t" Taliban areas. If you can't see it, it doesn't count.  This is dangerous.  Most national uprisings in Afghanistan have come from the rural areas, as did the planning and attack on the U.S. from 9-11-2001.  Rural safe haven equals operating space to project Islamist-fueled, tribal blood feuds right onto our soil at home.

“We need to collectively acknowledge that informal, clan systems are part of Afghan Society whether we like or not” said a Senior USAID OTI Representative to me in a May 2014 Kabul Interview.  The formal, top-down piece is also important, but there is still a major gap between formal and informal civil society that has to be addressed beyond 2014.  This needs to be part of our long-term strategy[xiv]

"Since the Soviet Invasion in 1979, Afghanistan's wars have primarily won – and lost – in rural areas", according to a January 2013 report by Special Operations in Afghanistan[xv].  Yet, as I write this, there is virtually no U.S. or Coalition presence in the rural areas of Afghanistan, where the greatest extremist safe havens lie.  We have given it all back.  Almost all village stability sites have been abandoned by Special Operations Forces and will be completely vacant by the end of 2014.  Special Operations Forces are only partnered with Afghan Security Forces at Regional levels to project a counter-terror and commando episodic capability.   

Leaving the rural areas uncovered, with the knowledge of their fragility and exploitation by extremists is an unmitigated disaster for post-2014 Afghanistan and ultimately, our security at home.  As we focus on helping Afghans with their formal institutions, we need to also help with the informal civil society.  This was the focus of Village Stability Operations and we need to bring it back. 

We do this by placing the right advisors at rural levels to help Afghan resiliencies rise to the surface in spite of extremist intimidation.  These local resiliencies once established, render extremists irrelevant, and ultimately help the population and the government connect. 

But Wait, We Have Afghan Local Police for This

Yes, Afghan Local Police (ALP) are a viable solution, in select areas, for grass roots, security.  But, we've over loved Afghan Local Police as the silver bullet solution to securing Afghan rural areas, while pre-maturely decoupling the responsible VSO advisory mechanism that enabled it to establish effectively in the first place.  "The question here is how can we make ALP an instrument of our effort to establish security and establish organic link between the people and their government rather than something that tears it apart?[xvi]"asked one Senior State Department Representative in 2010. 

Additionally Afghan Local Police are only effective if they are truly local, if they treat the people well, and if the community, to which they are accountable, accepts them as part of their social structure. "If the Arbakai are put in situations where they are not trusted by the whole population, they will be seen as militias rather than arbakai," explains Deputy Minister Tariq Ismati of the Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development.[xvii]

Relative stability in rural communities includes much more than just local police.  "While policing is an essential part in establishing overall village security and stability, it is better conceived of as an outgrowth of resources and justice, not the precursor.  This is because the police is an organization that needs resources and purpose, both of which the village underwrites," says Dr. David Ellis one of the original contributors to the Village Stability Program in RC South.[xviii]

Based on Dr. Ellis' comments, until these damaged communities are resilient enough to manage their ALP, the program should be connected to VSO advisors.  "It's all about the people. It's not about some arbitrary goal that a military commander can say he was successful on," Green Beret Command Sergeant Major J.R. Stigall told me during our 2010 interview. "Success doesn't happen until that village is secure, infrastructure is developed, and the economy is growing.  Those things are the better indicators of success than just all of a sudden we've got an Afghan local police force monitoring the defense in this village.[xix]"          

"Developing ALP without having Special Forces at the advising level is like baking bread without using yeast," wrote Dave Phillips, former Green Beret in the CIDG program in Vietnam, Director of Tribal Analysis Center, and a pioneer of the VSO program.  Dave made several prophetic warnings of how the bottom-up approach would likely go wrong in Afghanistan, if leaders didn't properly manage it.  Here are his warnings from the 2008 book on Afghan Tribal Dynamics

"First, there will be significant pressure brought to place these irregular groups under direct control of the national government. This must be resisted. Local commanders would be replaced by individuals supported by Afghan politicians who are generally always resented by local tribal authorities due to the graft and corruption that accompanies these “political appointees.” In order for any Arbakai village defense force to work, they must be viewed as being loyal to their tribe and as soon as this “bond” is broken, the Arbakai system will fall apart.[xx]"

We handed over ALP way too fast – and we know it.  The premature transition, with no clear de-mobilization plan, is a chapter that is not yet complete.  Former Afghan Ruler Najibullah recklessly employed large militias to retain his power after the Soviet occupation until his murder.  If this is a bellwether of ALP, then the ending might not be a happy one. ALP are a viable irregular solution to rural instability, but they need responsible oversight for the foreseeable future.  But, here is the good news - it doesn't have to be us.

