Small Wars Journal

The Only Game in Town: Assessing the Effectiveness of Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police

Tue, 03/27/2012 - 5:39am

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Abstract: This paper seeks to analyze and assess, to the extent possible, the efficacy of the Village Stability Operations (VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) missions currently being carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) in Afghanistan.  By examining security indicators for provinces where VSO/ALP operations are being conducted, scholarly research and assessments, and Congressional records, this paper finds that VSO/ALP is having a positive impact on security and governance at the local level in Afghanistan.  In addition, this paper addresses areas of concern regarding VSO/ALP and makes some recommendations for improving the size and scope of these initiatives.


The death of Osama bin Laden last May gave much-needed ammunition to those beating the ‘drum of withdrawal’ of American forces in Afghanistan.  For some, this may be a legitimate and feasible course of action.  After all, the war in Afghanistan has long been deemed a “hopeless failure” that has been hampered by Afghan government corruption and a resilient insurgency.  However, one need look no further than the cases of Vietnam, Somalia, and the abandonment of Afghanistan in the early-1990s to realize that a premature departure from Afghanistan leaves it susceptible to becoming a failed state, a scenario that no one in Washington or the American military is willing to accept, and for good reason.  In the past two years, increasing emphasis has been placed on the development of security and governance at the local level.  Historically, the common denominator for success in these two areas is the tribe, due to the Afghan populace being generally wary of national government.  Spearheading the effort of empowering Afghans at the village and district level  are United States Special Operations Forces (USSOF) that have been tasked with conducting Village Stability Operations (VSO), a bottom-up approach that emphasizes the development of security and governance at the local level.  The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, a complementary initiative within VSO, aims to provide lasting security through the establishment of a temporary defense force that is selected and approved by local jirgas.

This paper seeks to examine the effectiveness of VSO and the ALP as the cornerstone of American counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan.  The first section of this paper will offer a brief overview of the two programs and their antecedents, if applicable.  The second section will analyze security indicators for areas in which VSO and ALP are known to exist, news articles and scholarly research, and Congressional testimony in order to determine if these programs are positively affecting stability.  The third section will evaluate areas of concern within the VSO and ALP programs. The fourth section will offer some recommendations for improving the effectiveness and reach of VSO. 


The Village Stability Operations (VSO) program, initiated in the fall of 2009, is a bottom-up, counterinsurgency approach that is currently being spearheaded by US Special Operations Forces (USSOF) who serve as trainers, mentors, enablers, and liaisons in an attempt to stabilize local villages and connect them to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).  Rather than attempting to protect the local population, coalition forces are now enabling the population to protect itself, which is the unofficial goal of the entire Afghan campaign.  The special operations forces (SOF) are supplemented with civil affairs (CA) and military information support operations (MISO) personnel that provide development and information operations (IO) support, respectively.  The overarching goal of VSO, to connect local villages to district and provincial government, arose as a result of the disconnect between the rural local populace and GIRoA.  This disconnect was keeping the local populace on the fence between GIRoA and the Taliban, whereas the fluidity of the Taliban in rural areas enabled them to control the local populace through fear and intimidation.  The size and scope of GIRoA and coalition forces have led to the neglect of the Afghan countryside, which is home to more than 75 percent of the population.

The principles of VSO follow the standard counterinsurgency blueprint: shape/clear, hold, build, and transition.  The shaping phase is intelligence-driven and consists of human terrain mapping, gaining an understanding of local considerations (tribal dynamics, identifying power brokers, etc.), engaging local elders, and conducting kinetic operations to clear the area of insurgent presence and influence.  The holding phase consists of the SOF team being invited into the village and the setup of a Village Stability Platform (VSP) from which they will conduct VSO.  This phase also involves the establishment of an Afghan Local Police (ALP) force and continued population security operations.  The build phase begins when development and governance initiatives are fully operational.  It is during this phase that the relationship between the village and the formal Afghan government will fully be put to the test.  Finally, the transition phase takes place when SOF are confident in the stability of the VSP (i.e. the local ALP force is able to provide adequate security).  As of October 2011, USSOF are engaged in VSO in 103 locations across Afghanistan.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program is a localized security force designed to provide protection at the village level.  All ALP units are part of VSPs, but not all VSPs have an accompanying ALP force.  Each ALP unit, or tashkil, consists of approximately 30 members, age 18-45, who are nominated by the local jirga or shura.  After being nominated, the applicants are vetted by the Afghan Ministry of Interior and biometrically enrolled in the ALP program.  Members must have their own weapons, and these weapons must be registered with the government.  Each ALP member signs a one-year contract for part-time service in and around his village, for which he will be paid 60% of the salary of a standard Afghan National Police (ANP) officer.  After their contract ends, or when the ALP unit is disbanded, ALP members will then have the option of joining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).  Brigadier General Scott Miller, Commander of Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) cited the lower salary as an incentive for ALP members to join the ranks of the ANSF, saying “The idea being that, if they wanted to better themselves economically, then they can join ANSF.”  As of October 2011, there are currently 8,100 ALP members across Afghanistan, and this number is expected to rise, for President Karzai has approved for the training and recruitment of 30,000 ALP members nationwide.

