Small Wars Journal

Mission Afghanistan: Advice for A US Special Operations Unit (2009)

Wed, 08/25/2021 - 8:52pm

Mission Afghanistan

Advice for A US Special Operations Unit



The following notes have been prepared from a sense of moral responsibility and duty (as a former U.S. Army Special Forces NCO/officer) to comrades standing on the threshold of opportunity.  The crux from which these notes are expressed are founded in my experience working with indigenous populations and host government security forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, careful study and first/second person interaction with various threat elements related to the theatre and an appreciation of the task presenting itself to the soldiers of SOF.  It is understood that several points herein are in direct contrast and incongruent with current strategic and operational paradigms relating to Afghanistan.  I will leave it to the readership of this document to assess if, and/or how, the advice provided is woven into the fabric of a concept of operations.           


15 November 2009




Part I – US



To Be or Not to Be…the Once and Future Lawrence


1.  Confine infatuations with T.E. Lawrence to the spirit of his philosophy and not the war he fought.  He said it himself, in The Arab Bulletin, dated 20 August 1917, “They [his 27 Articles] are meant to apply only to Bedu; townspeople or Syrians require totally different treatment.”  Therefore, be mindful not to bastardize his 27 Articles in attempts to fit his specific experience with the Hejaz Bedu to the current situation. 


2.  Between September 2001 and December 2002, U.S. Army Special Forces were indeed Lawrences.  “Their war” [the Afghan civil war], with the advent of Operation Enduring Freedom, was fought with ODAs supporting the anti-Taliban forces against a tyrannical, oppressive regime and their (mostly Arab) allies of Al Qaeda.  In that sense, U.S. Army Special Forces lived up to its motto, De Oppressor Liber, and conducted themselves in sound Lawrencian fashion.  However, the situation has changed and that must be recognized and accepted.  It is no longer “their war.”  In the eyes of the Afghan folk, it is YOUR war.         


3.  In the current phase of this war, the U.S. armed forces are no longer the Lawrences of Afghanistan.  That was a bygone era.  ISAF is now in the role of the Ottoman Turks.  Adjust accordingly.


Don’t Be Martians


4.  While adjusting to your new role and striving for the spirit of Lawrence, it’s important to understand that to the Afghans, you are Martians from another planet.  So, the first rule is DON’T BE A MARTIAN!  Afghans, especially the Pashtuns are the real deal.  They live the warrior ethic.  They have been living the warrior ethic for more generations than the U.S. has been a nation.  Being a land-locked country, they have had to bargain their way through life with some very nefarious neighbors.  So the phrase, “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter” applies to the Pashtuns, ten-fold.  They must believe you are sincere in what you say and do.  They must believe you.             


5.  Wearing a beard and maybe a local ornamental accessory isn’t enough.  Understanding local customs and traditions isn’t enough.  When you wear a beard with body armor and sunglasses, you’re a Martian.  When you sit down with a Jirga drinking tea, but come off as if this is simply a ritual that you must go through to get something, you’re a Martian (take me to your leader…).    


6.  Before you can even begin to win hearts and minds, they have to believe you.  Watch the 2005 film Walk the Line.  Imagine you’re Johnny Cash and the Pashtun Jirga is Sam Phillips and you’re auditioning.  You’ll get the picture.  Therefore, grow beards…not because they respect men with beards.  Grow beards with a complete understanding and acceptance of why Pashtuns grow beards.  It’s about attitude, your attitude.  Learn Pashtunwali and make it second nature.  Help “your” village(s) celebrate their traditions…sincerely and enthusiastically.  Ask and learn about the village history and legends/folklore (ask the locals!).  You never know what kernel of knowledge will help you in the future.        


7.  LEARN THE LANGUAGE.  It is understood that language learning is difficult, at best, in the current deployment/training cycle…tough.  Learn the alphabet, greetings/salutations and key phrases prior to deployment.  Once on the ground, spend time with the people each day learning the language by learning the vocabulary of the village (words/phrases describing buildings, terrain, etc.).  They will eventually start to believe you’re sincere and, in turn, you will shed your Martianess. 


8.  Dress like them.  That will fly in the face of Force Protection protocols, but this is war and you are there to get a job done.  As distasteful as this may be to swallow, if you want to know who the current Lawrences are, look across the border at Al Qaeda in Pakistan.  They dress and eat like their hosts.  They pray with their hosts.  They take part in tribal life and pledge their lives to their hosts through their cause of Jihad.  The Pashtun Taliban and their supporters, in turn, believe them.  Even though they too view the Arabs as Martians, the Arabs learned that lesson and are doing their best to adjust.      


