Small Wars Journal

Village Stability Operations and the Future of the American Way of War

Thu, 02/06/2014 - 7:53pm

Village Stability Operations and the Future of the American Way of War

SWJ Book Discussion with Linda Robinson on “One Hundred Victories. Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare” (Public Affairs, 2013).

Octavian Manea

Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Robinson's areas of expertise include national security strategy, international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, security force assistance, joint force development, special operations forces, irregular warfare and stability operations. She has worked in South Asia, Iraq, the Middle East, and Latin America. She was senior adviser to the AFPAK Center at USCENTCOM (2010-11) and author of a Council on Foreign Relations special report on the future of special operations forces (2013). She is also the author of Tell Me How This Ends (2008), Masters of Chaos (2004), and Intervention or Neglect (1991).

To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. - Sun Tzu

SWJ: Why did you choose to write a book about Village Stability Operations?

Linda Robinson: Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police is definitely the heart of the book. I looked at that in depth because I think it represents special operations forces going back to their roots and rescuing some of the skill-sets for working with indigenous populations that to some were lost and submerged in the last decade of heavy focus on combat and direct action. I also looked to how those initiatives worked together in Afghanistan including the development of the Afghan Special Forces and the Afghan commandos and the entire Afghan special ops structure that was a very important second mission going on at the same time. Also there was ISAF SOF --I.E., NATO and other partners-- conducting a very intensive parallel effort to train and operate alongside the various police forces growing 17 different Province Response Companies, as well as the high-end Minister of Interior counter-terrorist and counter-narcotics forces. Finally the last few chapters are focused on the evolution of the US special ops command and control structure which is a little bit of an inside baseball story, but very important because for the first time, all the special ops tribes, all those stove-piped units were put together under one command. I tried to touch on all of these things that were going on and look at what the operators brought from their operational experience elsewhere and project forward where these things may be used in the future.

SWJ: Being there, on the ground and observing what the special ops were doing, how influent was the classical image of T.E. Lawrence for the operational philosophy at the core of the VSO/ALP initiatives?

Linda Robinson: Every operator, as well as the vast majority of US conventional forces sent out to these countries, have internalized, read and have been preached to about T.E. Lawrence. Of particular symbolism is the guidance about not doing so much with your own hands what they may do less perfectly with theirs. I think it is the actual insight to say that their hands are the critical hands. They in fact know their own country much better. All that the US can hope to do is to be the helping hand, the enabler. I think that is what the real T.E. Lawrence story was about: about him going over there and never pretending that he was the leader. He might be the translator back to the foreign capitals or a connector but never putting himself in the lead. That was where perhaps a wrong turn was taken in all the emphasis that developed almost unintentionally, when the US began seeing itself as the primary counterinsurgent. That is never going to be the case, never should be the case except if the US is confronted by an insurgency on its own soil. That is the optic really, to find out what it takes to operate successfully according to another countries’ standards. That is almost diametrically opposed to our process of building our own campaign plans and structuring our own approach because it has always come back to them, what they are willing to do and what they can do.

SWJ: You started the book with Sun Tzu and you ended the book with Sun Tzu. I think it is a symbolic choice especially today when we are talking so much about rebalancing. What is the broader message that you want to send by leveraging his influence including the title “One Hundred Victories”?

Linda Robinson: The key is not to win 100 victories in 100 battles, but to subdue the enemy without fighting. The interpretation or the spin that I put on without fighting means without the US taking the lead in the fighting. Of course there will likely be fighting in many of these cases, but the key is for them, the local actors, to do the fighting and for the US to enable them.

SWJ: You interviewed extensively all the main participants in the VSO project. How would you describe village stability operations and the associated challenges, because as you point out in the book, they seem very different than Call of Duty or just the pure kinetic part that we’ve seen emphasized when we talk about special ops?

Linda Robinson: This is really the key thing to highlight what has changed in the US approach in Afghanistan over time and what is hopefully going to be applied in the future elsewhere. Village Stability Operations represented a real evolution in how special ops interacted with the indigenous population. Early on in the war they would, in their own words, round up some “indig” to go hit targets. So they were simply leveraging the indigenous population to better serve a kinetic direct action mission, of going, finding and hunting down the Taliban. The VSO is a totally different concept built on the task of engaging deeply with civilian populations in remote areas. The logic was that in order to find out if these villages are willing to defend themselves we have to find out why they are fighting to begin with, why they have been subjugated by the Taliban or have actively cast their lot with the Taliban. So SOF has to move within villages, get a hearing with the village elders and then begin to understand very complicated dynamics. All this provides a sounder basis for forming a defense force of Afghans - the Afghan Local Police. Once you’ve understood the village, you understand why they would be willing to stand up and protect themselves and you can form a defense group on a durable basis of village leadership.

But this is very difficult; it is very hard to reliably diagnose decades old conflicts. It is a long-term approach - and the US always has a hard time devoting sufficient time to operations in such places. But to the credit of commanders in Afghanistan there were instances where time was invested in order to develop a true understanding of the local situation. What was usually found was a mix of marginalized tribes being cut out of economic sources of power as well as other formal or informal sources of power. It was really a matter of trying to find a power sharing solution to conflict. This formula is very promising but it is time consuming and requires some skill-sets that may not be readily available. I also think it is very important to look at this formula as one that requires a partnership with other entities or individuals that have the necessary expertise. It is wrong to expect special operators to learn everything or acquire all required skills. But overall it was an important pivot away from the immersion in combat that became a feature of the decade following 9/11 for the SOF community. The special operators relearned the art of sitting with the elders to figure out the complicated web of rivalries, to understand the alliances between the individual villages, but also understanding how the villagers could be motivated to come together for a common purpose.

SWJ: You have emphasized that one important innovation at the core of projecting the VSO on a larger scale was the partnership developed between the SOF community and conventional infantry forces. Concerning the current debate about the utility of “strategic landpower” what should be institutionalized as a good practice from the Afghan experience as we move forward?

Linda Robinson: This is critically important given the small size of special operation forces. If one expects the US defense strategy to be implemented in order to build partner capacity around the world one has to realize the task is far beyond special ops capacity to do alone. An interesting experiment undertaken in Afghanistan was to assign two infantry battalions to the Special Ops Command and divide these infantry battalions to send a squad to each of 52 special ops teams that were spread across the country - and thus building a force multiplier by providing teams force protection and, in some cases, enlisting the squads in the core tasks of stability operations and building the local police. In order for this to be applied successfully several things need to happen as the Army is very reluctant to have specialized forces and this is the nub of the problem. Today to be the most effective at this kind of activity, units need to have repeat tours in the same place. It doesn’t mean that they are going to become PhDs in that area but familiarity would make them much more successful. Similarly, at an individual level, allowing some to specialize in a particular region would provide a leadership cadre for young soldiers sent out to do these tasks in conjunction with special ops. The final point that I would make is the importance of building a system that allows sufficient time to prepare. The Army can’t just plug these individuals or units into an unfamiliar country. What I found most impressive in Afghanistan was the intensive academic week-long program that trained those assigned to conduct VSO/ALP. It became so popular that conventional forces began requesting the program even if they were not going to conduct VSO/ALP. I think this is a model for what needs to be done and I hope that there will be enough funding for these types of programs; but more importantly, a bureaucratic mindset to support such efforts must be institutionalized, an understanding that this is how you enable success.

SWJ: Responding to an insurgency requires more than just a military component, a comprehensive approach is necessary. Should partnerships go beyond SOF and conventional forces, bringing in development, governance, and other experts?

Linda Robinson: In the last chapter on Kunar I describe what a post 2014 small footprint presence should look like and it includes CIA, State, USAID, as well as special ops. To some extent this is going back to what I saw in Central America in the 1980s - where it was routine to have those elements as part of a partnership. It was much easier ironically for civilians to get out then than it is now. Today regional security officers restrict to an incredibly degree the ability of civilians assigned to embassy country teams to get out in the field in risky situations to work with special ops or any indigenous element. I think this reluctance is even greater now after the Benghazi incident.

SWJ: What kind of a mindset, at the individual and institutional levels, is required in order to operate effectively and be able understand and craft an answer to political-military challenges?

