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Afghan Village Militia: A People-Centric Strategy to Win

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Afghan Village Militia

A People-Centric Strategy to Win

by Dr. Ronald L. Holt

Afghan Village Militia: A People-Centric Strategy to Win (Full PDF Article)

The evidence is clear that what we are doing in Afghanistan is not working. Our credibility with the average Afghan is deteriorating along with popular confidence in the Karzai government (Ackeman, 2008). Counterinsurgency can only buy time and ultimately success depends on government reform and the effective delivery of services. There is little hope of this happening under a Karzai government.

Our methods are too clumsy, too alien, and we depend too much on airpower for the Afghan civilians to tolerate the current situation. We need to inculcate a new attitude of leveraging culture, as it is, not trying to change it into a centrally-organized nation mimicking US or NATO models. We are too focused on risk-aversion, careerism and force protection to make significant changes in the way we operate easily. If you keep doing the same thing the same way you generally get the same results.1 More troops will help, but will not be sufficient if they are used in the same way as the troop already in Afghanistan. In fact, more troops used the same way tactically, will leave a bigger Coalition Force (CF) footprint and, could potentially do more harm than good. Even with three new brigades we will still be running an economy of force operation and the force to space ratio is still going to be insufficient to provide the local population with security. This is particularly true if most of the increased troops spend most of their time on the FOBs and are road-bound targets of IEDs. We get a passing grade at "clear" but we are failing completely at "hold."

Afghan Village Militia: A People-Centric Strategy to Win (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


Cannoneer No. 4

Sun, 11/22/2009 - 12:10am

<a href="… Afghans Resist Taliban, U.S. Spurs Rise of Militias</a> by Dexter Filkins.

<blockquote>American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they intended to help organize and train the Shinwari militia. They said they would give them communication gear that would enable them to call the Afghan police if they needed help.</blockquote>

This article is spot-on....and I agree with MAJ Few. A good leader & a few motivated troopers living in a village with the locals and we can make it safe, though it will be dangerous, of course. But isn't this what we are paid for?

Moving on, Dr Holt has explained in detail what I and a few others have been advocating for a while....developing relationships with the local population (which cannot be done living on a FOB and conducting commuter COIN ops) hinting at the potential need for longer boots-on-ground for the advisor/ embedded forces, revive the CAP concept, and in discusing the "arbaki" concept, Dr Holt seem to imply turning our advisors into actual leaders of indigenous forces, similiar to what the Brits did in India (the UK still maintains a Ghurka regiment). Great ideas.

Clearly, all of this would demand that we rid ourselves of our aversion to risk and hyper-focus on force protection, so much so that advisors in Afghanistan are severely limited in where they can go which also limits where the ANA/ ANP can go...meaning we don't get the "bad guys".

If we are to develop trust between US forces and the Afghan people, we have to be willing to share the same risks that our Afghan counterparts are experiencing. That means living in their villages, day and night, eating their food (which is pretty decent), walking the trails, paths, and alleyways, learning the language, culture, & the community. After all, that's where the enemy is hiding...among the people.

Having served in Afghanistan, I'm well aware of what living among them would mean. I'm fond of flushing toilets and a clean environment, but I'd also like to win this war. If a war is worth fighting, it is worth fighting well, meaning some risk and lack of comfort is involved.

As for issues with the central government, I'm certainly no expert on such matters. But maybe we ought to focus on creating a weak central government that focuses primarily on external security via the ANA and Border Police (or Frontier Corps) while creating strong village or district governments, kind of like a Central Asian version of the Swiss canton system. The local systems run however they wish, maintain their own internal security (with some financial assistance from the central gov't and the US), allow each able-bodied male to maintain his own arms, and they can beef up state forces as required.

As I said, I'm no expert so I could be WAY off the mark here. But that's my two cents.

