Going Back to the Future: It is Time for Change in Afghanistan
Donald C. Bolduc
It is the secret of the guerilla force that, to be successful, they must hold the initiative, attack selected targets at a time of their own choosing and avoid battle when the odds are against them. If they maintain their offensive in this way, both their strength and their morale automatically increase until victory is won. As a corollary, it must be the aim of the counter-guerilla forces to compel guerrilla forces to go on the defensive, so they lose the initiative, become dispersed and expend their energy on mere existence.
-- Sir Robert Thompson, Malaya 1966
Afghanistan is important because it could once again become a safe haven for ISIS, al Qaeda, and many other threat organizations. Afghanistan remains at the crossroads of global energy and trade and is situated in a strategically important area in Southwest Asia. To the east lies Pakistan, the second largest Islamic nation in the world armed with nuclear weapons. To the west is Iran, a nuclear threat. This “neighborhood” is a strategic interest to the West. NATO can ill afford any other outcome than success in Afghanistan. To achieve success NATO must return to a comprehensive strategy approach in Afghanistan and link operations directly to the strategic goal of achieving stability.
The collapse of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 led to the challenges of creating and then maintaining a stable, safe, and secure environment for the people of that nation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) and the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) failure to organize and establish and maintain a comprehensive strategy, continuity of command, unity of purpose needed to stick to an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has resulted in the ISAFs inability to gain and maintain security, prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS and other threat organizations, and develop an effective infrastructure development plan. This poor administration and organization of the political and military effort in Afghanistan has resulted in a lack of continuity of command and unity of purpose and has created an unstable political and military environment leading to an ineffective Afghan government. We are now on our 14th commander and each one has declared some sort of success and victory.
My observation over my 66 months of service in Afghanistan and 81 months of combat experience in my career is that General McCrystal, General Petraeus and General Allen were on their way, but those that followed slowly changed the direction. All the security gains that were achieved during 2010 through the end of 2013 have been lost. The Taliban influence and alliance with other threat organizations has expanded, ISIS has joined the fight, and unfortunately the current strategy has no answer for this development and neither does the Afghan government. Although NATO, policy makers, interagency partners, and international partners share the blame this is an easy out for military leaders and not the purpose of this paper. The senior military leaders at the 4, 3, and 2-star level share the responsibility for the failures in strategy and operational approach. We have abandoned operational constructs that worked to go back to a kinetic, top down driven approach that has produced failure not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, Syria, and Africa. Our tactical level units have performed admirably, but our policy makers and senior General Officers have failed them. Good tactics never fixes bad strategy.
The Taliban and other threat organizations have adapted and expanded to the post-invasion environment by changing their organization and tactics while NATO and ISAF remain bounded by an ineffective top down strategy that lacks ability to secure rural areas that historically secure Afghanistan from outside influences and creates satisfactory stability. We have created and exacerbated corruption, developed a national police and military structure that is not effective that the Afghan government cannot afford, sustain or maintain. We over invested in security ministries and under invested in non-security ministries and exceeded the capability of the Afghan government to govern effectively. We have destroyed infrastructure through the use of bombs and clearing operations and operated at the expense of the populace. The only period in Afghanistan where there were unprecedented security gains was between 2010 through the end of 2013 under Generals McCrystal, Petraeus, and Allen’s comprehensive COIN strategy. This strategy combined top down approaches with emphasis on bottom up population-centric operations in the rural areas to take time, space, and opportunity away from the insurgents. During this time frame there was unprecedented security gains that the insurgents had no answer for and declared the largest threat to their operations. Mullah Omar was quoted as saying, that we cannot beat what the Americans are doing in the villages and declared the Afghan Local Police the number one priority target. It was assessed in the period between 2011-2013 that if we stuck to this strategy that the Afghan government at all levels would be able to govern with little international support. The Taliban and other threat organizations would have been sufficiently disrupted, degraded, and neutralized by 2025.