Linda Robinson: On the military side, I think there is a need to ensure recruiting literature and the recruiting pitch includes and appeals to those with an interest in the world out there - working and living in other cultures. That is not to say that you don’t need or that you won’t recruit people that desire the direct action side of things but you need to make sure that you are getting those people that really want to get out there, drink tea and live with the villagers and work with the civilian counterparts.

On the civilian side there is a whole group of Foreign Service officers appointed as foreign policy advisers for the military commands, a program that was massively expanded over the past decade. These officers often don’t get considered for higher positions. I think the Foreign Service promotion system should really reward those who have an interagency mindset - those who are working best with other elements of the US government. The system should reward and require a tour in another agency because it provides powerful friendships, relationships and the knowledge of how another bureaucracy operates. Somewhere we got lost in talking about all the other agencies. Let’s be clear, State and USAID are the two key ones. We must get the three Ds (Defense, Diplomacy and Development,) lashed up and make use of all these people that have been out there in the field (whether it is in PRTs or whatever) over the last decade. We may not have any big wars going on, but if the US can get that talent and put them in these places in small teams and I think we will be very successful.

SWJ: What was the role of the ALP/VSO effort in the broader effort of the Afghan surge?

Linda Robinson: The ALP/VSO grew perhaps more quickly than they could effectively manage given the number of SOF teams augmented by conventional squads. Overall the ALP/VSO (a ground-up, elder validated defense force) should be the main effort because it is a rural insurgency and this is a low cost method of providing security in major belts of the rural insurgent zone. It was also a localized approach, because this is a very difficult country to move around. They are not going to have a large air-mobile capability for quite a while simply because it is very hard to train Afghan pilots. A more appropriate model for Afghanistan going forward is a smaller overall force that is sustainable - but also a force that includes and is based more on local defense initiatives that can start replicating themselves. We need to make sure they are being empowered with their own decision-making.

SWJ: How important were past indirect formative experiences like Colombia and Philippines?

Linda Robinson: This is very important because I found without exception that every special ops team I encountered directly referenced their experiences elsewhere and these were highly relevant. The two main groups that spent most of the time in Afghanistan were the 3rd and 7th Special Forces Groups. The 7th had time in Colombia - where they were entirely focused on supporting Colombia’s development of its own security to combat the FARC narco-terrorist insurgency. 3rd Special Forces Group also had Africa experience as did Navy SEALs in Colombia, Africa and the Philippines. A lot of people don’t realize how much time the SEALs have spent working to bolster other countries capabilities because they associate them with direct action missions. 1st Special Forces Group teams were entirely oriented on Asia by policy. Some of them had time in Iraq providing training to local SWAT teams but their primary mission in Asia was working with other countries’ military forces in a non-combat mode. They had a lot of experience, 10 years now, in the Philippines.

SWJ: It is fashionable to talk about El Salvador in the 1980s, and the Philippines and Colombia, post 9/11, as examples of effective small scale Foreign Internal Defense (FID) campaigns.  But history shows that counterinsurgency is a state-centric process requiring developing and investing in a massive state-building component. Is low cost FID possible when the expeditionary counterinsurgent doesn’t have a reasonable local state structure to leverage? In Colombia and Philippines we can talk about a successful low cost FID because behind the effort there were reasonable local institutional and administrative machineries.

Linda Robinson: You make a very good point and this is certainly the case with Colombia and the Philippines, although the state structures in the Colombian case absolutely did not reach out to the countryside. So the counterinsurgency effort led and formulated by Colombia has been very much one of projecting first state security and now state governance and fixing the economic disparity. But it is important to point out that the construct of VSO/ALP does aim to connect up the local people with a nascent formal governing structure. Nascent is the operative word here. Additionally, we have to fix our counterinsurgency model so that we are focusing first and foremost on police. The counterinsurgency model as we have practiced it has neglected police / law enforcement.

On the other side, it takes a lot of time to build any state structure so what VSO was really leveraging in the first instance was the desire of local people to defend themselves and the key elements of the local setting - tribes, elders, those grass root informal structures. The goal of the VSO program was community mobilization, by helping villages identify and address the problems that were creating conflict and instability in their area. This provides the formula to work while there is no sufficiently developed state structure and that model can be applied in places like Yemen (heavily tribal where the government does not reach outside the city limits) or Mali. I think it is very pertinent for many parts of the world to look at the tribal basis that doesn’t contradict eventually building state structures, but it is using what is there to defeat a threat for the near term.

SWJ: If the willingness of the local communities to mobilize against the Taliban was there why did it happen in 2009 and not earlier?

Linda Robinson: The reason it didn’t go spontaneously was due to the level of Taliban intimidation. No one was standing at that time because no one was reaching out to help these people stand up. The countryside was pretty much on its own. That psychological benefit of having someone out there gave many of these leaders the courage to come forward. I won’t underestimate that for many in these poor areas the prospect of pay, the prospect of a job helped. What it really took was a team being there that provided an umbrella of security.

SWJ: Do you see this model of working locally, with the grass root structures, as being sustainable when there is no broader institutional framework able to anchor these community defense initiatives?

Linda Robinson: It depends fundamentally on the quality and the ability of the local leadership. This is what I found in the microcosms that I focused on in the book. A strong, charismatic leadership able to use their tribal stature as a legitimizing force to galvanize villagers is going to be the key no matter what. I think also that the people’s will, that existential will to survive can be enough to sustain a local defense effort, even if there is no money coming down from government sources.

If our pipeline of aid to Afghanistan stops after 2014 some local defense initiatives will continue as a purely voluntary effort because it is in their interest to guard their homes, families and farms. I can see that happening at least in the couple of places that I focused on - Kunar and Paktika.

SWJ: How does this end?

Linda Robinson: For Afghanistan the most important determinant of success will be the US willingness to maintain a small but distributed presence. The emphasis is on distributed. If SOF are just sitting in Kabul or Bagram and only have as a core mission occasional CT strikes, I think they might as well come home. If they are willing to have a distributed special operations presence, perhaps augmented by conventional forces, and continue this for some time, I think the country will make it through and it will move forward. Ultimately, success really involves applying this model elsewhere. The special ops community is quite poised to apply all these four things that I have mentioned - using local forces, developing local SOF, using coalition SOF and combining these elements in a unified command. These are the hallmarks of any operation conducted in other parts of the world. This is the vision that Admiral McRaven is driving toward.  It is also one that has been embraced in part by the Administration, but the Administration also has voices that would prefer just stand-alone CT missions. This is a debate to have not only in policy circles but also in the public.

At the same time, I am quite concerned about Americans becoming very isolationist and unwilling to do anything to help countries in areas where we do have vital interests and failing to understand that a small commitment over a period of time can have a great effect at a much lower cost than waiting until a problem or a threat is so severe that we need to intervene unilaterally at a great cost and size. It is a problem of policy-makers driven by public opinion polls. The other problem is the US military may find it much easier to say that we can use a high tech approach to defeat the threat when in fact at the end of the day somebody has to be there on the ground knowing what is going on and probably helping those partners. I don’t think we can have a model where we can outsource our security entirely to other countries.

SWJ: A key word, and in the end mindset of the VSO practitioners is that of presenting themselves as “teachers”. Do we have here a symbolic center of gravity shifting from the combat SOF to the task of empowering partners and becoming teachers?

Linda Robinson: To teach, to facilitate, to listen---all these verbs come in to play here. I was very impressed by the team leaders that seemed to grasp the skills that were required to work in a foreign culture with people many years older, able to gain their respect, but still in the end also prepared to teach them. Often it will not be about overt teaching, but enabling and facilitating. Just as we underrate the teachers in our society this has been an underrated skill-set of the special operations forces. Their ability to do that rests on some internal institutional changes. The SOF leadership should reward those with these aptitudes and prepare the leaders able to orchestrate campaigns that are largely “by, through and with” others. They like to say they do it, but they’ve spent way too much time focused on the tactical level. This is where the US Special Ops Command is trying to reorient to do, but it requires shifting bodies and money to this. I am waiting to see more bodies and money shifted.

About the Author(s)



Wed, 02/19/2014 - 8:21am

In reply to by G Martin

Right now I finished reading your article:…

and completely agree with it (except of what you are calling Christian morality - I would rather called it pseudo-Christian morality because it is built on wrong perceptions on Christianity maybe by "Christians" themselves).

Anyway, I understand your standpoint but I am afraid you do not get my because I was not talking planning and metrics from the perspective of "how it is used improperly" but rather giving planning and metrics the proper place and use them as a tool.

