Understanding the Sea: The Practical Application of Census Operations as a Primary Tool for the Platoon-Level Counterinsurgent
Patrick C. Brien
Conducting census operations has been often seen as a supporting device for commanders on the ground to use in assessing the populations they are responsible for. While this is certainly true, regarding it as merely a bullet point on a long list of tasks a field manual suggests battle space owners should attempt to accomplish during their deployment, we’ve greatly underestimated the importance of census operations. Stated simply, the census is the campaign plan. It directs both lethal and non-lethal targeting objectives and allows commanders to make accurate and timely population-centric decisions. Not only are many junior-leaders in the dark about the methodology behind conducting census operations, the application for the data derived from these efforts is also largely unrealized. Training on conducting census operations and deriving plausible follow-on actions from the information extrapolated will be crucial for success in future counterinsurgency conflicts. In this essay the author outlines a practical, how-to guide for platoon and company level leadership to conduct census operations and provides examples for ways in which these operations led to future gains across the battle space.
Understanding the Sea
As Mao would say, the insurgent is the proverbial fish and the population is the proverbial sea in which the fish hides, feeds and thrives. It is crucial for leaders on the ground to have not only an intimate knowledge of their enemy but also of the population for which they are responsible. And so comes the term and practice of population centric operations. In the case of the conflict in Afghanistan, where often under strength platoons operate in their own battle space on their own combat outposts, a meticulous method can be applied for learning every wave, reef and fish in their piece of the ocean.
I cannot stress enough the amount of detail that must go into painting this human terrain picture. Due to the nature of American deployments into the various theaters in which they are currently engaged, it is very unusual for individuals to be deployed multiple times to the same specific region. This is especially the case with platoon leaders, most of whom are on their first deployment and in the decentralized projection of combat power the military is now accustomed to, are expected to make the same analysis and have the same clarity on their Area of Operations (AO) that was once confined to a company commander or higher. To put it simply, we can never hope to have a true understanding of the minute dynamics that drive personalities and events in a given area. Many are so subtle and historically taken for granted by the local population that your neighbors may not believe they are worth mentioning. In XYZ District they are common knowledge; to you they are completely alien. Some may argue that by patrolling and conducting regular street level engagements one can accurately assess the human terrain of a given area. I would argue that with less than a year on ground in your AO, the progress you make in human terrain mapping could be measured in inches rather than miles. Systems, methodology and meticulously cataloguing individual neighbors is key for both non-lethal and lethal targeting.
Many have heard of population centric COIN theory and how winning and knowing the people are key to combating the insurgents. This theory translates into action through census operations. I am fully aware that the terrain in which you are stationed often confines your ability to conduct census operations. For example, census operations conducted in Kandahar City provide a far more taxing problem then those conducted in the rural communities I have been accustom to. However, conducting census operations is part of a standard Zone Reconnaissance executed in any AO with an emphasis on human terrain. While a platoon or squad leader can often be sure that he will not walk the exact same beat on his next deployment, he can be completely positive that someone, US, ANSF (or otherwise) will walk that beat in his stead year after year. Building upon these census operations in small, focused actions are both manageable and key to future successes in that particular area of operations. Census operations should be immediate, constant and enduring throughout a combat rotation regardless of terrain. My platoon began their census operations in conjunction with an AO expansion and Combat Outpost build in the village of Shaturi, Arghandab District in Kandahar Province. Specific census patrols were pushed out to not only act as an introduction between US/ANA forces and the villagers, but also as a reconnaissance of this new world they were now a part of. Patrols focused on specific areas of the village, going house to house to meet residents and gather very specific information from each compound. While most of the information described below seems fairly routine, each and every ounce of knowledge we pulled was used for operations, actionable targets and non-lethal aid programs at one time or another.
Figure 1: An example of a basic census slide. Over time, most households include 2-3 slides of information.
In order to ensure we were tackling this monumental task as methodically as possible, we first obtained overhead imagery of each of the villages in our AO. Early dismounted reconnaissance patrols revealed several sets of structures that were not part of any of the village proper, so those too were included. We then requested that low fly-bys and photo-reconnaissance be taken by the OH-58 Kiowa flights that frequented the area and they were always happy to oblige. By layering these two pieces of Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), we were able to update our grid reference systems and identify new structures that had been built. I then broke sections of the villages down into manageable pieces and assigned my squad leaders the task of collecting census information for their assigned sectors. Early on in our time in the Northwest Arghandab, both of my maneuver squads shared the ground but as time went on I assigned each squad leader his piece of the pie. This allowed them not only to go deeper into development on the area’s census; it provided them the ownership and autonomy they wanted. In turn, I gained a village expert when I needed input (which was often) on a given Course of Action (COA). The key to our success was the motivation and talent of our platoon’s non-commissioned officers (NCO), and their ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations was uncanny.
