ANSF Security Transition at the Platoon Level: Lessons Learned 2011-2012

Author's Note: Special Thanks to SFC John Brouillette.

As the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) continues to draw down forces in Afghanistan, many Platoon/Company sized elements are being tasked with the execution of security handovers that have been in development for over ten years.  Most units in previous deployments were tasked with ensuring that the security situation in their area of responsibility was better when they left than when they arrived. However, units are arriving in Afghanistan with the expectation that no ISAF unit will replace them upon completion of their tour.  Even more daunting is the burden that falls to the Platoon Leaders and Troop/Company Commanders who must often overcome major strategic hurdles resulting from stunted progress in the years preceding their arrival.

What does this mean for the Platoon Leaders currently in Afghanistan or soon to arrive? What are some effective methods to catalyze the transition process, especially when facing the geographic challenges associated with large areas of responsibilities or unmotivated & incompetent Afghan partners?  Operating under the assumption that most Squadron/Battalion elements do an excellent job emphasizing the need for contextual, cultural, and historical understanding in tandem with the building blocks of counterinsurgency, most vignettes and ‘lessons learned’ relayed to Platoon-level Leadership are oriented on specific Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) on topics such as IED detection, while failing to relay success stories on how broader strategies are put into practice over the course of an entire deployment.  This essay will seek to concisely summarize some lessons learned at the Platoon level in Kandahar Province from 2011-2012.  It will not focus on topics already successfully illustrated by fellow leaders, notably those regarding the intricacies of tribal politics, Pashtun culture, and use of money as a weapon.  Instead, it will focus on considerations useful for the planning and assessment of Platoon Level campaigns with the ultimate goal of security transition to an ANSF partner.

Shah Wali Kot District

In late spring of 2011, 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry (RTSA) deployed to Kandahar province with 1/25th SBCT with Bravo Troop assigned to Shah Wali Kot District north of Kandahar City. Shah Wali Kot has traditionally been a contested hotbed for insurgent movement of Home Made Explosives (HME) and fighters executing complex attacks and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) emplacement in the volatile sections of the Arghandab river valley to the South and in Kandahar City itself. Geographically it is one of the largest Districts in Kandahar Province characterized by expansive rocky plains, a richly diverse concentration of nomadic Kuchi tribes, villages separated by large distances and only one paved highway dissecting the District in half along the Arghandab River from the District Center all the way to Kandahar City. This highway continues to be essential to the commerce of the Province and the logistical sustainment of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIRoA) activities in the region.  Although our primary mission was to ensure the security of this highway, we quickly recognized the insurgent ability to bypass our security measures on the highway through ‘rat lines’ many kilometers to the east and west that would necessitate our projection of force into the expanse of the entire District.

The Status Quo Might Not Be the Way Forward

            During our Relief in Place (RIP) with the outgoing unit, we observed quickly that the status quo of monotonous daily patrols had been the focus, with no emphasis placed on achievement of any eventual security handover. The outgoing unit had been repetitively transferred to a new battle space no less than five times during their deployment and had only been in the District two months prior to our Relief in Place. They had fallen into the trap many Army leaders would recognize, which revolved around a weekly patrol schedule: an Excel spreadsheet created to ensure that Platoons circulated their battle space with proportional focus on as many villages as possible. They would go to a village, drag their unmotivated Afghan National Police (ANP) partners along (usually inside their Strykers), ask what had changed since the previous week, pretend to annotate a laundry list of small project requests, allow the ANP to sit in the background and not participate, consolidate and return to the Combat Outpost to await the next day when they would do it over again. This tendency was not unique across Regional Command South during the period leading up to the Afghan Surge. Given weak or disinterested Platoon Leadership, Junior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and Soldiers are often times more than happy to focus their attention on what awaits them back at the Combat Outpost (COP) instead of their mission focus for the day or a deliberate plan for the development of their Afghan partners. They had essentially circled the wagons until our arrival, leaving us with the responsibility of developing a campaign plan with no condition setting in advance.