The ALP program is not the coalition’s first attempt at establishing village-level security forces in Afghanistan.  The Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP), initiated in 2006, was intended to be a stopgap measure meant to address delays in building ANSF numbers.  However, the ANAP program suffered from irredeemable flaws.  First, ANAP was a nationwide program whereby ANAP members could be transferred outside of their village, district, or province to serve in other regions of the country; which ignores the importance of familial and tribal loyalty, and the cultural and linguistic diversity that is prevalent in Afghanistan.  Second, there was little to no vetting done by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) because MoI personnel refused to travel to local villages to conduct interviews due to the poor security situation, leading to infiltration by insurgents.  In addition, ANAP officers received only 10 days of training and were given ANP-style uniforms (though they did have a patch distinguishing them from actual ANP), an AK-47, and the same $70 monthly salary as ANP officers.  These similarities led many ANP officers to believe that ANAP actually undermined ANP recruitment and their efforts at legitimizing ANP as a respectable government organization, which led to infighting between ANP and ANAP.

The most recent antecedent to ALP was the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3), initiated in Wardak province in 2009, was implemented to function as a community development program that promoted local governance and security in order to extend the influence of GIRoA to the district level.  However, the appointment of Ghulam Muhammad Hotak (GMH), a former Taliban commander, disregarded the importance of jirga approval for recruits.  GMH recruited his own followers without consulting the local jirga, which led to distrust among the residents of Wardak. 

When establishing the ALP program, the US and GIRoA likely considered the effectiveness of previous iterations of local security efforts and made improvements.  On top of the changes mentioned above, the distribution of pay is also handled at the VSP, which allows the local jirga and coalition forces to monitor and police inappropriate behavior and misconduct by holding pay.  Finally, before ALP members receive their pay, they must have their weapons inspected by personnel at the VSP to ensure that the ALP member is still in possession of his weapon. 

Effectiveness of VSO/ALP

That VSO/ALP could be effective should come as no surprise to American political and military leadership.  Historically, decentralized government and localized security has been the cornerstone of stability in Afghanistan.  During the Musahiban dynasty of 1929-1978, the most recent period of sustained peace in Afghanistan, rulers Nadir Shah, Zahir Shah, and Daoud Khan used a combination of centralized and decentralized strategies consisting of national forces that provided security in the urban areas and along key routes, while local communities established security in rural areas with the approval and assistance of Kabul.  This combination of centralized and decentralized security empowered local Afghans and allowed for a greater dispersal of responsibility among the national and local governments.  This strategy also evidenced the importance of Pashtunwali, the ancient ethical code of the Pashtuns, the predominant ethnic group of Afghanistan, one principle of which is loyalty to one’s family, friends, and tribes. 

Security Indicators

Given that the VSO and ALP programs are both run by USSOF, detailed reporting on their effectiveness is sparse, and understandably so.  However, a close look at security indicators for areas in which VSO and ALP are known to exist, coupled with open-source reporting and testimony from top military leadership, combine to offer a snapshot of the new bottom-up approach to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  While the importance of the “Afghan surge” of 2009 cannot be discounted in stifling the strength of the insurgency, the dramatic and comprehensive shift to VSO that emphasizes the development of security and governance while also eliminating insurgent safe havens is a more likely causal factor.  In addition, it was widely believed that the Afghan surge would lead to increased troop casualties due to the increased number of targets for insurgents, which was exactly what happened.