12-Partner with Afghan Special Forces in the Rural Communities 

"The other day, a young boy came up to me, took me by the hand, and said 'don't go down that road brother-there is a bomb there," an Afghan Special Forces NCO told me during a Kandahar interview.  "He did this because a few days before that when and the other kids ran up to talk to us, I stopped and talk with them.  Rather than push them aside like many soldiers do, I gave him a soccer ball and treated him like my little brother.[xxi]

Another way to mitigate risk, reduce cost, and maximize long-term viability for stable rural areas is to build partner capacity to stabilize rural communities. Rather than putting all of our resources into building host nation strike forces, we should invest in an Afghan special operations force to close the rural gap.      

The unruly rural areas need an Afghan security force to do three things:

(1) Be present in the local areas day and night to prevent intimidation and retribution by extremists.  This includes a high degree of lethality when needed and staying power. 

(2) Behave well when no one is looking.  Even in the absence of State oversight, rural communities, police, and leaders need an example of what responsible community security behavior looks like, even in the worst of times. 

(3)  Serve as a catalyst to connect formal government representatives with informal civil society members and leaders. This can be achieved through the credibility of living in the area.

The right organization for these requirements is the Afghan National Army Special Forces (ANA SF).   With focused capacity building, the ANA SF are well-suited to work in rural villages from the bottom up.  U.S. SOF has been training them to do this since 2010.

A few years ago, I observed Afghan Special Forces demonstrate their potential in a West Kandahar Village Stability site.  A regular Afghan Army Solider was driving a truck recklessly through a crowded area of the District Center causing Afghan Civilians to jump frantically out of the way of the on-coming truck.  An ANA Special Forces Team Leader stopped the truck, removed the soldier from the truck, reprimanded him, took his keys and gave them to a local Noorzai tribal elder.  The Afghan Special Forces Captain told the elder he could return the keys when he felt satisfied the man atoned for his actions and would drive safely in the future.    

ANA SF in rural villages was well underway in 2010-2012, but then went stopped as part of transition.  Since removing them from rural areas, their mission is floundering and ill-defined.  If we don't act to clarify their role, they will be subsumed into yet another strike force [xxii].         

The ANA Special Forces aren't proficient enough yet for this demanding grass-roots work in rural villages.  They need assistance, advice, and training - and lots of it.  To live and work in the rural areas requires significant capacity building.  U.S. Special Forces and other SOF, however, have helped build this capacity many times over around the world.  But, there is a catch.  To do this, we must be with them, in the rural areas. 

This is currently not in the cards of Afghan transition.  All SOF and other advisors are restricted to regional urban centers under stringent control measures.  We are limited to advising host nation military forces at built up military bases who will project into trouble areas.  It's not enough.  We need to be in the villages with ANA SF partners. 

13-Live Amongst Them   

“In these under-governed areas we can't reach from the Embassy, these are the areas where SOF can add value for the long haul.”  This from my colleague in USAID who had worked closely with SOF for years seeing the impact they can have in supporting Host Nation and Country Team objectives at the rural, informal level[xxiii].

We already have people to do this.  U.S. Army Special Forces and Marine Special Operations Forces, USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, and Department of State expeditionary diplomats are all well-suited to advising along security, economic development, and governance lines respectively.  Our Coalition partners also have some of these capabilities.  They are the right people, we just need to put them in the right place, and give them the right training, the right authorities and resources. Right now, we are too focused on drones and raids.

Radical concept?  Hardly.  What I am proposing is directly in line with the recent guidance of United States Special Operations Command Operating Concept 2020 for dealing with future conflicts: 

      "Concurrently, civil-military operations and influence activities addressed host government vulnerabilities to underlying sources of instability and conflict.  SOF developed plans in coordination with the host governments and integrated them into the mission strategic plans of the Chief of Mission ("Country Team") and the theater campaign plan of the Geographic Combatant Commander.  In the conduct of these campaigns, small SOF teams and single SOF operators co-located with their hosts and immersed themselves in the local culture.  Slowly and deliberately, they assisted the host government to develop their security force capabilities, address the needs of the people, and build positive civil-military relations.  These efforts reinforced host government legitimacy and isolated indigenous sources of instability from the people.  The activities of these teams and single operators were low cost, low-visibility, and presented a politically acceptable small footprint, in contrast to the overt mode and heavy footprint of large-scale contingency operations.[xxiv]

This example of grass-roots special operations advisory work is not based on some lofty theory or doctrinal concoction of military scientists.  It stems from the past U.S. FID activities in El Salvador, Colombia, and the Philippines. These actions were successful enough to cite them as guidance for working in emerging threat areas. This guidance also comprises all of the key points made in this essay – and we've done it before!