By no means I am advocating "one size fits all" VSO technique but rather the philosophy behind it.


Sun, 02/23/2014 - 10:09am

In reply to by G Martin

New thread started...

G Martin

Sat, 02/22/2014 - 11:24pm

In reply to by matkob

I guess I'd first- as "top strategist"- hopefully enjoy the same access that Wedemeyer did with Marshall and others in the lead up to the American involvement in WWII. So, I'm assuming Odierno or Dempsey would task me something like- "figure out how many drones we need for the next 10 years for the fight in the "Af-Pak" AO" (to make it comparable to the Wedemeyer task). With the access I mentioned above- I'd have to figure out a few things:

1- The drone # is meant- I assume- to help us "defeat" the "insurgency". What does "defeat" mean- exactly? Whatever definition I would craft would have to be feasible in terms of support from the American populace and for our economy and greater foreign policy to bear.
2- What exactly is "the insurgency"?
3- What interests does America have in the region? How would the defeat mentioned in #1 affect those interests?
4- How would the use of drones affect the interests mentioned in #3? How does the use of drones affect U.S. interests fundamentally?

So, with these answers as entirely supposition and based on very questionable assumptions- I could perhaps move on towards planning:

1- "Defeat of the insurgency" means that there are no areas in Afghanistan that allow absolute freedom of maneuver to entities that we know are currently preparing to attack us at home or key interests abroad. This means exactly that there are agreements with local entities and/or forces in place that can cover down on all areas in such a way as to deny their use as major preparation areas for attacks on U.S. soil or key U.S. interests abroad. At some point in time things, obviously, may change- and therefore the U.S. should communicate a response to threats that would come from ungoverned space- and keep the capability to carry out said response at a sufficient distance to carry it out. This would not be some kind of static group or area- but would have to be adjusted as local and domestic conditions change.
2- Thus, the insurgency would be defined as those local governing groups who are currently (at any given time) cooperating with and/or being complacent towards threats to the U.S. operating in their area. Thus- the insurgency would be as varied as the different groups in Afghanistan that have de facto control over areas large enough to offer significant resources to enemies who can feasibly attack the U.S. and/or key U.S. interests. Since this definition includes the words "at any given time"- this definition would be very dynamic and oblivious to both past behavior and nefarious activities not associated with direct threats to U.S. interests.
3- America's interests in the region include the securing of Pakistani nuclear weapons, the stability of Pakistan, the stability of "the Stans", Iran's influence in and on the region, Chinese growing influence, Indian interests, Russian interests, and future natural resource possibilities. It would be- in this hypothetical example- my assertion that the defeat I have defined in #1 would not threaten vital U.S. interests in the region- unless it squeezed certain parties into Pakistan, caused Pakistan to become more unstable, and allowed freedom of maneuver in Pakistan of entities actively planning attacks on key U.S. interests. Obviously this assertion would have to be evaluated and it might at some point become more advantageous for the U.S. to take more risk, concentrate on more defensive measures- in order to avoid the greater threat of instability in Pakistan.
4- This would be totally supposition- but I might- for the sake of this hypothetical- conclude that drone strikes should be limited to attacking activities tied very clearly to active preparation for attacking U.S. interests as opposed to attacking certain individuals. They should not be limited to drone strikes- but drones could be used in support of attacks. These attacks should be relatively rare- and only used when there is clear evidence of attack preparation going on by known threats to U.S. key interests. These attacks would not be done on "the insurgency" allowing freedom of maneuver- but to those actively preparing for attacks on U.S. key interests. It is my larger assertion that drone attacks on the whole are bad for U.S. interests and do little to protect us from future attack.

Therefore my planning would be limited to figuring out how to monitor the activities of those entities known to be actively planning attacks on key U.S. interests, how to measure their capability to attack us and how much of that is gained by them operating in certain areas in Afghanistan, and how to measure their relationship with local de facto authorities; how to attack these enemies once this monitoring turns up actionable intelligence, and how to position forces in order to attack sufficiently- sufficiently both in order to defuse the threat and to protect U.S. foreign policy and interests (i.e.- not relying simply on drone strikes).

IF- I assert- we can limit our objectives in such a way as to make them feasible, achievable, and measurable- then we can go ahead and conduct planning. If, instead, we want to actually kill, capture or make surrender every threat to GIRoA- then I'd have to sit down and figure out how to sell a non-planning approach (emergent) to my political masters and probably tell them that we don't need many drones at all...


Sat, 02/22/2014 - 3:10am

In reply to by G Martin

Makes sense in terms of complex nation building which I think was a mistake in Afghanistan. Let's say, you only want to defeat insurgency in one country (I believe it is possible without reforming entire nation, including culture, way of thinking, etc.). How would you, being a top strategist tasked by your political leadership, deal with it in terms of planning or non-planning? Let's take Afghanistan as an example. You successfully toppled the Taliban regime but you are stuck in the country with growing insurgency (you are not tied to do nation building and all that kind of stuff which politicians and flawed doctrine imposed on us). Now, we can say that some level of "nation building etc." could be your supporting effort in defeating the insurgency so you have your way out.

G Martin

Sat, 02/22/2014 - 1:06am

In reply to by matkob

Planning meaning an activity designed to meet a goal- and yes, those other examples represent different concepts of making decisions in order to reach some sort of future goal.

Since establishing a goal and then planning how to get there requires logic- I'm struggling with imagining a "non-linear" logic or a "non-linear" form of planning- mainly because I'm not sure humans are capable of thinking non-linearly. So- if the world acts non-linearly in the macro sense and yet we are limited to only seeing and understanding micro linearity- then planning- i.e.- using linear logic to get to preferred future objectives- seems to me to be fruitless.

If one is dealing with micro level goals- then, sure- use planning. If one wants to move a certain amount of people to a certain place in a certain amount of time- plan. If one wants to drive a military force out of an area- then plan. But, if one wants to end an insurgency, develop an economy, establish governance, fix poverty, end drug use, or the like- then I'd argue use something else, because those activities at the macro level do not lend themselves to planning a solution. Macro level solutions- from what I understand- are worked out in emergent ways that resist a priori planning.

G Martin

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 1:59pm

In reply to by matkob

I meant "unconscious" in terms of not doing it deliberately. In other words, we in the military know nothing else but the planning (technically rational) paradigm- so we do it in a knee-jerk manner without thinking about it at all and choosing it after looking at other alternatives. Even worse- the majority of us have no clue where it comes from, its history, the theory that backs it up, or that there actually are alternatives. I liken it to doctors operating on patients without knowing why.


Wed, 02/19/2014 - 1:30pm

In reply to by G Martin

I don't think your points are irrelevant. Just we are looking at the same thing from different perspectives. Regarding planning, I never tried to use planning as a linear process but as a tool (a crutch if you want - especially the MA part to get me all the necessary info to orient myself in the situation) and since I am teaching MDMP special ops guys in my country and have suffered some experience in operational planning, I am very well aware of its limitations. That is why I always run a subconscious "sanity check" in every step.

I think you wanted to say consciously because unconsciously we are doing it.

Regarding those successful ops - sometimes the micro level is the only thing we have. Yes, that would be my examples. You can challenge the idea of tactics running the strategy but maybe it is a problem of poor strategists rather than good tacticians.

Regarding the VSO, when I was first deployed in 2009, it was too dangerous even to mention any type of irregular forces but the idea has been always here (as already mentioned, some forces here and there too). Now, as I stated in the other place, there is no more VSO. ALP has transferred fully to GIRoA but comparing to the other parts of ANSF they are doing pretty good and IMO they have the greatest potential when we leave (relatively low maintenance, and the best reach to local populace). US taxpayers are paying them, not EU. So maybe you could not see the success at the beginning or even being skeptical about the program but the good news is that the legacy is still here and quite vital despite all the problems and obstacles. I believe ISAF levels were not the best place for such ideas back in 2010.

