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)


Bill M.

Tue, 02/11/2014 - 10:27am

Outlaw, we seem to be thinking along the same lines. Tactical excellence can still result in strategic failure if the tactical approach isn't aligned with the strategic ends. It seems to me from afar we have dueling strategies, one group decided the fight war conventionally (our national strategy IMO) by forming governments that looked like us and training armies that fought like us, while the other strategy is pursuing a what they believe to me a culturally appropriate approach by enabling locals to deal with their security problems and political issues in their own way. While these approaches are often mutually supporting at the tactical level, ultimately they seem to be moving towards different ends at the strategic level. I think Bill C. is correct in that our aim is a top down transformation, so if we're pursuing an approach at odds with that we need to figure out how to merge the two effectively. Maybe we have, don't know, but I think we'll fail if we don't.

Bill C., I just finished reading Gen Zinni's book titled something along the lines of "Fighting for Peace," which in tone agrees with you that we attempted to push radical transformation in a few places based on national level guidance. Because of that approach we failed to achieve our ends, and actually undermined our security objectives in the region as a whole. He doesn't argue against our aims, nor do I, but he makes sound arguments against the methods we used to pursue them. He makes a sound case on the importance of understanding and working for change within the cultural context we're operating in. Doing so will enable us to set "realistic" goals that are cultural appropriate. In my words that means taking a deep breath and relearning to value patience, and that doesn't mean occupying countries for 10 plus years, but accepting that change comes slowly and to pursue it wisely with approaches tailored to the situation. Small footprint approaches.

Nation-states seem to be a lot like teenagers, push your values on them to hard and they'll rebel in their own way, and if you really push to hard you'll end up with a preacher's kid (usually the most out of control).


Wed, 02/19/2014 - 12:48pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09:

Do the VSOs need to be able to fight as larger units? Taliban & Co aren't the NVA/VC.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 02/13/2014 - 9:53am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

The reality is that these types of internal political competitions often have military solutions applied to them, but rarely achieve military resolution. Suppression? Yes. Coercion? Certainly. Resolution? Rarely.

CIDG could never resolve the fundamental internal political conflict in Vietnam (and yes, North and South were one but for a line drawn by Western powers for Western purposes); and VSO can never resolve the fundamental internal political conflict in Afghanistan.

To debate which program is better is rather moot, as neither was or is appropriate or adequate to the task at hand.

At some point we need to stop celebrating tactical excellence while ignoring strategic failure. Auburn is a hell of a football team and played a hell of a game in the BCS championship - but lost. Better to play ugly and win.

But first we need to reframe how we think about the game we're playing. Becuase the one we think we're playing, the one our doctrine and plans describes, is NOT the game we are in. It is the game we wish we were in. Time to stop playing fantasy football to a high level of tactical excellence. Time to get real about what we are dealing with, recognize the limitations of military power in crafting resolution, and be willing to play ugly and actually win. Also, to recognize when and where we have the best opportunity to win by not playing at all...

Outlaw 09

Wed, 02/12/2014 - 8:23am

In reply to by matkob

matkob---the VSO has tremendous potential---- do not get me wrong---the core problem is the governance in Kabul basically fears the development of whatever/any kind of local security force capable of actually defending themselves as well as say a valley or two next door.

Karzi fought VSO tooth and nail initially until it was forced on him simply because he sees it as a "threat" to the national government---what Karzi as well as the US government never seem to get is as long as the corruption is so massive out of Kabul and is being copied in all the other areas of AFG there will never be a functioning central governance that the population would in fact support. The use of VSO as police instead of paramilitary was in fact the compromise that Karzi was willing to do---VSO should have gone straight into paramilitary with say the term Rangers and then over a much longer period---then they would have been capable of taking any coming shifts by the US in stride and still provide local security---again check Karzi's comments from this particular period.

In some aspects it is turning out that Karzi is the problem and he has been the problem since the Germans placed him initially into power---Germany would not like to hear that though. Germany pulled kind of a reverse Chalabi (our initial pick in Iraq).

Agree with some comments here on this topic that once we pull out to whatever degree ---the VSO will wither away as the central governance will not be prone to keep them functioning with weapons and money.