Clearly, the United States and other nations are contributing to the lack of strategy, fracture in continuity of command and unity of purpose in Afghanistan. We must work to correct this problem before all fail in Afghanistan by reassessing the policy, strategy, and commanders we have in Afghanistan and where needed reappoint critical leadership roles. My observations in no way challenge the character, dedication, commitment, and sacrifice of our senior leaders as they serve with honor and distinction, but only serve to point out their thinking and approach in Afghanistan must change. It is the lack of a consistent comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan that has prevented the nation’s stability. Countering these negative trends requires a return to the comprehensive strategy approach, continuity of strategy, and better talent management at the senior leadership level.
There have been books written, articles written, conferences convened, After Action Reports written, polls and assessments, and think tank studies that support the position I am promoting but are ignored by policy makers and senior leaders. We continue to rely on the same senior leaders to look at the same problem and expect a different result. It is time for change in these senior leaders or renewed demand they look at the problem in Afghanistan differently and return to a balanced population-centric approach. We must adopt the General George C, Marshall approach to commanding at the General Officer level. His approach was that you had 60-90 days to succeed or fail. Results and outcomes are key and if you do not get it done then you are done. As I have written in previous articles, there is a clear difference between how we hold our subordinates accountable and how we hold our general officers accountable in the performance of their duties. I have heard many times from officers and NCOs that we will discipline a private for losing his weapon, but not hold a general accountable for losing a war. Despite many tactical successes supporting our Afghan partners from our service members we have not sufficiently supported our Afghan partners to win operationally and strategically. At this point, we have lost precious time, space, and opportunity. Bottom line, there is no short cut. If we start now, with right policy, strategy, thinkers and leaders then we could expect a different outcome by 2030.
The Irregular Approach Missing from the Afghan Strategy
Since 2001, U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) have routinely employed irregular security forces to wage unconventional warfare (UW) and conduct counterinsurgency operations (COIN) in Afghanistan. During this time, an extraordinarily high level of operational insight has been gained about the proper design, development, and employment of tribal and ethnically linked forces. “Hands on” experience slowly revealed the benefits, risks, and costs associated with irregular force operational constructs. These lessons learned—along with support from academics, innovative USSOF leadership, and geopolitical conditions—coalesced during 2010-2013 to enable the successful development and application of Village Stability Operations (VSO) and supporting Afghan Local Police (ALP) programs. VSO is not a strategy it is a military operation and ALP is program. Its principles, ideas and rules of tactics and operations should be familiar to anyone who has studied or thought about various approaches to COIN. VSO is a “bottom up and top down” supported balanced counterinsurgency approach, with the objective of connecting traditional tribal governance at the village level to the central government at the district and provincial levels. The key to this objective was empowering rural populations to govern and defend themselves on a day-to-day basis, while stabilizing and improving the basic functions of district governance. The approach was unique in that it attempted to integrate security, development, and governance through a balanced, mutually supportive method that would address the underlying sources of instability in rural Afghanistan.
Develop and Maintain a Keen and Rigorous Understanding of the Operational Environment
More so than physical terrain, human terrain is decisive in the current fight. A willing populace is the center of gravity for creating security and stability. The operational environment is neither black nor white, but an infinite spectrum of shades of gray. While it is important to find the bad guys, it is imperative that we find the good guys and figure out how to get to them and build a relationship. Understanding Afghanistan’s complex environment requires not only identifying the significant key leaders and malign actors, but also gaining a deep understanding of ethnic and tribal rivalries, local economics, and the influence of influential power brokers. This understanding must include an awareness of the interconnected social and patronage networks of local Afghans, Afghan Government officials, insurgent and other hostile elements, Coalition Forces (military and civilian), and other state and non-state actors. Additionally, it is important to have a grasp on formal and informal financial networks, the flow of commerce, the location and nature of bazaars, development funds, contracting practices, and criminal patronage networks. Money and power must also be tracked since it fuels corruption, grievances, and directly affects local security.
Mutually Supportive Lines of Operation
Partnership (Top-down) and VSO (Bottom-up) are not exclusive to each other. Quite the contrary, Partnership offers SOF elements an excellent option to influence shaping, build confidence among the people during hold, and most importantly an ability to effect transition to Afghan control during build and transition phases. Partnerships with Commandos, ANCOP, and most importantly ANA SF represent tremendous opportunity to allow Afghans to lead in this bottom up process. Be prepared to follow their lead even if it’s a bit different from how you’d do it. Their legitimacy with the people is very powerful.