Why then, is our post-2014 Afghan reality so vastly different than this guidance?  Many of our challenges are self-inflicted.

Get Out of Our Own Way!

"You can't do village stability operations from a combat outpost. You can't go in half-hearted. This thing has to be done fully embedded with the villagers and living amongst them as part of their village, Captain John told me from his Kandahar VSO site.[xxv]"  This is bottom-up defined from a guy who did it.  Our advisors need to have authority and resources to work with their Afghan partners in rural areas.  To do this, we need to do several things to get out of our own way.

First, US SOF and ANA SF need formal authority to operate at community levels.  This will take some work.  To mobilize Afghan Special Forces to work in the rural areas, Senior U.S. Coalition and SOF Leaders will have to engage U.S and Afghan Leadership on this issue.  Traditional FID missions typically don't have provisions for this.  The Afghan Government will need to be convinced.  There will be resistance, but it must be done.

Second, we should focus residual support of resources to this austere footprint.  Whatever remains in Afghanistan, operational fires, logistics, airlift, and medical evacuation, should be oriented not just on Counter Terror missions, but on embedded advisors to ANA SF in irregular, rural stability operations. 

We should also re-consider the inherent capabilities of Special Forces and other advisors to operate in austere environments.  That means teaching this rugged, austere approach to ANA SF as well.  Remote Area FID with irregular forces isn't new.  Look at Colombian Special Forces as an example. There is also considerable SOF doctrine on how to sustain this kind of austere footprint in rough places.  We may have to knock the dust off some old manuals at the JFK library and bring in some old Green Beret mentors.             

Third, we should get rid of well-meaning, but risk averse policies that preclude us from advising in rural areas. For example, there is an ISAF "Golden Hour" Medical Evacuation policy that states U.S. and Coalition Forces cannot operate beyond the one hour reach of friendly evacuation aircraft.  This policy doesn't consider the significant capability of SOF Medics who can perform battlefield trauma surgery, veterinary medicine, dentistry, and prescribe medicine.  These medical capabilities are designed to operate beyond the reach of the golden hour, not within it. 

Similar limitations exist for other force protection measures: Driving up-armored vehicles, wearing foreign looking body armor, and travel restrictions are often mission inhibiting in rural areas.  All of these should be re-looked for a post-2014 transition.

It's about educating our own leaders.  Special Forces, for example, were designed for this work.  They have operators who can provide unparalleled medical care, construction and engineering, a diversity of weapons training, communications ranging from Morse code to computer networks management, and all with target language and culture.

To be fair, some Special Forces have lost these skills in the overly kinetic Afghan campaign.  Advisors need to get back to their roots and find that "inner Lawrence."  Right now, coming out of the Global War on Terror, there is a lop-sided emphasis on lethality, and less emphasis on the aspects of advisory tradecraft that allows them to be most relevant in mobilizing indigenous populations. 

I understand I am implying greater risk for these warrior-advisors. Considering my oldest boy wants to become a Green Beret, I wish I were wrong, and drone strikes would get it done.  But, living amongst locals is decisive to relative stability in under-governed areas. 

Force protection in Afghanistan, however, isn't as overt as we make it out to be.  VSO proved, what we once knew:  There is timeless value in leveraging old school "Lawrencian tradecraft" by immersing within the populous and building deep relationships within honor-based societies.  Language, culture, and understanding local dynamics such as agriculture and dispute resolution are key.  These can be under-pinned by unmatched lethality of even the smallest units.

Senior Leaders have to step up here, in both top-cover and resourcing.  They must have the foresight and commitment to value this type of training even in a budget constrained environment.  Low-tech agricultural training, Pashto language training, and tribal dispute resolution training, in many cases, will be a much higher return on investment than even the most elaborate weapon optic or surveillance platform.  And of course, they must then provide our warriors and diplomats the authority to do push out and work in these areas.  If not, we cede safe haven to our enemy. 


History casts a long shadow on those who don't value Afghanistan's history and the worth of her sturdy people[xxvi].  The graveyard of empires runs long and deep from such callous arrogance. 

