Small Wars Journal

One Team’s Approach to Village Stability Operations

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 8:55am

"If you have seen one VSO, you have seen one VSO."

This paper is an effort to demonstrate my team’s approach to VSO using the principles and TTPs that numerous articles have recently highlighted in the July-September issue of Special Warfare Magazine.  It illustrates the practical application of the principles of VSO in the current operational environment and details exactly how these principles appear through the prism of the Military Decision-Making Process.  This is the product of the team’s assessment, planning, execution, after action review and refinement process over the last 150 days of VSO operations in an austere and isolated location. 

The Village Stability Operations Methodology is a bottom up approach that employs USSOF teams and partnered units embedded with villagers in order to establish security and to support and promote socio-economic development and good governance. Each Village Stability Team is a distinct entity with its own culture, appearances and way of operating, which reflects the Afghan dynamic of that particular site.  It is true that Village Stability Platforms (VSP) throughout Afghanistan vary greatly within the context of conducting Village Stability Operations (VSO), yet every VSP applies the same principles of the methodology and shepherds the village through the phases of Shape, Hold, Build, and Expand / Transition; culminating with connecting the village to GIRoA through the district and province. 

Our VSP is one such site that has made significant progress in the year since USSOF teams began the VSO effort. This VSP is no exception to the rule; it has its own unique blend of VSO applied by the Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (SFODA) and based on the cultural realities of the district.  But like all VSO, operations are broadly categorized into Governance, Development and Security.  It is useful, then to illuminate the particularities of specific VSPs to determine how the principles of VSO are at play across a broad spectrum of different and distinct sites. This analysis is an effort to do just that: to identify how the principles of VSO filter through the Military Decision Making Process to render a coherent campaign plan with a clear way forward.  This analysis will cover the ODA’s plan for the Governance, Security and Development lines of operations with a definition of success in each.

The district in which we are operating presents distinct challenges that arise primarily from its deeply divided human and physical terrain and the lack of coalition and GIRoA presence over the last decade. Since our arrival we have continually developed the ground situation and our understanding of the district’s idiosyncrasies.  Based on this continual assessment, progress along the VSO shape-hold-build-transition/expansion model is inhibited by 3 key factors: a defunct system of governance, a divided population, and an under-developed economy based in subsistence farming.  These factors collude to form a survivalist culture with a zero-sum worldview.

Currently, both traditional and GIRoA governance systems are defunct.  The village elders that make up the traditional governance structures have had all visages of power stripped from them by years of constant fighting, instability and successive regime changes. They do not have access to the resources necessary to establish themselves as local power brokers.  The vast majority of the elders represent villages dominated by subsistence farming.  These villages do not produce any respectable degree of disposable income, thus the village and elders are denied the most functional source of power.

Tribal disputes between the Barakzai and Alizai tribes also play a key role in dividing the population.  The Barakzai account for approximately 50% of the population and have been the traditional power holders.  The disenfranchised Alizai tribe is between 25% and 35% of the population.  Smaller tribes of less than 5% of the population comprise the remaining population.  The Ishaqzi tribe is the most significant actor in this group. Largely discontented with the current government, the Ishaqzi are centered around Sakzi Kalay and are a traditional supporter of the Taliban in the district.

The harsh terrain, exacerbated by austere weather conditions, with no major Main Supply Route and limited movement through mountain passes truncates the lines of communication and interchange between the villages in the district and between the district and Kandahar proper. One of the most inhibiting factors all aspects of progress in the district, the harsh terrain limits the district government’s ability to collect information and project force via the ANP.  It raises the cost of moving goods to markets and erodes the opportunities for economic expansion.

The majority of the district survives on subsistence farming. These farms do not yield any surplus income that can be invested in local economic growth. Currently, there are no natural resources in the district capable of driving economic growth other than the arable land. Any local economic growth will be based on increasing the ability of local farmers to produce surplus of agricultural products and preserve those products to take advantage of optimal market conditions.

Because the populace cannot conceive of cooperation in pursuit of a mutually beneficial outcome, it will ensure the survival of the individual, the family, the village and the tribe. The populace fights each other for any and all CF assistance, believing in a zero-sum game which cannot be mutually beneficial to all.  To change this unproductive mentality, we are pursuing three key lines of operation in the district that addresses the major issues and problems. First, the ODA is focusing on enhancing the efficacy of the district government, its inner-cooperation and its relationship with the populace. Second, the team is actively fostering economic growth through various agricultural and civil affairs programs focused on the District Center and bazaar. Third, the ODA is expanding the ANSFs’ ability to secure the district, expanding the overall ANSF security apparatus and establishing them as the district’s sole dispute arbiter.


Inefficiency, corruption and tribal bias characterized governance in the district. The length of tenure, differing tribal affiliation, lifelong connections to the populace and relative prevalence of financial corruption have severely hampered the district leadership’s ability to effectively govern without bias. Our goal is to enhance the district government by focusing on three tasks: empowering the District Governor, establishing ANSFs’ monopoly on the legitimate use of force and improving the efficacy of the district government.