Nesting and Mutually Supporting Other Efforts in the Operational Area
This is the area true success comes through the BSO viewing you as extremely relevant and essential to the stability in his battle space. This means that you nest and work closely with other international efforts, development efforts, security efforts, governance, non-governmental organizations to demonstrate how your stability efforts contribute to the plan. No matter how well you do with supporting local stabilization to a village, if this is not part of a larger plan your actions are merely of tactical significance and will not achieve the district level stability and strategic effects we are striving for.
All Things are Local
Afghanistan is an extremely rural and localized country. What happens in one valley or village seldom travels much further than word of mouth can carry it. However, we are attempting to change strategic perceptions in this war and this localized nature of the conflict can make it very challenging to amplify even the most positive example of Afghans standing up to the insurgents and defining their own destiny. Endeavor to identify those actions and deeds and push them up through the flat communications network so that they can be amplified strategically. Our Tactical Radio Broadcast System (TRBS) is another effective way to amplify messages and communicate with the populace. Staffs at the operational and strategic levels of war must be postured with well-defined processes to achieve this amplification. Time is short, and perceptions are critical. This is not about us…it’s about the Afghan People standing up for themselves…it’s about mustaqilana. We just need to help amplify it.
Build and Develop Capabilities that the Populace Requires
In COIN, losing the population and ceding the local areas to the insurgents is losing the war. This applies directly to the provision of core village development activities. Medical care as an essential government service, with the caveat that we recognize where the government is unable to provide it, we must have a Village Medical Outreach Program (VMOP). These programs should strive to emphasize Afghan-led medical care. Where the Afghan Government Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) officials exist, we should emphasize their role in the development and support of their Community Health Worker program. In describing our efforts and medical engagement activities, we must remain sensitive to the stigma associated with terms like ‘MEDCAP’, ‘VETCAP’, and ‘DENTCAP’. These terms have come to represent one-day, single incident, provision of direct care by US medics on the curbside, without any long-term benefit to the community or enhancement of the local village medical capacity. As we progress, our reporting needs to reflect our long-term efforts at these VSO sites. In all correspondence, presentations, and discussions, we must immediately terminate the use of the term MEDCAP, VETCAP and DENTCAP and in place, use the terms Village Medical Outreach Programs (VMOP) and Medical Seminars (MEDSEM). Additionally, when discussing VMOPs and MEDSEMs in any format, we need to ensure we correlate the medical activities we are conducting with VSO methodology.
Afghan Government Solutions are Important
This is ultimately where we want to be. There must be a balance between traditional governance and the Afghan Government. The Afghan Government must be able to reach out to its people at the village level. This will be challenging and may not occur without SOF help. Begin thinking about this balance and Afghan solutions early on during your shaping phase. As you start to work into the Hold Phase, you should be shaping actions in your District Center and building relationships. Look for opportunities to get ANSF and ALP members to work together. Encourage locals to call their local ANSF. If you are partnered with them, make this a key component of the ANA SF approach in this area. Look for ways to reach out to local ANSF even if you are not partnered with them. If Government Officials are misbehaving or neglecting locals, then report it to the Village Stability Coordination Center (VSCC) and through your chain of command. Be relentless in your reporting and seek action from your commander. Encourage local District Officials to come out and interact with the people in your village. Encourage elders in your village to participate in District Shuras. Seek out opportunities to set conditions and foster the entry of Afghan Development Programs and Afghan Ministries such as Education, Interior, Independent Directorate for Local Governance, and Rural Rehabilitation and Development. If you do not know who these folks are or what they do, reach out for the answers. By understanding the security, development, and governance apparatus within your village and your District Center, you can be that catalyst and accelerant that brings them together.