But, unlike the other residents in the graveyard, our withdrawal is not the end, but the beginning of something even much more sinister.  The storm gathers as al Qa'ida banners are re-planted in the Khurasan soil and an emboldened enemy readies its battle plans. 

They will come for us again.  Our actions now will determine the future of not only Afghanistan, but ultimately the safety of our Country, and the future of our children.

We have to change the game – right now.  I wrote this essay to mobilize you – yes, you.  I know you're out there.  I've seen you.    You are in D.C.  You are in the remote Afghan Villages.  You work out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.  You are training your butt off to embark on yet another lonely deployment over there. 

You've seen what it takes to stabilize these rough places.  You know the cost of keeping extremism at bay.  You're frustrated that our Senior Leaders don't hear us – but you're ready to be heard.

It won't be easy.  We've started to find each other through informal networks.  We have amplified conversations to grand levels.  But, there is growing demand at every level to settle back into our cylinders of unilateral agency isolation.  There is little tolerance for anything that doesn't involve drones or SOF Raids.

Well, it's time.  It's time for a grass roots effort of our own.  We need to get our collective act together in how we take on violent extremists.  We're gathering at informal nodes like the Stability Institute ( to broker knowledge and connect each other.  We need you there with us. 

Enough with theory and pontification.  We've had fourteen years of academic discussions and half-hearted military campaigns.  What have they given us?  Nothing.  It's time to change the game in Afghanistan and beyond.  Only by making our voices heard at every level can we bypass the Graveyard and protect our future.

End Notes

[i] The Evolving Terror Threat, Professor Walter Russell Mead, The Wall Street Journal, March 4th, 2013

[ii] Howard Clark

[iii] As Obama Draws Down, Al Qaeda Grows in Afghanistan, Eli Lake, The Daily Beast, May 29,2014,

[iv] Bringing More Effective Governance to Afghanistan:  10 Pathways to Stability, Middle East Policy Council, Thomas Barfield and Neamatollah Nojumi, Winter 2010, Volume XVII, Number 4, pg 9

[v] The Thistle and the Drone, How America's War on Terror Became A Global War on Tribal Islam, Akbar Ahmed, Brookings Institute Press, Washington D.C., 2013, Pg. 4

[vi] From Small Unit Leaders to Rugged Diplomats, Steve Thomas, Real Clear Defense, June 3, 2014, Pg 2

[vii] Steve Thomas, Real Clear Defense, June 3, 2014, Pg 1

[viii] My May 2014 interviews with Kabul USAID Country Team Representatives confirmed that all community-based governance and economic development programs will terminate by the end of 2015.  My interview subjects stated they didn't think any other community-based governance or economic development programs would follow – although several stated there was ample funding for this type of work and that it was useful in promoting national stability.

[ix] Steve Thomas, Real Clear Defense, June 3, 2014, Pg 1

[x] This is a term regularly used by Dr. Mark Weiner in his book Rule of the Clan to describe modern societies versus society of status, which describes honor-based clan societies.

[xi] Most of today's modern FID missions have SOF and others advisors primarily focused on building host nation formal capacity and advising only regular host nation security forces.  Work with irregular host nation forces has been fairly uncommon over the last thirty years.

[xii] I made these observations during a visit to Afghanistan during the May 2014 period as the drawdown was in full swing. 

[xiii] One of my favorite colleagues on Afghanistan, Whitney Azoy, author of Bushkashi and long-term resident and student of Afghan history and society has developed an amazing analytical product on Afghanistan entitled "Before the Fall".  This study chronicles what relative Afghan stability looked like before the arrival of the Soviets.  This would be an amazing tool to inform post-2014 strategy and policy.  He can barely get any U.S. or Coalition Senior Leaders or Policy Makers to look at it.

[xiv] Interview with Senior USAID OTI Program Manager, Kabul, Afghanistan, May 20th, 2014.  This OTI Rep has been in Afghanistan for four consecutive years and has unprecedented knowledge of all aspects of rural stability and Afghan policy.  Since this Representative, is still operational, the name has been withheld.

[xv] Impact of pulling US SOF from Afghan Villages, Memorandum For Record (Unclassified), 17 January 2013, COL Donald Bolduc, Deputy Commanding General, National Special Operations Command – Afghanistan, Response Memo.pdf

[xvi] Interview with Mr. Henry Ensher, DoS, Regional Platform South Senior Civilian Representative, Kandahar, Afghanistan, July 2010

[xvii] Interview with Deputy Minister Tariq Ismati, Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, October 2012, Savannah, Georgia.  Note:  The term Arbakai refers to a Pashto term for tribal defense forces.

