Small Wars Journal

Withdraw and Win: “Go” for Victory in Afghanistan

Mon, 02/25/2013 - 3:30am

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the US Army, US Navy, DOD, or Government of the United States.  This article was submitted for internal review in October 2012. It has been approved for release by USASOC, USASFC, 1st SFG(A), SOJTF-A, and CJSOTF-A.  All information is from unclassified resources or from the authors’ experience.  All maps are from open source websites. Research for this article was made possible by the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP) at the Naval Postgraduate School. 

The war in Afghanistan can still be won. There, we have said it.  Let us begin by answering the skeptics’ question: what does “victory” mean?  Victory is defined by Afghanistan becoming a territorial entity from which terrorists cannot gain sufficient safe haven to organize, train, equip, and launch attacks against the USA and its allies.  This means the Taliban must be denied the opportunity to return to unchecked power in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban return to unilateral power, sooner or later Afghan soil will again be used by al Qaeda or similar violent radicals to strike the both the West and neighboring South Asian states.  The pre-9.11.01 status quo will have been recreated and the last ten years will be wasted.  This must not happen.  Although we are sympathetic to those who define “victory” as meaning democracy, human rights, and other western liberal notions of individual and economic freedom, our definition of strategic victory does not require these things.

Now we are going to explain how to win by presenting an operational level plan called “Go” that will help the Afghan government maintain enduring control over key nodes in the geo-political space.  Doing so will set the conditions for the eventual evolution of a viable Afghan state.  Again, the goal of this plan is to deny terrorists the ability to launch 9.11-like attacks from Afghanistan after most US troops leave the country in 2014.  We are not offering a new grand strategy; however, we are offering focus and synchronization to create optimal synergy for the approach that is now working, Village Stability Operations.  The benefits include: a reduction of US resources, the elimination of terrorist basing, and mitigating the loss of US prestige if the war is judged as lost.  Our approach does not require a new "surge" of forces or a delay in the present draw down.  However, as occurred in the wake of the last time the United States witnessed a surprise attack in1941, our plan may require that some US personnel remain deployed to the theater for a long time.

After 10 years in Afghanistan, America stands at a critical historic juncture.  We believe re-energizing the allied Village Stability approach is important because it is the best approach on which to build a clear plan for victory.  Some people may think that the primary American interest is simply to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as politically possible, and hope that things turn out.  We agree that hope is a good thing, but it is a poor strategy.  If indeed the intent is only to withdraw, without also trying to win, then we believe most combat operations should stop, and all personnel should work to reduce risk by focusing almost unilaterally on force protection.  Of course doing this would mean leaving our Afghan allies to fend for themselves.  Doing so would enhance instability in South Asia and foment further unrest by violent radicals in a nuclear-armed Pakistan.  Additionally, an immediate pullout out would mean abandoning the initiative that the Village Stability approach has invigorated.  We call a complete and rapid withdrawal a "hope without a prayer" strategy, and categorically reject it as being unnecessarily defeatist.  Afghanistan, America, and the international coalition can still win.

Although we envision policy makers reading this article and embracing our ideas, our audience is primarily those military officers who have deployed or will deploy to Afghanistan in 2013-2014 and in who's decisions and actions in the battle space: in VSPs in the villages, in the VSSAs in the district centers, AOBs in the provincial capitals, and SOTF's on the FOB's, where the outcome of the war will be determined.  Under our plan your job is not to deploy in order to achieve career advancement goals or to rotate with minimal casualties to your units.  Your job, your only job, is to win the war.

As such we are speaking directly to Green Beret ODA commanders and their 12 man teams. We are speaking to AOB commanders and their company staffs. We are speaking to Special Forces battalion commanders, and their equivalents in the Seals, Marines, and all international coalition forces in ISAF.  We are talking to officers of the Civil Affairs, MISO, Intel, Logistics, and other branches who are key enablers of SOF combat forces.  To higher echelon authorities in theater we say this: understand and support the efforts of the front-line ground pounders to execute these operational and tactical innovations and you will have helped to win America's longest war.  To all US and allied forces high and low we say: if withdraw without winning is your call to arms, then you as individuals and we (the allied countries of the coalition) have already lost.

Time to “Go”: Operationalizing VSO by Optimizing VSP’s

The good news is that much of the heavy lifting has been done to set the stage for victory over the Taliban.  Over the last three years the United States and its allies have been quietly conducting a population-centric approach against the Taliban in the remote rural areas of Afghanistan called VSO, or village stability operations, which seeks to earn the trust of the population at the grass roots level.  Unlike Iraq, where most of the population lives in towns and cities, the Afghan population is mostly rural, and the insurgency thrives outside of the relatively few towns and cities.  The center of gravity in all counter-insurgencies is the population. In Iraq, that meant cities and towns. In Afghanistan that means the tiny villages and extended village networks of commerce and mobility that dominate each valley.  The major flaw of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan two decades ago was that it focused on the cities, thus ceding the unchecked mobility of the country-side to the Mujahedeen.  Overall, the US strategy ever since the arrival of large numbers of general-purpose forces in 2004 has been all too much like the Soviet’s “inside-out” approach: focusing too much on demographic concentrations in the cities along the ring road.  VSO, correctly, is an “outside in” approach using mostly SOF personnel dispersed to the rural areas.  However, the true story of VSO must be told by focusing on VSPs: Village Stability Platforms.  VSP’s are the safe houses; the small, fortified compounds; and tiny outposts that ODA team members base from.  This is mostly a story about VSPs.

Map 1:  Map of Afghanistan highlighting Uruzgan and Day Kundi Provinces, the AOB’s operational area.