DOL (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 2:09am

Dr. Holt,

very insightful article. I would posit that those who think "COIN is the battle space owner's fight to lead and coordinate" do not truly understand the level of analysis you are providing. You are describing a village war - a term that identifies villages as the "decisive point" of COIN. Therefore, ANA/CF elements will RESIDE in the villages and be the focal point of security; they are in fact the "battle space owners." They are the ones that know exactly what the village requires; they understand the needs of the village; they have the pulse and trust of the village. That being said, how does the traditional "battle space owner" who does NOT live in the village have the knowledge to do what's best for that piece of real-estate? The answer, he does not. And that is precisely what is wrong with the current COIN approach adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan. That and the idea that US Soldiers need to be the ones conducting patrols vice indigenous forces. Allow the company grade officers on the ground to do what is best.


Cannoneer No. 4

Thu, 09/10/2009 - 3:39pm

Self-defense IS bad, to the <a href="">International Crisis Group</a>, NGO's generally, and statists, who consider maintenance of The State's monopoly on the legitimate use of force a greater public good than empowering citizens to preserve their own lives and property in the absence of The State. Resistance just adds to the cycle of violence. The socially responsible thing to do is submit, and then trust in The State to bring the guilty to justice.

<i>"The farmers of all provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other types of weapons. If unnecessary implements of war are kept, the collection of annual rent will be more difficult, and without provocation uprisings can be fomented."</i> -- Toyotomi Hideyoshi, August, 1585.

Back to Afghanistan, the hard men still left in the villages are white beards now. The Pashtun heroes of the anti-Soviet resistance who returned like Cincinnatus to their farms and <i>didn't</i> join some war lord or the Taliban after the Soviets withdrew would be the key leaders any American attempting to stand up an Afghan Self-Defense Force would have to engage, assuming such could be found, and their sons and nephews would have to be among the first recruits. If we looked like the Strong Horse, if the regime on whose behalf we are out recruiting irregular auxiliaries had much of a following in the villages, and if that regime was secure enough to tolerate empowered villagers, we would already <i>have</i> pro-Government Pashtun counterinsurgent forces.

Ron Hotl (not verified)

Wed, 09/09/2009 - 10:36pm

Interesting. The muslim insurgency in the south of Thailand has been growing since 2004. The reporting is the typical left-leaning "defending oneself is bad" drivel.
He seems to suggest as long as the Buddhists were defenseless targets of the muslim insurgents that relations between the two groups were fine. I wonder how aggressive aand well trained the 5 Ministry of Interior paramilitaries are...???Anyone out there know?

Cannoneer No. 4

Wed, 09/09/2009 - 12:23pm

<a href="">Religion, guns tear apart south Thailand</a>

<i>Chor Ror Bor</i> Village Development and Self Defense Volunteers -- each village has 30 volunteers who are provided by the military three days of training and 15 shotguns.

<i>Or Ror Bor</i> Village Protection Volunteers

. . . each village will have at least 50 civilian security personnel comprised of five village security assistants, five Ministry of Interior paramilitaries, 30 Chor Ror Bor and 20 Or Ror Bor personnel.

Ron Holt (not verified)

Wed, 09/09/2009 - 10:32am

The Pashtun villagers are hard men too. Often harder than the city-breed Jihadis. Given innovative leadership from culturally savy guys like Major Few they CAN protect themselves and will point out the AAF spys.
But for anything to work Karzai has to go and the corruption has to be toned down to an acceptable level by the average Afghan. Most places I went there really was no government presence only occasional mounted patrols.The tribes along the border are practical people and they will side with the preceived winner...

Mr. West, you stated in Afghan,

"The Talibs have the intel from the time we leave the wire; they have the mobility. They decide when to initiate and when to break contact. We are not finishing those firefights."

Sir, they told me the same thing when I when I deployed to Iraq on my fourth tour in Aug of 2006:

- You can't achieve suprise. Haji watches our every move once we leave the wire.

- The enemy knows the terrain better than you; he will simply hit you with an IED or complex attack and fade away.