9.  Take a lesson from Al Qaeda.  Learn/memorize selected verses from the Qur’an that support your efforts and give what you’re doing theological legitimacy.  Learn the rituals of local prayer.  If you happen to participate in a morning or afternoon congregational prayer without making a big deal about it, they will be amazed.  What’s in your heart stays in your heart.  You don’t have to convert to Islam.  If you are a person of faith and you actually learn the translations of the prayers, you’ll likely find just enough commonalities to give you the right psychological perspective to integrate this as part of your cultural awareness.  To the people with whom you work to win hearts and minds, religion is a touchstone to their way of life.  Don’t try to bullshit your way through.  Just be subtle about it, as if it comes naturally.  When asked about your religion, tell them you are a man of God.  Take a hint.  Go to the Airborne/Special Ops museum on Bragg Boulevard have a look at the 5th Group’s CPT Gillespie participating in a Montagnard tribal ceremony in tribal, ceremonial dress in Vietnam circa 1964.        



Getting Down to Business


10.  Once you remove some of the aspects of your Martianess, you will have to contend with the next obstacle, trust.  They may start to believe you, but there is a road you must travel for them to trust you, and, in turn, work with you.  Unfortunately, many of the road conditions are beset with potholes and craters. 


11.  By and large, the Afghans: a). don’t support the Taliban; b). hate Al Qaeda; and c). simply want to be left alone.  The problem is they hear what’s happening in Iraq with regard to the Awakening Movement and Sons of Iraq.  The news is that MNF-I left them behind to fend for themselves without support.  Al Qaeda/Taliban propaganda is telling them that the “Crusaders” will leave their supporters behind like they did in Vietnam.  Al Qaeda calls it the “Ghost of Vietnam.”  They pay attention to events, such as the 4 October battle in Kamdesh and wonder if that, or the next battle with significant American losses, will signal a withdrawal, and wonder what will happen to them, if the Taliban and Al Qaeda return to power.  Therefore, you should never try to convince them that you will stay for the long-term.  They will not believe you.  You must do your best to give them a sense of empowerment that they can protect themselves and their loved ones.  This is easier said than done, but the bottom line is the Pashtuns don’t trust the ANA/ANP and they view the Taliban as better fighters.  The key to FID with the Pashtuns is forming militias with enough power to aggressively defend their territories and out G the G, so to speak.


12.  The ranks of the insurgency are swelled by Afghans who are motivated by local grievances rather than an ideological affinity with the Taliban.  Therefore, you must ask yourself a difficult question.  Am I prepared to act as an arbiter with my assigned tribe(s)?  Can I coordinate with another ODA that is assigned to a tribe with which my tribe has a dispute?  There is an emerging Taliban shadow state that rivals the Afghan government in its ability to enforce and govern many parts of the country.  You see a greater percentage of tax collection in areas under Taliban control than you do in areas under so-called government control. At the moment the Taliban can offer a far better deal. In return, the Taliban can offer some justice, some stability, some security, but maybe not very much opportunity.  Consisting of at least five knowledgeable people, the Taliban provincial authorities are responsible for enforcing discipline on the fighters operating in their provinces.  According to Taliban sources, “Every province must make a court with one judge and two Islamic experts so they can solve problems that the leader and elders cannot solve.”  The Taliban court for the Sangin area appears to be mobile, traveling to villages where there are disputes, while there is a ‘higher court’ in the northern Helmand district of Baghran.  Therefore, are you ready to get involved at this level with the tribes?  The Taliban are.  If you want to out G the G, you’ve got to make them irrelevant.  Sun Tsu’s strategy of the sheathed sword plays into this.  The challenge is going to be the coordination of effort at the ODB level, or echelons higher.  This goes back to paragraphs 6 and 9.    



Part II – THEM


In this section, when I write Exploitable Weakness – that’s a Talib weakness you can exploit!



Enemy Mine


13.  While the Taliban has a reputation for being dominated by the Ghilzai (or Khilji) tribal confederation, the Quetta Shura includes four members of the Durrani tribal confederation, the other major branch of the Pashtun people in Afghanistan.  The Shura’s personnel has barely changed since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the only addition being Amir Khan Haqqani, a veteran Taliban commander who filled the slot vacated by Mullah Akhtar Osmani, who was killed in an air strike in December 2006.  The table below has been corroborated by multiple sources.  It is included here to provide a peek into the tribes from which 10 of the alleged 18 Shura members hail. 