Empowering the District Governor

The tribes of the district recognize the district governor as a fair and impartial judge, and our first effort is to build his power base.  The District Governor (DG) has no functioning power over the ANP and lacks the ability to enforce his decisions through force of arms. The DG also lacks resources he can disburse to or withhold from the population.  Because of these two factors, the district populace sees the DG as largely unable to address key grievances.  To improve the DG’s popular perception, we are executing these four sub-tasks:

  1. Establish the executive shura.  This provides the governor with a forum to engage the collective population.  We are advising the district governor on the best way to use these shuras to expand and solidify his power base.  The district has elected a four man shura to advise the District Governor on where to build small critical infrastructure projects (wells, irrigation ditches, etc).  This District Development Assembly provides the necessary connection from the District Governor to the people receiving aid.
  2. Demonstrate the district governor’s access to resources.  This requires enabling the governor to provide basic services, specifically popular access to medical care, access to a district school, and year-round low cost transportation to the provincial services and markets in Kandahar.
  3. Empower the district governor to grant or refuse village development projects.  We are encouraging the DG to focus on the construction of check dams, storage silos and farm-to-market roads that link towns to the district center.
  4. Enable the DG to build a broad district government.  By authorizing the DG to hire key leaders in the district and pay them a stable salary or to fire individuals whose villages defect from GIRoA, we encourage these leaders to assume a personal vested interest in supporting the government.

Improving the Efficacy of Government   

For years, the District Government has consisted of two positions: the District Governor and the District Chief of Police (DCOP). However, this leadership duo has a relationship rife with disagreements, miscommunication, and power struggles. The DG of the Alizai tribe and the DCOP of the Barakzai tribe have held their positions for six and eight years respectively. This dysfunctional relationship leads to an ineffective governing body split largely along tribal lines.  Additionally, no governmental staff exists to support these two positions.  The DCOP has acted as the district’s judge, logistics officer, tribal affairs officer, general contractor, and cook. Both leaders are forced to govern outside of their traditional roles in order to accomplish marginal successes. To encourage better cooperation between the districts two main political leaders, we are executing these two sub-tasks: 

  1. Persuade the DG/DCOP to act in their governmental roles. As long as the focus and time of the district leaders remains so inefficiently divided, they will never be able to address the district’s most important issues. We are addressing the district leadership’s overextension by advising them to narrow their role, delegate to trusted individuals and focus on improving the entire district.
  2. Improve communication between the two district leaders. To increase both the frequency and quality of the communication among the district leadership, the ODA conducts nightly meetings with the DG, DCOP and NDS Chief. The ODA focuses on constructing positive sum scenarios to create a balance of power between the District Governor and the Chief of Police that encourages mutual cooperation. These nightly meetings also allow the ODA to advise/assist in all major governmental decision-making, ensuring tribal rivalries and past biases are removed from government policy.

Monopolizing the ANP’s legitimate use of force

In recent years, the DCOP and his ANP have aggravated the relationship between the government security apparatus and the local populace. A history of negative actions toward the Alizai and Ishaqzi tribes has bred their deep-seeded mistrust and anger towards the ANP.  Additionally, insurgents in the district constantly intimidate and harass the local populace, thereby capitalizing on the pervading survivalist mentality and coercing the populace to acquiesce to their demands.  To refute the popular view that ANSF no longer hold legitimate authority to police the district, we are executing these three sub-tasks:

  1. Improve the public image of ANP. The ODA plans on improving the ANP’s image by supervising, advising, assisting and participating in their operations at all times, ensuring they act as neutral mediators in all situations. 
  2. Delegitimize the insurgents’ use of violence.  The ODA is using its attached MISO assets to attack the insurgents’ use of force, haphazard IED emplacement and intimidation of villagers. Broadcast radio messages are aimed at delegitimizing insurgent operations in the district.
  3. Train ANP on proper policing procedures. The ODA is addressing ANP’s lack of professionalism by allowing the Embedded Police Mentors (EPM), subject matter experts in policing, to train and advise the ANP in the conduct of policing in the district. These EPMs will also advise the DCOP on proper procedures for the use of force, imprisonment and conflict resolution.


The underdeveloped economic system in the district is one of the most critical factors enabling insurgent activity and freedom of movement in the district.  The lack of surplus production and access to markets discourages the residents from economically engaging the rest of Afghanistan.  In turn, there is no taxable financial surplus to spark the provincial government’s interest in the district.  The lack of security and paved roads combined with a porous border makes commerce in Pakistan more cost efficient than commerce in Afghanistan.  These factors combine to make the district disenfranchised and economically isolated from the rest of Afghanistan.  Our goal is to improve the economy by stabilizing the supply-demand relationship in the district by executing four tasks: developing the bazaar into an economic center, creating a local surplus of agricultural production, lowering the cost of moving goods to markets and providing basic essential services that support long-term economic and social development.

Developing the bazaar into an economic center

The ODA is focused on creating a bazaar that supports year-round economic activity and functions as the cultural and social hub of the district.  In our first step, we renovated the bazaar using the “cash-for-work” concept.  To date, local workers cleaned the bazaar, installed trash cans, and dug a network of drainage ditches to keep the roads in the bazaar passable during the rainy seasons, and are planning on install lighting throughout the bazaar to increase the length of the business day.  The ANP conduct regular patrols in the bazaar to maintain a security presence. Recently, contractors have arrived to build the District Clinic, a new District Center (DC), and refurbish the district’s police station.   Additionally the contractors will build the district’s first road through the bazaar and DC connecting the surrounding villages and farmlands to its main marketplace and seat of governance.

  1. Support a year-round farm-to-buyer connection. This connection requires supporting continuous communication between local farm owners and buyers that have access to capital reserves and broader markets in Afghanistan’s urban centers.  We can identify farmers that will grow a surplus of agricultural produce and connect them to buyers in large urban centers.  These buyers begin inspecting the farmers’ crops during the growing season and agree on a price prior to harvest time.  This guarantees the farmers a set profit and ensures they have a vested interest in maximizing the productive output of their farms. 
  2. Start critical businesses through micro-grants. Attendance in the bazaar will increase proportional to the increase in desirable goods available in the bazaar shops at competitive prices.  We can speed up this process by giving micro-grants to individuals —to bring new goods into the market.  Goods like the brick-fuel press and services like fee-based VOIP communications are a more efficient alternative to those currently available and spur growth of inter-dependence in the district. 