G Martin

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 12:52pm

In reply to by matkob

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the planning subject. I see the possibility that many solutions have to work themselves out through emergent forces and not through planning- whether deliberate or as one goes. I see planning as being a symptom of a technically rational culture- something required by us, but not by the demands of the problems and reality we face. We simply cannot break away from our very human (and I'd argue "Western") way of viewing the world- mostly, if not totally, linearly. If one follows a more critical realist approach, I submit, one would not necessarily plan, define end states, measure progress towards those end states, or guage success (one might at certain micro levels or one might based on the situation- but never unconsciously). Instead one would attempt to learn, try a few things, and possibly put resources towards things that appear to be working- but mostly at the micro level without much of a macro direction- excepting a general thought of what one's values are, what one's population would support, and what the locals value.

As far as SF spending "decades successfully planning and conducting these types of operations"- I would challenge that assertion. Where exactly have we been successful? Surely it is a stretch to say our micro efforts- even if planned for- have been "successful" in Colombia, The Phillipines, Thailand, Egypt, Honduras, Mali, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the other "Stans", the Balkans, etc....??

My experience with VSO consisted of the planning at ISAF levels and the support at the team level of the effort in 2010.


Wed, 02/19/2014 - 1:35pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I agree that the VSO is not the future of the US warfare (if you notice for me it is merely one of the tools in portfolio). Can you bring up more and better courses of action?

Bill M.

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 1:21pm

In reply to by matkob

I would agree with you hands down if it was truly a binary situation where we only had two courses of action to choose from, but I think others are available and disagree with the the theme of the article that V SO is the future of US warfare.


Wed, 02/19/2014 - 10:22am

In reply to by Bill M.

Who is talking about foreign security team in a village separating populace from insurgents? The foreign security team is only incentive for local defense of more-less irregular character. Temporary arrangement is everything necessary to deal with the insurgency in the meantime.

The populace need to understand that the insurgency is weaker than the other side in and around their village. Counterinsurgency is not about appeasing to populace but controlling the populace by any legal means while simultaneously engaging the insurgents by lethal or non-lethal means. Still better if the populace likes it but it is not really necessary. And it is still better to have a security team in the village than security forces closed in bases, trying to do raids against some bad folks or going out for some patrols to find fleeing enemy who is either using IEDs or guerrilla tactics. Mostly they are controlling the village then and involuntarily our forces are the ones who attack the village (as J. Bouyd said). If that is the best way to conduct COIN, good luck with that.

Bill M.

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 4:25am

In reply to by matkob

ah yes, the illusion of separating the populace from the insurgent by parking a foreign security team in their village. At best you may be imposing a temporary arrangement. This assumption is only valid if the people truly embrace in their hearts an alternative system to the one the insurgents are attempting to impose. I'm sure some do and some don't. Come back in two years and reassert your argument, it will be a good litmus test for all of us to look at.


Wed, 02/19/2014 - 3:58am

In reply to by G Martin

As per planning in SOF community there are 2 types of planning of which deliberate is one. If a state reacts for contingency first and then on the run starts planning and determining desired outcomes (which is not too desirable bacuse contingency planning should have been done beforehand), is it typical deliberate planning where one first sits down, determines the end state and plans entire campaign or not?

I do not know what your experience with VSO/ALP is but from my observations here in Afghanistan I can say that yes, at this moment increasing VSO sites (or ALP numbers in critical areas) does support security and is supporting the counterinsurgency effort and starting the program was one of the best things which could happen in terms of local security here in Afghanistan. I think that people who have been involved and read this understand what I am talking about. What about decades of experience of Special Forces and other special operations units who have been successfully PLANNING and conducting this type of operations on either side of irregular warfare?

Why it does promote security? Because if run correctly, it is making the local communities to defend themselves. Why it does support counterinsurgency? Because if run correctly, it more-less successfully separates population from insurgents which is the first prerequisity to defeat any insurgency. Is it necessary to plan for it? It is. Is it necessary to know how the program is going? Yes.

The process is a tool. Nothing less, nothing more. If one plans honestly and uses the process for his benefit, he can plan for whatever he wants if he understands the limitations and advantages of the process. He can modify the process. In my military career I have seen rather lack of planning, improper planning with wrong inputs and thus poor outputs, lack of analysis or "planning" based on "good ideas" rather than on proper analysis of the problem and rarely a sanity check during planning. I have seen bad plans and orders which were result of bad or no planning at all. But abuse does not make the tool irrelevant. Counterinsurgency is not only about social effects but there is a lot of things which are measurable and possible to plan for. The wise planner understands the difference.

The problems are complex indeed. And open to illusion, influenced by political pressures, biases and tensions. But for the people on the ground, the ODAs or other special ops teams or the local villagers the security or insurgency are way too tangible things.

G Martin

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 3:41pm

In reply to by matkob

Yes- I am asserting that. I'm inclined to believe that "non-deliberate planning" is an oxymoron. I guess you could plan not to plan- maybe that is non-deliberate planning.

And yes- planning on movement is planning- but since that is normally associated with a complicated (or simple) task (movement) it would be reasonable to use a rational decision making and/or deliberate planning process to execute the movement of troops. And you can have metrics tied to that movement and that deliberate planning- and know when you were successful.

What I am talking about in terms of "not planning" is planning for social effects. So, for instance, if one's subordinate objective under one's security line of effort (supporting the overall objective of defeating the insurgency) is to treble VSO sites, the deliberate planning approach to reach the defeating of the insurgency is arguably flawed since increasing VSO sites may or may not support security and may or may not support defeating the insurgency. This deliberate and linearly logical process is, I assert, fundamentally at odds with how complex problems are "worked out" normally. Why in the world we would use the same process to effect social change that we would to conduct a movement is beyond me.

Thus, trying to figure out what "working" or "not working" is in terms of VSO (as a supposed MoE) is very problematic, open to illusion, and very likely to be influenced by political pressures, unconscious biases, and systemic tensions- to name a few- not to mention that its ties to security (an abstraction) and defeating the insurgency (defeating another abstraction) are tenuous at best. So, regardless of whether one chooses the "correct" metrics- one could never know beforehand whether they were, indeed, the correct metrics.


Tue, 02/18/2014 - 2:56pm

In reply to by G Martin

You are asserting that by planning I mean only deliberate planning. Even after some contingency occured and one has to react (at that time he needs to know what is he reacting to and some initial conditions he wants to set, at some point he will come to some form of "what I am going to do next?" or better "how I want to conclude this thing?" - which is planning. For the reaction itself - how do you prepare your forces to move to the place of the contingency? You end up with planning at least the troop movement and initial disposition of forces. Moreover, many contingency plans are prepared long before any contingency begins.

If there is a contingency and a country is sending expeditionary troops, probably they are not sending the troops just because but it has certain purpose, right? The country wants to achieve something (at least to send the troops to BPT). One way or the other, they end up with some kind of planning. They can reassess what they want to achieve anytime but still they need to be aware of what they want to achieve in close or distant future.

Even if you cannot measure entire complexity of "complex causal relationship", still there are some aspects which are measurable (and are quite useful). Is is possible to measure percentage of villages where I established VSO program (MoP)? It is. Is it possible to determine whether the program is working or not in those villages (MoE)? Sure (Depends if I chose correct criteria). Is it possible to determine whether the insurgents have access to the populace and to what extent? In one village? In some percent of villages in a district? Countrywise? Sure. Is it possible to measure it geographically? Sure. Is it possible to determine the changes in time and space? Yes.

The real problem is not using those measurements per se but using them honestly and correctly.

G Martin

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 1:09pm

In reply to by matkob

<em>"How dare you to tell me what do I know or not?"</em>

I meant the "you" as a general pronoun meaning anyone, not you personally.

<em>"How do you want to conduct a campaign or an operation without at least basic planning?"</em>

Are you asserting that one can only conduct a campaign after planning? Is this a universal law? I would assert that one can conduct a campaign relying on emergence to find the way vice deliberate planning. Surely it is possible that no deliberate planning back in '64 or later could have led to today's reality of Vietnam having Most Favored Nation status. The problem, of course, for both of us is neither of these assertions are testable...

<em>"You need to know what you want to achieve and how you do it or what you are going to do if the things are not developing as you expect. Otherwise it does not make any sense to do anything at all."<em>

Again, this is conjecture. I assert that one can achieve a better future (depending on what one's term "better" means, of course) through a situation wherein one does not know precisely what one wants to achieve a priori, how to do it, or what one is going to do. In fact, What one expects a priori is many times- I assert- exactly NOT what one needs to have a better future (especially since future conditions determine largely what one thinks is better!). One can still "do" things- but take a less deliberate approach (The Aussie military calls it Adaptive Campaigning and takes cues from Biological Evolutionary Mechanistic Theory).