Wed, 02/12/2014 - 5:29am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

The only thing which VSO and CIDG have in common is the original idea of local security (I wish you were right about copying CIDG). The practice is different (partially caused by political restrictions). The CIDG was a paramilitary force. VSO operates with a police force which are much more a local watch than a local defence. Still I see the biggest potential in ALP comparing to other Afghan security forces.
You are right with your last two paragraphs.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 02/10/2014 - 2:35pm

Many forget that the VSO is copied on the CIDG program from SF VN days which in fact was a program which existed for over 10 years and was tied to a number of other SF programs which reinforced the CIDG program.

Each Corp had it's own SF QRF called Mobile Strike Forces which either arrived via foot or air if needed , if then the MSFs from Corp could not handle the problem then it was escalated to B55 the National Strike Forces.

In addition to the standard CIDG program there were a number of SF Special Projects that worked out of or near SF CIDG camps that would pass on tactical awareness of enemy movements which assisted the camps in responding to threats.

The core of the CIDG program was the eventual shift of irregular forces to formal SVN government control ie in the form of conversion to SVN Ranger units or to the Provincial RF/PF (local regional defense groups)program.

The quality of the CIDG units which converted was actually quite good---my camp which converted to Rangers--- during the NVA Easter Invasion while totally surrounded by two full strength NVA REGTs held for over a week and then under the cover of darkness exfiled the entire camp 15 kilometers through the jungle to the Province capital without losing anyone.

In historical records released recently from the NVA indicated that they were astounded that the Ranger unit pulled it off.

My concern is that while VSO was setup the supporting mechanisms were not and the program has not been in place long enough for long term results to in fact be seen ie the VSO units have not had to continuously fight as organized large scale units for a number of years as well as fight in organized multi unit operations. Fighting to defend one's village or valley while great does not translate into the ability to defend larger areas while working with other VSO units.

The second concern would be what do they convert to at the end of the process - ie either the government or to a more powerful warlord who controls the area--either way there must be a conversion concept and I do not think that is yet in place.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 02/15/2014 - 3:25pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C---would in fact argue that the problems for Iraq and AFG have always resided within their own countries---if you look at Iraq three weeks after we entered Baghdad the Iraqi Sunni's were in a full blown (based on Mao definition) phase two guerrilla war with us---AQI did not come into being until mid to late 2004 after their public declaration in Baqubah in front of the Green Dome.

Would also argue that the clan fights in AFG predate the Taliban.

Bill C.

Sat, 02/15/2014 - 2:42pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

The real and/or potential enemies of Iraq and Afghanistan -- and, indeed, of nearly all other countries -- do not reside only within the confines of these countries.

Iraq and Afghanistan -- especially if these countries are successfully transformed along modern western political, economic and social lines -- will face threats from other countries as well.

Thus, the military, police and intelligence forces needed for Iraq and Afghanstan -- and, indeed, for most countries -- are those that can deal with not only threats eminating from within their borders, but also the threats that exist beyond these borders.

This is why, one might suggest, many/most nations have conventional and unconventional forces such as those existing in or those envisioned for Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 02/15/2014 - 1:50pm

In reply to by matkob

matkob---you bring up and interesting comment---we have in fact built in both Iraq and AFG national armies in our own image and taught them to fight in our image---and we wonder why the current Iraqi Army is incapable of dislodging ISIL from several cities. In Iraq over 350K plus security forces and in AFG well over 420K---with those numbers one would think the current Iraqi and AFG governments might feel a tad confident against any insurgency.

The Iraqi's feel that they need heavy arty, Hellfires, and Apache copters in order to defeat in an urban environment ISIL---all it takes is well trained basic light infantry willing to work building to building-with the emphasis on the word "willing" but "willing" troops means they identify with their flag (which is not the case in both countries)--but that is not what we built---as we ourselves cannot as well fight without arty, Apaches, and Predators carrying Hellfires.

Reports out of Iraq currently indicate the Iraqi Army is using heavy arty on Fallujah and are unwilling to move troops into the city---that is the problem. Has anyone in big Army even questioned why our training apparently is not working in Iraq?

We have forgotten how to train troops that can fight and fight in their "own way"-not though in our image. Somehow I remember we had troops who could do this during the Revolutionary War

I was taught as a former SF vet---in order to fight an insurgent one must fight and think exactly as they do only a step higher and all the time and this is the important piece in their own backyard.