The American public has heard very little about VSO or VSPs, but the truth is the program works and it has driven the Taliban out of many parts of the country.  Doing so has robbed the Taliban of manpower, legitimacy, money, and key staging areas.  However, we know that VSO has yet to achieve a so-called “tipping point” which would make the Taliban’s return to unchecked dominance impossible.  By explaining how to optimize VSPs, through the application of a new operational concept called “Go,” we are confident that tipping point can be reached by 2014.  We base this claim on factual evidence.  Our operational plan has already worked in one area of central Afghanistan that had been dominated by the Taliban.  If higher echelon leaders are willing to closely examine what happened in Uruzgan and Day Kundi Province from April 2011 to January 2012, we believe the operational plan that achieved success there can also be applied successfully to the entire country

In early 2011, Major Thiel received orders to return to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), assume command of Special Forces Company, and deploy to Afghanistan.  Major Thiel’s Special Forces Company, labeled an AOB during operations, was tasked to conduct Village Stability Operations in Uruzgan and Day Kundi Provinces from April 2011 to January 2012.  Before departing the Naval Post Graduate School for the deployment, Thiel began war-gaming in a classroom with the Village Stability Platform (VSP) sites plotted on a map.  Dr. Gordon McCormick (who in 1993 co-founded NPS’s famed SOLIC curriculum with then Navy Commander William McRaven) observed that the problem set Thiel was struggling with required nothing more than a Wei Chi strategy.  In the Wei Chi board game, two players alternately place white and black stones on vacant intersections to surround a larger total area and capture the opponent stones.  McCormick recommended Thiel read “The Protracted Game: A Wei Chi Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy,” by Scott A. Boorman.  In this moment, largely by happenstance, Major Thiel discovered the concept to operationalize VSP success.  He would later fine tune the tactical placement of VSPs to achieve the desired operational effect: control the environment and deny the Taliban control.

Wei Chi, commonly referred to as “Go” in the United States and Japan, is an ancient strategy game dating back to 1086 B.C.  Boorman explains the game and applicability of Go to insurgency or counter insurgency: two sides of the same coin (no pun intended) which for the remainder of this article will be referred to as the “Special Warfare (SW) environment,” to quote emerging doctrine.  Boorman demonstrates how the principles in Go guided the operational art used by Mao Tse-tung to seize control of China in the 1940’s.

Ironically, U.S. Special Forces Unconventional Warfare doctrine, (which addresses how to wage an insurgency and overthrow an existing government), strongly echoes Mao’s three stage approach for guerrilla warfare.  However, Mao’s operational level implementation of Go is glossed over in US operational doctrine and goes untouched in critical tactical UW training exercises such as Robin Sage.  Go theory resides at the operational level of special warfare.  It can guide a commander on “what to seize” and “what to bypass” in order to win the larger war.  Go is reflective of the real-world insurgent environment in several ways, specifically:  control, encircle to capture, and sanctuary.

Figure 1:  Intuitively, an onlooker would agree that black controls more of the area than white through control of key nodes rather than linear expansion.

CONTROL.  The goal in the game of Go is to attain majority control over the board.  For real world Special Warfare applications (operational area); the player with the most area under control is the victor.  In the real world, the board space represents the population across a geospatial area, and the intersections simply represent villages.  Figure 1 displays a linear expansion plan, white stones; versus the black stone plan to maximize control of area and setup positions for surrounding incursions.  On a fundamental level, Westerners and Americans think of warfare in linear terms.  Many of our games (for instance American football) pit two lines against each other.  As junior officers we are taught using operational graphics in the Officer Basic Course that denote battle lines.  However, veterans of the recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan (and Vietnam) can attest that the Special Warfare (insurgent) environment is far from linear; insurgents can move across the operational space by posing as unarmed civilians, and counter insurgents can drop raiding forces (or VSPs) into any area.  In Figure 1, intuitively an onlooker would agree that black controls more area.  Onlookers intuitively know black controls more area because black controls key nodes at that stage in the contest.  Players control area by surrounding empty intersections (area) and by capturing hostile stones to seize the opponent’s area.


One way to seize control of more territory and reduce the opponent’s strength is to encircle and capture their stones.  A group of one or more stones is captured by occupying every surrounding intersection, thus eliminating escape.  Reference Figure 2, black surrounds white at three points, if black closes the noose on white by placing a stone on the last adjacent intersect, the white stone will be destroyed and eliminated from the board.  A recent and well known historical parallel to encirclement in Go is Major General H.R. McMaster’s seizure of Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005.[1]  First, he seized the small villages around the city, he then built an earthen berm around the city.  Once the insurgents were surrounded and cut off from external supplies and sanctuaries, insurgent control of the area was eliminated. Encirclement is an important concept in Go and Special Warfare because it ties into deception and conceding small areas to encircle an even larger area.  Stones can avoid capture if they have established internal sanctuaries.


Another readily apparent principle in Go that parallels the Special Warfare (insurgent) environment that initially caught our attention was sanctuary.  Students of insurgency are keenly aware of the critical operational imperative of sanctuary for insurgencies.  Historically, the two dominant insurgent sanctuaries are third country borders or restrictive terrain that inhibits the ability of counterinsurgents massing overwhelming combat power.  Sanctuary is an integral part of Go.  Figure 3 demonstrates the establishment of sanctuary for white.  Black lacks the ability to surround white internally and externally, black cannot voluntarily place itself in a capture position in white’s sanctuary.

When introducing Go as a military concept, the common question involves the divergent capabilities and tactics of insurgents versus counterinsurgents; the Western mind demands that IEDs, helicopters, and fighting vehicles factor into play.  Intersections represent villages in the operational area, and most recent veterans will agree that helicopters and fighting vehicles do not win the village.  However, VSPs demonstrated that living among and winning the trust of the local population is the essential element of control.  Both counterinsurgents and insurgents use an arsenal of similar techniques to establish control: medical treatment, intimidation, salaries, civil affairs projects, and propaganda to name a few.  The common factor is a grass roots tie (a physical presence), which over long enough period results in control.  We have no doubt that any Special Forces Detachment (ODA) that remains in a village long enough will eventually win the village, be it in two weeks or six months.  Likewise, any village that the Taliban occupy will end up under their control.  Unfortunately, there are not enough Detachments for every village in an operational area. This brings us back to the core value of Go: a practitioner of Go knows how to control the operational area without placing a stone on each intersection.  In Go, you have to learn how to position pieces to control more with less.

The Critical Assessment and 12 Key Moves

(Note: this section shifts to first person to recall Major Thiel’s Decisions).