Creating local surplus of agricultural produce

While enjoying the soil and climate conditions to support year-round planting and harvesting cycles, district farmers work their farms only a few months out of the year due to limited crop diversity and scarce water supply. This problem culminates at harvest time because the majority of the district harvests their crops at the same time.  Without the ability to preserve their harvest for the most favorable market conditions, farmers must deliver their surplus crops to market simultaneously.  This surplus exceeds demand for these goods and depresses the price to a point where the profit margin disappears.  In addition, the crop supply cannot meet the district demand throughout the remainder of the year, destroying the economic incentive for any excess agricultural production.  By setting the agricultural conditions that allow the local famers to produce crops beyond basic subsistence, we give them potential access to a profit margin.  In addition, farming becomes a profitable alternative to illicit employment.  In order to create this agricultural surplus, we are executing three sub-tasks:

  1. Improve crop quality and diversity. To institute a winter growing season with the help of agricultural contractors we are continually distributing higher quality and more durable seeds to the local farmers.  In the long term, this harvest will produce enough wheat for each farmer to both feed his family and have enough harvest to plant during the next November and December. 
  2. Improve access to critical and scarce agricultural resources. To increasing farmers’ access to water, seed, fertilizer, and farming knowledge, we are encouraging and supporting the construction of check dams and other water conservation techniques.  The winter wheat and other seed dissemination programs are addressing the narrow and limited access to seeds.  In addition, we are distributing urea-based fertilizer, as well as offering a urea nitrate for ammonium nitrate exchange program.  To enhance farming knowledge, we (in partnership with USDA) have constructed two model farms to teach improved farming practices to the population.
  3. Improve methods to preserve goods for future sales. By teaching produce preservation techniques and building storage silos we can stabilize the market for these crops through the year.  This improves the profit margin for the farmers and encourages them to implement their farming practices throughout the round.

Lowering the costs of commerce

The district has no transportation infrastructure.  Roads in the district are rough sewn out edges of even rougher terrain that facilitate marginally faster movement by motorcycle or pack animal.  Trucks can traverse only a handful of roads. These travel conditions prohibit an efficient transit of goods to market, which greatly incentivizes subsistence farming. To facilitate the efficient trade of goods, we are executing two sub-tasks:

  1. Build farm to market roads in the district. These roads are graveled, improved roads that connect the DC Bazaar to villages and subsequently from villages to the farm. These roads will help encourage farmers to bring their agricultural surplus to market for sale by lowering the cost of moving goods, as well as easing and shortening the journey. The first road has recently been completed, connecting surrounding farmlands to their villages.
  2. Facilitate and supervise construction of the DC Loop. This road will run through the bazaar and the district DC. Currently contractors have begun the road and will complete it late this year.

Provide basic essential infrastructure and services

The District Government has no capacity to address the basic needs of its people. The district has little medical infrastructure, with all of the populace receiving medical aid from local doctors with minimal education and skill. The extremely underdeveloped school system lacks a formal education system with a graduated grade structure. Informal education exists in mosques and madrassas scattered around the district, and consists entirely of religious learning. Lack of support from the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education exacerbates these problems and renders the District Government unable to provide for its people. To facilitate the district’s delivery of the essential services, we will execute three sub-tasks:

  1. Fund schooling and distribute school supplies. We are working with the DG to determine the locations of schools that will be instrumental in educating the children of the district. Two major schools have opened with a total of 350 students. We have enabled the district to open its own school near the bazaar with 20 students.  We have also empowered the DG to be the focal point for all school supply distribution, delivering school supplies monthly to a total of over 1700 children. The program facilitates the transfer of responsibilities to the Ministry of Education representative for the district.
  2. Facilitate the construction of the district clinic. Previously, medical infrastructure was limited to small, private practice doctors operating out of a random assortment of villages detached from the district government. The ODA has addressed this issue by funding a clinic focused on preventative medicine, public health and movement to higher care. It has recently opened in the bazaar. This temporary clinic provides basic medical care to the local populace and provides the district with its first centralized treatment facility in recent history. It houses the district medical staff until a more permanent district clinic is constructed. The clinic has a dedicated doctor with up to ten community health workers. Contractors also have recently started construction on the district clinic, located just northeast of the bazaar. This is a more permanent solution to the issue of lack of medical treatment in the district. This district clinic will eventually offer multiple doctors, nurses and community health workers in a full service setting.
  3. Refurbish the District Police Station, build a new District Center and Refurbish the District Mosque. These three other major infrastructure projects will address the needs of both the local populace and the district government. The current district center is severely lacking in basic hygiene, available living and work space, jail facilities, latrines and showers, electricity, kitchen and mess facilities. The current district center will be refurbished and upgraded to become the District ANP police station. The district annex will provide the DG with his advisors and secretaries workspace and lodging. The district mosque remains unfinished in the bazaar next to the district center. The UAE provides funding for mosque construction, while we oversee the contractors. Once built, the mosque will provide a central location for the local populace to gather, pray and interact with one another. We hope it will become an important cultural symbol of the government’s commitment to its people, cooperation between Afghans and their government and the overall progress of the district.


The nature of the district presents numerous unique challenges that severely impede the security infrastructure from protecting the populace. The harsh, mountainous terrain dominates the district, restricting travelers to motorcycle and pack animal movement. The mountains scattered across the district present numerous opportunities for the Taliban to use as bed down locations, training camps and areas from which to stage attacks and emplace IEDs.