But this is all tactical---without a thoroughly thought out strategy nothing will work---and most importantly an exit strategy.


Sat, 02/15/2014 - 11:47am

In reply to by Bill C.

That all looks good on paper. However, we tried strong central government in Afghanistan and it is not clearly working - for strong central government you need people who think like us. Afghans do not think like us. Instead of a strong central government we ended up with a week and corrupt central government which is disconnected from population. You can have a strong central government in Afghanistan but certainly it cannot be a democratic one (the last example was Taliban).

40 years is quite a long term and if there was not a change of regime in Afghanistan it would be longer (remember that the instability was caused by quasi pro-democratic reforms by Daoud Khan). Pakistan and India have strong governments too and situation between them you can call anything but stable. Thus there can be some correlation between strong central governments and stability but definitely not a causality.

Regarding Afghan military - we built force resembling US/western type military forces but the problem is that once coalition leaves, they are not going to be sustainable - right now they have problems. Moreover, to defeat insurgency you need more irregular forces and SOF or SOF-like forces - that is a historical experience. Trying to build conventional military to defeat insurgency is trying to put a square stick in a round hole - symmetric solution for asymmetric problem.

To defeat insurgents groups you do not need the people to be pro GIRoA - that is what we require. It is enough if they are anti-Taliban. An illiterate peasant from Kunar or Helmand just does not care about GIRoA but definitely you can use him to kick the insurgents from the country.

Bill C.

Wed, 02/12/2014 - 5:56pm

In reply to by matkob


The thinking, I believe, goes something like this:

a. Long-term stability (not short-term stability as per Afghanistan c. 1933-1973) requires that states and societies be transformed more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

b. Strong central governments (as with China and the former USSR recently) are more capable of achieving these necessary transformations than are decentralized governments; this, due to the latter containing numerous lower-level entities who have different, diverse and often conflicting interests, priorities, capabilities and/or problems.

c. Thus, the military, police and intelligence forces needed by these strong central governments -- to achieve these necessary transformations -- are those which can:

1. Stand against and defeat those individuals and groups -- coming from within their own nation -- who might oppose these necessary political, economic and social changes. Specifically to include those military, police and intelligence forces needed to overcome the forces of resistant/opposed lower-level governors, warlords, etc.

2. Stand against and defeat those individuals and groups -- coming from other nations -- who might oppose these necessary transformations. And

3. Stand against and defeat those other nations who might (a) oppose these such required transitions or (b) take advantage of this moment of weakness.

These three purposes, I suggest, (not whether these forces are "western-style") being the only criteria that should be used to determine what type and size military, police and intelligence forces are needed by these transitioning nations.


Wed, 02/12/2014 - 5:20am

In reply to by Bill C.

@Robert C. Jones
Fortunately, VSO was not meant to fix the aspects of the society broken top-down (I agree with the other part of the sentence).

@Bill C.
You are operating with a wrong premise (the same as has been the official policy):

"nations which lack strong and effective central governments, lack modern democratic governments and lack modern market economies; deficiencies which are seen to threaten not only the stability of these nations themselves but also the stability of the more developed and developing world".

You do not need a strong central government for a country to be stable - You need effective governance at every level - and that is a huge difference. Some countries' political systems are more decentralized, some are more centralized. Common westerner only understands top-down driven political system and "modern market economy" and automatically tries to impose that on other countries even if for their mentality such concepts are totally strange. You do not even need a democratic regime to have stability (Afghanistan was most prosperous during a rule of a king and with tribal system). This is one of the biggest mistakes which caused another chain of mistakes in Afghanistan.

If a country has a political system driven bottom-up it is a huge mistake to create a strong central government.

Another wrong premise is that VSO is an interim solution until we build a "western type" army and police in a country. VSO should have been a main effort since beginning (even if temporary) - why did we build such a strong conventional army in Afghanistan? They cannot provide security in a counter-insurgency environment because their primary role is to fight another conventional army. Moreover, we are living in an illusion that they are going to be as organized and effective as any other western army. You need to be the one in the village, not the one attacking the village (paraphrasing J.Boyd). That is where VSO comes to play. It is the primary instrument of countering the insurgents - as they are, by nature, decentralized and isolating them from a local populace. You cannot defeat those groups by striking them (unsuccessful practice according to FM 3-24). You only can do that from a position of strategic offensive, where you establish permanent presence in their own areas (again, with local irregular forces as a primary instrument).