Build the Local Security and Stability Network
It takes a network to defeat a network. The ALP is just one node in a comprehensive security and stability network that connects the village with the district, provincial, and national representatives of the Afghan Government. The VSP, the Shura, the ALP Commander, and the ANP District Chief of Police (DCoP) form the central core of the village stability network that gains active and passive support from the villagers. Once proper conditions are set, ANASF and other ANSF reinforce the central core and help to expand and reinforce the security and stability bubble to build the bridge to Afghan Government agencies, NGOs, and Coalition Forces.
Embedding in the Population is key
Embedding in the population demonstrates fulltime presence, patience, and persistence that act as an effective countermeasure to marginalize the influence of the insurgents. This creates a positional and functional dilemma for the insurgents. When we live in a village or village cluster, we are postured to support the populace and leverage the bottom-up effects that will eventually link the Afghans to their government. For this reason, embedding in the populace is decisive. Becoming a part of the community builds an enduring relationship between the VSP, the local populace, and the village elders. Living among the populace increases the influence of the VSP within that community and ties into tenets of Pashtuwali and other regional customs. VSPs will gain access into insurgent controlled areas, thus creating contested areas bringing governance and development to the populace and undermining the insurgent.
Find the Right Embed Location
Tactical SOF elements are finite resources and we cannot establish VSPs everywhere. Therefore, we must put a lot of work into selecting the right site to establish a VSP. To do this, we should identify Future Stability Platform (FSP) sites where conditions are favorable for Afghans to stand up for themselves. FSPs should be strategically relevant to the insurgents and the Afghan Government, operationally and logistically feasible, and in areas where ANSF or coalition forces cannot provide adequate security or services. The sites should have the potential to connect to the Afghan Government and to expand influence outward. The only exception to this is when the Afghan Government or ISAF specifically request VSPs to be established in saturated areas to assist with the “hold” phase. We may not stay in the initial VSP for long. In fact, we may hand it off to the populace or a transition force and move to more contentious areas. However, we must always remain postured to assist that transitioned site as it moves forward. It is very important that we meet the initial criteria above when establishing our foothold.
Maximize Contact With the Populace
The VSP may embed into a location that has proximity to a cluster of villages to extend their influence between multiple villages and create additional white space. Depending on the human and physical terrain of the local area, it may not be advisable to embed directly into the village. Some VSP leaders report that embedding inside a village that is clustered in proximity to others gives the perception of favoring that village over neighboring villages. Sometimes embedding directly inside the village may physically or geographically isolate the VSP from the rest of the district. There have been instances where villagers have agreed to work with a VSP but have threatened to move out of the village if the VSP moved directly into the village. Mapping the human terrain and understanding the geo-political climate is critical when choosing an embed site. However, influence tends to increase with proximity. The closer the VSP embeds to their target population the more influence they will have within that population.
Protect the Population of Your Village
This one is not easy. You will be living with these people. By allowing you into their village they have accepted responsibility for your security, and you for theirs. This is an agreement that must be honored by both sides and as long as it is, we should put as much or more effort into protecting these villagers as we have put into targeting the enemy over the last nine years. In fact, our targeting during this phase should be oriented on all nodes that foster intimidation of our villagers. Protecting the village also means teaching them to stand on their own, mustaqilana; however, we must understand these people have been harassed and beaten down for over 30 years and in the beginning, they will look to us for help in their security. There should however be a shared commitment in this. Even getting them to report nefarious activity is a good start and should be reinforced by support and development where possible.
Assess ALP Potential at Village Stability Platform (VSP) Embed Sites
Avoid treating ALP establishment as a mandatory requirement or a “red line” for VSO success or treating the number of ALP as a metric of success. Furthermore, do not shortcut the ALP candidate screening and validation process in the effort to increase ALP numbers. Choosing the easy wrong over the hard right will lead to catastrophic disintegration of the security mechanism and a high rate of desertion. Although ALP is a powerful mechanism for security, establishing an ALP element may not be appropriate or feasible for the site. Locations that have a credible and effective ANP or ANSF presence, effective traditional governance, effective Afghan Government representation that is perceived as legitimate by the local populous, or a village that cannot meet ALP requirements may not warrant ALP at that location. Approved, nominated, and potential ALP sites vary in their need for and ability to implement ALP. Decisions of how to prioritize ALP implementation within and beyond the list of approved sites should be based on bottom-up assessment and recommendations. Accordingly, understand that the ALP assessment process is continuous and should follow the Assess, Train, Employ, and Re-assess model.