[xviii] Building Village Governance Capacity, Dr. David Ellis, Pg 7,

[xix] Interview with CSM J.R. Stigall, Senior Enlisted Advisor, Combined Joint Special Operations Component Command - Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A), June 2010

[xx] Afghan Tribal Dynamics, Tribal Analysis Center, 2008.  Note:  The term Arbakai refers to the Afghan community defense forces

[xxi] Interview with Afghan National Army Special Forces NCO, VSO site in Kandahar Province, 2010

[xxii] I base this observation of numerous interviews with individual training and advising ANA Special Forces in the school house and in combat.  I would ask a simple question, "What is the mission of the ANA SF in post-2014."  I received wildly different scatter from all parties on this role. By contrast, almost all advisors could clearly articulate the role of Commandos and other Afghan Strike Forces.  The amount of energy, resources, and clarity invested in the strike forces versus the ANA SF is indicative of our lack of appreciation of Afghan realities, namely the importance of working in the rural areas.

[xxiii] These comments were from a USAID Representative during a recent May 2014 interview in Kabul, Afghanistan.  The Field Representative's name is being protected due to ongoing operational activities but is well-known and respected in the SOF and stability community.

[xxiv] United States Special Operations Command, Special Operations Forces Operating Concept, May 2013, Pg 4

[xxv] Captain John, Village Stability Platform in West Kandahar Province,  2010

[xxvi] This is a paraphrased quote from videographer and filmmaker Jim Burroughs who produced hard – hitting video documentaries on Afghanistan over the last several decades.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Scott Mann is the CEO and Founder of the Stability Institute ( - a non-profit organization dedicated to brokering knowledge and connecting stability professionals on tough stability challenges all over the world.  Scott is a former Green Beret with multiple tours in Latin America and Afghanistan.  While on active duty, Scott was one of the architects of the Village Stability Program in CFSOCC-A.  He also crafted the original VSO methodology, stood up the first Village Stability Coordination Center in RC South, and designed and implemented the USSOCOM Joint SOF Academic Week.  Scott is currently writing a book to share VSO best practices from Afghanistan for future interventions entitled Game Changers, New Ways to Stabilize Rough Places scheduled for release in Fall 2014.


The fundamental problem that the world faces today is the more-modern world's need, desire and determination to transform non-modern/less-modern states and societies such that the human and other resources contained therein might be better accessed -- and better utilized -- by the global economy.

Standing in the way of this initiative are:

a. The time-honored and deeply engrained alternative ways of life and ways of governance of these non/less-modern states and societies and

b. The alternative ways of life and ways of governance espoused by such groups as Al Qaeda.

To help illustrate this clash -- re: where the modern world wishes to go and where alternative ways of life/governance stand in the way -- let us consider the role of women as viewed (1) within the modern world (totally accessible and useable by the global economy) and (2) within the non/less modern/Al Qaeda worlds (significantly inaccessible and unusable re: the global economy).

Thus, the problem of Afghanistan (et al) -- and the solutions suggested by LTC (ret.) Scott Mann -- to be seen and to be evaluated in this light.

Herein, the question becomes:

Does his suggested approaches and solutions:

a. Tend to cause the states and societies of the less/non-modern/Al Qaeda-ruled and/or influenced worlds to, for example,

b. Become transformed such that the female populations contained therein (which amounts to approximately 1/2 these populations) become more accessible to -- and thus more useable by -- modern global economic and political interests?

If LTC (ret.) Mann's approach helps to make progress in achieving these types of transitions (one's which cause outlying states and societies to become less of a burden on and more of an asset to the global economy), then it deserves significant and special attention.

If not, then we may still need to contemplate the graveyard.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 1:20pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

This may surprise some, but now is not the time to get stern with Pakistan. That passed long ago, immediately post 9-11 was the time.

Our attentions feed the drama psychologically. The best we can do is to stop from making things worse and allow the Indians and Pakistanis and Afghans to find their own way forward.

Kashmir has remained a festering sore partly because it was internationalized early on, just as we are seeing with Ukraine today. Unfortunately for many of you, the CIA is greedy for its drone program and liaison relationship in Pakistan. They want it and they want a big grand program. Perhaps too some in the military, I can't tell as an an outsider.