To make matters more difficult in achieving our ultimate goal of a successful security handover, the ANP had grown accustomed to ISAF presence and simply refused to patrol without ISAF partnership (much like almost all ANP units in the region at that time). Indeed, their fears related to the insurgents were validated by the high number of pressure-plate IEDs in Shah Wali Kot that had some of the largest amounts of HME in RC-South at the time, many in the range of 100lbs in weight; enough to result in a mobility and sometimes catastrophic kill for a Stryker, let alone an ANP pickup truck.  Such IEDs were guaranteed to be found along the routes leading to the villages that were 10-20km from the District headquarters and were intended to disrupt ISAF/ANSF ability to project away from the highway and potentially disrupt the established success of the insurgent rat lines leading into Kandahar City from Zabul & Urzgan Provinces to the North.

Creating a Campaign Plan

In the late spring & early summer of 2011, we assessed the need to quantify the ability of our District’s ANP to provide security and simultaneously facilitate the establishment of a campaign plan for our eventual handover of security. At the Troop/Company level, this process was critical in creating synchronization and a common operational understanding between ISAF and ANSF for the strategic goals of the District.  We chose to use a large map as the method of our continuous synchronization with our partners.  Any major decision surrounding the campaign plan would be discussed in the presence of this map to ensure that we were all moving toward the same ultimate objective. We used a large sheet of plastic overlay and our dry erase markers to draw a border around the District Police Headquarters and Checkpoints constructed along the highway indicating where the District Chief of Police (DCOP) felt he could patrol without an accompanying ISAF element. If it was inside the circle, he was confident that his police could patrol there without ISAF accompaniment. In the initial months of the deployment and during the summer fighting season of 2011 at the height of the Afghan Surge, this circle was only about 1 km around the District Headquarters and non-existent for the Police Checkpoints.  In a District of approx. 900 square kilometers, this was far from the mark we wanted to be at for our starting point.  During this initial period of assessment, realism is crucial to success.  The temptation to overestimate ANSF capability before it can physically demonstrated in the field must be resisted despite the pressure to expedite the transition timeline given the United States’ impending withdrawal from Afghanistan.  However, as we would soon discover, the ability to expand the first set of borders on the overlay would prove difficult for a number of reasons.

Our four maneuver Platoons (3 Scout Platoons and 1 Mortar Platoon acting as a maneuver element) were each partnered with ANP squads and tasked with patrolling quadrants of the massive Shah Wali Kot District with the mission of connecting GIRoA to the disjointed populace through advocacy and promotion of the efforts of the District government, demonstrating the proficiency and capabilities of the ANP as a viable source of security in the future through continuous presence patrolling and partnered operations, and where possible, identifying and rooting out sources of insurgent support. One major hurdle for our Cavalry Troop was that each of the quadrants of Shah Wali Kot is vastly diverse and unique in their tribal & cultural compositions.  Each Platoon Leader would have to back-brief the Troop Commander following the assessment period on the recommended courses of action unique to their assigned area. We learned very quickly that we would gain much more ground by maintaining a continuous focus on the populace and limiting our targeted operations against the insurgents to large scale air assault clearance operations on the fringes of the District, or through missions oriented on targets of opportunity facilitated through local national informants and various target acquisition assets made available through our intelligence cell. In the rural fight in Afghanistan, time spent hunting small teams of accidental guerillas in their own territory is almost always time better spent connecting ANSF and GIRoA with the parent villages of those same guerillas.