Coalition Casualties

Of the six most volatile provinces in Afghanistan, five provinces experienced decreases in coalition fatalities for 2011.  Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul provinces experienced dramatic decreases in troop casualties (Helmand: 290 in 2010 to 141 in 2011; Kandahar: 105 in 2010 to 91 in 2011; and Zabul: 37 in 2010 to 7 in 2011).  These three provinces also happen to have the some of the largest concentrations of VSO sites per province as of September 2011, according to the 2011 Department of Defense report.  In fact, a May 2011 article in The New York Times pointed out that the coalition presence in Zabul province is predominantly SOF.   This is in contrast to 2010, when troop fatalities spiked in these three provinces (Helmand: 172 in 2009 to 290 in 2010; Kandahar: 76 in 2009 to 105 in 2010; and Zabul: 22 in 2009 to 37 in 2010).  Paktika and Farah provinces, which have five and six ALP sites, respectively, also experienced a modest decrease in coalition fatalities from 2010 to 2011. 

The anomaly in the data is Wardak province, which experienced a sharp increase in fatalities despite a comparable number (7) of ALP sites.  However, the spike in coalition fatalities in Wardak can be attributed to a number of factors, according to a Long War Journal article by Bill Roggio, including the withdrawal of US forces from the Tangi Valley in the spring of 2011 which likely led to an increased Taliban and Haqqani footprint, the subsequent return of coalition forces that began conducting clearance operations to reverse enemy gains, and the August 6th attack on a Chinook helicopter that killed 31 USSOF personnel.

Civilian Casualties, Security Incidents, and Enemy-Initiated Attacks

According to the October 2011 DoD Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan (pp.73-75), total civilian casualties during the 2011 fighting season (May-September) were slightly lower, though civilian casualties for the months of May and July of 2011 were higher than in May and July of 2010.  In addition, the total number of monthly security incidents in the 2011 fighting season appears to be significantly lower than that of the 2010 fighting season, from over 20,000 in 2010 to just over 18,000 in 2011.

The total number of enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) for the 2011 fighting season also decreased significantly relative to the 2010 fighting season, from over 17,500 EIA taking place in the 2010 fighting season versus just over 14,400 taking place in the same time period in 2011.  Decreases in EIA were most significant in Regional Commands West (-24%), North (-28%), and Southwest (-28%).  The 28% decrease for RC-Southwest is particularly encouraging because RC-SW includes Helmand province, which has historically been considered a Taliban stronghold and the heartland of Afghan opium.  However, EIA in Regional Commands East (RC-E), consisting of 14 provinces on the eastern border and extending into the country’s interior, and Capital (RC-C), consisting solely of Kabul province, increased by 17% and 22% respectively; though RC-C accounts for less than 1% of total EIA across Afghanistan, therefore this increase could be considered negligible.  EIA in Regional Command South (RC-S), which includes Zabul, Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Daykundi provinces, remained stable with a 0% increase.  This is significant for a number of reasons.  First, RC-S accounts for over 20% of total EIA.  Second, RC-S includes Kandahar province, a known hotbed for Taliban activity.  Third, and finally, it has already been established that VSO is heavily concentrated in the provinces of RC-S, namely Zabul and Kandahar.

News Articles and Scholarly Research

While there is a relative lack of detailed reporting on the efficacy of VSO/ALP, the reporting that can be found on the internet and in print certainly adds to the credibility of the VSO/ALP mission.  In addition, VSO/ALP has been a prominent topic in the Congressional testimony of top military leadership, particularly high-ranking officers that are associated with USSOF.  Finally, VSO/ALP has been analyzed, by USSOF who have executed the VSO/ALP mission, on community blogs such as Small Wars Journal and Long War Journal.

VSO/ALP in the News

Peter Bergen, an acclaimed journalist and author most often associated with his books The Osama bin Laden I Know and The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda, reported that during a recent trip to Kabul in December 2010, he spoke to Major Jim Gant about the effectiveness of VSO/ALP.  Major Gant told Bergen "The Taliban are very threatened by this”….."It's taking their safe haven away."  Bergen also spoke to other security experts who noted that ALP forces were creating “security bubbles” that didn’t exist before.  It is important to note the significance of Major Jim Gant.  Gant is an Army Special Forces officer who, as a Captain in 2009, authored a paper entitled “One Tribe at a Time,” which was based on his success as an ODA team leader in Konar Province, argued for a VSO-style approach to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  The paper was circulated through military and civilian leadership and eventually landed in the inboxes of top military brass.  General David Petraeus said “Maj. Jim Gant's paper is very impressive -- so impressive, in fact, that I shared it widely," while General Stanley McChrystal distributed the paper to all military commanders in Afghanistan.