The district austerity and its rural populace inhibit the support it receives from higher levels of the Afghan Government. Until recently, the provincial government had completely ignored the district, preferring to treat it with benign neglect. This lack of support from the provincial government has lead to an unsupervised, ill-fitted, under-manned, poorly led and largely untrained Afghan National Police (ANP) force that polices the district with imbibed tribal biases and little self-restraint. In fact, tribal differences in the district play a key role in determining the distribution of power, money and resources. These factors collude to create a serious security gap, which the Taliban exploit with their own customs and law to effectively intimidate, harass and coerce the populace into general acquiescence, despite the fact that many of the village elders are ex-mujahedeen fighters.  Our goal is to build security by expelling the Taliban out of traditional operating areas in the district by executing three tasks: disrupting insurgent operations, supporting the district ANSF infrastructure and securing the district’s key terrain.

Disrupting insurgent operations

Some patrols focus on engaging the populace, conducting Key Leader Engagements, Afghan Local Police recruitment, Civil Affairs project evaluation, IED location/reduction, intelligence gathering and establishing a security presence in the district. Other patrols focus on IED emplacement disruption/deterrence, reconnaissance/surveillance and overwatch. To successfully disrupt the insurgents operations in the district and build white space, we will execute two additional sub-tasks:

  1. Remove insurgents and disrupt major resupply routes:  By taking the Taliban personalities off of the battlefield we deny them the necessary leadership to conduct operations.
  2. Identify/disrupt insurgent district operations. By establishing a robust intelligence network, coordinating and enhancing intelligence collection through the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and ANP, conducting sensitive site exploitation on all IEDs, and increasing Intelligence, Surveillance Reconnaissance collection, we are acquiring a comprehensive picture of Taliban operational Tactics Techniques and Procedures in the district.

Supporting the district ANSF security infrastructure

The provincial government’s denial of support to the district’s ANP, NDS and Afghan Border Police (ABP) has crippled the ability of the security apparatus to effectively project force, recruit, equip and train new members, promote from within and address logistical deficiencies. The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program in the district has the potential to develop into the most important pillar in the ANSF structure and represents a promising way forward for establishing enduring security in the district. Though this program shows potential, the populace has been slow to cooperate. Village elders in the district have been supportive of the idea but are reluctant to demonstrate a substantive commitment, citing Taliban intimidation, coercion and fear of reprisals. With time, the ALP program may prove to be the decisive chapter in closing the book on the Taliban’s hold of the populace and in bringing lasting security to the district as a whole.

  1. Increase the number of ANP. We have recently received two embedded police mentors to assist in training, advising, mentoring and equipping the district ANP. They have a direct connection to mentors with the MOI and have already established more visibility on the true number of ANP in the district, their supply of weapons and ammunition, their logistical infrastructure and the level of corruption. This link will also facilitate a necessary increase in the number of ANP in the district. Since the district ANP have no NCOs, only the DCOP has arrest authority. We plan to promote high achieving ANP soldiers to NCO rank and to populate the patrolman ranks with new recruits.
  2. Expand the NDS role in the district. Historically, the district NDS have added little value to the security and intelligence network of the district. They lacked leadership, purpose, and motivation.  After lobbying the NDS provincial leadership, they sent a strong leader to reorganize, reshape and assert control of the NDS mission in the district. Since his arrival, we have established an extremely productive relationship of information swapping.  We will continue to pursue a greater relationship with the NDS to improve intelligence gathering.
  3. Solidify the logistical support chain. While the ANP and NDS organizations have logistics officers in the provincial headquarters, they suffer from the district’s austerity and almost completely rely on us for all classes of supply. Recently, we asked the Kandahar PCOP to create a mobile maintenance team (MMT) comprised of a complete package of maintenance and resupply personnel from MOI to travel to the district on a monthly basis to resolve all logistics issues.
  4. Support the ABP Checkpoints. ABP’s checkpoints (CP) along the AFPAK border range from a heavily fortified structure with an array of fully manned guard towers to a small almost abandoned outpost with little to no support. We communicate with the ABP CPs through the DCOP, and we plan on continued support of the checkpoints in the future.
  5. Build ALP. We have trained and equipped ALP mostly centered on the DC.  We plan to expand the role of ALP in the security infrastructure as we continue to train more of them further away from the DC.

Securing key terrain

IED emplacement in the river valleys of the district are a threat to local nationals, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Coalition Forces in the district.  Both ANP CPs and patrolling will solidify the recent security gains and change the popular negative perception of security among the populace. A robust and permanent ANSF presence will prevent insurgent manipulation of the populace through their use of IED emplacement, night letters, intimidation, harassment and coercion. The support of the village elders in the key villages along the major wadis of the district will determine its future. Additionally, large civil affairs projects that provide the district populace with demonstrable progress are extremely important to secure from insurgent attacks. In addition to the civil infrastructure destruction, a successful attack would be an important victory at a time when the insurgency is perceived as weak.:

  1. Build ANSF CPs along the district’s major river valleys.  We plan to establish fortified checkpoints manned by ANP and ALP near key villages in support of village security, ALP recruitment, infrastructure protection, IED emplacement interdiction, and demonstration of the government’s commitment to security.
  2. Protect major CA projects in the district. The ANP and NDS stationed at the district center are responsible for securing the planned civil infrastructure projects in the bazaar and district center. Additionally, the ODA will construct two fortified ANSF CPs near the bazaar to prevent a possible insurgent attack.