The units under my command were attempting to control two provinces with eight ODAs divided into 12 Village Stability Platforms (6 -12 man SF teams augmented by 10-20 Infantry and enablers).  Our challenge was magnified by a conventional force draw down in our area, from four to two battalions; these 1,500 conventional troops were focused on the three cities already under Government control, which left 90% of the operational area and all the concentrations of enemy forces outside of the three cities, to the 416 men assigned to my AOB.  Additionally, during the last six months, the higher echelon and Afghan Commandos were only able to allocate six strike operations to support our VSPs.  In essence, our AOBs had to achieve its mission in the absence of significant conventional strike or supporting forces.

The Go concept of occupying key nodes to control large amounts of space seemed valuable, but at first, I couldn’t immediately figure out a way to operationalize the key nodes in the real world environment.  I tabled the application of Go, but decided to download the Go iPhone application and play for at least five minutes a day.  My intent was to shift my West Point-trained linear mindset to an interlaced conflict mindset.

Map 2:  AOB Disposition in June 2011

My assessment period, the first 30 days assigned to the AOB, generated an overwhelming feeling that many existing VSPs and plans for future VSPs were in the wrong locations.  At this point, the sensation of wrongness was not the result of a Go related epiphany.  Rather, the reasons why the VSPs were in their current positions sounded weak.  Many of the VSPs were in particular locations due to three reasons: terrain valuable based on conventional maneuver warfare; the VSP was established at the furthest extent (end) of a clearing operation like a blocking position; or a VSP had been invited into an area by a minority or isolated tribe that had reached out to the government or coalition for support (but that minority tribe did not represent the overall demographics in the area).  While the reasons for the location of each VSP may have been logical at a previous point in time, that time may have passed, and it was clear that the disposition of many VSPs in Uruzgan and Day Kundi was ineffective at optimizing VSO in support of an overarching provincial plan. 

How did I know this?  In May 2011, only four of twelve VSPs were accessible by ground transport.  During the first half of 2011, forces assigned to the AOB and the previous AOB had 100+ Afghan partners killed, 100+ Afghan partners wounded, and numerous international coalition casualties which included Americans.  It was clear to me that the Taliban had achieved isolation of our VSPs.  Isolation reflected the fact that security forces were not mutually supporting, and the insurgents controlled the mobility of the civilian population.  Most importantly, the insurgents could block or control commerce within the provinces.  In essence, my VSPs dominated a space, but the Taliban ruled the Go board in our area.

My assessment of the VSP locations highlighted that coalition forces mislabeled Village Stability Operations.  Village Stability, embedding in rural villages, was an approach, a method, or a tactic.  While the point may seem trite, use of the word “operation,” may have deterred higher echelons of command from analyzing an applying an operational level art to synergize and maximize the effect of Village Stability Platforms.

Two Detachments, one split team in Deh Rawood and one split team in Gizab, revealed a critical aspect of the environment: the value of commerce to local Afghans.  In Deh Rawood’s area, Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Hesar and citizens in Tangi valleys, were willing to contest the external Taliban insurgents in order to retain access to the District Center Bazaar; the village wanted a market to sell their goods and a market to buy modern conveniences.  The people of Afghanistan value commerce and prosperity.  The same was true in Gizab valley, where, despite the complexity of the 51 different tribes, the ODA’s system of ALP checkpoints ensured mobility and commerce to the District Bazaar.

Map 3:  The AOB combined information overlays to identify commerce routes, terrain mobility, insurgent templates, and Go principles to identify nodes that are critical to the population, insurgents, and government. (Simulated overlay presented on an open source map.)   

The isolation of the VSPs and discovery of the fundamental commerce motivation, led me to the idea of charting the movement corridors: both of insurgents and of the local population.  In accordance with Go principles, doing so might reveal the key nodes that would increase control over more area (with the same number of VSPs).  Various methods of information collection can be used to chart the population’s movement corridor in the environment, such as checkpoint data, bazaar interviews, ground analysis, or cell phone service charts like those found on internet sites like  The AOB's information overlays of Uruzgan and Day Kundi routes illuminated the key nodes for mobility of both insurgents and commerce, as seen in Map 3.  This map of population routes was the key piece of conceptual information needed to apply the principles of Go by moving VSP’s into optimal positions to break the link between the population and the Taliban as well as establishing a link between our isolated VSP security pockets.  By doing so we were about to operationalize Go, and reverse the Taliban’s advantage.  As a result, synergistic effects could emanate from our newly placed security pockets.

Over the coming months, the AOB conjured a plan to move, or enable task saturated VSPs, to control the key nodes in the province.  This plan involved eleven VSP position decisions based on the principles of Go war-gaming and all source analysis, which the majority of ODAs also assessed as appropriate.  The moves were managed through an AOB synchronization matrix which allowed the AOB to surge Civil Affairs, MISO, Infantry squads, ANASF ODAs, and AOB elements to support ODA plans and the VSP adjustments.  Each adjustment is summarized in the following short abstract.

1. Future VSP Tangi Valley Canceled:  The split team ODA was scheduled to occupy future VSP Tangi valley, east of Deh Rawood District Center, in the summer of 2011.  The commerce map revealed that Tangi valley was a road to nowhere and not on a critical line of commerce.  Additionally, interviews indicated that locals were willing to not pay taxes to the Taliban and began traveling freely to the district market.  The VSP was canceled and the ODA visited the area once or twice a month. 

2. VSP Kuni Kotal Closed:  VSP Kuni Kotal was located at the southern end of the Tagaw valley, completely isolated from ground resupply due to IEDs, and the village had a small population.  VSP Kuni Kotal was originally established because Kuni Kotal was the village at the end of the valley during a clearing operation and the ground had dominant high ground over-watching the road to Kajaki.  The commerce route revealed that the population and Taliban were using two alternate routes to bypass the VSP and maintain control over the key population center north of the VSP, Tagaw Village.  The VSP was clearly in the wrong place; thus, the VSP was closed and VSP Tagaw was opened.

3. VSP Tagaw Opened:  Based on the commerce overlay, which was confirmed by interviews with merchants, we moved the VSP 19 kilometers to the north.  19 kilometers, or 12 miles, was the difference between isolation of a VSP with no ALP, and what would later emerge as the securing of the southern Tagaw Valley.  The ODA recruited ALP, opened the valley, enabled the closure of a VSP to the North, began movement of elders to the district shura, and linked the valley to the Deh Rawood and Shahidi Hasas district markets.  The markets are key.