And the last wrong premise is to compare a top-down process in Russia and China to Afghanistan.

Bill C.

Mon, 02/10/2014 - 6:56pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

An attempt:

From our current National Security Strategy:

"To advance our common security, we must address the underlying political and economic deficits that foster instability, enable radicalization and extremism, and ultimately undermine the ability of governments to manage threats within their borders and to be our partners in addressing common challenges."

What would appear to be being discussed here are nations which lack strong and effective central governments, lack modern democratic governments and lack modern market economies; deficiencies which are seen to threaten not only the stability of these nations themselves but also the stability of the more developed and developing world (operating, as the more developed and developing world significantly does, through the global economy).

Thus, if we wish to transform these deficient states and societies, such that they might (a) become less of a source of serious problems and, instead, (b) become more of a source of intelligent solutions -- then we believe that we must, first and foremost, deal with and overcome the political and economic deficits found within these countries.

Building Partner Capacity to be viewed from this perspective. It is focused on addressing the political and economic deficits found in certain other states and societies; this, so that these states and societies might come to better provide for their own safety and prosperity and also that of the more developed and developing world. This, we believe, requires a whole-of-government effort.

Our military's job, in this whole-of-government effort, is to train-up and equip the military, police and intelligence forces of these deficient countries; this, so that these indigenous forces might then be able to stand, primarily on their own, against those individuals and groups (those residing within their country and those coming from outside their country) who actively oppose the necessary political and economic changes noted above. The problem, however, is that this will take time.

In the meantime, an interim solution/method is needed. This is where Village Stability Operations comes into play.

Village stability operations are designed to allow that the local villagers themselves become organized, oriented and ordered in such a way as to -- at least in their own locales -- stand against those individuals and groups (those residing within their country and those coming from outside their country) who actively oppose the necessary political, economic and social changes addressed earlier. (The villagers themselves, however, not being told -- and not realizing -- that they are being employed for the ultimate purpose of ending and replacing their time-honored way of life and way of governance.)

Thus VSO to be seen as a way of "holding the line" until such time as adequate "host-nation" capacity can be built and deployed; capacity that can more effectively, more comprehensively and more routinely deal with those who would oppose and/or stand in the way of the significant and long-term state and societal changes that are presently being undertaken.

(As can be noted from my discussion here, I do not believe that we see VSO as a means of transforming outlying states and societies -- essentially along more modern western political, economic and social lines -- via a "bottom up" process. Rather VSO, in my view, is meant only to "hold the line." Why? Because we believe that such dramatic state and societal changes as are envisioned here are best achieved via a top-down process, as with, for example, China and Russia recently.)

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 02/10/2014 - 12:43pm

It is extremely illogical for anyone to assume that outsiders can fix from the bottom up aspects of a society that those same outsiders broke from the top down.

It is hubris to believe we can fix those other contributing factors that are purely Afghan of which we know very little, and understand even less.

If we had vital interests at stake, I guess one could rationalize attempting to facilitate a natural stability in the face of such challenge. But our stated interests for trying are on as shakey ground as are our concepts for reaching stability.

VSO is probably a good tactic, but it is a good tactic in search of an even mediocre strategy.

Linda makes many good points, but her arguments can be seen as an attempt to further drive a wedge between the different SOF tribes which often categorized as direct and indirect, and even more inaccurately as special warfare and surgical strike. We need all the capabilities we have developed over decades, and fine honed over the past decade. It certainly isn't an either or case. I think we need to maintain SOF in Afghanistan that are focused on direct action (whatever the target, not just terrorists). As for the VSO, there are mixed opinions on the program that have been debated elsewhere. What is generally agreed upon by those without preconceived bias regarding SOF is that at the tactical level those SOF elements are conducting the program with a high degree of excellence. At the strategic level, the efficacy of the program is still in question and will be until we can accurately assess the strategic impact a couple years from now (at least two years from now). Linda is well informed, so she probably is more up to date on the program than I am, but if we're downsizing the conventional forces, can we sustain the VSO program at the current level? Regarding other comments, right or wrong we pushed to empower the central government as our strategic goal, and if that remains our goal any efforts counter to that can be counterproductive. It is hard to have unified action if, and the if is assumed on my part, if we're pursuing two separate and non-complementary strategies. Linda also assumes, maybe correctly, we have to be out in the remote areas for Afghanistan security to be maintained, but I don't think a strong case was made on why we couldn't centralize our efforts more (both capacity building and maintaining a direct action capability).