My Stryker Scout Platoon (20 personnel) and other two Scout Platoons from Bravo Troop were stationed at the Combat Outpost collocated at the District Center, with my Platoon assigned to the southern portion of the District measuring approx. 300 square kilometers of battle space. This approach of centralized collocation at the Company level that we inherited had tangible and drastic limitations to establishing security in the wide expanse of the District. Traveling through extremely restrictive rocky terrain with a Platoon of Strykers at distances of over 15km could take up to 5 hours (one way) for many villages at the far edge of the District. We lobbied our higher headquarters to pressure the ANP into the construction of a Police Checkpoint, still on the highway, but approx. 10 km south of the Headquarters at an intersection where a significant insurgent rat line connected back onto the highway after bypassing the section of highway adjacent to the District Center and our Combat Outpost.  This hub, which was the intersection of a large river-bed used by most of the fringe villages to get to the highway during travel to Kandahar City, would prove to be a decisive position to facilitate our campaign plan for security transition of our Platoon area of operations (AO) to our partnered ANP squad. In July, we were finally able to convince the ANP of the utility of a checkpoint at that location and we quickly constructed the hesco-walled outpost along the highway.  Many ANP elements in Afghanistan have successfully used checkpoints & outposts to project presence into their Districts.  Once logistical limitations can be overcome (manning, life support, resupply, etc.), they can be a powerful tool in defeating insurgent influence.  It is important to note however that in our case, the establishment of the Checkpoint was merely the first step in our campaign plan to secure our area of responsibility.  Many Commanders have failed in assuming that simply placing a checkpoint at a key location on the map will result tangible security gains. Without an accompanying strategy to achieve local national support of that Checkpoint’s mission, the Checkpoint will consume valuable resources and provide little benefit.

Our ANP partner squad that had previously been stationed at the District Headquarters was now garrisoned at the Checkpoint, with static presence on the route and in a prime location to interdict insurgent movement from the rat line back onto the highway.  It was also in full view of many of the villages in our AO and would become the focus of our remaining eight months in Afghanistan.  However, the ANP personnel assigned to the Checkpoint were nearly all new recruits and the Checkpoint Commander was a position that the DCOP interchanged frequently. Without continuity of leadership, it proved very difficult to establish a battle rhythm and a professional partnership forged in trust.

            Toward the end of the fighting season and Ramazan (Ramadan) in fall 2011, my Platoon Sergeant and I were becoming frustrated with the DCOP’s support of ANP NCOs refusing to patrol, even short distances of 300 meters from their Checkpoints without ISAF partnership. I was then informed that the DCOP was administratively transferring not only our Checkpoint Commander, but the entire ANP squad assigned to our Checkpoint, whom we had already certified through two months of training in basic marksmanship, Combat Life Saving, and IED detection techniques. To make matters worse, the new Checkpoint Commander was only 21 years old- brand new to the ANP.  Despite this transfer directive, my Platoon Sergeant and I had been conceptualizing a realistic timeline for the eventual ANSF handover of our area of responsibility.  I drew a similar map to the one we used in the DCOP’s office, but this one was focused primarily on our Platoon AO. We drew three concentric generally circular areas with the Checkpoint at the center.  Each area contained 3-5 villages and extended the radius approx. 5 km away from the Checkpoint and represented a phase of transition. The first circle was very small and encompassed the 3 villages within walking distance to the Checkpoint, which we knew was well within the independent capability of an ANP squad.  Although we had encountered IEDs in this circle early in the deployment, we had saturated the area with our presence to include overnight observation posts to the point that the threat was now eliminated.  To date, the Squadron had been unable to convince the ANP that they were indeed ready for very limited independent foot patrols. 