- There is no way to penetrate the social norms of this society; we're just too different.

I called BS. After 45 days in theatre, I told everyone of my leaders from E6 and up that they had three weeks to break the norm or they would be fired. I am an Armor officer. I reminded my scouts that the US government invested millions of dollars to send them to Ranger, Pathfinder, Sniper, and RSLC school.

In the next several weeks, we left our trucks, started conducting air assualts with false insertions, covert dismounted infiltrations, river crossings using indeginous boats, and begin conducting deception operations with the local leadership while working the habitual working relationships.

Each paratrooper averaged four patrols a day.

We achieved success. I am frustrated to hear that nothing has changed. I would submit that this lack of initiative is a result of poor leadership rather than strategy- leadership in small wars requires a high degree of creativity and imagination. Yes, these ventures are high risk and adventure, but risk can be managed through application of existing org structure and capabilities.

Dr. Holt's CAP Redux initiative reminds me of the on-going conversation that I have with other commanders from the surge at the bar (both SF and GPF). We all agree- give me ten hand-picked men, unlimited air support, unlimited support from the Chain-of-command, and we can manage any village any day.


Major Michael Few

Please read <a href="… Village</a> by Bing West - IMHO the best book on CAP and COIN.

About the book:

"This is the story of fifteen Americans engaged in a fight for 485 days. No unit in Vietnam had a higher fatality rate.The odds of going home alive were fifty-fifty, a coin flip. More Marines died in the area called Chulai than in Desert Storm. The civil war in the village was as personally complicated, as staggering in its costs and as unyielding in its opposing beliefs as was our own Civil War. In Binh Nghia, the local guerrillas had relatives and protectors in the Viet Cong companies across the river and back in the mountains. The Marine squad walked into the village unaware of the personalities or politics, or how hamlet skirmishes caught the attention of forces ten times their size."

"With an average age of twenty, the Marines were professional soldiers. Their authority stemmed from their rifles, just as the short sword distinguished the Roman legions. They brought their training, their rifles and themselves. Either they would defeat their enemy, or they would be driven out."

"I patrolled with the Combined Action Platoon, as the Marine squad and local militia were called, in 1966 and 67. I went back to the village in 68, 69 and 2002. I spoke with practically every Marine, village official and Popular Force militiaman. I also spoke with Viet Cong representatives after the war. In this book, I try to describe what it was like to live, fight and die in a village so far away from America yet so close in human values and spirit. The communists now rule Binh Nghia; yet the memorial to the Marines who fought there remains, and the villagers remember them by name, all these decades later."

Seaworthy (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 8:31pm

It should also be remembered Mr. West, the Marine CAP in I Corps was composed of volunteers having had a minimum of 6 months experience in RVN, as a rule. Many commanders felt the program was a drain on valuable infantrymen, and though this isn't meant to cast doubt on the majority in the III MAF CAP program, some commanders didn't always provide the best volunteers.

In addition, there were also some civic action projects in the day time between the CAP members and villagers, thereby cementing their relationshiip.

Bing West (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 7:06pm

The essence of the CAP program was the deployment of US squads with about 40-60 PFs in 118 villages. The key was the nightly firefight. It was a war. Hearts and minds provided some intell some of the time, but mostly the villagers stayed out of the way. Roughly 70% of CAP Marines received PHs. The average patrol consisted of four Americans and four to six PFs, with the TAOR being about 3km X 3km. the average CAP remained in a ville for16 months.

In Afghanistan, our average ptl is 16 or more, enclosed in 70 pounds of armor and gear. The Talibs have the intell from the time we leave the wire; they have the mobility. They decide when to initiate and when to break contact. We are not finishing those firefights. See, for instance, this short video

Our fires are not precise against indistinct targets, and compounds are off-limits. Our soldiers are not permitted to make any arrests.

The nature/culture of war has changed and our doctrine and techniques have not kept pace. Casualties and risk taking are severely restricted. The consequence is that the war drags on. The Talibs neither fear us nor are they being attrited to the point where they fear to engage us.