Security Through ALP is Only One Aspect of a Successful VSO
“VSO will work without ALP, but ALP will not work without VSO.” Avoid becoming too focused on the security aspect of VSO and do not neglect development and/or governance. Simply put, ALP cannot be successfully implemented without the existence of a VSP and a well-rounded VSO strategy. Attempting to immediately stand up an ALP force and using them to hold territory is unlikely to work in the short run and could lead to disastrous long-term consequences. Properly shape the environment and set the conditions for sustainable security, development, and governance.
Work Through the Shura
This is key and must be done from the time of your first engagement of the village until you hand over to ANSF or the Afghan Government. The Shura, village elders, tribal elders, and Maliks represent the traditional governance of Afghanistan. We must understand it, embrace it, and empower it. Do not be surprised if your elders are timid, downtrodden, and lack confidence to stand up. Again, they have been actively targeted by the Soviets and INS for thirty years. Help them gain their confidence and collective capacity back and you will be on your way to achieving a village stability bubble. If faced with overly timid or downtrodden elders or Malik’s, confidence building, and empowerment can be accomplished in small groups and meetings prior to engagement with large Shuras. Include them in identifying, vetting, training, and employing community watch members. Let them lead the nomination of development projects and be seen as implementers of development. Encourage them to become engaged in District Center Shuras and Development/Governance projects. Encourage them and empower them to lead reintegration efforts. Also work through the Shura to marginalize bad actors. Don’t be afraid to work with the Shura and other influencers to bring in new and responsible leadership. Do this and your hold and build phase will work itself out well.
Strive for Maintaining a Balance in the Community
You will likely encounter imbalances between tribes and even villages. Do not accept this as the norm. Find ways to overcome this and encourage as much equal representation as you can. Do not foster the exclusion of minority groups because this is fertile recruiting ground for insurgents and can also backfire against you when you go to connect your village(s) to the Afghan Government. Look for ways to use development projects, separate community watches, and other innovative measures to empower all parties and influencers.
Reintegration is an Afghan national priority initiative and will occur naturally if we do VSO correctly. The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) is achieved through three lines of activity: Outreach and Grievance Resolution, Demobilization, and Consolidation of Peace. All three lines of activity are supported and encouraged through confidence building, negotiation, and mediation between Afghan Government, communities, victims, and insurgents. Most Afghans are tired of fighting. If we work through, with, and by the elders and populace at the grass-roots level and endeavor to help them stand on their own, this will offer a much more competitive alternative to the insurgency than continued fighting and hardship. By improving local conditions in villages, reintegration becomes an attractive option. Ensure that you have a plan to report this activity and to foster their reintegration into society by participating in the development opportunities.
At the height of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force - Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) Village Stability Operations (VSO) in 2011 teams were in 45 districts at 61 different sites across Afghanistan. Of those 61 sites, CJSOTF-A elements at 24 sites partnered with district level Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Government officials to recruit, equip, train, and mentor Afghan Local Police (ALP). Based on VSO and Afghan Local Police (ALP) activities across Afghanistan, there was unprecedented security gains and conventional force integration that were essential in building a security and stability bridge that connected the rural villages to the district level representation of Afghan Government.
Requests for Forces (RFF) for additional U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) and General-Purpose Forces (GPF) will must facilitate SOF’s ability to expand VSO through 2020. These RFFs will provide the capacity to hold physical and human terrain gained over the next 2 years and set that conditions into 2030. This expansion plan must nest into ISAF Joint Command’s (IJC’s) Combined Team OPORD OMID and is focused in IJC Key Terrain Districts (KTDs) and Areas of Interest (AOIs). SOF will continue to take the lead with the support of conventional forces in the effort to protect and stabilize the Afghan population, build the capacity in Afghan National Security Forces, and enable development and local governance for our partnership with the local population.