It Started with a White Lie

On the morning that the new Checkpoint Commander was scheduled to arrive, I had the map up on the wall inside the Checkpoint. After he entered the Checkpoint and we exchanged initial greetings, I escorted him to the map and said, “Welcome to Shah Wali Kot (he was from Urzgan Province). My plan, if you approve, is for you to pick up where the old Checkpoint Commander left off.  He and his squad patrolled the three villages inside this first circle without my help. In a few months, we’ll see about expanding out to the second circle once we’re both confident your squad is ready.”  He stared silently at the map for a minute, nodded his head and went back to drinking his tea.  The new Commander had no way of knowing that the previous Checkpoint Commander refused to patrol independently because he and his squad had been transferred the day prior.  Following a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) mission that took us away from the Checkpoint for two days, I returned and spoke again with the young Commander.  He smiled casually and informed me that he didn’t want to embarrass the reputation of the Checkpoint and had patrolled to all three of the villages inside the circle without any problems and as a result, had already gained a very positive reputation from the elders from those three villages.  This was the first instance during the deployment of our Afghan partners executing an independent patrol.  I immediately reported the news up through my Chain of Command and my Troop and Squadron Commander pounced at the opportunity to pressure the District Chief of Police into instituting similar incremental transition plans for the other Checkpoints in the District.  The lines on the dry erase map in his office finally started to expand out as other Checkpoints were forced to follow suit. However, this progress would be short-lived unless we could simultaneously gain support from fringe villages to engage with GIRoA and solidify our gains.

The Microshura

The destruction of cell phone towers in our District early in the War meant that villagers had to physically report any tips to the ANP in person at the Checkpoints or the District Headquarters. With only one paved road in the District this was often too inconvenient to warrant the trip or too risky for villagers to attempt in the event a Taliban informant took note of their movement. The presence of the Checkpoint in our rural area meant that a conspicuous day’s travel to the District Center that might have been met with suspicion from a local Taliban informant could now be eliminated if locals could muster the courage to casually relay tips during their movement past the Checkpoint during their daily activities. Even this proved to be difficult to achieve. To increase local confidence in the Checkpoint Commander, who was new as a leader and very young in their eyes, he and I would rehearse daily talking points inside the Checkpoint before joint patrols, sometimes for over an hour, until we were confident that he could successfully lead the discussion during the patrol that day instead of me. We focused on discussing the role of the Police in the District, a notion that is drastically different from our pre-existing understanding of Police responsibilities in the United States.  Educating the new Commander and also the village elders about how the Police could strengthen the local rule of law, mediate disputes, ensure the smooth flow of goods, and secure non-combatant routes from IED emplacement facilitated more confidence in the changes taking place and generated an optimistic anticipation of future relationships. Over time, I was able to place myself with the outer security detail at these meetings, putting solely the face of the young Checkpoint Commander on the discussions with village leaders.

To create a tangible indicator of local national cooperation in our Platoon area of responsibility, the Checkpoint Commander, my Platoon Sergeant and I came up with the idea of what we came to call a ‘microshura.’ We used our understanding of LTC Brian Petit’s insightful lessons learned from developing Afghan Local Police programs in outer Shah Wali Kot and neighboring Districts to slowly rally support for a Microshura that would be held inside our ANP Checkpoint. [1]  The only Shura held in the District up until that point was the weekly District Shura that was directed towards village maliks (head village elder).  Many village elders from the outer rim of the District had cited the long distance and risk of insurgent backlash as their reason for cutting ties with GIRoA and the District Shura prior to our arrival. Our smaller ‘Microshura’ would aim to incorporate these disenfranchised leaders with the intent of eliminating their passive and sometimes active support of accidental guerillas in the area. The Microshura would be open to any local elder wishing to attend, not simply village maliks.