Success in the District

In Village Stability Operations establishing a common operating picture and defining success in pursuit of executing the commander’s intent is a critical factor that affects the entire team effort. VSO in the district is characterized by managing and completing a vast array of seemingly unrelated tasks that interact in complex unimaginable ways, all in a system of decentralized execution.  As the ODA continues along its three lines of operation we are constantly developing metrics to measure progress toward a common understanding of “success.” This common understanding is vital in achieving unity of effort within the context of VSO. Without this common understanding and subsequent unity of effort, the ODA would be left with a disorganized array of concurrent operations that would likely result in either a duplication of effort or even worse, team members working against each other.   


  • District ANP/ALP have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and use it responsibly
  • ALP checkpoint system links villages to the Chief of Police and the ANP; ALP dissuades insurgent intimidation, harassment and coercion
  • Insurgents are disrupted and freedom of maneuver along major ratlines is significantly degraded
  • ABP CPs able to effectively repel insurgent attacks and secure the border area


  • District Governor promotes and executes development projects through the District Development Assembly shura
  • District government seen as a legitimate, neutral arbiter of Afghan law. Government able to effectively resolve disputes
  • DG/DCoP relationship is balanced and adequately effective


  • Lines of communication are open for the citizens of the district to major urban centers
  • Economy based on Afghan products and not solely on Pakistani based products
  • Infrastructure is improved to facilitate faster, easier movement from farm to market and village to village
  • District Center Bazaar provides a market for the local farmers’ crop surplus and accordingly becomes the economic center of the district

This article reflects the personal opinions and observations of the author, not any sanctioned command view.  The article was updated on 9/12/2011 with minor word changes and errata that did not substantively effect the original work.

About the Author(s)

CPT Rory Hanlin is the Detachment Commander of an ODA in 3rd SFG(A) and is currently deployed conducting VSO in Afghanistan.  Previous to his assignment as an ODA Team Leader, he served as an Infantry Rifle Platoon Leader and Executive Officer in the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq from 2007-2008.

CPT Rory Hanlin is the Detachment Commander of an ODA in 3rd SFG(A) and is currently deployed conducting VSO in Afghanistan.  Previous to his assignment as an ODA Team Leader, he served as an Infantry Rifle Platoon Leader and Executive Officer in the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq from 2007-2008.


It is painful to read such a well structured paper because you keep asking yourself why is it only SOFDA units are able to operate to such depth in the community? If you think of the SOFODA operations at the VSO level as the Formula 1 of what we are doing in Afghanistan then as with the rest of the vehicle industry, they normally take and adapt what is learnt on the F1 track. This rarely seems to happen for us in Afghanistan except where you have other similarly passionate PRT commanders but before long they're tour is over.

Your level of engagement at the village level is still a novelty even after 11 years of being there. As an aside do any government development/aid units live themselves in the villages? Regardless of the money we pour in if we dont have a social licence to operate then economic development will not eliminate the fundamental reasons for why the population allows insurgents to remain or why some of the local men can pick up an AK to shoot us one day or be paid by us to clean a karez the next.

The time given to be in these villages when we think about it is also very short and too short to really hit the fundamental issues. CPT Hanlin, how long were you able to work in this District and when you leave will an equally passionate replacement (and just as importantly CMDR be replacing you?)

Too many still love big government. They have taken the big government approach to Afghanistan and all that big government entails – superficial understanding of the human terrain, ultra-slow decision cycles, very complex and fancy power point presentations, and now real KPIs that reward innovation.

For example, many IEDs will remain long after we have gone because the bad-guys who placed them have been killed or moved on. We wanted design a program that trained and incentivised local men to spot and remove IEDs. This could have been useful for more isolated areas that are not on GIROA's priority list and therefore few if any motivated, well led ANSF.
While the initiative was supported by people out in the field at the village level the "big government" thinkers squashed it. Sure there needed to be work done on rolling it out - but as with initiatives in our own western provincial districts, local problems (sometimes with a little push from outside) tend to lead to local solutions, that may not be bureaucratically perfect but they work.

It would be interesting to know how your initiative can continue, whether driven directly by you or your replacement, as we all head towards withdrawal dates. We can argue back and forth that we all this is a waste time etc but that’s not constructive given that you are there right now and have a responsibility. Can any sliver of what your team has developed be sustained once you go because your text book framework may only last until that point? And is it unsustainable partly because of the ways you have been prevented from delivering programs/actions by the big bureaucracy? That is, your initiatives are really only scratching the surface and haven’t become rusted on concepts/actions with the community? My questions are genuine as I am very interested in how we get around this for the future.

Thanks for the great article.


Fri, 01/06/2012 - 6:11pm

Great article, very up to date and relevant to the missions we have today. I hope it is distributed at the various SOTF's and not just on here.


Thu, 03/22/2012 - 5:37pm

In reply to by jcustis

Ditto on your comment on the hand-off brief. My sector in Iraq had been occupied by coalition for 4 yrs before I ever got there, and all I got as continuity was a phone book of sheikhs with some cliff-notes and sigacts. Half way through the deployment I could finally talk intelligently about the tribal, economic, and political issues in the sector. Solid waste of precious time. The civil-affairs discontinuity with everyone else was a bit of a shocker too. I never actually understood the CA concept (not for lack of trying), leaving me and others scratching our heads as to what the purpose of this loan or that water treatment facility was. One can hope it is generally better now.....


Tue, 09/06/2011 - 12:26pm

This an exceptionally well-organized and well-written article. I commend CPT Hanlin for writing it.

It chafes my ass, nonetheless, to read it and be able to check off every one of the initiatives and lines of operation that he described, as almost exactly what my LAR battalion was doing in way South Helmand Province. When I say almost exactly, it's as if he and his team dropped into Rig District and picked up where we left off. Bazaar refurbishment and improvement? Check...Mosque repair? Check...Executive shuras? Check...Push school supplies? Check...Work to strengthen the NDS and their investigative powers?...Check.