VSO and ALP Transition
The Transition (village to district stability) phase seeks to increase the “bubble” of stability and good governance around the village to include the entire district and eventually transition the Village Stability Platform (VSP) to Ministry of Interior (MoI). The mission essential task for this phase is to move into Tactical Overwatch (TOW), with the primary responsibility for ALP supervision and support shifting from the SOF team to MoI/AUP. As we grow the ANASF, they will become the primary transition force at the VSP.
The intent for VSO is to produce operational and even strategic effects in support of the RC Commander's operational framework. To do this, we must achieve district level stability in every area where our VSPs are operating. This means that once you achieve stability around your village and open the corridor to the district center, you must then begin to look for ways to expand the influence of Village Stability Operations to other areas and transition security, governance, and development to the Afghan government. Coordination with the BSO during this phase is critical as well.
The success criteria for transition are: (1) Leaders (DCoP and ALP commanders) are appointed and in-place, (2) these leaders are competent and support each other, (3) local (shura) leaders are identified and have validated the ALP, (4) 70% of the ALP in the district have been approved by the local leadership (shura) and are from the local area, (5) local leadership (shura) is capable of maintaining oversight of ALP, (6) the majority of the local community views the ALP as legitimate, (7) 70% of the on-hand ALP are regularly paid by MoI district leadership and have sufficient weapons, ammo, and fuel to perform their duties, (8) the ANSF QRF has been identified, (9) the DCoP can coordinate reinforcement for the ALP, (10) 70% of the district ALP tashkil is filled and trained, (11) the DCoP/AUP have the capability to train the ALP, (12) ALP numbers are sufficient to protect the key population centers they are tasked with defending, and (13) the local leaders are sufficiently empowered to conduct basic conflict resolution (family matters and resource-based conflicts over land, water, livestock, etc.).
Unfortunately, not every VSP will survive the transition phase and in some cases, they will not even make it to the Transition phase. The criteria for closing an existing VSP include: (1) Government Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) does not possess the interest of capacity to logistically or operationally support it, (2) the population do not demonstrate a desire to protect themselves and rely only upon Coalition support, (3) no longer supports the ISAF operational plan, (4) Coalition Forces (CF) are unable to logistically and medically support the site.
The irregular forces have and will continue to play a critical role in Afghanistan’s constantly evolving and dynamic security environment. They fill a gap created by national, provincial, and district governance dysfunction and corruption. Irregular forces also address unique cultural and social characteristics reflective of Afghanistan’s tribal society.
Developing successful irregular force programs is an exceedingly difficult and complex process. The VSO/ALP model demonstrates the importance of possessing an in-depth historic and cultural understanding of the operational environment. It implies that it is uniquely a USSOF mission and suggests the need to fully assess the risks, costs, and benefits before commencing program development. The VSO/ALP program highlights the advantage of outlining a comprehensive supporting framework that integrates “bottom-up and top-down” efforts seamlessly. It evidences the vital need for a multi-dimensional engagement strategy. The VSO/ALP program succeeded because it addressed rural security and instability challenges through the reformation of tribal governance and security mechanisms supported through a central authority at the district and provincial levels as part of a population-centric COIN strategy.
VSO/ALP represented the quintessential SOF COIN and irregular warfare mission, combining both direct and indirect approaches in a balanced and integrated fashion. It played to USSOF organizational strengths: adaptability, fungibility, small unit decentralized execution, and specialized skill set and tradecraft capabilities. Additionally, it demonstrated the effectiveness of a command and control construct, where USSOF is supported by conventional forces, inter agency partners, international partners and organizations, and non-governmental organizations. Although it has experienced some setbacks, ALP remains a pillar of the Afghan security architecture today despite the large-scale U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While every VSP is different, the observations contained in this document will enable leaders to execute VSO on a fundamental and effective level. To be successful VSO requires four essential elements: 1. NATO and ISAF support, 2. International support, 3. Afghan government support, and 4. a willing populace. This complex process is one where we are always learning. Village Stability is a building block component that ultimately contributes to security at the district level. In this hour of Strategic Importance for our nation, there is no greater task SOF can undertake than empowering the Afghan People to stand on their own.
Donald C. Bolduc
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