This notion of a Microshura was certainly not new to Afghanistan as Shuras of all shapes and compositions have been held throughout the region for generations.  We sought to innovate by tying participation in such a Microshura with the AO transition map we created inside the Checkpoint. Before transitioning phases of area handovers from a smaller circle to a larger one, the Checkpoint Commander and I would recruit the villages inside the current circle of focus (often through laborious meetings that addressed the same issues for weeks at a time) to the Microshura at the Checkpoint.  Each village had individual and unique concerns that required extensive reassurance, bargaining, and increased security presence before receiving a commitment to attend.  After two months of lobbying support in fall 2011, we held our first Microshura at the Checkpoint with the three villages that comprised the first circle.  The success story quickly spread throughout the District and local ISAF units.  As an incentive to attend, each week we would bring a new group of advisors or representatives to interact with the village leaders and offer support of various kinds. We incorporated NGOs, State Department development representatives, agricultural advisors, Afghan District representatives for development and education, Afghan National Army Leadership, and more. We held large communal meals and over time, transitioned the responsibility of leading of the Microshura to the Checkpoint Commander after even more talking point rehearsals.  We randomized meeting times and even the location of the Microshura to stay one step ahead of any local insurgents who might attempt an attack on the meeting.  Significant issues facing our quadrant of the District were then able to make their way to the District Shura through Afghan means of communication.  There was still a substantial amount of skepticism towards the District government, but the dedication of the ANP Squad couldn’t be denied by even the most resistant elders. Village participation in the Microshura soon became a vital indicator of which villages in the District would require extra attention as manifested through their hesitance to participate whether as a result of security concerns, possible insurgent sympathy, or legitimate grievances with the local government. 

Executing the Security Handover

            Once the villages within the current circle were incorporated into the Microshura and persistent patrolling pushed insurgent activity further towards the outskirts of the District, the ANP were able to achieve sufficient freedom of maneuver to execute independent patrols.  Using this cycle, we were able to slowly extend ANP influence outward from the Checkpoint by aggressively partnering to conduct operations in the next circle targeted for transition. We continued to partner on all patrols to villages that we had yet to hand over and made sure to incorporate time in our weekly schedule for them to independently patrol the villages now under their responsibility. The patrols to the fringe villages were likely to encounter high concentrations of IEDs, but these encounters were invaluable training opportunities for our partnered squad, who was becoming much more confident with every success. When we lost an NCO from our Platoon during an IED clearance mission, they became even more invigorated to achieve our combined strategic goals. This emotional response stemmed from the bond created during time spent with them at their Checkpoint rather than back at the Combat Outpost where we officially resided.

The Microshura and transition plan finally came to fruition one month prior to our redeployment as scheduled. Once the handover was complete for the final circle of the transition plan, we began staging as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) at the Checkpoint while our Afghan partners would conduct patrols independently, communicating with us on ICOM radios if support was needed. We conducted partnered Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) synchronization by utilizing our Unmanned Aerial Surveillance (UAS) Systems to provide overwatch for their patrols while we secured their checkpoint. This proved to be very successful in helping us identify After Action Review (AAR) comments for their TTPs and providing them the confidence that we were still actively supporting them even though we were not on the patrol. Security transitions should be scheduled in advance of the redeployment of the ISAF unit to provide the Afghan partner a critical period of feedback and support to bolster confidence and identify detrimental tactics, techniques, or procedures that were not evident during joint operations.  During this period, it is essential that ISAF units continue to develop joint TTPs surrounding tactically complex scenarios such as IEDs found and secured by unpartnered ANSF units now requiring assistance from an ISAF Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Team. More situations like the previous example will present themselves as our partners assume more security responsibility and seek to utilize the assistance of ISAF enablers such as EOD Teams.

 Over the course of the deployment, our ANP partners slowly transformed into a respectable police unit and the District villagers responded in turn through support of the Microshura. Upon redeployment, ours was the only Platoon in the Squadron that did not require an ISAF Platoon to backfill our initial partnered patrolling responsibilities.  There are numerous methods and strategies that can be used to achieve a successful security handover with Afghan partners.  In Shah Wali Kot District, our strategy of incremental security transition coupled with localized community organization through Microshuras proved to be such a method.  LTC Petit best characterized our aims when he stated, “We establish stability in the villages first, then connect village governance to the districts and provinces. Investing in Afghanistan’s villages is analytically rigorous, socially tiring, and highly dangerous. Yet the rewards are worth the risk.”[2]


[1] LTC Brian Petit, “The Fight for the Village: Southern Afghanistan, 2010,” Military Review (May-June 2011): 25-32.

[2] Ibid., 32.

 

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