A July 2010 Army Times article, written by Sean Naylor, author of Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, pointed to the Zerkho Valley in Herat province as an example of the effectiveness of VSO/ALP.  The Zerkho Valley had long been an insurgent safe haven and transit point.  In fact, the attacks on a SOF firebase in the area were so intense it forced their withdrawal from the base.  However, after establishing a VSP between two local tribes, insurgent activity was reduced dramatically.  Incidents of improvised explosive devices (IED) became non-existent, local villagers began reporting the locations of weapons caches, and the local ALP force was credited with warning SOF of approaching insurgents.  In addition, the Zerkho Valley VSP brought local tribes together to solve problems, tribes that otherwise hadn’t talked to each other before; and led to five to ten other villages in the area requesting SOF to establish VSPs in their villages.  Another article written by Naylor in the October 2011 Army Times cites the testimony of Admiral William McRaven, Commander, United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), in front of the House Armed Services Committee.  McRaven told Congressional leaders that “The village stability operations, developing the Afghan Local Police, this is the most promising effort we have in Afghanistan right now.” 

VSO/ALP in Practice

Andrew Feitt, an Army military intelligence officer who deployed to Afghanistan twice between 2009 and 2011 with 3rd Special Forces Group, noted that in November 2011, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) suggested that “VSO and the associated development of Afghan Local Police (ALP) are proving more effective than many other concurrent Coalition military efforts.”

Lieutenant Colonel Basil Catanzaro, a civil affairs officer who served with Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A), and Major Kirk Windmueller, a Special Forces officer who also served with CFSOCC-A, co-authored an article in the July-September 2011 edition of Special Warfare magazine that pointed to the success of VSO in Khakrez District, Kandahar Province, in 2009.  Once a booming economic hub, Khakrez fell victim to an increasing Taliban insurgency that used the district as a safe haven for staging attacks on Kandahar City.  After the establishment of VSO, however, local villages have been empowered to protect themselves.  Taliban control of the district has been reversed through local defense, development projects, and strengthened ties to local, provincial, and national government.  In addition, local shuras have become important in settling disputes, which has helped counter local Taliban shadow courts.

Seth Jones, a political scientist at RAND Corporation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, is a world-renowned expert on Afghanistan and American foreign policy.  He is also the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, and countless other articles and publications that discuss Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and al-Qa’ida, among other topics.  In 2010, Jones co-authored a paper with Arturo Muñoz, a retired CIA officer and political scientist at RAND, entitled Afghanistan’s Local War: Building Local Defense Forces, which offered a comprehensive look at localized security in Afghanistan.  In the paper, Jones and Muñoz discuss the success of localized security forces in several different areas of Afghanistan.  What is of particular importance here is the fact that each of the districts noted represents a different tribe (found in parentheses), for it evidences the applicability of VSO as a malleable framework that can be adapted and effective despite differences in tribal affiliation.  These areas included Arghandab District, Kandahar Province (Alikozais); Shindad District, Herat Province (Noorzais); Gizab District, Day Kundi Province (Hazara and Pashtun); Khakrez District, Kandahar Province; and Chamkani and Jani Kheyl Districts, Paktia Province (Jaji, Chamkani, Moqbil, and Mangal).

Finally, a report released by the Department of Defense indicates that VSO and ALP have thus far been instrumental in protecting rural and remote populations.  The October 2011 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan (p. 67) credits VSO/ALP with “preventing the exploitation of rural and remote populations by the insurgency and expanding the influence of the Afghan government,” by integrating bottom-up village and district defense that complements the top-down approach to national government and ANSF.  The report also states that VSO/ALP operations have “resulted in such noticeable improvements in security, governance, and development that Taliban Senior Leadership (TBSL) has identified the VSO initiative as a significant threat to their objectives.”  