A simple, low key, stick to the bare bones pragmatic approach would be best toward Pakistan, neither angel nor devil, but our system won't do that. Many in the various South Asian diaspora communities know this. DC is too greedy for its client. Better to understand this than rail against it, and to speak honestly about it., and prevent lies from taking hold with general publics. It took me decades--and the past 13 years--to finally understand this.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 1:14pm

Forgive me for this, but please be careful when creating networks. The informal networks created during the Cold War between retired and active American military/intelligence and its regional counterparts in 'South Asia' remained until our latest campaign, and, I am guessing, played some part in our early mistakes and misunderstandings.

Battling the old Soviet Union in Afghanistan created a network within the US that romanticized what happened--when it wasn't busy manipulating the process later on for a variety of reasons, some genuinely heartfelt and well-meaning, some for business opportunities. It is the nature of things, some meant well I am sure, if others did not.

What is stability anyway? Afghanistan needs a peaceful transfer of power which only the Afghans can do. We shall see the results of the election and if different sides will abide by the results and prevent a civil war. India and Pakistan have lived for their entire existence with internal insurgencies, and, as Dr. C. Christine Fair says, Pakistan in particular has a stability that many in the West don't appreciate. An unstable sort of stability. I've always been skeptical about the hysteria regarding South Asia because the US, historically speaking, tends to get hysterical when it doesn't ignore the place.

You should see what Americans wrote during the 80's about South Asia, India was an expansionist state because of Indira Gandhi, Hindu fascism would destroy the state and lead to its dissolution and Pakistan would be swallowed up and invaded. Serious respected academic American South Asian specialists. I mean, I could be wrong about what is to happen today in Afghanistan (and I don't know), but the writing always tends to go in a hyperbolic direction.

If the center holds in Afghanistan, and there is still some insurgency at the periphery, does that mean the state isn't a sovereign state, or simply that it is a troubled state like many others? State building in the West was as centuries long process with many violent periods.

The US narratives on South and West Asia are dominated by the narratives most congenial to our post WWII and post Cold War understanding, narratives of liberal Indians and Pakistanis and the British and Americans of a certain time and place who were more concerned with the trauma of Partition than the nature of state building.

My understanding of stability is different because the narratives I grew up with--and the history as it was understood--are very different. Closer to what you hear from contemporary Indians, tired of the hold of this past on the state and ready to move on.

What I understood was: India held. Despite partition, the new Indian state did not fall apart, however messed up it looks today. Because that wasn't so sure at one time. There are insurgencies, more than one, but it has held.

For some historians, Partition prevented larger Partitions, a continent wide Yugoslavia.

Is this a different wear to look at stability? As long as their is a relatively peaceful transfer of power, even with a long term rural insurgency, can the state still move forward? Will it hold? Over this, we have little power although Sec. State Kerry did help in this latest election ballot counting crisis.

Threats certainly can come from Afghanistan but I do not believe they are existential to the US. They are to the Afghans, but only they can assure a government that holds.

Thank you for this heartfelt piece.


Wed, 07/30/2014 - 10:35am

To find one’s “…inner Lawrence...” is not too difficult for a Special Forces soldier. To have the value of that recognized by one’s risk averse, career-focused, conventionally-bound chain of command is magnitudes more difficult. Stated another way: True FID (and UW for that matter) is incompatible with careerism because it requires a selfless mindset open to endless commitment.

Just ask MAJ Gant.

Speaking as a Former Action Guy who was peripherally involved with thinking about this fight, I believe that this plan is the last, best hope for an honorable solution to our relationship with Afghanistan. I fervently pray that our decision makers are listening.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 9:23am

I suppose when the author writes Remote Area Foreign Internal Defense he means the former FID doctrine of Remote Area Operations. Here is the definition that is no longer in the doctrine (but still should be).

• Remote area operations are operations undertaken in insurgent-controlled or contested areas to establish islands of popular support for the HN government and deny support to the insurgents. They differ from consolidation operations in that they are not designed to establish permanent HN government control over the area.

• Remote areas may be populated by ethnic, religious, or other isolated minority groups. They may be in the interior of the HN or near border areas where major infiltration routes exist.

• Remote area operations normally involve the use of specially trained paramilitary or irregular forces. SF teams support remote area operations to interdict insurgent activity, destroy insurgent base areas in the remote area, and demonstrate that the HN government has not conceded control to the insurgents. They also collect and report information concerning insurgent intentions in more populated areas. In this case, SF teams advise and assist irregular HN forces operating in a manner similar to the insurgents themselves, but with access to superior combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) resources.
(From FM 3-05.202 Foreign Internal Defense 2007.) (NOTE: No longer in current FID Doctrine)