Ron's concept is sound on its merits; but the cultural context (of America) has changed dramatically since Vn. It is not clear how a population is protected if the average is one US patrol per platoon per day. Nor is it clear why the "dickers" or watchers that report on every patrol are tolerated.

Cannoneer No. 4

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 6:42pm

<i>"If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep."</i>

Do we really <i>want</i> villagers defending themselves? And who are "we" including when using that pronoun?

Villagers have been easy prey for hard men from the hills for the last 10,000 years or so. Village defense is nothing new. A big part of village defense is the deterrent value of an inevitable punitive expedition dispatched by the village's feudal lord. But if the raiders are well mounted, or have an impregnable hide out, or the feudal lord's men-at-arms are not respected and feared for their celerity, doggedness and ruthlessness, raiders pretty much have it their own way and villagers bury their dead, rebuild their burned huts, and put in another crop to be plundered next season.

Who can mobilize the villagers to defend <i>themselves</i>? If <i>they</i> have to defend <i>themselves</i>, what use is the Karzai regime's army and police? How is recruiting Village Self Defense Militias not an admission of the Karzai regime's incapacity to extend the writ of Kabul throughout the land?

"We" need the answers to those questions, because the villagers will ask, and ask, and ask, until they convince themselves that "we" know what "we" are talking about, or "we" speak with forked tongue.

Half an ODA plus an anthropologist would give "us" a <i>Magnificent Seven</i>. 15 Americans plus a (presumably American) medic and 10 ANA Pashto-speaking volunteers per village gives "us" <i>Twenty-Six Samurai</i> crowding the <i>hujra</i>.

Ron Holt (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 1:39pm

Coeus: I really see nothing in your comments that I disagree with. CERP funds are currently sufficient in my opinion. The problem is how they are spent and the approval process for larger projects.
In Afghanistan Checkpoints tend to be used as tax-collection/bribe collection points. We argued for mobile patrols while the local Afghan government officials argued for money making checkpoints.
The Battlespace Cmdr should be the ultimate coordinator of a national/regional integrated COIN strategy ranging from IO and Civil Affairs to ODA/SOF.
My idea of the CAP teams would require at least some SOF to return to the old SOF mission of training/mentoring and leading local militia instead of "only kicking in doors."
The Afghan Gov't needs to be seen at all levels BUT the current government is either absent or so currupt [esp. ANP] as to make the Taliban look attractive.

Dr. Holt,

Interesting article/thoughts. I worked closely with the Anbar Awakening in 2007/08...which I know is a different problem (easier) than working with pashtun tribes. From my study of Pashtuns vs Anbari tribes, Pashtuns do not have as much control/influence over their tribes like hereditary tribal sheiks did in Anbar and their tribes are more fractured than those in Anbar. There are obviously more differences but in general, I think these are the main two. Yes, the problem is tougher in Afghanistan but not unsolvable.

My thoughts:

1. First and foremost, I believe COIN is the battle space owner's fight to lead and coordinate - not ODA's/SOF. To properly do 'COIN', one needs to control tangible assets to influence local leaders/populace. In Afghanistan's dynamic environment, influence begins and ends with security - something SOF cannot provide due to their limited size.

1.a. SOF can be an invaluable asset to battle space owners. However, it seems SOF is generally the most heavy handed with the populace and tend to view their interaction with local leaders as little more than humint collection opportunities - not a formula for success. Yes, there are exceptions to this but the truism remains that given a choice, SOF will generally do a hard take down on the ubiquitious 'unidentified taliban leader' first, and ask questions later.

2. Influence is the effective use of force and a demonstrated ability to hold and support the local area defense until it can support itself. The populace must see tangible proof. Expecting IO and not force to set these conditions is hoping at best and stupid at worst. IO will reinforce reality - not create it. The relationship between the local commander and area/tribal leaders must be built on mutual strength. If we are not prepared to back-up words with actions on the ground, the local leadership/populace will remain passive terrain for the taliban. As this is accomplished, CERP and other efforts must be ramped up.