Congressional Testimony

The efficacy of VSO/ALP has also been the subject of hearings and reports in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.  In May 2011, the House Armed Services Committee published the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 Report.  This report stated that the VSO and ALP activities have “grown in scope and scale, and are effectively empowering Afghans to stand up for themselves with close support from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and coalition forces.”  In July 2011, General (Ret.) John Keane, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee regarding an assessment he completed at the request of General David Petraeus, said that ALP is “a potential game changer and one of the most successful programs we have enacted.”  In November 2011, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from Michael A. Sheehan, the nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.  In his responses to advance questions, Mr. Sheehan noted that VSO are a “critical component of the COIN/CT balance in the ISAF campaign plan.”  In addition, Mr. Sheehan stated that “since its inception, VSO has expanded Afghan government influence in key rural areas from 1,000 square kilometers to 23,500 square kilometers today,” and “has enabled a massive expansion in small-scale infrastructure development in these key rural areas.”  Mr. Sheehan went on to state that VSO and ALP has proven to be a significant threat to the Taliban, which has led them to initiate a campaign of intimidation, assassination, and disruption against ALP members and government officials.  However, Mr. Sheehan points out that for the most part, Taliban efforts have achieved little success. 

Areas of Concern

Thus far, VSO and ALP have achieved markedly higher levels of success than previous counterinsurgency initiatives.  However, these programs are not immune to criticism and there are valid areas of concern regarding each of them.  As discussed earlier in this paper, previous iterations of local defense initiatives allowed for military and civilian leadership to recognize some of the problem areas for the ALP program, such as “cronyism” and the possibility of enabling the rise of local militias.  This is not to say that VSO/ALP is a perfect program, quite the contrary, as there are still some major obstacles being faced by American leaders, both military and civilian.

One of the major obstacles for VSO/ALP is that many think the programs are unsustainable.  That is, they require an extraordinary amount of resources, not only to establish, but also to maintain.  Once the VSP is established and VSO begin, USSOF must dedicate virtually all of their time and resources to developing the area.  This includes local infrastructure, village development projects, improving education services, and most importantly, training the ALP.  However, some fear that VSO and ALP pose the same problems as the rest of the Afghan government and military: once coalition forces leave, all progress made will have been in vain.  Anthony Cordesman, the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had the following to say about VSO/ALP:   

The problem with these efforts is that they cannot be set up without a major presence from high skilled SOF, military, and aid workers in the field. Their history is also one of relatively rapid collapse when that presence (and money) leaves and all of the problems in governance, local corruption, and local custom return. They also have already led to extensive unofficial “copycat” units that are abusive, corrupt, and tied to local powerbrokers.

The problem with Mr. Cordesman’s analysis is two-fold.  First, VSO and ALP were never intended to be permanent structures or institutions.  Rather, VSO/ALP is meant to empower the populace by providing temporary development assistance and training, strengthening the ties between the rural populations and their district and provincial governments, and providing temporary security while local security forces can be equipped and trained.  The ALP program itself, from the beginning, had a prescribed shelf-life of 2-5 years.  Second, while Mr. Cordesman cites a DoD report to support his concern regarding corruption and “copycat” units, he offers no evidence to support his assertion that “their history is also one of relatively rapid collapse.”  This assertion could very well be applied to other coalition programs or initiatives, ones that weren’t near as refined, but one must assess VSO/ALP on its own merits and not assume that it is doomed to the same fate as previous efforts. 

Another common criticism of the ALP program is that ALP members frequently commit human rights violations. In September 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report that described numerous allegations of human rights abuses by various armed groups in Afghanistan, most notably ALP.  The report included a history of ALP, AP3, ANAP, along with VSO and its predecessors.  It also included a scathing critique of ALP and pointed to several allegations of human rights abuses by ALP members, such as rape, illegal taxation, kidnapping, etc.  In response to the Human Rights Watch report, General John Allen, Commander, US Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) appointed Air Force Brigadier General James Marrs to conduct an investigation, the results of which were published in an ISAF report, into the allegations levied in the report.  BG Marrs and his team of 21 personnel spent 37 days investigating the allegations, traveling to 45 locations and interviewed 219 witnesses.  These witnesses included Afghan civilians, local elders, local government officials, district and provincial leadership, as well as staff and leadership within the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI), CFSOCC-A and NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A).  After concluding their investigation, BG Marrs’ report states that of the 46 allegations and assertions they investigated, only seven were found to be credible.  Ten allegations or assertions were found to be not credible; that is, “the preponderance of evidence supported a conclusion that the events did not occur as described in the report.”  The credibility of 14 more allegations or assertions was unable to be determined; and the remaining 15 allegations or assertions were deemed “credible in part.”  The summary of BG Marrs’ findings and recommendations emphasize that while there are indeed issues within ALP, the problems are not inherent with the program, but rather in the availability of resources for vetting, training, and monitoring of ALP forces.