4. Future VSP Chenartu Canceled:  The AOB received a eighth ODA during the deployment, which was templated to embed in Chenartu Village on the route to the isolated ODA in Khas Uruzgan district.  The commerce route illuminated to routes to the district; most importantly, the heat map did not reveal insurgent nodes north or south of the route.  It appeared the route had few villages and thereby little population.  Apparently, the Taliban, who also have limited resources, viewed the area as not worth controlling.  The AOB deployed select personnel, embedded with an Australian Recon patrol, to visit the only major population concentration on the route, Chenartu Village.  Upon arrival, a 250 man militia supported by the Provincial Chief of Police was discovered.  The future VSP was cancelled and assets were refocused to another heat map concentration to determine the location of insurgents operating in northern Khas Uruzgan.

5. VSP Yakdan and VSSA Tinsley Reinforced:  VSP Yakdan and Village Stability Support Area (VSSA) Tinsley were located on heavy commerce concentrations and while the ODAs did not have access to the North, the population to the North was significant and directly connected to the insurgent dominated district of Baghran, Helmand Province to the West.  Analysis indicated that Baghran was the main origin of insurgent support entering Uruzgan and Day Kundi Provinces.  The ODA intended for future VSP Chenartu was redirected to Tinsley, thereby allowing both VSP Yakdan and VSSA Tinsley to operate with full ODAs.

6. VSP Nili Transitioned to a Civil Affairs:  VSP Nili was located at the Day Kundi Province capital of Nili.  Nili was devoid of violence, largely due to the homogenous Hezaran population, which was pro-coalition.  Maintaining a governance and development tie to the capital was important, specifically to the regional commander; consequently, general purpose forces sent a civil affairs team to relieve our split team.  AOB focus in Day Kundi shifted to the Detachment in the Kajran District and the indicators of insurgent passing through southeast Day Kundi, North of the ODA in Khas Uruzgan district. 

7. Future VSP Northern Khas Uruzgan Recommended:  The AOB would have considered a future VSP in Northern Khas Uruzgan District/Southeast Day Kundi to disrupt the insurgent flow of materials into central Uruzgan, specifically into the Karmisan and Kush Khadir valleys.  This would have required an additional ODA or authorization to split an ODA. 

8. Recommended VSP Kajran move to District Center:  VSP Kajran was embedded in the middle of a small minority tribe, the Balauchi, in the midst of larger Pashtun and Hezaran groups.  The VSP was in the Balauchi area, thus other tribes viewed them as Balauchi.  The VSP was in the farthest possible position from Taliban in the west, and was an hour from the district center.  The ODA and AOB recommended a move from the legacy VSP site to the district center; the follow-on ODA initiated the move after we departed.

NOTE: The most significant impact of the Go application came in the following four VSP decisions.  The basic process, according to Major Thiel, is encompassed in the following,

“We overlaid a commerce route map, the VSPs disposition, population concentrations, and the enemy controlled areas.  The combined overlay revealed routes and key nodes that we wanted to take from the enemy and the nodes we wanted to take or reinforce to increase mobility and commerce.  We couldn’t reinforce everyone.  Central to our plan was rather than reinforce Hesar or Tinsley, we wanted to encircle the areas and reduce insurgent access to insurgent sanctuary in the Baghran District of Helmand Province.  The selection of the key routes and nodes was based on the understanding I gained from playing Go, what to seize and what to surrender in order to control the whole area (board).”

9. VSP Hesar Reinforcement Canceled:  Higher echelons wanted split ODAs consolidated and had earmarked the Hesar Detachment to consolidate in the isolated Hesar valley VSP.  Hesar valley and the Char Chineh valley to the north were contested areas; however, the Company elected not to use the linear, reinforcement approach.  Go concepts in conjunction with the heat maps revealing mobility indicated that seizing the Khod Valley, three valleys away, would degrade the insurgent access to their sanctuary in Baghran and encircle the contested areas.  Seizing the Khod would cause Hesar to evaporate and Taliban in Char Chineh would be degraded. 

Map 4:  AOB Disposition in February 2012.

In sequence like dominos, the Go based plan played out: Khod was seized, attacks in Hesar dropped, a key leader in Hesar reintegrated and brought in key ALP, VSP Hesar was transitioned to Afghan National Police mentorship, and the valley remains connected to the district market.  Rather than reinforce in linear style, seizure of the Khod valley degraded the enemy strength in multiple valleys. 

10. VSP Khod Opened:  After seizing the Khod valley, Afghan National Police ANP forces were scheduled to hold the valley with 200 men for six months.  The ANP arrived with 60 men for 45 days and would not progress past the southern foothold in the valley.  Due to the value of the valley in the Go based operational framework, The AOB occupied two sites for 45 days until an ODA could be repositioned from VSP Saraw to open a new VSP in Khod.

11. VSP Saraw Transitioned:  The combined overlay revealed that VSP Saraw was on a critical commerce link; however, at that time insurgent movement corridors linking the village to the insurgent areas to the west were not heavily developed.  VSPs Yakdan and Tagaw were disrupting most significant routes into the valley; thus, the VSP was transitioned into logistics hub for the AOB logistics and support operations.  One infantry squad, one Air Force CCT, and one Green Beret occupied the site; they were uncontested in the last four months of our tour.

Overall the plan focused on gaining control of Western Uruzgan and Southwest Day Kundi, which allowed the Afghan Army and National Police to move forces to open routes to east side of the province.  Many of the 11 decisions centered on the tactical surrendering Hesar and Saraw while seizing Khod, thus isolating/encircling the western portion of the Uruzgan.

A reader may be asking, “so what ?  You have not shown me a formula or checklist by which to arrange VSPs.  You have not even shown me how to play Go, which you assert helps arrange VSPs.  You have stated that learning how to maximize your control of the operational requires learning Go to internalize the concepts; however, I want something tangible, now!”  These thoughts are understandable for an officer in the hectic throes of preparing to deploy or already in theater.  Thus, a quick roadmap to maximizing VSP effects involves the following:

1.    Assess VSP locations by asking the following questions:

a.     How/why did this VSP end up in this location?  The answers, conventional terrain value, blocking position, minority tribe request, or special interest of a key leader, should all be red flags.

b.     What contribution is this VSP making to the big picture, adjacent valleys or overall area?  First and foremost it should be increasing commerce for the population.  It should be increasing village to district and district to province commercial ties.  It should enable security force mutual support, and degrade insurgent support, communication, and recruiting bases.