Afghan Local Police initiative? Hold up there Marines...Good initiative, but bad judgment. That is a USSOCOM led program. You can't possibly have the common sense to be able to appeal to local elders and the tribal fabric, in order to see a net increase to the security of the district through Afghan hands. SOF does that, and no, you can't tap into the funding stream to implement that sort of stuff. You're just a GPF.

I know I sound bitter, but that's basically the impression I walked away with when dealing with the slideshow after slideshow of the VSO and ALP efforts that RC(SW) had let loose. Here's this great program, with funding attached to it to accomplish things that are important to a "COIN" fight, like improving local security capacity, but you can't touch it because the SF guys are the ones doing it. I don't know whether this was a command/component issue, where the SOF commander refused to relinquish control of the initiative, or something deeper, more bureaucratic, and idiotic. ETA: I just had a coincidental run-in with a senior officer who saw the hard copy of this article in my hands, and as we discussed my interest in the subject of VSO, he let me in on some of the back channel issues that caused friction with its implementation, even at the hadns of SOF forces. They went beyond component and service issues, and ran as deep as the highest levels of the host nation.

It nonetheless was one of the missing plays that prevented my battalion from pushing the ball into the end zone.

G Martin, your points are spot on and totally valid. I "managed" the lines of operation and mpst of our non-kinetic endeavours during my old batalion's deploy, and I was most frustrated by the fact that I could rarely get the intelligence and operations hands to sit back and tell me why insurgent X decided to do Y. It made for a very difficult time to be able to analyze what the triggers were that caused support for or against GIRoA, and even more difficult for my boss to be able to fully employ the various tools at his disposal as a commander of a fairly basic area of operations.

If you cannot decipher that 1) there is true instability rooted in economic disadvantage, and 2) that instability causes the locals to side with the nsurgents, then 3) all you are doing is exposing yourself to the risk of providing handouts to a cross-section of folk who are very adept at surviving through opportunism.

The following unit conducts the relief-in-place and the cycle starts all over again.

ETA: It doesn't have to be that way though, and I want to end this comment on a good note.

The more I let this article digest, the more I recognize that it (although labeled a VSO bumper sticker) represents everything I should have had laid out for me prior to beginning my RSO&I in-country. In fact, I should have been afforded this level of detail about the goings-on in my battalion's future AO, easily three months before I arrived. Call it a brief, read-ahead, etc., but this is precisely what I should have had access to in order to avoid wasting week's of effort to establish what was going on in the district, what was working, and what had failed to take root.

This situational awareness should have been supplemented with a comparable level of detail of governance and development initiatives at the PRT level. The significant level of disconnect between what my civil affairs team leader knew to be true, what the Division Civil Military Operations cell knew to be true, and what the Helmand PRT decided was the way to go, shocks me to this day.

In hindsight, I shouldn't have had to rummage through the sharepoint portals or SIPR shared drives, running wildcard queries, and then skimming every hit to glean something relevant. I should have received a concise report, well-organized and accurate, to serve as, essentially, my battle handover brief. I admit that I never gave my incoming counterpart anything as well-developed as CPT Hanlin's article, but I can see in this article that the framework for reliable information exchange doesn't need to be recreated. It is essentially laid out here already.

CPT Hanlin, you'll be seeing an email pushed your way shortly. So will the SWJ editors.


Mon, 09/05/2011 - 7:43am

Actually implementing the entire VSO/ALP piece on the ground, in the village, with the populace, is much more difficult than the collection of briefings I have seen and been given would lead one to believe. A more thorough and detailed portrait of the numerous lines of effort necessary in a VSO/ALP environment has not been submitted. I commend the author for bringing to light the issues inherent in the process and its execution. Hopefully, the realities of his experience are communicated to his command, as the difficulties that emerge are often the result of cultural, political, and societal mores indigenous to Afghanistan that impede development in the Western sense of the term. Good luck and God Speed to the author.

Bill M.

Mon, 09/05/2011 - 7:22pm

In reply to by G Martin

G. Martin,

Your comments on economic develop and hubris are ones I strongly concur with, but as you stated the ODA probably doesn't have a choice, because our doctrine and ideology mandate that we implement a 3D (diplomacy, development, and defense) approach regardless of the sound counter arguments for NOT doing so.

This ODA (like many others) has way too much on their plate, so I suspect the insurgents will have large degree of freedom of movement while their efforts are largely focused on development and political issues. Putting hubris aside for a minute, since we already agree on this point, and focusing on the mission we're given (time to salute and move out, the debate is over with), then I think we have our own structural problems for implementing the 3D approach at the grassroots level hoping to connect into higher's bureaucracy.

If the SOTF and other elements do not have LNOs at all of these bureaucracies (ISAF and Afghanistan) to help connect the political and economic dots from lower to higher and vice versa, then I suspect there will be random successes based primarily on luck.

I also think a security element should partner with the ODA (whether is another ODA, SEAL squad/platoon, infantry platoon, etc.) with its own enablers such as intelligence, fires, and mobility to focus solely on aggressively pursuing the insurgent elements and working with the local ASF.

ODAs are a unique organization that are quite capable of juggling multiple balls simultaneously, but there are limits to how much effort they can put into all these tasks. If we're serious about defeating/suppressing the insurgency, then that needs to be a major effort along side the other efforts of political and economic development. Unfortunately we don't have elements outside of DOD that are capable of doing this at the grass roots level, so of course the default answer is to put these tasks in DOD's rucksack.

G Martin

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 10:02pm

This is very good and an eye-opener for the range of activities an ODA has to keep on their plate while doing VSO. Kudos to that ODA for a thorough planning job and to the CPT for the write-up.