While there are indeed obstacles to the continuing VSO/ALP mission, these obstacles are not insurmountable. Currently, the biggest challenge being faced by military and civilian leadership is the shortage of personnel required to expand the VSO/ALP mission, according to testimony by Michael Sheehan in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee in November 2011. After all, USSOF were never intended to carry out a mission of this size and scope.  Establishing VSPs, and ALP units for that matter, in any given area requires a massive amount of resources, including highly-trained SOF operators and associated military and civilian support personnel.  This concern has been conveyed in Congressional hearings and the 2011 Department of Defense report

One fairly simplistic, though not simple, solution to the issue of manning is to further supplement USSOF with conventional forces.  The October 2011 DoD report (p. 67) indicates that two conventional infantry units, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment and 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, have already begun augmenting VSO in order to allow for an expansion of VSO sites across the country.  There is likely hesitancy in the upper echelons of the USSOF command structure regarding the utilization of conventional forces to supplement the VSO/ALP mission, and their hesitation is certainly justified.  Most conventional troops are ill-trained to handle the mission set that is VSO.  They may fail to understand that VSO are extremely fluid, with little or no “clear-cut” template for guaranteed success.  Conventional troops could also suffer from adjustment problems including, but not limited to: not understanding the VSO mission or counterinsurgency in general, lacking the discipline to work with Afghans in a culturally and linguistically challenging setting, and realizing that success in VSO requires more restraint, and therefore, more risk.  However, the ranks of the US Army are flush with highly-trained, highly-intelligent, and highly-capable Soldiers that would serve as ideal supplements to the VSO mission. 

The major light infantry divisions (82nd Airborne, 10th Mountain, and 101st Airborne) of the 18th Airborne Corps are perfect examples of units that are well-suited for supplementing USSOF.  In addition to having the highest operational tempo (OPTEMPO) of any comparable-size unit in the US Army, the 18th Airborne Corps’ mission is also reflected in its access to training.  For example, Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) has its own organic Air Assault, pre-Ranger, and Pathfinder schools.  Similarly, the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Fort Drum has their own “Light Fighters School,” which includes Air Assault School, Pre-Ranger, and the Mountain Leader Advanced Rifle Marksmanship (MLARM) course.  Finally, the 82nd Airborne Division, the nation’s premier airborne infantry unit, is located on Fort Bragg, which is also home to the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), 3rd Special Forces Group, 7th Special Forces Group, and a host of other special mission units.

In addition, USSOCOM is facing an uphill battle regarding the funding required for the execution of VSO/ALP, though specific funding figures are hard to pinpoint.  However, this much is certain: in addition to the shortage of SOF operators and supporting military and civilian personnel, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 Report indicates that the Commander of USSOCOM had identified a total of $50 million in “emergent unfunded requirements for force protection and ground mobility capabilities” to support the VSO and ALP programs.  Given the success of the VSO/ALP initiatives, and the dire need for programs that accomplish the goal of transferring responsibility to the Afghan people, it only seems logical to ensure that USSOF receive adequate levels of funding in the months and years to come.


The VSO/ALP mission in Afghanistan, while not without flaws, is helping turn the tide in the decade-long war.  It accomplishes several goals necessary for the eventual withdrawal of coalition forces: it develops security and governance from the ground up, while also building connections between rural villages and districts and upper echelons of government; gives Afghans an increasing responsibility for their own well-being, therefore reducing reliance on coalition forces; and allows for the elimination of insurgent safe havens in the rural areas.  A combination of top-down policies originating from the central government and bottom-up efforts by local communities is the only approach that has a track record of success in Afghanistan, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2010-2011 Annual Report (pp. 55-56).  VSO/ALP has proven to be more effective, more applicable, and more consistent with Afghan culture and history, than any previous or concurrent counterinsurgency policies.  An expansion of the VSO/ALP effort, particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border provinces, would enhance security by continuing to eliminate safe havens and allowing for the diffusion of local development and security.  But this expansion will require an increased commitment of personnel and funding, which some might argue is an acceptable price for an Afghanistan that is not only stabile enough, but also capable enough, to leave in the hands of the Afghan people in 2014.  Because let’s face it, we are running out of time in Afghanistan, and at this point VSO/ALP appears to be the only game in town.      