The Quetta Shura





Mohammed Omar


“Leader of the Faithful”

Abdul Ghani Baradar


Deputy Leader

(Former Deputy Defense Minister)

Akhtar Mohammed Mansour Shah Mohammed


Senior Military Advisor

(Former Minister of Aviation)




(Former Defense Minister)

Mohammed Rasul


Selection of Shadow Governors

(Former Taliban Nimroz Governor)

Abdul Razaq


Senior Military Advisor

(Former Minister of Commerce)

Mohammed Zia Agha



Amir Khan Motaki


Information and Culture

Abdul Jalil Haqqani


Maybe Finance

(Former Deputy Foreign Minister)

Hafiz Aziz




























14.  Mullah Omar’s reputation for piety and asceticism has served the movement well. As the personification of the Taliban movement, he is the most significant figure in the insurgency, even though he typically issues only two or three public statements a year. He is widely respected and admired and his followers say they will gladly die for him.  That said, the Quetta Shura (QST) Taliban leadership’s ability to control the insurgency at the tactical level is limited, not least by the need to maintain communications security and the emergence of numerous local commanders who have little need of the leadership’s support or guidance.  One way the leadership is trying to enhance its influence is to send in teams of experienced fighters to reinforce certain areas. For example, locals in Helmand noted significant numbers of unfamiliar Taliban cells in the run-up to the large-scale operations conducted by the US Marines in July-August 2009.  So-called Action Teams come from Quetta and go to different areas to try to reinforce the leadership. They go around in many ways like traveling salesmen: they set their pitch out for what they wish to achieve. They can offer cash, money, arms and fighters.  The ability to redeploy forces to help local groups has the potential to increase the leadership’s influence and bolster the insurgency in key areas. A British military intelligence source told me that local groups that are struggling to establish themselves would probably take advantage of the support and consequently follow orders, but groups with enough funding, fighters and local backing would continue to operate autonomously.


Exploitable WeaknessThe use of ‘outsiders’ consequently risks undermining popular support for the insurgents and makes it less likely that local groups will welcome such support in the future.


15.  The Taliban supreme leadership in Quetta comes out with large directives on how it would like the insurgency in Afghanistan to be run.  Titled “Ibrat,” the 2008 review resulted in a general directive ordering Taliban forces to adopt more asymmetric tactics such roadside bombings, rather than trying to form large fighting units, according to the sources in Kandahar. 


Exploitable WeaknessThe subsequent dramatic increase in the use of improvised explosive devices suggests Taliban field commanders are following these orders, even though the underhand nature of the tactics conflicts with Pashtun warrior culture.  Get the 4th PsyOp folks on this and spread this notion at the local level through the ODAs.  


16.  The leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has decided to execute new decisive operations under the name of ‘victory’ starting from 30 April 2009, and the victory operations include all the contemporary tactics from “martyrdom operations to explosive canisters, as wekk as booby-trapped cars, infiltration operations, ambushes, surprise attacks, targeting foreign forces bases and their diplomatic centers and [convoys], and the prominent officials in the agent administration, including parliament members, and employees of the defense and interior ministries and security forces.”  In an apparent attempt to bolster its authority, the leadership issued a guidance document for all Taliban in May.  “The Mujahideen must obey commanders, commanders must obey district general leaders, district general leaders must obey provincial general leaders and the provincial general leaders must obey the imam [Mullah Omar] and deputy imam.” Taliban statements identified the deputy leader as Mullah Baradar.


17.  The guidance document proscribes any Talib from taking bribes, extorting money, ransoming prisoners and executing people without the leadership’s permission. In a riposte to the extremists who like to video beheadings, the document says executions should be carried out with firearms and should not be photographed. It states that youngsters without beards are not allowed to fight and that smoking is banned. A fifth of all captured weapons and money should be sent to the leadership, with the fighters responsible keeping the rest. The formation of new, unofficial groups is banned and units should not operate outside their designated areas without permission from higher authorities. Suicide bombers should be well-trained, used to target high-ranking individuals and do their best to avoid civilian casualties. The core of the message is not dissimilar from the ‘population-centric counter-insurgency’ espoused in Gen McChrystal’s report. The Taliban document states: “Mujahideen, commanders and the provincial authority should have good relationships with local people so that the Mujahideen will always be welcomed by local people and they should always help them.” It warns that any Taliban fighter who creates problems for civilians will be warned and then expelled if he does not stop.  However, it may have little impact on the ground.


18.  There have been indications that Taliban tax collectors in areas such as Sangin are being given performance targets and told to tax wheat farmers as the opiate harvest declines. There has also been some intelligence reporting in Sangin that funds from profitable districts, typically rich agricultural areas in the Helmand River Valley, were to be sent to Khowst to purchase weapons from Pakistan, although this remains uncorroborated.


19.  The Quetta Shura tries to exercise control over its shadow state using traveling ‘commissions’, which began around three years ago. Tasked with ensuring the leadership’s commands are carried out, the commissions typically include representatives from various tribes to prevent any institutional bias, according to a senior Afghan intelligence source in Sangin. Intelligence reports in Sangin indicate that two commissioners also accompany tax collection teams, along with two representatives of the shadow district governor and two from the area’s military command.  There maybe two different types of Taliban commission. The Quetta Shura has 11 or 12 commissions, each assigned a portfolio such as military affairs, finance or health.  He said the commissions probably consisted of five to seven people who “send proposals to the supreme leader and his deputies for decisions”. He said these commissions probably did not travel around Afghanistan as a group due to the risk of being intercepted. The Taliban’s Al Somood online magazine has variously mentioned a military commission and an economic committee, both of which seem to be top-level bodies. 