Upon arriving at an assigned house, photographs were taken of the door and the approaches down the alleyway or road in which the house was positioned. This not only aided us in identifying (and memorizing) a given residence on patrol by the color, make, shape, etc. of the door but was also a very easy identifier for our ANA and ANP counterparts who did not always have the luxury of GPS or imagery. Doors and entrances were also crucial while working with sources that identified potential Taliban supporters by the color and location of that individual’s doorway and not by an address and zip code. We knew as leaders and planners that if the need ever arose for some type of lethal mission on that particular compound, we would be able to use both imagery and the pictures of the surrounding area to identify key avenues of approach, breaching equipment required as well as potential enemy egress routes.
A picture was also taken of the male head of household as well as any teenage or adult males present. Their names were also taken along with their fathers’ names. This seems simple in nature but had resounding applications for us throughout our 6 months in the area. Having these pictures and names on file allowed our junior leaders to flip through the product and begin memorizing the names and faces of our neighbors. You cannot sell short the effects of an American greeting his Afghan neighbor by his full name or nickname. It creates a sense of community, a sense of partnership. Elders and powerbrokers were soon easily identified to us through word of mouth in our chats with the people as we took our notes and crosschecked them against the census. Family ties in the village started to become clear to us.
In terms of lethal targeting, father’s names and pictures allowed us to conduct aggressive person of interest (POI) targeting throughout our AO. This was particularly pertinent for us as our area had been under consistent Taliban control since the beginning of OEF. Taliban ties were buried deep with kinship roots throughout the area and if we ever hoped to bring security to the area then we had to either rip these roots from the ground or we had to neutralize their effect on the human terrain that surrounded them. Intelligence reporting was frequent but often there is no way to tie the names and relations mentioned in these reports to actual people. There are countless Mohammed’s in Afghanistan but only so many that have a scar on their face, tattoo on their hand and whose father’s name is Abdullah. This portion of the census allowed us to identify and narrow the search for these individuals, effectively plucking the insurgent fish from the sea…we were avid fishermen. There were often times when we were continually going after the same name matches and I pitied the villager whose name came up repeatedly in our reporting. We often applied continuous and reasonable pressure to these individuals. There were instances in which we could neither confirm nor deny that the Raziq that lived the next village over was the same Raziq sources claimed to be an IED facilitator. By consistently and publically engaging with this individual we were able not only keep close ties on this name-match but also let it be known through the rumor mills that it was not a good idea for the real Raziq to come into any of our villages.
Obtaining the relative age of residents allowed us to understand our work force as well as the potential for future operations such as Cash for Work or Village Stability Operations. The number of individuals in the household showed us a rough population number in our area as well as the number of children that we eventually hoped to see at school every day, how many teachers we needed and the amount of supplies they might go through. Asking a man his occupation not only told us that ours was a tenant farming community (as is much of rural Afghanistan) but also identified the shopkeepers, taxi, truck and tractor drivers and mechanics. We then used this information for intelligence gathering but also for local economic gain as well. A shopkeeper often knows the majority of the villagers and is a local hang out spot for the young men of the area. Not only is he a good man to speak to on a regular basis to obtain information on the happenings of the village but he may benefit from a small business grant, particularly one targeted at purchasing farm equipment and supplies for him to sell to local farmers in order to more effectively keep money in the community. Vehicle operators often travel through the area for work and will often hear information in neighboring villages that can be exploited to yield lethal targeting results. Given the history of our area, it was also likely that under Taliban control they were forced or hired to conduct transportation services and may eventually provide a better picture of the insurgents we were up against. Coalition Forces can also hire them in lieu of an outside contractor to support the transportation needs of a local project. Mechanics can be hired to fix ANSF vehicles and provide a local solution to ANSF logistics issues. We always looked for ways to improve the economic situation in our neighborhood and the census provided the answers we needed to accomplish this goal.
While there is a loose identity for Afghans in the nationalistic sense, on a grassroots level most identify far more with village, tribe and mosque and gaining this information furthered our understanding of the under current of the sea we now resided in. The local power brokering in which platoon and squad leaders often find themselves mediating has deep rooted fissures and alliances with infinite complexity. Establishing the religious and tribal affiliations of the area while tying them specifically to individuals sheds a ray of light and subsequent hope for Coalition Forces in developing local governance. This information is obtained in the same way as the other pedigree information during targeted census operations but because of its importance, leaders must take more meticulous care in analyzing the raw data.
Mosque attendance for instance is broken down to the individual household on their respective census slides and then over-laid on graphics to depict which areas of the neighborhood attend which mosque. Mosque attendance is calculated in order to determine which mosques have the highest attendance and displayed on a pie chart. By tying religious affiliation to both numbers in attendance as well as the individual leaders or elders in the area, troops on the ground can determine the most influential mosques and target these in priority for mosque refurbishment kits and repairs as well as take a keener interest in the rhetoric of that particular mullah.
Figure 2: An example of the household attendance of mosques depicted through a geographical overlay.
Tribal affiliation is analyzed in much the same way. In the Arghandab, tribal affiliation is of particular interest as the region experiences an Alikozai awakening. Regardless of tribe, identifying tribal dominance in a given village can show local national mindset while bringing to light the viability of bringing specific tribal leaders in to aid Coalition Forces in working with the population for both security and development. In our case, tribal affiliation throughout the multitude of villages in which we operated in were fragmented and showed no real majority. For us on the ground this translated into two things: first, the AO would not simply play ball with CF/ANSF because of tribal pressure from the district government. The second was that area leadership within the villages themselves was not based on tribal affiliation. This fact changed our approach to the local government council and instead of focusing on tribe we became much more concerned with their mosque affiliation as well as their personal ties in and around the area. In our AO it was about who you knew, whom you worked for and what rhetoric specific fathers handed down to specifics sons.