2.a. Reward the local leaders/areas who are truly working with us in a radically different way than those who are not (we must not let these special leaders get killed!).
{NOTE: we must verify and hold local leaders accountable and not blindly reward them for the simple reason that not rewarding them implies failure on the commander's part. This requires patience and a nuanced understanding of COIN up the chain of command so as to not put undue pressure on commanders to rush success in time for the next OER submission...which is unfortunately a reality!}
We want to reward local leaders/areas in a manner that will cause surrounding areas/leaders to strongly desire to cooperate with us. Not only cooperate, but to do so in a way that we are able to effectively levy demands for our support. I call this the "build it and they will come model".

3. "Begin with the end in mind". Establish indigenous counterinsurgent forces (ICF) that are sustainable and that will not destabalize the area down the road. I believe this requires us to form defensive forces suitable to man checkpoint on key terrain and deploy an 'appropriate' sized ICF QRF. This is done by providing training, limited guns, limited mobility, and ammo.

3.a. As a check on the power of these ICF's, the beans, bullets, and pay provided to them should be through a local element of Afghan power - not the US military (although we will provide resources to that local power element to provide to the ICF).

**example: This is how we made the tribes and police cooperate around fallujah. Tribes provided ICF/auxilary police forces for their areas that were accountable primarily to tribal leadership. However, that local area tribal leadership was made dependent on the District Police Chief for supplying his ICF with ammo, fuel, and pay. It was therefore in both party's interest to work with each other to find solutions. As this was happening, we were able to shape solutions due to significant influence on both ends of the problem.

I am not sure what the most appropriate mechanism for this would in Afghanistan at this point as the ANP have a horrible reputation.

As most know, this is just the beginning of the solution. Ultimately tying the security successes to the establishment of the rule of law, economic improvements, and governance are the 400 level objectives that still need to be created and implemented. The military can do security given the right strategy, assets, and leadership. However, creating gov't at the local level to sustain these conditions remains the primary challenge. PRT up...In my opinion, we need a new national Jirga vs national elections. The Karzai gov't has lost legitimacy - lets quit fooling ourselves on this point.

Ron Holt (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 7:59pm

One more quick thought..YOU are in the villages to protect the population but you will also get great intell there too as you win people's trust...With good intell you can go kill the really bad guys more effectively, disrupt their ability to function and put them on the defensive. Good intell-driven ops will also help protect the population and lower the rate of intimidation..

Ron Holt (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 7:51pm

Some good comments cannoneer! Your first paragraph is spot on.OUr current strategy and tactics are not working so "what can we really do that would really change the situation" is on everyone's mind. I see Karzai's corrupt government as the major problem that must be dealt with if we have any hope in improving the situation. It is obviously unrealistic to even think of putting a team in every village but perhaps if CAPs were the main effort and so suported by the Brigades, then teams in key villages would work. Certainly the teams would spend some of their time mediating with the local Jirgas over how the Arbaki would be deployed. The team village would be a node in a series of villages with participating Abaki..By including ANA on the teams the central government could take credit for positive results and in theory these ANA could eventually form new team on their own.
Guard force is not a bad model. There were some good ideas there.Most of the air assaults I observed were rather large operations with limited, temporary results. After we returned to the FOB the the ANA were supposed to hold but they were too thin to make this work.
I would envision brigades operating offensively somewhere between large battalion ops and those of the "sneaky fellows." More use of smaller patrols and snipers.
As to parachute insertion--why not if the terrain and situation allows for it? We need to final alternatives to the roads.

Cannoneer No. 4

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 6:58pm

Dr. Holt, my perception has been managed such that I think the Americans are desperately grasping at any straws that will put enough Afghan feet into boots (or sandals) on the ground to meet the magic number of <i>Counter Insurgents per head of Population To Be Protected</i>, and do it before the American people quit on Afghanistan.