Exploitable WeaknessShadow governors are keys to the Taliban leadership’s ambition of re-establishing control of Afghanistan, so their loyalty is essential.  The leadership’s ability to hire and fire governors presumably ensures some discipline and at the same time provides its appointees with a degree of legitimacy.  Take these guys out (one way or another) and you will have gone far in denying the Taliban’s attempt at gun barrel civil affairs.  There is a risk to the Taliban that some governors have little real authority if they are ignored by powerful commanders, the highest level examples of such figures being Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Gen McChrystal’s report stated: “The Haqqani Network and Hizbi-Islami Gulbuddin co-exist with, but do not necessarily accept the Quetta Shura Taliban framework and have yet to develop competing governing structures.”


R-E-S-P-E-C-T Your Opponent 


20.  You must understand that the Global Jihad Movement (of which the Taliban is part) has adopted Al Qaeda’s ideology as its platform.  In that regard (and as professed in multiple essays by Al Qaeda military philosophers), they have adopted the method of succession used by the German Army/Waffen-SS of World War II – “Every Corporal Carries a Field Marshall’s Baton in His Rucksack.”  This is something that has only recently been taught (since 2005).  However, it has served them well.  Every leader trains several subordinates in his duties and those of his superior, as well as those of two ranks down.  This allows leadership gaps to be filled rather rapidly.  That’s why you will only see, at maximum, a 2-month lull in activities, when a key leader is killed in action or eliminated in a targeted strike.           


21.  In the Af/Pak Theater, Al Qaeda supplies the various Taliban factions, including those under the command and control of the QST with funds, logistics, MTTs, foreign fighters and planning advice.  To better appreciate the means in which Al Qaeda has influenced the Taliban’s strategic and operational planning levels, it is necessary to review the theory behind its operational structure.  In January 2005, after recovering from its splintering in 2001, Al Qaeda ideologue Abu Musa’ab As Suri (currently in custody) published an essay on the internet titled “The Global Islamic Resistance Call” with a sizeable section devoted to “Nizam, La Tanzeem” (System, Not Organization).  The document established the framework for Al Qaeda’s strategic approach to the Global Jihad, which has slowly been put into practice in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Algeria, Pakistan and most recently Yemen.  In the essay, As Suri establishes a doctrine for Al Qaeda and the Global Jihad Movement called Fourth Generation Warfare, which allows for a more flexible, decentralized system of command and control and logistical support, a reliance on organizational dispersion, and an emphasis on collapsing an opponent internally through psychological warfare and selecting targets that reduce an opponent’s ability to attain domestic and international support.  As Suri gives theoretical credit to an article published in the U.S. Marine Corps Gazette in 1989 titled, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” by William Lind, and expands upon theories introduced in the book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” by Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui published by the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China in February 1999.  So, if you think these cave dwellers don’t read and take notes, think again….      




Final Thoughts


22.  The Haqqanis are fighting a war and the Taliban are looking to govern. That is why I think Haqqani fits much more comfortably with Al Qaeda than the Quetta Shura.  Although Mullah Omar has embraced Al Qaeda and will likely never sever his ties completely.  Remember, Osama Bin Ladan and Ayman Al Zawahiri both stated that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the greater Caliphate of the Karasan are for Mullah Omar to rule.  Al Qaeda is merely a supporting entity.


23.  Take the initiative with regard to PSYOP/IO.  DO NOT get bogged down in trying to defend your position or answer the enemy’s allegations.  When U.S. Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac, he told his officers to stop speculating what Bobby Lee will do.  He told them to just consider what they were going to do to Bobby Lee.  Conversely, Nathan Bedford Forrest told his staff to “put the scare into them.”  That said, be relentless in taking the information war to the Taliban.  Taunt them.  Tell the public that their tactical leaders are still killing civilians and not listening to Mullah Omar.  Show Taliban atrocities for what they are.  Be relentless.  It’s time to seize the initiative and patiently move forward at a steady pace.   


24.  Stop calling this The Long War.  If that’s what you’re going to call it, that’s what you’re going to get.  This is a contest of wills and we will win.  You need to make it so that we will once again be the Lawrences and pass the role of Ottoman to our adversaries.  It's not really about time. It's about the clever application of will. Therefore, I say fight them in the propaganda war, fight them on the field of honor, while intelligently applying sound civil affairs, FID and UW methods in their midst.



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