Would be very instructive to get at things the ODA got wrong, though that stuff probably won't make it to open forums- and probably for good reason. Hopefully the things they didn't see coming and the things they didn't have success with no matter their efforts are making it into some kind of reporting channels.

The only other comment I'd make is to take issue with the overall concept in our doctrine and operations with how we think about economic development. This is not to blast the ODA's concept- this is something that all of ISAF, USAID, State, and our doctrine writers have wrong in my opinion. The problem is multiple: the assumption (stated as fact in our operational lines) that people who are living a subsistence farming life are more likely to support insurgents than those who have more wealth, an ignorant view on how wealth is generated, and a naive view on how wealth generation is sustained.

The first problem is the result of cultural hubris and a projection of ourselves on others.

The second problem is more surprising- given most military officers' oft-voiced feelings of disdain for "Big Government" solutions back home. For some reason we have bought into the concept that we can facilitate economic development by doing a cursory analysis and funding what seems like the most promising efforts to increase wealth. It should surprise no-one that if we spend money, secure "micro-loans", build roads and other infrastructure, and hand out seeds, there would be a corresponding up-tick in economic activity in the short-term and it would appear as if we are making progress. True wealth- rising living standards and greater productivity/profit, however, is grown by the locals over a long period of time due to multiple factors, many of them impossible to identify beforehand. Any external "help" can backfire and impede progress by, among other things, creating a dependency.

The third is probably the most tragic part of our operations: the lack of sustainable solutions. Relying on increased agricultural yields, greater preservation of agricultural product, ease of transportation, and greater agricultural diversity- even if they don't cause a drop in prices- are not a viable alternative to illicit crops and are not something to bank on for future sustainable wealth creation.

The solution, in my view, is to get out of the economic development realm altogether. I know this sounds anathema to the paradigmatic "security-governance-development" trifecta of our COIN doctrine and would send USAID guys into convulsions, but we are, in my opinion, adding a layer of complexity to something already massively complex. Let's drop the idea that economic issues automatically feed insurgencies, let's stop running mini-aid programs as if they'd be more successful here than they've been in Africa and Asia, and let's only support locally asked-for infrastructure development that can be directly tied to increased economic activity- and with some sort of feasible, locally-owned and funded sustainability plan to keep it maintained.

Great paper that effectively presents the challenges that your ODA and many others are dealing with in Afghanistan. I'll share some ideas that you can use or drop in the porta-potty as you see fit.
I know your higher HQs is demanding metrics, and the primary purpose of metrics unfortunately is to facilitate briefings to people who will have no impact on your mission. Got it, you have to do it, but I wouldn't burn the midnight oil working on them, you have more important things to do.
Your team has been asked to significantly transform this piece of the world socially, politically, economically and of course providing greater security. That is a tall order for an ODA with a few enablers, and the point is you won't get it all accomplished on your tour, so your true metric of success in my view is putting a viable plan in place focused on transition that sets your replacements up for success so they can carry the ball that much further down the road. Many units (conventional and SOF) going into Afghanistan (and Iraq) change their predecessor's plan as soon as they hit the ground eager to implement their own, which results in little forward progress, and while that doesn't work anywhere it will definitely be detrimental to your VSO efforts. Not only do you need to have a plan for your replacements, you need to sell it to your leadership and they need to sell it to the end coming leadership so it will be followed.
The light at the end of the tunnel is always transition to the Afghans, so everything your team does (and sounds like they are already) should be focused on enabling effective (good enough) transition to host nation elements as soon as possible, which means to the extent possible allowing the local nationals to develop/design processes they understand and that are culturally appropriate (not foreign).
A lot of the problems you will be faced with are structural. For this reason, I don't have much confidence in a bottom up approach, but you'll increase the odds of your success if you develop a formal/informal network with ISAF elements that are partnered with Afghan leaders at the provincial and national government that will talk to you and aid your efforts in connecting the dots between the various levels of government. To be effective you have to get out of your box and work from the tactial to the strategic level, and some SF commands are too conventional to support this, I hope yours isn't.
You point out that both traditional and GIRoA governance systems are defunct, which was probably true prior to U.S. forces arriving (due to USSR and Taliban influence), so in one respect this is an opportunity. Don't default to putting the first person who is willing to assume power in control without a good vetting process that involves the local populace. Fortunately it sounds like you have a good DG, so ensure he has adequate security and continue your efforts to empower him by working through your friendly network (at Provincial and national level) so they can identify assets to push to him so he has the power of carrots and sticks. I noted your radio in a box efforts, but I recommend that instead of MISO talking to the populace through their terps, that the DG is the main voice on that radio (local authorities should be recognized as authorities, while ISAF is recognized as support) if he isn't already. The people should always think that the DG and his appointees are the ones they should go to, not ISAF, when in need. Keep transition in mind first and foremost at all times.
There are a lot of development experts that can comment on your efforts in this area, but one concern I have is the large focus on agriculture (a non-diversified economy). Not even sure if it is possible to diversify, but there are some NGOs that are actually very good at helping locals develop appropriate industries based on what there area supports. If you like, I can run my trap line for their input to see if they have any recommendations.
The tribal warfare challenge that is engrained culturally is a significant challenge that I doubt anyone has an answer for, and your recommendations are as good as any I have seen. It may be helpful to read U.S. and UN peace operations doctrine to see if there are any relevant lessons there, since in a way you are effect conducting peace operations between the tribes, COIN against the insurgents, and nation building in general.
You only have so many assets (as you know very well), so I recommend leveraging others to the extent possible. You probably don't want ISAF elements in the villages, but I would try to get ISAF ISR and DA elements to work the mountains for you, and kill any Taliban in that area, so you can focus your security forces on the populated areas (even if sparsely populated). The Taliban should have no safehaven in the region, but you can't afford to distract your efforts by running frequent combat missions in the remote areas.
Finally, if you haven't done so already, develop a collection plan that focuses on COIN and development intelligence. On the COIN side everyone understand the find, fix, and finish piece, but I think you be well served by focusing on TB propaganda and determining how they're influencing the population, so you can advice the DG and others on how to counter it. You also want to ensure that your aid efforts are not benefitting the Taliban more than the locals, which has always been a real risk.
Wish you and your team the best, you're making us has beens proud.