2.    Analyze the Routes:

a.     What are the preferred population routes for commerce?

b.     What routes link insurgents to a sanctuary?

c.      What routes create synergy for security forces and the government, where the sum is greater than the parts?

3.    Close or Transition VSPs:

a.     Cut your losses in low impact locations (e.g. see above decision #2. Kuni Kotal).

b.     Before departing an area, attempt to tie ALP to ANP management, which increases government legitimacy.

c.      Ask what the life cycle of each VSP looks like?  Has the area become semi-permissive and a Civil Affairs Team may be more appropriate than an ODA, (as an example).

4.    Move and Open VSPs:

a.     New VSPs should disrupt enemy sanctuary and improve commerce.

b.     Is the population in a village or valley big enough to build 400 ALP?

5.    Periodically reassess:  Students of Go will attest that the key nodes constantly evolve based on where each side moves.  The enemy has a vote too.

Measuring Success

How do we know that Major Thiel’s story regarding use of the concepts of Go actually resulted in measurable success?  In a period that corresponded with a 50% reduction in conventional forces, and the subsequent allocation of only one strike mission per month in support of the 12 VSP sites, this AOB’s area was transformed.  If one thinks in terms of the GO concepts of control, sanctuary, and capture, the data are both encouraging and clear:

1. All but one VSP became accessible by ground by the end of the deployment.  At the beginning of the deployment, only 4 of 12 VSPs in the two provinces could be driven to without significant probability of IED attack or Taliban ambush.  The eight isolated VSPs were limited to air support for logistics and mobility.  There are never enough air assets.  As a result, the Taliban not only controlled the Go space, they were able to freely move into and out of their sanctuary.  They were not able to capture the entire provinces of Uruzgan and Day Kundi, but they were “leading the game” as they waited for allied forces to withdraw.  However, at the end of the AOB’s deployment only one VSP was isolated and vehicles could traverse the remaining VSPs with minimal chance of IED attack or ambush.  This freedom of movement indicated that the AOB had reversed the Taliban’s control, dried up much of their sanctuary, and removed the threat of immediate capture as conventional forces drew down.

2. SIGACTs, significant kinetic events, dropped by 75% compared to the same periods one year prior.  In the statistics that support this fact, a SIGACT was a kinetic action between insurgents and village security forces, such as: IEDs, mortar attacks, and small arms fire.  The reduction of SIGACTs by 75% equates to saving many lives.  Moving VSPs and taking key areas can cost dearly, but waiting to be attacked in the VSP or IED’d on the roads is just as dangerous.  Fighting to seize the key nodes drops SIGACTs, decreases insurgent capability, and saved lives in the long run.  Reduction of SIGACTs increases the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the eyes of the population.  The reduction of one type of SIGACT, (IEDs), means that civilians can move freely with less fear of hitting an IED.  The use of IEDs is critical to the Taliban’s control of the local population.

3. All politics are local.  The AOB did not try to convince the locals that in terms of moral codes of Islam, the current Afghan government’s way was superior to that of the Taliban.  What the AOB did is ask the simple question: What do you want?  The answer, time and time again was “I want to get my corn to market.” “I want to be able to buy almonds at the market in the next valley to feed my kids happy.”  “I want stuff for my family.”  Simply put, they wanted freedom of movement (mobility), to become prosperous, and they were willing to create the security forces need to open the commercial routes, and keep them free of Taliban infestation.

During this AOB’s deployment, the numbers of Afghan Local Police (ALP) leapt from 1200 to over 2000.  This rapid growth in ALP force structure represents an outpouring of support by local authorities, and belief that siding with the Afghan government and the coalition was more advantageous that siding with the Taliban.  Key villages like Khod witnessed the transformation of one jingle truck of supplies a month during Taliban control, to five trucks a month after the AOBs seizure of the valley.  The detachment commander’s discussions with local elders revealed that establishing and maintain commerce links is paramount in local Afghan decision-making.  After the key commerce nodes were identified and seized (using Go experience to determine “what to seize” and “what to surrender”), these mobility routes became valuable to the Afghans.  Places like Hesar and Tangi show that even after the Americans have left, ALP can continue to maintain access to the district bazaar.  Afghans do not want the Taliban to tax them, to tell them if they can arrive or depart, and to tell them what they can buy or sell.  Following the seizure of Khod Valley in the west and the reinforcement VSPs in central Uruzgan, the AOB sustained zero coalition casualties for the final four months of the rotation.

Subsequently, the follow-on AOB sustained one minor wound on their eight-month tour.  This AOB did not solve all the problems in its two provinces, but its commanders did become students of “Go” operational principles, and in doing so discovered a method to optimize VSP disposition.  We believe it is a model for success that must be considered as 2014 approaches. Afghan forces can learn this approach.

Conclusion: Go to Win

How can America hope to maintain influence Afghanistan with only a fraction of the 68,000 troops now in the country?  We suggest it can be done by applying improved operational art to the Village Stability approach using the guiding principles of the ancient Chinese game of Go.  Go breathes life into the time-honored military axiom: economy of force is a key to strategic success.  Based on the success of VSPs and their proven ability to each build and command 400 ALP, the Western coalition could maintain a powerful force (if measured by control rather than numbers of troops) in rural Afghanistan.  By making this happen in 2013-2014 (and beyond) the USA would remain dedicated to the “outside in” approach that is now working.  VSPs also would continue to enable the Afghan government to increase legitimate connections at the village level.

However, if the coalition chooses to consolidate its forces on major bases along the ring road,[2] and attempts a Soviet-style hub and spoke concept during the drawdown, the result will be the same: defeat.  Taking this approach would signal an abandonment of Go principles.   Doing so would be a departure of the existing “outside in” approach to Village Stability, and a return to the “inside out” concept that not only failed the Soviets in the 1980s, but also failed the coalition during the first half of the present Afghan war.  Village stability works because of dispersed VSPs; we are certain a return to “village visitation” will not bring victory.  The strength of the Taliban is in the rural areas.  They can only be defeated there.