<em>"I did not say you have to know "right away" so do not put words in my mouth. It is nothing wrong to use a cognitive process (which planning is) to get from one point in space and time to another."</em>

Again, I wasn't meaning "you" personally, but simply pointing out that our military must know relatively quickly what is going on as that is a requirement for our technically rational approach. And using a cogntive process is fine- unless using a "cognitive" approach won't get you to a better future. Would you agree that there are some situations wherein a deliberate process might not be best?

<em>"Metrics do not have to tell you only numbers. They can tell you also if some conditions are met or not."</em>

I would say this assertion isn't backed up much for social "problems" and situations largely contingent on complex causal relationships. Because social issues are value laden and dynamic, approaching them as one would a science experiment is potentially disastrous, and at the least- I assert- a waste of time. Measuring something in the social realm many times (most?) doesn't give one knowledge about how to do anything in the future.


Sun, 02/23/2014 - 6:51am

In reply to by Bill M.

I only stated that separating the populace is one of the necessary conditions to deal with the insurgency, not an end state in itself or decisive condition. As I said, I am rather advocate of any legal means of controlling the populace than appeasing them (based on some cost and benefit analysis, obviously). It gives you (at least on a local level):
- Control over their recruitment pool and better conditions for influencing them and hopefully turning their attitudes against insurgency or at least to neutral ones
- Minimalizes risk of collateral damage caused by your fires
- Denies the insurgents the access to the populace thus making them dependent on other resources (the best case scenario is leaving them almost without any resources).
From the insurgent perspective (I have to be simplistic but hopefully it is enough for general understanding) - you are part of a larger group which wants to reestablish islamic emirate in Afghanistan. At least your bosses in Pakistan say that and you believe in the cause. Now, you are local Pashtun, not a foreign fighter. That means that you know your little AO, you have social ties there and capitalize on your freedom of movement which you have unless you are clearly not presenting yourself as a guerrilla fighter openly carrying weapon. Let's say, you are a leader of a small group of 10 to 15 fighters. If you want to continue your fight, you need some bed-down location, food, weapons, ammunition, some medical care, etc. Mostly you have those from your local village and you take it either with a consent of villagers or through intimidation and theft. What happens, if directly in your village "parks" an infidel SF team and starts to recruit other villagers, so you cannot enter the village anymore? Even if there are still some villagers who maybe support your "cause", there is a lot who perceive an SF team as a stronger player and they start supporting them either by providing information or joining their irregular group. You have several options. Either you increase your activity (if you still have some resources) and try to kill as many of them as possible. I do not have to tell you that directly attacking them with your small group would cost many of you life. You can target them with the IEDs. But only if you know where they are moving and the local villagers who are supporting them cannot observe you. Moreover, you need resources for your IEDs. Or you can leave the area and go somewhere else. But where will you go if all the neighbouring villages are controlled by similar SF teams and their irregulars who are now better resourced and supported than you? Moreover, now they started patrolling and are pushing you further out. And now, also other SOF components started showing interest in you. Either you can flee, give up or be killed by a drone or maybe some bigger military force which is pushing to your hideout site... I f you are a foreign fighter from Pakistan, you have even bigger problem with those villages (if they are protected).

Regarding the strategy, yes insisting on a strong central government is a big mistake. But you do not need a strong central govnerment to defeat the bad guys (thus the assertions of BG Don Bolduc). what I am trying to say is that you can prevail even if your higher strategy is flawed if the guys on lower level know their business and are allowed to do it. The line of effort is not conflicting because it is promoting security. And that was the main problem of most conventional guys and politicians with the program. They imposed on themselves unachievable condition which is even irrelevant from a security standpoint. Thus your comment on tossing out the original strategy seems to be correct.

Situation does not have to be binary but you can set up a set off pass/fail conditions and end state which are inherently binary. As I said you just do not raise village militias and then let them be. That is why you need an entity to control them and when the time comes either to transfer them to another entity or demobilize them. SF have experience and are trained to do that. Your last comment is correct.


Sun, 02/23/2014 - 7:10am

In reply to by Bill M.

Double post deleted


Sun, 02/23/2014 - 7:09am

In reply to by Bill M.

Double post deleted


Sun, 02/23/2014 - 7:09am

In reply to by Bill M.

Double post deleted

Bill M.

Sat, 02/22/2014 - 2:49pm

In reply to by matkob

We found a fair amount of common ground, but I think you overstate the value of separating the populace from the insurgents in Afghanistan for the following reasons:

- In many locations separating the populace from the insurgents could be decisive, but where the insurgents and foreign fighters enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan this is not the case. Separating the population from the insurgents must still be done, but it won't be decisive by itself. We also have to deny safehaven for the insurgents/foreign fighters in Pakistan, otherwise what we're calling an insurgency will continue indefinitely.

- It seems our control of villages is often illusionary, or transitory at best. We don't have a Magsaysay in Afghanistan, and yet the strategy hinges on a competent/credible government in Kabul. Whether stated or not it is an assumption that underpins our strategy. The SF COL, now BG I think, who was the most vocal advocate for the VSO program pretty much stated in an article that central government doesn't work in Afghanistan, which is why the VSO program was essential. I agree with the first part based on my limited experience there and study, but have serious concern about the second part of the statement. If he is promoting an approach that doesn't support our overall strategy (empowering the central government), then we seem to have developed a conflicting line of effort. In hindsight it seems it would have been better to toss out the original strategy and embrace the decentralized control strategy collectively if that is what we think is ultimately going to work.

- Finally, this isn't a binary situation where there is only the Afghan government and the Taliban, there are numerous actors on both sides. It seems that empowering village militias will only increase their capability to fight each other as they did before when the previous Afghanistan government fell a few years after the USSR pulled out, and it was these internal conflicts that killed 10s of thousands, which created the opportunity for the Taliban to take power and assume control. I don't claim to understand the culture and history there to the extent required to make sound recommendations, but I think most Americans there regardless of how much time they have in country have the same shortcomings I do in that regard.


Fri, 02/21/2014 - 5:52am

In reply to by Bill M.

That is what i was trying to say. End state can be a metric too (not talking about MoPs/MoEs becoming an end state per se). But from pure mathematical or logical point, most of us think of metrics in decimal system. But if you have a condition pass/fail or yes or no, that is a metric in binary system - 0 or 1. And if you have several objectives leading to an end state, you can measure how many have been met in decimal system too. Still you can have some useful metrics regarding MoEs. I agree with what you wrote here: My only main point in this discussion is that we don't throw out the baby with the bath water (e.g, we use any metrics to our benefit).

Regarding the VSO, you still have some sites with the same names (VSP, DSP...) but the ODAs are not in control of ALP anymore. ALP is now integral part of ANP, managed from district and province level.
I agree with the rest of what you said.

You can track the ties to strategic ends but not per se and many on the strategic level are not even aware of them. Personally, I do not believe in protecting the populace by appeasing them and doing baby-sitting. However, I believe that you can separate insurgents from the populace via VSO type operations which are prerequisite for successful targeting insurgency (on local or strategic level) and I will be always advocating them as a viable tool (nothing less, nothing more). As I stated in the other place, construct of the central government and democratic regime is one of the biggest fails in Afghanistan. In that sense, there is no direct connection to strategic end-state. In this SFA guide there is more on ALP C2:
Personally I would rather see original VSO without connection to central government but beating the insurgency hard. Logically, you do not need to be the friend with GIRoA to be an enemy of the insurgents. If the irregulars are properly controlled by SOF units and after predetermined conditions were met they are disarmed and disbanded, I do not see a problem.

I think our problem is semantic here (or as I say you can measure whether the condition is met or not). If you only understand MoPs and MoEs as metric, than yes, you do not need metrics in planning and when I am talking about metric you need to understand it as: "metrics and conditions".

Bill M.

Fri, 02/21/2014 - 3:45am

In reply to by matkob


First off I'm not questioning the tactical excellence of the ODAs implementing the VSO program (and I guess it is the former VSO program based on your comment, I wasn't aware that it didn't exist anymore). Second, I don't understand your point about an end state being a metric? I see it more as a condition, but we may be talking past one another. A metric in my view is something that can be quantified. Body counts are a metric, the Taliban agreeing to a peace agreement is a condition.