As we completed the census and had at least a general PowerPoint slide for each household in our three villages, we began to add detail and refine. The initial sweep of census patrols gave us a basic document but it is vital to mention that a census is a living, breathing document. Scouring the working document for holes and gaps in information provided valuable intelligence requirements for each squad and team leader for each patrol. Every patrol usually had 3-4 household assignments that required them to go to various compounds, converse and gather further information. The picture became more complete daily. Off-handed information not included in the census questions was also later added from the detailed notes taken from my squad and team leaders as they interacted with the community on a daily basis.
As the spring neared and the planning of future aid projects developed, we moved our census operations into the orchards and fields. While some form of cataloguing agricultural infrastructure was common throughout Kandahar, we attempted to tie or layer the landowners and workers across a greater sphere of influence. By meticulously cataloguing each orchard and each field with a numbering system and corresponding census slide, we learned a great deal about the local agrarian economy. Through this investigation and research we were able to discern proactive and fair methods in slowly eliminating the poppy crop in the area. While this was a long term campaign plan, it still identified which land owners and maintainers we needed to speak to about shifting irrigation canals with our Cash For Work labor as well as identifying which agricultural projects would do the most good for the most people. It brought together a bi-monthly landowner shura in conjunction with our regular shura to address specific agricultural needs and settle various disputes. Using the Arghandab Districts Agricultural Center in Sakari Bagh, we were provided an easy and productive way to connect our neighbors with the District and Provincial government. Combined with the residential census, it provided a very clear picture of not only the local area but how our small section of the Arghandab economically interacted with Kandahar City, Khakrez and Shah Wali Kot Districts and even Helmand Province. This understanding also provided enemy centric targeting opportunities as we linked cache sites to land owners/maintainers, making them not only targetable but also accountable for their fields.
There were no limits to the amount of information we could gather. There was always intelligence requirements to fill and always something to learn that would enhance both our ability and standing within the community. We could walk through the villages, calling greetings to individuals by name and immediately recognizing someone new to the area that we may need to question. By doing so we not only understood the sea we lived in, we became as much a part of it as an American in Afghanistan could be in less than a year…and that’s saying a lot. We were proud of this ability, putting it to work not only on a daily basis but also during the critical spring poppy harvest. Historically this was a time when insurgent fighters would travel into their engagement zones with the migrant workers hired to support the harvest. The platoon (the squad and team leaders especially) were able to have a general idea of who was new to the area and identify who their local contacts were. These workers were of course added to the census and we interacted with them on a near daily basis in an effort to disrupt any nefarious activity.
This information and knowledge is formulated at the squad level, consolidated at the platoon level and then expounded several times over to the company and battalion chains of command. In other words if each platoon understands their population, ipso facto, the battalion should understand their entire population across the battle space. In practice however, census operations are a platoon/company level tool for counterinsurgency as any battalion application is simply not possible due to both scope and scale of information compiled across the battle space. Battalion level intelligence cells are far more effective in disseminating intelligence updates derived from various forms of collection to company level leadership and enforcing a system of reporting back to the battalion that provides concise and specific products and feedback for further analysis. This “graduate level” census compilation was difficult to achieve in an area with so little existing infrastructure like Afghanistan. We were using simply PowerPoint products to depict our information and in hindsight, I did not work hard enough to share this information with units on my battle space boundaries. During the next COIN campaign, it will be critical to streamline this process for reporting to the Brigade and Regional Command level in order to create an enduring national document that can be accessed by multiple military and government agencies. Just as it is imperative for quality census information to be ruthlessly collected at the platoon and company level, it is equally important for Battalion and Brigade level leadership to mandate these operations as part of their required campaign plan.
The notion of taking a complete census of an area of operation seems both tedious and obvious. While I can assure you that it is tedious and the epitome of a working document that takes constant care to improve, I haven’t found it to be that obvious. I haven’t heard of that many other units in Afghanistan who have gone through so much trouble to develop a census document in such detail. When I speak of it, I am often met with puzzled looks and replies. Census operations must be included in the future education on counterinsurgency tactics, particularly for junior officers and NCO’s. I cannot reiterate enough how important it was to us as well as our Battalion. It was the foundation of everything we did on a day-to-day basis and led to not only the detention of multiple insurgents but provided the precise targeting of thousands of dollars in aid and relief. The information it provided became our campaign plan. Finally, it provided a real document that we could hand over to the incoming unit that they could continue to develop and use as a reference during the early months of their deployment. Going through an effective Relief in Place (RIP) is an arduous and daunting task but a thorough census eased the transition to an astounding degree. These weren’t our opinions or jaded views. The census was a compilation of cold, hard facts that were interpreted logically and pointed to the way ahead.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.