We conclude by saying this.  The optimal positioning of VSPs requires the application of operational art by AOB and SOTF levels of command who understand Go.  This art must be taught and transferred to Afghan forces. Most importantly, Major Thiel’s AOB experience highlights the need to assess the current location of each VSP.  Thiel's fusion of Go principles to mobility analysis revealed a method to guide the operational array of VSPs.   The dedicated study and understanding of Go concepts will provide guidance for evolving VSP disposition.  VSPs can be decisive and they have seized the initiative from the Taliban across Afghanistan.  However, in their present spatial distribution, the VSPs have not yet attained a “tipping point” in Afghanistan.  The Taliban retain too much sanctuary and maintain too much mobility.  They await 2014 to begin the piece-meal securing of the key nodes across the entire country.  However, if, after careful study, VSPs are optimally repositioned to dominate the key nodes of commercial and population mobility in the rural areas, transition to local forces takes place, and more VSPs are created, victory by the Government of Afghanistan, the USA and its allies is still possible.

This article has highlighted just a few of Go’s key elements that make the game applicable to the Special Warfare environment.  The next step is for those of you deployed or about to deploy to play the game repeatedly in order to re-orient your western linear mindset and internalize Go thinking.

Like learning to balance on a bicycle, Go is a heuristic learning tool, and the only way to learn is to play.  Go’s limitations to provide an exact, repeatable, “equation” for victory are consistent with the operational term “art.”  The game is available on-line for free, and can be played on a mobile phone.  The concepts, when integrated with intelligence overlays, specifically those associated with Afghan commerce, will enable the most effective disposition of VSPs.  Don’t deploy to Afghanistan to do another rotation.  Go to end it.

Glossary of Acronyms

ALP.  Afghan Local Police.

ANASF.  Afghan National Army Special Forces.

AOB.  Advanced Operational Base (Special Forces Company).

AOR.  Area of Responsibility.

GPF.  General Purpose Forces (American, non- SOF).

IED.  Improvised Explosive Device.

ISAF.  International Security Assistance Force (NATO and other coalition forces).

MISO.  Military Information Support Operations (US Army, previously PSYOP).

ODB.  Operational Detachment Bravo.  An SF Company.

SEAL.  Sea Air and Land (US Navy commandos).

SF.  Special Forces (US Army Green Berets).

SOF. Special Operations Forces (all services and branches).

SOLIC. Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.

VSO.  Village Stability Operations

VSP.  Village Stability Platforms

VSSA.  Village Stability Staging Area

[1] See George Packer, “Letter from Iraq: The Lesson  of Tal Afar.” The New Yorker. 10 April 2006.

[2] See for instance David G. Fivecoat, “Leaving the Graveyard: The Soviet Union’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Parameters, Summer 2012, pp. 42-55.  Lt Col Fivecoat argues that the Soviet withdrawal was well planned and executed, and suggests it could serve as a model for the US withdrawal.  We agree that the Soviet withdrawal was a finely executed, but think without a rural-based operational plan, the present Afghan government will have no better luck than that of their predecessor in staving off an eventual defeat. 


About the Author(s)

Dr. Douglas A. Borer is Associate Professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California where he directs CTAP, the Combating Terrorism Archive Project, and teaches in the SOLIC and IO curricula.  His research focuses on the politics of legitimacy in war and military strategy.

Major Joshua Thiel is a United States Army Special Forces Officer and graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School with a Masters of Science in Defense Analysis and a graduate of American Military University with a Masters of Arts in Low Intensity Conflict. His undergraduate degree in Economics is from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He has deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea, and has served in both the Infantry and Special Forces. He is assigned to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).


Hubba Bubba

Fri, 03/01/2013 - 2:47am

I liked this article the first time I read it- in 2004. That article was titled, "Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China's Strategic Concept, SHI."

The differences between that article and this one are more startling than the strange similarities. Perhaps neither author realized they were re-using someone else's work, but that might relate to the apparent lack of research done with this posted article. I draw that conclusion from the mere 2x footnotes in an article completely littered with many bold assertions where their theory (or opinion) is established as factual in their logic.

Now for the differences-

1. Unlike Dr. David Lai's extremely well written and well designed article on 'GO' as a metaphor, this article confuses metaphoric content within their organizing logic. In other words- Lai used 'Go' as a foil to demonstrate similarities in the complex system where Chinese military strategy operates on a different paradigm while western war theory centers on something such as chess. How we play chess versus how they play 'Go' in turn provides understanding and emergent discovery on how our military culture and conflict theories also differ.

- But the key pitfall that Lai avoids yet Borer and Theil launch headstrong into is this- Lai never says "implement 'Go' into our military strategy to beat the Chinese." Borer/Theil literally instruct us to use a metaphor to replace our logic frame. "We suggest it can be done by applying improved operational art to the Village Stability approach using the guiding principles of the ancient Chinese game of Go." -not only is this poor logic, this is simply childish.

- On much of the unsubstantiated claims littering this article- it saddens me to see a Special Operations Officer drinking his own institutional Kool-aid so aggressively, while dispensing these concepts/opinions as factual. The VSO program in Afghanistan, in general, is very problematic. It will continue to be a larger issue, particularly in the post-2014 period. Much of this hinges on the VSO concept that is neatly paired with the Afghan Local Police program- or ALPs. Granted, we have many VSO operations without ALPs, but every ALP program I am aware of is framed within an existing VSO program- and SOF would prefer to implement a much wider ALP program to enhance most of the VSO operations.

- Consider the hailstorm rapidly approaching with ALPs/VSOs. Congress paid for ALPs at 30k for only until 2015- and most expect that they will not renew them. Karzai publicly is against them (or he was- hard to keep up with his latest positions); the approximately 25k ALPs in existance are not on the overall ANSF 352K books- and if the ANSF are cut to 238K by 2016 as currently planned by ISAF, we are talking about over 120k unemployed young males with military/police training seeking jobs. So- if we continue to say that ALPs in VSO operations will "eventually" become ANPs, how will those 25-30K ALPs do this in the 2015-2018 timeframe when there is a surplus of 102K fired ANSF also competing for jobs? It just won't work. Yet we continue to talk about "winning" here- we just need to adapt a game into our strategy with VSO and we can finally have our victory.