With the exception of her comment we might as well go home if all we're going to keep is direct action forces, I don't disagree with her, I just think there is room for debate regarding her conclusions for Afghanistan.


Afghan system has always been built bottom-up. Bringing western type "democracy" driven top-down only messed up their system. The best thing is to leverage the original governance system what VSO successfully do. There is a difference between government and governance. We were focused too much on central government because that is what most westerners consider their comfort zone but is not necessarily the best for Afghanistan.

@Linda Robinson:
focusing on police first and foremost before insurgency degraded or devolved to criminal/terrorist groups is a mere suicide. Police and military force have very different skillsets which are not interchangeable. High scale insurgency requires generally military led forces (with police in support). Only after insurgency is weakened to some point, you can swap roles. IMO this is one of the biggest mistakes in Afghanistan campaign. We started policing too early. When I am talking about military, I mean predominantly SOF units as force multipliers.

The reason for not starting VSO early was not Taliban intimidation but reluctance to do it from coalition side. Logically, villagers themselves are not going to raise that kind of program until you have a SOF force to organize it. The problem was that some military decision makers were panicking only hearing something like "militia" word back then. The idea had been there. I personally was discussing this type of force with my colleagues. Many old school US SF guys were thinking the same. At that time there were some isolated attempts only.


Fri, 02/07/2014 - 7:56am

An issue he does not seem to address Is the domestic political conflict between local and central governments.
I was an advisor at the MoI in 2009-2010, and Atmar was adamantly against this program (I forget which version it was then, maybe P3) because it would not be under the control of Kabul. Whether that constituted a bug or a feature I am not sure. I am sure, however, that to turn it into a self sustaining program would have required GIROA support, if only financially. So while it might be a great concept from a US perspective, absent central government buy-in, you could wind up exacerbating the problem.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 02/07/2014 - 2:31am

An interesting article--I remember when Grant first voiced the idea of VSO in AFG here in SWJ ----the beating he took from various commenters was at times bad ---mildly putting it.

David is correct SF has never left it's roots----the root's just got lost in all the CT activities that SF had to develop in order to survive during the draw down years when big Army was in fact wanting to totally eliminate SF after VN.

SF has since it's inception always had this ability and used this ability from the late 50s up through and after VN especially in Europe until roughly 1980.

In fact some of the arguments voiced when Grant released his article on VSO kind of reminded me of the same arguments used by big Army in the 70s against SF.

With all the let's learn from COIN articles recently released---I would like to see a thorough analysis of just why big Army did in fact want to eliminate SF in 1972 even though the long years of successes flew in the face of that effort.

There are more success stories that SF in VN had especially in gaining hard intel for the war effort that never gets talked about---by 1971 all the SF special named teams in VN were delivering over 80% of actionable hard intel although with high loses---something that has not be replicated since then.

When currently big Army talks about wanting to "share" FID with SF am betting they do not want to "share" the human costs which say in VN ran over 60% wounded, missing, or killed.

It is always interesting to check the MIA numbers in VN that are still not cleared up---they were SF.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 02/06/2014 - 11:34pm

Two points. First what Linda is describing is the traditional SOF activity of Special Warfare. This is not new. The younger elements of SOF are returning to their roots (though it has not been as bad as Linda makes it out over the last decade as many teams and SOF members have carried the Special Warfare torch despite what the press and pundits write about.

Second, I have to dispel this statement about 1st Special Forces Group:

"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."

1st Special Forces Group, while maintaining operational focus on the Philippines and all of Asia has rotated all its CONUS battalions and and CONUS and OCONUS companies from the group to both Iraq and Afghanistan for multiple rotations dating back to 2004. Linda perpetuates the myth of 1st SFG as the "home alone group" (coined during the 1st Gulf War) and the facts just do not support that nickname.