Categories: VSO - COIN - ALP - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Seth Shreckengast is a senior at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park campus.  He is an international politics major and an associate editor of the Penn State University Journal of International Affairs.  Mr. Shreckengast is an Army veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat engineer squad leader performing route clearance operations.  In the summer and winter of 2011, Mr. Shreckengast interned at the Office of Naval Intelligence, where he served as an intelligence analyst providing support to Naval Special Warfare (NSW) and Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) forces forward-deployed to Afghanistan. 



Tue, 04/03/2012 - 5:29pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

RCJ wrote;
VSO is a good employment of Special Forces.

VSO produces good tactical effects at the village level.

RCJ then went on to dump on these good deeds by writing;

VSO, like every other tactical and operational program in Afghanistan is doomed by the Strategic Approach and the Operational Design of NATO's approach to Afghanistan.

Obviously it is not SOF’s job to shape the strategy for the US effort in Af/Pak but are there strategic reasons for supporting them? In other words is the absence of a sound strategy the result of the lack of strategic reasons or the lack of an influential strategist to formulate a legitimate strategic case.

The enemy (remember them?) have a vote so perhaps an examination of their strategy may suggest the SOF efforts may be worthy of an effective US response.

Does anyone believe the Muslim Brotherhood moved into AF/Pak to help the US fight the Soviets and the Northern Alliance? I would suggest there are very few. So why did they and why still there?

After the Soviets left why did the MB/ALQ remain? Does anyone believe MB/ALQ remained in Af/Pak because that is the best place from which to coordinate pilot training in Florida & California?

After 9/11 when it was established all the hijackers were from the Gulf why is it every jihadist Gulf Arab declared his home address in Kabul and Peshawar and waved it like a red flag at the US military? To this day they are still waving flags from the rooftops in Peshawar. Why is that?

From the very beginning in the early 1980s the MB/ALQ came to the region to punish the US for its support of Israel with a nuclear strike on the US mainland. Not for any present or future support but for the past. In other words if the State of Israel was transferred to Florida in 1982 or tomorrow it would not alter their strategic objective - it is set in stone.

9/11 was designed to break up Pakistan – Afghanistan was already broken and the overspill from any 9/11 fallout was/is meant to devour Pakistan’s internal security and thus facilitate the seizure of a nuclear weapon by MB/ALQ.

The Mumbai attacks were meant to accelerate the acquisition by provoking military action from the east by India but in a singularly strategic master-stroke the Indians did absolutely nothing. Obviously any attack from the west on Pakistan will equally play into the hands of MB/ALQ.

SOF is doing its utmost to develop a winning tactical and operational environment from which an effective strategist can draw upon to give Pakistan two stable and peaceful neighbours.

RCJ wrote;
It is all cost benefit; and many factors shape one’s perspectives on that equation

1800 US personnel have been killed in Afghanistan in ten years – 2400 were killed at Pearl Harbour on a single day. A nuclear strike on the US would kill 200,000 in the initial blast and same again through radiation effects - about the same amount as all US deaths in WW2. Any evidence from where the shipping container actually came from will have been vaporized in an instant.

The SOF are doing their best to ensure this doesn’t happen isn’t it about time the dysfunctional US military leadership did their’s?

Bill C.

Thu, 03/29/2012 - 3:04pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

(I have modified the first paragraph of this comment to suggest that VSO does not stand alone and, that, accordingly, it does not have a purpose different from our other efforts directed at state and societial transformation.)

The partners that we seek today -- be these governments and/or population groups -- are those that wish to modernize their and/or other states and societies along western lines. The VSO effort, much like the BPC and R2P initiatives; these are all designed to achieve this ultimate end (to wit: the modernization of the subject state and society along western lines).

Herein, we believe that the primary problem today is not, per se, governments being out of synch with their populations.

Rather, the principal problem in the world today, we believe, is certain states and societies being out of step with the rest of the more-modern and modernizing world.

Self-determination, accordingly, to be properly considered as a positive and helpful requirement, or as a negative and harmful concept, only within this latter context.

(In this regard ask: Does self-determination provide that these states and societies might become more-open, more-accessable, more useable, etc., or does self-determination bode more in the opposite direction; this, to the further detriment/danger of all concerned?)

Thus, to assess the effectiveness of the VSO program or, for that matter, the BCP and/or R2P initiatives, one must do this with a view toward the ultimate goal noted in the first paragraph (not in parenthesis) above.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 03/28/2012 - 6:21am

In reply to by Bill C.