News break- there will never be a "victory" in Afghanistan- at least, not in a tangible sense that would bring closure or comfort to any westerner involved in our military operations over the past decade. While Joe Civilian will eventually forget about Afghanistan in ten years regardless of whether the Taliban are in charge by then or not- there will never be a peace treaty signed on an aircraft carrier deck. This article promises yet another ridiculous "silver bullet" for "winning" something that is un-winnable in the conventional, linear, reductionist sense.

Lastly, where you stand depends on where you sit. I am excited to see G. Martin's many critical posts on this article and others at SWJ because he is an SF operator. He critically questions his own organization and institutionalisms; he does not fear challenging VSO. Major Thiel is essentially the opposite- he is heralding from the top of the ivory tower that the SOF preferred form of self-relevance aside from direct action is not only highly successful in Afghanistan, but we can "win" by doing it with this magical game metaphor applied. VSO operations are hardly this one-dimensional; to acknowledge their problematic nature takes courage, intellectual labor, and valid research to back up claims. Simply preaching "VSO is awesome because I wrote it down as such" is flim-flam, propagandic, and a dissappointment.

Hubba Bubba


Wed, 02/27/2013 - 2:09pm

This is interesting, no doubt, as a sufficiently flexible and "open" framework to function at a very complex, multi-layered tactical level, although there are other options.

The most important problem, though, was put at the beginning - cleverly - by the authors. What is "victory" in Afghanistan? Precisely. Not only that, but what is "defeat"? And is it possible to have an outcome that is neither "victory" nor "defeat", that are both antagonistic notions, but "success", where you probably can construct an "exit theory" that satisfies (almost) all?

The initial statements by the authors give the impression that if "strategy" is "only" to impeach Afghanistan - whatever its future state shape will be - from becoming again a pltaform of aggression against the West (ok, US and allies, as it is phrased), it will probably be simpler than to consider "victory" a more elaborated plan of nation, democracy, pluralism and etc. - building.

It could be, but depending.

In fact, to assure that Afghanistan will not become the said "base" (Qaeda), you will have to keep a permanent watch, and have ready some form of intervention, if the "base" appears.
It will be a process, not a moment, the same way the more "complex" nation-building is a path, not a frame.
Authors even suggest that to arrive to that more (presumed) "limited" goal one should not let the Taliban "unchecked", or govern alone. But that's precisely the problem: to ensure just that, you are already in the realm of nation-building, politics, etc.

Case study 1. - Before Al Qaeda came from Sudan (and it is instructive to read the thousands of pages of the NYC trial of Wadi El Hage and the recantation of Jamal al Fad, to see how the Foundation operated and was structured)to Afghanistan, no one "in the West" would worry about the Taliban establishment. The ones feeling the heat then were the Iranians (who engaged in limited warfare) ,and the Pakistanis, when Mullah Omar would "deviate". There were even talks to have some sort of Taliban system of embassies opening in the West, and current president Karzai was not far from entering into some sort of arrangement then, some suggesting that he could even become an ambassador.

Question for CS1: If in 1999 a Taliban plus 1 (let's say a Karzai-like directed party) cabinet would have been in place a) would it have been acceptable to the West b)would it have been accepted by Pak, India, Iran, China,CIS c)would it have been strong and clever and willing enough to oppose the build up of AQ C3I bases, and smash their attempts?

History of course doesn't repeat itself, as surviving actors would learn lessons, but to declare victory and leave is more complicated than what we imagine. Of course we can always exit...without declaring anything.

But it is difficult for these 10 years not to be declared in vain by everyone (including the ones who gave the best of them there, or came wounded or at a loss), if other countries surrounding Afghanistan do not take the responsability of securing the country, permanently guarding it against being a future base of aggression. They are the actors who are missing from the (again) interesting "Go" game.


N. Rogeiro

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 02/26/2013 - 10:20am

I read this morning. My primary concern is that the entire concept dangles like the sword of Damocles from the thin thread of the opening paragraph definition of "winning."

We are hamstrung by our concept of what victory is in these populace-based conflicts we insist on injecting ourselves into. I am to the point where I do not believe it is keeping any particular party in, or out, of government. Nor is it the defeat of any specific threat or threats to some solution we have annointed. For me it comes down to increasing the percentage of the populace perceiving themselves to be included in the solution of governance.

In Afghanistan we simply flipped the table from one segment of the populace being in, to them now being out and the other side in. A 50/50 flip. We did not work to increase the percentage, we simply changed it to the team we felt would be most responsive to our concerns (which is why we get so upset when Karzai also has little tollerence for our repeated violations of Afghan sovereignty and legitimacy in the pursuit of our US-centric objectives - as is currently happening re Wardak, and historically over VSO, ALP, Night Raids, control of development funds, etc).

Once one redefines winning one sees that VSO is a tactical bandaid that not only ignores the true drivers of insurgency in Afghanistan, it also is creating a tremendously vulnerable group of communities who will not have a chair when the music stops after we leave...

G Martin

Mon, 02/25/2013 - 10:36pm

I would like to offer an alternative narrative about this AOB's success that, I think, is possible:

"In the past VSO locations were made many times for political reasons incorporating ISAF centralized decision-making, local Afghan wishes, Afghan ministerial input, and SOTF/CJSOTF-based weak analysis. In combination with some other factors, this AOB's bottom-up approach would naturally have led to some benefit, due to things being run so terribly in the past. But, having said that, there probably were other causative factors in any positive metrics trends and it is doubtful that this example can be used to the same effect both everywhere and to a more lasting time-frame."

- I am curious about the lack of balance here- were there no set-backs? No negative metric trends? No negative unintended consequences? No unforeseen second and third order effects that were not so great?

- I would also suggest a little more humility in our approaches. Humility here meaning that we offer alternative theories to our concepts and balance them with all the ugly facts- surely everything can't be THAT rosy.