My argument concerning the VSO program is it doesn't appear to be tied to the strategic ends, assuming there are viable strategic ends that the military can contribute to at this point. I get the importance of protecting the populace and ideally tying them to the central government, but as I understand it from far away is we're not effectively tying the villages to the central government. If I'm wrong I'll stand corrected. This gets to my criticism on Linda's comments about VSO being the future way of war for the U.S., in what world? There are very limited locations where our teams will be permitted to do this. When it applies by all means adapt the program to support the strategy, but my concern which I think is well founded after 30 plus years of SF experience is we'll show up in some cases with our tool and attempt to apply it whether it fits the situation or not. This doesn't apply to most SF operators, but to some of the leaders who confuse staying on message with supporting the strategy. We should be our strongest critics, because few outside our ranks can assess our operations because the concepts related to UW still are largely alien to conventional forces. If you have time the desire I would like to see a sample end state for a war time mission that you think is a metric.


Thu, 02/20/2014 - 4:53am

In reply to by Bill M.

Metrics for me is everything I can measure somehow or compare to something,(including end state, objectives, desired conditions etc.), while for you it is only MoEs and MoPs and sets of numbers and statistics or scales. Is a clearly stated end state a metrics? It is. Are the conditions set metrics? They are. What are you planning for then? The misuse of metrics is not a problem of metrics but of those who misuse them. I am by no means talking about body count. I understand your standpoint but I think you do not want to understand my. I am not talking about measuring RANDOM and IRRELEVANT metrics. I was not talking about measuring anything of you said. And I have to say again - there is no more VSO. But there is nothing wrong with a philosophy of using Special Forces as force multipliers. It has certain rules if you know what i am talking about. You just don't train some bunch of freaks and leave them alone to do whatever they want - that is what most people think about and were thinking the same back in 2009 - mostly conventional forces.

Bill M.

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 2:22am

In reply to by matkob

You argue you can't plan without metrics which is absolutely ludicrous, unless you're a businessman. Metrics didn't become a major factor in U.S. military campaign planning until McNamara introduced modern industrial practices into DOD. Metrics often have no value based on the fact our leadership will always skew them to fit their preconceived perceptions. Even if we could assess metrics quantitatively or qualitatively without bias (we can't), the results would still mean little. We're not trying to increase our profit margins, the only thing that ultimately matters in a conflict is the adversary's will and means to continue fighting. As long as this persists the conflict will persist regardless of our overly positive or negative metrics. This is what we have seen to forgotten over the past 50 or so years. This doesn't mean we have defeat the adversary via military force, we could reach a political compromise, quit, etc., but regardless of the means our measuring of random and irrelevant metrics means nothing and distracts us from what is important. In fact, I think it can result in creating a distorted reality where we convince ourselves we're winning because we're focused on nonsense that is irrelevant to defeating or acquiescing to the adversary.

If we're fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and admittedly that is debatable, then measuring metrics related to economic development, number of villages allegedly pacified by the VSO program, number of troops trained, or even the number of enemy contacts ultimately means very little if the Taliban is still willing to fight. Of course the conflict is more complex than our fight with the Taliban and most recognize that. If we followed Gant's advice I suspect we would have accelerated reinitiating tribal warfare that existed in Afghanistan prior to the arrival of the Taliban by enhancing the means of each tribe to fight each other, and they would play us like a maestro plays a violin.

Bill M.

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 3:06am

In reply to by matkob

double post deleted


Wed, 02/19/2014 - 10:32am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I already ordered the book (waiting till it comes out on kindle).

The current program is probably the best we can have now despite all the flaws and mistakes, obstacles and misunderstandings. I could imagine some improvements (even some systemic) but it still has tremendous potential.

G Martin

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 1:02pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Having observed "Taliban" groups being incorporated into the VSO program because they were being whipped by ISI proxies and then being armed by certain Afghan ANSF units to fight other ANSF units who were aligned with the ISI, having observed "Taliban" groups turning weapons in and taking oaths to GIRoA and being incorporated into ALP in order to fight other "Taliban" groups who were better armed than they were- but then firing upon Coalition SOF because the Coalition SOF were attempting to stop the fighting (due to the momentary need to show less violence metrics in 2010 for domestic and European political needs), after having seen "Taliban" apply to be a VSO site but then take up fighting again when the EU money never showed- and that's just the unclassified stuff- I'm a little cynical on using VSO- or any country-wide program- to get to security/stability. The theory sounds intuitive (enpower locals and you'll get security)... if only insurgencies were not largely full of counterintuitiveness.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 4:55am

In reply to by G Martin

Grant---knew the previous reporting by his wife for the WP which was actually solid especially her time in Iraq---secondly she was in the same area with him for a long period and was able to see the program in action.

I tend to think that she did not overwrite what she saw---I saw the same thing in VN when a independent journalist/writer Michael Heer was for awhile in our SF camp and then he wrote the "Dispatches" which in tone and style reflected VN. If anything she saw something that in fact may have been for AFG actually working at the ground level---but failed due to AFG/US senior leaders not wanting success.

I think part of the reason he is not responding and I do not speak for him is the simple fact that what he saw in Iraq did not match what he experienced in AFG and in typical SF fashion he looked for a solution to the problem and the old CIDG program did in fact layer itself well over AFG especially if one focuses on the tribes much as we did in VN.

It was right for VN and transitioned well to the government as would have a true one tribe at a time concept transitioned as well easily to the government.

The core question that needs to be asked is why Karzi felt "threatened" by the project and why the senior US leadership "only half hearted" engaged.

That is one really serious set of questions that reflect on the entire AFG engagement and why it has completely failed.

If in fact Karzi wants the US/NATO out of AFG then in fact this need can be effectively sold as a victory to the world and we can nicely go home "while" Karzi feels we have been able to setup AFG for success otherwise why is he asking us to leave?

Strange that we do not see this messaging being set into place and the zero option being finally put into place and executed against.

Again it would be great to hear from Gant but I think he is personally fed up with the system and is enjoying his new life. Plus Seattle is close to the SF old guard retirees that have settled there plus the 1st is there for current contact.

Truly wish him well as he at least tried something-- much as we did in VN.

G Martin

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:27pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Just one of the responses to One Tribe at a Time:…

I have to believe if my wife wrote a book about me, it would probably paint me in a pretty good light...

The true story of what happened to him in Afghanistan this last time may never be fully known. What I would assert is that his tactical solution ran headlong into the realities of the strategy, personnel system priorities, and the policies in Afghanistan- some of which I detailed here:

VSO- unlike what I thought Gant argued for- was supposed to be centrally approved, equipped, and funded from Kabul, relied on District and Provincial (and others) approval, and would be supported with funding from the EU. This is not what I read about in Gant's concept- which was for almost independent SOF teams to build very close relationships with Afghan tribes (most VSO sites were not supposed to have much to do with coalition forces- it was mostly a development and governance program). Although I saw some benefits with Gant's approach versus the ISAF approach- ISAF's was bound to "win" as it took into account politics and Gant's approach assumed some wrong things in my opinion about Coalition and GIRoA objectives. And I think Gant's concept promised a little too much. In a time wherein everyone was looking for a panacea, his concept promised one. Probably the worst thing we can do is oversell any one concept when it comes to COIN or social change.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 5:12pm

In reply to by matkob

matkob---one of the central drivers of the VSO program initially was a SF MAJ Jim Gant who first drove the discussion as he was going through language training prior to deploying to AFG.

He has since returned from AFG and left SF--and actually has not published anything since which leads me to believe that he that he is not in agreement with the current program.

This book was written by his new wife a previous Washington Post war journalist who accompanied him in his VSO deployment.

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant


Tue, 02/18/2014 - 2:07pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I agree with everything you said. However, using MoEs/MoPs or any metrics improperly does not mean that they are useless as such. You alone are bringing up 3 metrics for VSO, I could add some more like the number/percentage of villages where we successfully implemented the program (e.g., the populace is under control + insurgents are denied access to the populace + other conditions you define), % of populace controlled countrywise, you can measure those things geographically, etc... Hard to do? Yes. Is it possible? Certainly is. And as I said, certain conditions met are also form of metrics.