People always have choices, and the powerful will always work their will over the weaker.

It often comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. If external powers perceive the benefits to be very high, they will expend great cost; once they perceive the costs to exceed the benefits (normally a function of the rising cost when dealing with a resistance, coupled with a realization that their original reasons for intervening were misinformed or exaggerated) they leave.

Same is true for the party intervened upon. Those who perceive they benefit more than they give up (The Northern Alliance in the case of modern Afghanistan) will welcome the intervention until such point as that perception changes. Those who perceive the cost to exceed the benefit (those affiliated with the former Taliban government initially, but a growing segment of the Afghan populaces daily) will press for the intervention to end.

It is all cost benefit; and many factors shape one's perspectives on that equation.

As to the "demise" of self-determination, I will just say that it has never been a wide spread or easy situation. That is why it was so powerful when the US stood for it. It meant that SD was no longer just a luxury of the very strong, but actually a concept that even the weak could pursue under the umbrella of US protection. The problem is that the US subjugated our stated principles in the pursuit of our perceived interests. We did this in Vietnam, and we do it in Afghanistan. In both cases history will likely show we over-reacted and mis-understood the nature of the threat.

President Obama has stated that he "refuses the false division between our values and our security." I agree. But I would change that from "values" to "principles." US values are largely irrelevant to the majority of the world, but many look to the much more universal principles our nation was founded upon quite favorably.

We convinced ourselves that friendly despots were the best tool for advancing our security interests. We convinced ourselves that others with shared values and form of governance make the best partners. Better we simply look for others with shared interests on an issue by issue basis and not worry about who is in charge, what holy book they read. If those governments are out of step with their own populaces, the people will take care of the problem. It is their business, not ours.

So, does VSO empower the people of Afghanistan to achieve self-determination, or does it merely seek to get the populace to submit to the governance we have selected for them?? I argue it is in reality much more the latter than the former. As such, it is unsustainable.

Bill C.

Tue, 03/27/2012 - 6:14pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Given that numerous outside players other than the United States and its allies have and will continue to interfere and intervene in this and other locales -- this, so as to shape the local, regional and/or international environment to their advantage -- then should we consider that, based on this understanding, the concept of "self-determination" is, in this context, an impossibility and the term "self-determination" an oxymoron?

This fact of other outside interference suggesting that ONLY via the interference/intervention of the United States and its allies are these people and governments given any chance of finding something that might resemble a "natural equillibrium of governance?

(Goes to the question of intervention in Vietnam also.)

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 03/27/2012 - 7:28am

VSO is a good employment of Speical Forces.

VSO produces good tactical effects at the village level.

VSO even manages to drag District level officials out of the security of their compounds and introduce them to the populaces they are supposed to serve, but most have never met, having been appointed by their patrons up in Kabul.

VSO, like every other tactical and operational program in Afghanistan is doomed by the Strategic Approach and the Operational Design of NATO's approach to Afghanistan.

There is a virtual barrier to the good effects of VSO at the District level; and the problem with that is that the causal essence of the insurgency is within the Centralized Karzai government that dominates National, Provincial and District politics and patronage.

So long as we remain dedicated to the preservation of this system of governance there will be revolutionary insurgency in Afghanistan. So long as we are physically present to preserve this system of governance there will be reistance insurgency in Afghanistan.

People and governments must find a natural equillibrium of governance, and while that may be long, hard and bloody to do on their own, at least on their own they have a chance of getting there some day. Supported by others only makes it longer and harder, perhaps at times a bit less bloody, but with no real hope of getting to a natural equillibrium and the true legitimacy that comes from that.

We delude ourselves when we focus on the efficiency of our night raids, or the effectiveness of our Clear-Hold-Build or VSO opertations. Temporary, unsustainable, unnatural measures of effectiveness that by and large serve to make the insurgency stronger. It may disappear from view, but only so that the roots can deepen and spread into the soil of the populace, only to burst back to life stronger than ever.

When that happens, the villagers who placed their trust in NATO and joined the VSO program will be in a very rough spot. I think our intentions are pure, but I fear the results will be harsh all the same.

Senior Leaders repeatedly proclaim the operational design is sound. Certainly that is the clear message coming out of CENTCOM. I don't buy it for a second. The NATO approach to assistance and the Afghan approach to governance are broken at the top, and no amount of hard work at the bottom can overcome that.