Whatever <i>we</i> do that does not resound to the credit of the Karzai regime reduces his government's legitimacy. The plain fact is that the ANA and the ANP can not or will not defend the villages. If they could there would be no need for Village Defense Forces.

The highest speed, lowest drag Operational Detachment Alpha accompanied by the smartest Human Terrain Team money can buy could stand up some Village Defense Platoons or Companies, but can they integrate the Village Defense Forces with a District Defense Headquarters?

Are there Provincial Defense Headquarters?

Are there any legitimate sub-national Armed <i>Supportive</i> Groups under village, district, tribal or provincial control?

We <i>could</i> recruit a CIDG in the villages, and the ANA can be Marvin the ARVN, but who supplies the <a href="">Ruff/P…; and <a href="">Mike Force</a>?

<blockquote>The populations interests must be the first consideration in all decisions made by the CFs and should be the prism through which all decisions are considered. And often, it should be the <i>only</i> consideration if we intend to achieve victory.</blockquote>

In which number order should the Karzai regime's interests be considered?

<i>"I'm always worried about using the word 'victory,' because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur,"</i>

<blockquote>We need individuals with traditional Special Forces and Human Terrain Team training to serve as mediators, trainers and role models in the village setting.</blockquote>

They have more villages than we have individuals that meet that criteria. Mediators? Isn't that what <i>jirgas</i> do?

<blockquote>However, instead of being controlled by the village/tribal elders, a new version of the Arbaki could be sanctioned by the elders and directed by the ANA and CF mentors.</blockquote>

If they aren't controlled by the local <i>jirga</i> then they aren't Arbakai. I recommend the term <a href=""><i>j…; for sanctioned paramilitary Armed <i>Supportive</i> Groups.

<blockquote>For CAPs to be successful they need to be the main effort in no uncertain terms.</blockquote>

Then the CAP's must come out of the hide of the Brigade, their own people on TDY, expected to return to their parent units someday. That pretty much precludes SOF and CA. Otherwise the main effort is whatever the manuever battalions are doing.

<blockquote>Air assault should become more common. If we need to go light into the mountains to track down the AAF and destroy their camps, then the mules can carry our IBA and other equipment. During the Rhodesian Bush Conflict one group of the Rhodesian Light Infantry made 5 combat jumps in one day landing astride the routes of retreat of the terrorists.</blockquote>

Isn't air assault already about as common as the availability of rotary-wing assets permits? If you mean parachute insertion, ouch!

Speaking of Rhodesia, the Rhodesian <a href=""&gt;
Guard Force</a> may be closer to a workable model for village defense than usurping local control over the arbakai.

Ron Holt (not verified)

Fri, 09/04/2009 - 5:28pm

My SWAG guess is three months with motivated officers and senior NCO's....Twelve hour days and one day off a week....I would envision some contractors and perhaps a leavening of anthropologists....I do not think deploying existing units is a good idea....In the best of all worlds this would be an area of specialization within SOCOM......

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 09/04/2009 - 3:30pm

Dr Holt:

What would it take in your view in terms of time, method, etc to train and educate soldiers to the point where they had enough knowledge in Pashtun culture to work effectively in the ways that you suggest?

When you say soldiers, are you talking just one group of leaders like officers and senior ncos, or are you talking about an entire military unit like a rifle company, or cavalry squadron?


Ron Holt (not verified)

Fri, 09/04/2009 - 1:38pm

I do not see my suggestions as similar to the AP3 program or certanly the ANNAP disaster...I was told repeatedly by Zadran tribal eleders and others that "we don't want to join the ANP but we want Arbaki." I think that local culture can be a great "force multiplier" if we use it as the locals understand it not as we want it to mold it. I strongly feel that militia can work but ONLY if there are embedded US troops/contractors who understand local culture. Mentoring and "close support' are not enough in the Pushtun areas.