The first metrics from Iraq you used are MoPs (number of insurgents captured, which is pure body count) moreover based on estimate and the second is only the metric per se which can or does not have to do anything with friendly forces activity. The first one was based on estimate and should have been treated as such and there was not a problem with the second metrics but with conclusions based on it because it did not take into account all variables. Saying that using ANY metrics in COIN environment is impossible or wrong based on previous abuse of metrics is throwing out a baby with a bath water.

And in these campaigns we are using ONLY MoPs again and again because it is easy to do and does not require any analysis (ignorance, laziness or just lack of commons sense???).

BTW, there is no more VSO as such because Afghan government is now in control of ALP (which is the only remnant of VSO).

Outlaw 09

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 1:10pm

In reply to by matkob

I would after years of having trained, led, and fought with irregular forces maintain that the use of MoE/MoP in an insurgency as we have used it in the last ten years is 1) ineffective and 2)useless.

Example---I had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of over six studies that came from MNF-I intel which tried to guessitmate the number of insurgents we were facing in Iraq during the period 2005 to 2007.

They used three different analysis methods combined with a large number of different metric sets, and came to at least six different set of numbers.

In the end if one took each set of estimates and compared them to the numbers we were holding in Abu Ghraib and Bucca---one could have packed up the Army and gone home in 2007 because based on the six estimated sets of numbers we had all the insurgents already locked up.

But the problem was we were still getting shot at and the number of IEDs climbed daily.

So much for metrics in an insurgent environment.

Second example---if one takes the IED numbers found and added in those that exploded around our ears the numbers from 2005 to 2007 in Iraq were massive---with these statistics did anyone come to the conclusion that 1) the insurgents were getting extremely good at what they were doing and 2) our CIED efforts were failing.

Answer---no and again so much for statistics ie metrics.

The only metrics in a VSO environment that count is 1)is in fact the supported village actually engaging the opposition, 2)is the VSO village actively trying to expand outwards the concept to the next village/valley, and 3)how is the interaction with the neighboring VSO group?

One should be only interested in the "what is" not the "what we expect it to be".

If one uses that formula it is then easy to figure out what can go onto a Powerpoint slide for those that are not in the field.

The core question is though do they really want to see/hear the "what is" as it just might be not the "right" metric/statistic.


Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:48am

In reply to by G Martin

How dare you to tell me what do I know or not?

How do you want to conduct a campaign or an operation without at least basic planning? You need to know what you want to achieve and how you do it or what you are going to do if the things are not developing as you expect. Otherwise it does not make any sense to do anything at all.

I did not say you have to know "right away" so do not put words in my mouth. It is nothing wrong to use a cognitive process (which planning is) to get from one point in space and time to another.

Metrics do not have to tell you only numbers. They can tell you also if some conditions are met or not.

Criteria for success are metrics too and you have to define them in your planning. Sure, they can change during your campaign but you still need to be aware of what you want to achieve and how you define it.

G Martin

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:00am

In reply to by matkob

Which calls into question the usefulness of "planning". If planning requires metrics and you are facing a situation that is not measurable- qualitative or not- then you are screwed if all you know is the planning approach.

"...must have some things which can tell you whether you are successful or not"- is a requirement we have forced on ourselves and it is a terrible thing to assume to be successful we have to know right away if we are going towards success. Just because we need it to operate doesn't mean that life has to conform to our needs....


Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:23am

In reply to by G Martin

The point is that for each plan you must have some things which can tell you whether you are successful or not. Those MoE can be qualitative in nature as well.

G Martin

Mon, 02/17/2014 - 1:29pm

In reply to by matkob

I would argue the MoE/MoP paradigm is useless- and even counterproductive- in COIN. In the re-write for FM 3-24 we spent hours arguing what a good example of an MoE for a COIN campaign was- and I don't think we concluded there were any. Even the ones suggested in the old one: violence, refugees, human movement, religious attendance, number of small businesses, etc.- are intertwined with so many other variables that they could have little, if anything, to do with how effective one's COIN campaign is. And if one changes anything across the board- how can anyone have any confidence that any resultant effects came from those changes? Social phenomena just don't work that way. It's one thing to measure an MoP such as how many arty shells hit their target- and then an MoE such as how many enemy are left on that target- but quite another to attempt to transfer that approach to social phenomena. Social phenomena are often counterintuitive, emergent, multi-contingent, situationally unique, and complex. Linear logic (MoEs and MoPs) is often useless.


Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:28am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I would argue that you can have different kinds of roots for different insurgencies. Population is only one part of "physical roots" (maybe). But you have other intangibles like "the cause/narrative".

G Martin

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:48am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Reminds me of an informal SAMS group attempt to arrive at the "roots" of the insurgency in Afghanistan. I think we got as far back as Adam and Eve...

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 02/17/2014 - 2:04pm

In reply to by matkob

The "roots" ARE the population.

Too much of COIN theory sees insurgency as a population hijacked by bad guys with an evil ideology, taking on an ineffective, but otherwise legitimate, government. While often these are true facts, I do not believe they are the material facts, and are typically interpreted in the favor of the government (and their foreign source of support.

The reality is more in how a segment of the population comes to feel about some system of governance affecting their lives. When that government is one elevated into power by some foreign power, one has a nearly incurable case of illegitimacy on one's hands. Politicians keep throwing us into infeasible situations and then expecting the inevitable insurgency not to occur, and then for the military to defeat this "threat."

We need to step back and get real about our role in causation and about the nature of insurgency in general.


Mon, 02/17/2014 - 12:25pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

As I wrote and I agree with you, separation and controlling the populace are not keys to stability but rather prerequisities for successful targeting of the insurgents and cutting their main sources. I do not even say that the populace is the center of gravity (definitely not for operational level). You still need to deal with the roots of the insurgency. Either you let the insurgency bleed out without local support and at the same time you kill some here and there or you make their cause irrelevant. Combination is the best.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 02/17/2014 - 9:16am

In reply to by matkob

Totally agree that the entire metrics program is a disaster. Too tactical, too objective, too short term, and too likely to generate false senses of accomplishment as it focuses on what we did rather than what we achieved. It is also based on a flawed understanding of what insurgency is. Old wives (soldier's) tales abound in COIN. For example:

A popular tactical myth from the British Army in Malaya is that keys to ultimate stability were "controlling the populace" and "separating the insurgents from the populace." Important tactical condition setters to be sure, but real success strategically came from the major political concessions and policy changes in expanding opportunity more fairly to all population groups and surrendering ambitions of colonialism and bringing a new sovereign nation of Malaysia into the common wealth.

After all, the insurgent is merely the active element of a much larger population sharing degrees of grievances with the systems of governance affecting their lives; and when did you ever wish the government had more control over you??



Mon, 02/17/2014 - 3:39am

In reply to by Bill M.

Afghanistan campaign has been chronically almost without any metrics or measures of success which should have been determined at the beginning. Very rarely there can be seen any reasonable MoEs (body counts or numbers of ammunition of recovered caches and statistics are MoPs). And when comes to MoEs - everything is wrapped in an almighty term "disrupt" which can mean literally anything. BTW, disrupt by definition is never an end, only means to an end.

Can you, please, tell me, what metrics have been used regarding VSO/ALP?

As per VSO/ALP - it is a tool to provide security and means of population control. It never meant to be a silver bullet to win the counter-insurgency (neither was a CIDG program). The point is that you just cannot win without controlling a population. Period. If you do not separate insurgents from populace, you cannot successfully target them. Yet VSO and subsequently ALP has proven to be very effective security tool comparing to other Afghan forces. You cannot blame a good tool for failure of a person who is using it. Winning over the populace is only one of the ways to control it (the problem is that we confuse these two as well).

Bill M.

Mon, 02/17/2014 - 2:42am

In reply to by G Martin


This was a very insightful post should give us all much to think about. IMO the VSO program seems to have been sickened by the curse of McNamara, which is the unending curse in the search of the best metrics to prove to the bean counters and pseudo-scientists we're winning, so keep investing in our program. The point you made about a higher command element conducting a traveling sales pitch for the program speaks volumes about the way we conduct war. In lieu a strategy based on logic for achieving desired ends we opted instead for conducting operations that we measure too frequently, and place those scores on a score board as though the side with the most points at the end of the 4th quarter wins. I assume the excuse for logic is the old argument that if we win over the populace which can't be defined by metrics, then the Taliban will be defeated. Many people can shoot holes in this logic, but the logic doesn't matter, what matters is staying on message. Reason won't influence the true believers who have a faith based approach to COIN, and now they simply reinforce their faith with the pseudo-science of subjective and irrelevant metrics. CIDG, VSO, and similar programs failed to achieve the stated ends, but instead of examining why, we choose to promote them as great successes, and perhaps tactically they are. What exactly are we afraid of when we avoid self-criticism?

