by Reed Kitchen
He clasped my rosary beads in one hand as he rummaged through his olive drab field jacket with the other. As we huddled over a small diesel heater for warmth, he delicately handed me the only photograph ever taken of him – a reminder of his days as a mujahedeen fighter. In the faded print, he held his polished AK-47 more like a farmer than a soldier and wore the very same field jacket, although in much finer condition. We laughed about his long hair and full set of teeth and traded stories about combat only warriors could appreciate. In an unexpected moment of friendship, I began to understand.
In the spring of 2011, I deployed to eastern Afghanistan for ten months as a Village Stability Operations (VSO) detachment commander where my team faced a determined enemy whom the United States had been fighting for over a decade. Our mission was to connect the villagers of a highly contested, Taliban controlled area to their district government by embedding in a rural village, nurturing local security forces and governmental processes at their grassroots. Closely studying our enemy, I saw an insurgency that was operating in a way that we could only dream of. I was almost envious of their singularity of purpose and ability to thrive in places we could not. This paper is a summary of my observations.
Conducting VSO was a unique experience. My detachment had unparalleled access to the population surrounding the village where we had established an embed site, or Village Stability Platform (VSP), which was nothing more than a dilapidated Afghan qalat surrounded by farmland and distant mountain ranges. Living in the village afforded us constant and direct access to the pulse of the populace as well as timely information on the Taliban fighters who lived in the area and launched regular attacks against us and other coalition forces. What we saw was fascinating.
The insurgents operated in small teams across the countryside with relative impunity. Sleeping in the mountains or as house guests at night, the Taliban spent the entirety of their days in the villages – not maintaining and defending outposts where they could enjoy the comforts of western civilization. They were unimpeded by burdensome equipment and had relatively infrequent contact with their commanders, at least compared with our daily reports and operational approvals. The Taliban leadership had an inherently decentralized command structure, managing fighters and shadow government officials spread over hundreds of square kilometers and countless villages. However, the regional commander and shadow governors were remarkably in tune with the district’s populace and made earnest efforts at gaining their support through regular interaction – not “drive by shuras” after flying in from Kabul or the provincial capital. Likewise, the Taliban had an omnipresence that was felt by coalition forces and villagers alike. They possessed an uncanny ability to act as puppet masters over the populace, issuing decrees and administering justice based on persistent verification – not sporadic visits like absentee Afghan officials or “day tripping” coalition forces who neither spoke the language nor had spent enough time in the villages to understand the complex social dynamics.
Indeed, some villagers preferred the Taliban’s predictability to even the most well-intentioned soldier behind the ballistic glass of an armored vehicle. They laughed at our heavy protective equipment saying we hid behind ceramic plates and camouflage, almost as if they admired the Taliban as underdogs – the classic image of a mujahedeen fighter with an AK-47 slung across his back comes to mind. The Taliban senior leadership clearly communicated their intent of controlling Afghanistan through an Islamic state, a narrative that was well understood down to rank and file fighters and villagers. There is likely not a single Taliban who does not know what he is fighting for whereas, surely, there are American forces in Afghanistan who cannot articulate the end state of our involvement. Finally, they adhered to a code of conduct in the form of the La’iha that was strictly enforced at all levels – sub-commanders were swiftly relieved if their actions trended towards a decrease in popular support for the insurgency. Yet, with all of our technology and oversight, we struggled to compete with their rapid adaptability and freedom of maneuver.
To counter this, our strategy might reflect what we have learned from our enemy. Let’s clearly articulate our intent in a simple phrase – nothing fancy, just the same thing we learned going through basic training. That, printed on the opening page of a thin handbook of operational and tactical guidance to be distributed to the troops, would do the trick. Let’s do more with less by handing over operational control of key rural districts to small, light, and fast Special Operations Forces advisory teams – free of red tape, parallel chains of command, and impossibly complex coordination between countless military and civilian entities – who will implement a comprehensive game plan by training local security forces and mentoring government processes. Let’s trade staff approvals and emails for trust in detachment commanders and field reports. Let’s rewrite our metrics of success to reflect our effect on the population, with measures such as: economic activity at bazaars, unsolicited enemy reporting from villagers, and longevity of local officials; as opposed to the input metrics of enemy killed, dollars spent, and Afghan troops trained. Let’s dedicate more rotary wing aircraft and armed unmanned aerial systems to transport and overwatch these small advisory teams, as well as customizable resupply platforms to lighten the load of our ground troops. Finally, let’s encourage persistent engagement with Afghan officials, partnered security forces, and the population by adopting tactics and operational processes that support time outside of our firebase or VSP as the norm.
Ultimately, our current strategy in Afghanistan will prove to be costly and unsustainable. With rapidly decreasing troop numbers, a struggling economy, and an American public growing increasingly weary of spilling our nation’s blood on foreign soil, a new approach is needed that addresses these realities – an approach perhaps molded by the careful study of our enemy.
As the old mujahedeen and I talked quietly over the flickering flame of the small furnace, I remembered the villagers’ disapproving looks when we first patrolled through the fields like so many before us. But now things were different – we had earned the trust of the elders after months of commitment to this small yet highly contended district. Then, burying my rosary beads back into the pocket of his field jacket, he said, “You are one of us now,” and walked out into the cold Afghan night.