A few more detailed comments:

- Ignoring the possibility that wars may be much more arbitrary rather than things that have a "beginning" and "ending"- I have to take issue with the ideas that victory must be defined in a U.S.-centric manner and that the Taliban regaining some or all of their pre-9/11 power means that terrorists will have any more ability than they already have to attack "us or our allies".

Why shouldn't victory in a COIN fight be determined by the host nation? Assuming Afghans will be sufficiently happy if there are no U.S.-focused terrorists in their country is an assumption we've been operating under for some time- but could very possibly be very invalid.

- <em>"Under our plan your job is not to deploy in order to achieve career advancement goals or to rotate with minimal casualties to your units. Your job, your only job, is to win the war."</em>

A very curious statement that seems to imply that under past plans everyone's job was to achieve career advancement goals. Although I agree that may have been an effect, I do not think the cause was the operational plans- I think it was much more complex than that and has to do largely with our personnel system- which is still very much in place.

- What if there are pressures in the system that the higher echelons cannot escape from that keep them from supporting lower-level efforts? If they exist, then it is possible lower-level units are screwed from the get-go. Rather than just telling higher echelons what they should do, I'd rather investigate why they aren't listening to the lower level folks in the first place. I suspect there are fundamental institutional obstacles to doing what mission command encourages.

-<em>"but the truth is the program works and it has driven the Taliban out of many parts of the country."</em>

I would recommend the authors reference the metrics they use to make this bold statement- and preferably metrics and studies that come from several non-biased sources. Although I am sure both authors have the utmost integrity, I think we have to introduce some more rigor in our assertions in order to be taken more seriously. We have every reason to trumpet these efforts and almost no reasons to admit issues.

- <em>"By explaining how to optimize VSPs, through the application of a new operational concept called “Go,” we are confident that tipping point can be reached by 2014. We base this claim on factual evidence."</em>

A better wording in my opinion would be: "we base this claim on the experiences of the author during an 8 month time-frame in two provinces in central Afghanistan".

- <em>"In early 2011, Major Thiel received orders to return to 1st Special Forces Group..."</em>, etc.

I think this is a case where putting another hat on would help. Imagine the average American, politician, or staffer reading this (although you state your audience is largely military- I take this as an operational approach that advocates a precise strategy, political objectives, and force structure to make it successful). We are leaning towards pulling all troops out soon and going under massive budget cuts. You, yourself, were just over there. To an outsider it has to be very curious as to the obvious conflicts of interest. Especially so since there seem to be no negative effects observed.

- <em>"We have no doubt that any Special Forces Detachment (ODA) that remains in a village long enough will eventually win the village, be it in two weeks or six months."</em>

I would submit that insurgents who have cultural, racial, religious, familial, and traditional ties with the locals have many more factors in their favor than we do and I think our time-frames are a little skewed to the short-term.

- Maybe a more useful thing for us to imagine would be an Afghan Army unit "winning" in a town in "Pineland" (think central North Carolina) by occupying a National Guard Armory there for a few months- or even years. I think any progress made would be illusory.

- I have to echo the other poster's point about simple causality. Just because some metrics appeared to get better- does not mean it was entirely based on the VSP re-shuffling. I wouldn't doubt if it had some effect- but would be very surprised if that was the sufficient cause.


Wed, 02/27/2013 - 10:51am

In reply to by RVM

Excellent observation! When I teach deterrence I tell the story of when I was a boy and I witnessed a very odd looking gangly scarecrow-looking man wildly hooting, hollering, and gesticulating energetically to the heavens, the earth and all points on the horizon. For some reason he did not seem threatening so I approached him and asked, "what are you doing?" He said, "I am scaring off the invaders from Mars." I replied, "But there are no invaders from Mars." He smiled, "See, it's working." The truth is that the variables you suggest might have indeed been present but unobserved. However, unlike the Martians, Thiel was able see the effects of various things happening in his area and other AORs in the vicinity. A detailed discussion of SIGACTS won't happen in this forum. Sorry.

Definitely a well-written and thoughtful article. I do have one concern though that I think would be interesting if the authors could address. The premise of the article is that the application of the principles espoused by the authors led to the successes in the Measures of Success paragraph.

However, this type of thinking can be a fallacy. The logic pattern in this article is that "A was implemented, B occurred, as a result A must have caused B". Is it possible that other events unrelated to A actually caused B to occur? For example, did fighters in this area of operations move to another area based on external events? Did operations outside the author's AO cause a reduction in influx of insurgents? Are there more concrete examples of how the actions of the authors caused the measures of success, particularly the reduction in SIGACTS as described in Measure #2?


Mon, 02/25/2013 - 2:45pm

MAJ Thiel, Dr. Borer,

To begin, outstanding and thought provoking article. I had the opportunity to be a part of the first now-VSO efforts in DK and ORZ (as well as KAND and HEL); we saw the immediate benefits, but were also aware over time of some of our faulty assumptions and methodology behind site selection. Your methodology for site selection, by assessing the key nodes and links in terms of what is important to the Afghans, seems much more logical than our original attempts. I am glad to see the progress of the efforts, and I hope this thinking and methodology will shape current and future COIN efforts. One of the major weaknesses I have observed of intelligence personnel within the USASFC is a lack of training and understanding on how to adapt their training and tools to gain the necessary and relevant understanding of the human and physical terrain (vice the threat, which is easier and sexier). I would like to expand on how you conducted your node and link analysis and how we can better prepare intelligence personnel to support SO. If either of you have some time, please shoot me a note at

I downloaded Go for my iPhone today; wish me luck!


Wed, 02/27/2013 - 10:39am

In reply to by davidbfpo



Wed, 02/27/2013 - 10:38am

In reply to by Martin Doyle

Each situation would have to be accessed to determine the optimal placement of a the VSP. As noted in the article, before a VSP is located in response to any request (tribal or clan), the operator must determine if granting the request will be counter productive due to local sensitivities. Note: that is very general answer.

Martin Doyle

Mon, 02/25/2013 - 4:59am

Congratulations! Excellent concept with limitless possibilities for military and non military application. Social scientists will be delighted to see practical application of their longstanding theoretical modeling. One question remains: How do the authors perceive dealing with the differences between villages dominated by tribal structures and those dominated by clan structures?