Linda in this case is part of the problem, she is championing SOF, or specifically SF, versus taking a critical look at the overall strategy (or as you stated identifying that there isn't one). So instead of a dispassionate academic review of the program which would point out its strengths and weaknesses and how it ties into the higher strategy, she instead takes a tribal approach by indirectly arguing the SF approach is more effective than the SOF tribe that allegedly promotes direct action. Seems to me that we need the full spectrum of capabilities, and one doesn't replace the other. Ego is the most disruptive force on the battlefield.

Bill C.

Sun, 02/16/2014 - 12:03pm

In reply to by G Martin

Regarding macro activities or systems context:

The move to embrace/re-embrace such concepts as village stability operations, the human domain and counter-unconventional warfare -- and, indeed, to shift from a military in the lead foreign policy to a foreign policy which operates more through diplomacy and development -- these recent measures would seem to confirm that we have abandoned our immediate post-Cold War beliefs in:

a. The universal and overwelming appeal of our way of life, our way of governance and our values, attitudes and beliefs and our ideology and which

b. Downplayed, marginalized and/or ignored the power and influence of different ways of life, different ways of governance, different values, attitudes and beliefs and different ideologies.

Our immediate post-Cold War beliefs -- and corresponding foreign policy -- based on "a" and "b" above suggested that, in order to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines, we need only liberate the population from their oppressive regimes.

Thus, a military in the lead foreign policy and military operations designed only to deal with contrary rulers and these rulers' military forces (and not also, as in days past, with contrary/billigerent populations who would fight and die rather than give up their identity, alternative ways of life, alternative ways of governance, etc.).

As further evidence of the macro activity/systems context shift outlined above (away from "end of history"/"universal values" thinking), should we recognize that such concepts and activities as village stability operations, the study of the human domain and counter-unconventional warfare all were present during the Cold War; a time when the power, influence and appeal of different ways of life, different ways of government, different ideologies, etc., were -- unlike recently -- readily acknowledged and properly accounted for in our strategy, plans and operations?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 02/15/2014 - 4:37pm

In reply to by G Martin

G Martin---sorry for getting the two of you crossed.

The following book was recently written about him---

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant

Heard he married the former Washington Post journalist who wrote the book and is living now/was living in Seattle, WA.

Do not believe he has written anything personally since he left AFG.

It would have been interesting to hear his side after he deployed to implement VSO as to lessons learned.

G Martin

Sat, 02/15/2014 - 1:42pm

Outlaw- that was actually Jim <em>Gant's</em> article, "One Tribe at a Time". Interesting- haven't heard from Gant in awhile...

I think most of these arguments are a little overcome by events. I see little, if any, evidence that a logical- even if linear- decision process is at work in Afghanistan (if it is at work anywhere). What I see are thousands of micro actions that pay allegiance to the system(s) they belong to that seem externally to come to some kind of macro order that we all can then argue about. From an internal perspective I just see the micro efforts, the logic behind them, and absolutely ZERO macro order.

So, for instance- a few perspectives from inside the enigma:

- VSO was going on without names and with other names before it was officially named. SOCOM and many subordinate leaders weren't giving "points" to those efforts- so there was really no reason to report on them/highlight them. If SOCOM and the press would have been enamored with VSO back in 2007 we would have had a digital ticker in the JOCs measuring VSO success as opposed to enemy KIAs. I think when someone does a thorough analysis of the operations reports from before VSO we'll see that the only change was that the HQs stopped prioritizing killing and started prioritizing VSO metrics. Other than the ANSF formally incorporating VSO efforts into the Tashkiel (MTOEs), MoI officially supporting it, and the name change/public relations campaign- nothing much changed from what we were already doing. Linda Robinson, from my limited vantage point- is a little too enamored with SOF to see some of the truth (so, for instance, where is her reporting on one of the major issues within Afghanistan in 2007: justifying the need for SOTF HQs and the inner-SOF tribal fight on what components should man them?).

- I'd argue our formally acknowledging VSO might have killed it. When it was under the radar MoI wasn't involved, ANSF weren't involved, and ISAF wasn't involved. After it became the flavor of the month I argue it was ruined. Decentralized efforts largely run by individual SOF teams or companies was sometimes ugly- but on the whole much more effective long-term in my opinion. Now that it has been institutionalized, taken over by ISAF, grown faster than most wanted/advised, centrally managed, cookie-cutter copied, and the CF are involved- it has arguably become just another interest group program in search of connections to the overall strategy (read: money flow/bodies justification). SOCOM had a traveling sales show that toured Afghanistan selling the effort for goodness sake!

- My theory is that "the system" rules all. Not any kind of logical analysis/strategy formulation/objectives pursuit/learning efforts. The micro efforts that we perceive to have some kind of rational order in my opinion are just an illusion. The micro efforts are better put into the context of the system they fall under. So, for instance, when VSO became the flavor of the month- by my estimation in 2010- there was tremendous pressure from the system to: cut sling with the Afghan police, decrease the numbers of civcas, show positive metrics to build a case for more troops, stay-the-course emphasis by certain U.S. generals- actively engaging in public oped writing to sway public opinion on Afghanistan, shore up falling European will, and repeat in Afghanistan what had looked like success in Iraq. IJC and ISAF insisted on trebling- from my recollection- VSO sites, to the protest of SOF, NTM-A, and the MoI/ANSF/GIRoA. All kinds of fallout from that decision- but, again, if looked at from the systems perspective and the effect that had on micro efforts- it made sense to those of us in the staff foxholes. What doesn't make sense is to analyze all of it from the illusion that it fits into some nice, neat, theory of COIN or U.S. strategic objectives. Instead I would urge everyone to look at what the different stakeholders demand systemically from their subordinates- and although ugly, puts things in a different, but to my mind more logical, perspective.

In the end, as one of my mentors used to say, Afghanistan will move forward - or backward- in spite of us, not because of us. The faster we get all but perhaps one general out of the country- the better.

One note- in JAN 2010 to my recollection we had perhaps 60- at the most- colonels in Kabul. That summer we went to 390. And general officers to about 110. The European officers would remark that what used to take a major to accomplish now took three majors- and two LTCs and one COL to oversee/comment on power point format. That system has some very real and negative effects that I think we are ignoring- and those effects were largely negative from my vantage point on the VSO effort.

COL Jones below said:

"Time to stop playing fantasy football to a high level of tactical excellence."

I suggest that the "fantasy football" that we were playing post-the Cold War was somewhat different from the fantasy football that we were playing back-in-the-day (during the Cold War/Vietnam War).

Our post-Cold War fantasy football was based on the idea that:

a. If we liberate a population from their oppressive rulers/oppressive regimes -- and these rulers/regimes oppressing military, police and intelligence forces --

b. Then the population of these states and societies would quickly, easily and, mostly on their own:

1. Throw off their old, outdated and now obstructing/non-servicing ways of life and ways of governance (and the values, attitudes and beliefs upon which these ways of life and ways of governance were based). And, in the place of these,

2. Readily and rapidly adopt our modern western ways of life and ways of governance (and the values, attitudes and beliefs upon which these modern western ways of life and ways of governance are based).

This was the game that we thought we were playing post-the Cold War.

This belief, I suggest, was what caused us to plan and execute operations designed only defeat an opposing regime and its military, police and intelligence forces and not also -- as in days past -- a belligerent/opposed population.

Now we know that this "end of history" / "universal values" thinking was folly.

And this new/old knowledge and understanding is what has caused us to be drawn to adopt/re-adopt such concepts as:

a. Counter-unconventional warfare (as per COL Maxwell),

b. Village Stability Operations and

c. The study of the "human domain."

All of which were present -- in one way or another I believe -- during the Cold War, and all of which acknowledged (rather than denied) the power and influence of different ways of life, different ways of governance, different values, attitudes and beliefs and, should we agree, different ideologies.

@Outlaw 09: You are 100% correct...