This is a very useful article. It is relatively easy to find articles on Village Stability Operations. However, it is more difficult to find ones that have been written by individuals who have on-the-ground experience in VSO employment.

I have had the personal experience of successfully employing VSO. Before I conducted VSO, I made it a point to become well-versed in programs of similar nature that had been employed in the past, as well as ensuring that I had a solid grasp on the methodology and cultural dynamics that make VSO unique in Afghanistan. However, I never fully appreciated the complexity of the challenges that are faced in VSO until I actually was on the ground interacting with the local population and fighting an experienced insurgency. That is why articles such as this are so useful those who seek to successfully conduct VSO.

I do think that we (U.S. Military) are still trying to get VSO right, work out the methodology, and understand what actually works. But, I also believe that we are getting close to the effective solution. Feedback from the guys on the ground is critical to getting VSO right.

This is a good article. It is well written, and is supported by real-world experience. That real-world experience in VSO specifically is not something that the U.S. Military has a lot of right now, but is very much needed at this juncture in the war in Afganistan.

It is my hope that other Detachement Commanders can read this and build on it. And, also that the Battalion leadership and higher can use articles like these as a sound board for what strategy is working and what is not.


Sun, 09/04/2011 - 3:37pm


Excellent job on your plan, excellent job on getting buy in from higher to publish and seek comment via reach back.

I have some thoughts to share with you regarding organization, governance, and development. My thoughts are offered in the spirit of helping your combined US Team and Local Team to be successful and may be a bit simple compared to what you are used to. I define your Local Team as the folks outside the wire that you are partnering with and providing security, development, and governance support services for. My point of view is that of a civil engineer with an mba, who is also a part-time ca-bubba with two tours in iraq, and who has never been to Afghanistan.

Organization aka Troops to Task for Governance & Development - The information you have shared here could be placed into a "X" month Workplan. I am thinking in the format of a matrix with security, development, and governance lines of effort (with specific projects for each) on the y axis and project managers US & Local/outcomes (actual & expected) on the x-axis. The x-axis could be segmented by every thirty days. Each project listed in the Workplan could have a separate Workbreakdown Structure, again in matrix format, in which tasks, and associated subtasks, are tracked on the y-axis, while skill sets & associated costs (i.e. senior local irrigation specialist, $X a day) are tracked along the x-axis. Each project could have a separate Cost Estimate which provides a break out for labor, materials, other direct costs, and profit). Each project could have a Schedule which has a y-axis which mirrors the y-axis of the Workbreakdown structure and an x-axis which reflects time. A business school style Stakeholder Analysis of key locals could be prepared specific to your development efforts. Depending on how they are prepared these documents could be discussed with all of your US team, your local Agricultural Development Team, your local PRT, local DoS political/econ officer, local USAID officer, local USDA officer, local S9, local G9, NGO's, IO's, and all of your Local team on a regular basis to generate buy-in and assistance. Easier said than done, I know...spoilers exist everywhere, time is limited...and as you know, security is always job one.

Governance - Get yourself a FSO serving in a political cone or visit with one regularly. Nuff said.

Development General- All of your combined team's efforts will end up costing X and producing Y for the time period that you are there. There is probably a best case scenario, a most likely case scenario, and a worst case scenario for the hoped for return on the investment that you are in charge of. What are the forecasted outcomes for those development scenarios? X bushels of wheat? Y farmers growing A crops and wheat while Z farmers grow B crops and wheat? X number of local agricultural experts developed/trained/educated who have a broad agricultural contact base/rolodex and are able to bring appropriate levels of assistance and resources to your location? Will you partner to develop a close by/'regional' Agricultural Development Office/Hut (like a Small Business Development Office) where locals train locals on how to realize agricultural gains?

Development Technical - Have your USAID, USDA contacts prepared hydrology/hydraulic studies (HEC-RAS models, HEC-HMS models, gaging station data, aquifer data, pan evaporation data, evaporation-transpiration rates, precipitation data, etc.) feasibility studies, and value chain analysis for your specific area? Has this been done in conjunction with Local Team experts? Have your Business Development experts prepared Business Plans for your specific area? Have your USACE contacts reviewed your Workbreakdown Structures, Cost Estimates, Project Schedules, as well as any Operations & Maintenance Plans for any equipment your might be using in your projects? Are all of these plans tied to your best case, most likely case, and worst case scenarios for the return on investment that you are in charge of? Has this been done in conjunction with the Local Team experts? Will higher give you access to smart guy resources to get this done if doesn't already exist? Are you also in contact with your alma mater?

As they say 'perfect is the enemy of good enough', but perhaps a few of these comments might be of assistance.



Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 10:25am

I think it is remarkable that this paper comes from a Captain currently deployed and willing to share his methods of operation. Also this is what makes SWJ so good, important, and useful in that he has a place to share this paper so that others may benefit.

But you won't find Priest and Arkin writing about these operations as they would rather chase the sexy, high end stuff. :-)