Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review of “The Village” – Lessons for Afghanistan

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:29am

SWJ Book Review of “The Village” – Lessons for Afghanistan

John Friberg

A book about a small squad of U.S. Marines embedded in a Vietnamese village as a part of the Combined Action Program (CAP) provides pertinent and timely lessons in counterinsurgency (COIN) applicable to the current conflict in Afghanistan. A small group of U.S. Marines merged with a group of local village defenders to form up a Combined Action Platoon to defend a community of approximately 6,000 villagers consisting of farmers and fishermen. The Combined Action Platoon’s enduring presence, aggressive patrolling to ‘own the night’, interaction with villagers during the day, situational awareness through the ‘indigenous’ intel network, and proficiency with small unit tactics resulted in a ‘gradual victory’ over time.

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The Village offers an understanding of insurgency and counterinsurgency at the small unit level in a rural environment. This small group of young Marines conducted a successful campaign against a larger force of Viet Cong insurgents as well as main force North Vietnam regular forces to keep the village of Binh Nghia safe from the insurgents and a support zone loyal to the local government officials of the Republic of South Vietnam.  This battle for the village lasted almost 16 months during 1967 to 1968. (The Village by Bing West was first published in 1972 is available at

Counterinsurgency at the Local Level

An insurgency generally exists in rural areas and this was true of the long Vietnamese conflict between the government of South Vietnam and the Viet Cong – supported by the regular forces of North Vietnam that infiltrated south to fight along side the insurgents. Fighting an insurgency very often takes place at the local community level – where the center of gravity is the civilian population.

Center of Gravity

The civilian population can be influenced or coerced to provide intelligence, food, material, medical, transport, lodging, and other types of support to insurgents or guerrillas. This same population can also be influenced to support the government at the local, district, provincial, and national level. Key aspects of winning or losing the support of the local population revolves around some basic tenants of counterinsurgency – security, governance, development. [1]

Combined Action Program (CAP)


The Combined Action Program was an operational initiative established by the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. The program operated from 1965 to 1971 in the I Corps area of operations. A small element of Marines (8-12 personnel) augmented with a Navy Corpsman were paired up with a Vietnamese platoon of 25 to 50 men from a local village or community. The Marines were tasked with training the local Popular Forces (PF) and local police to establish and maintain security in their village. The combined approach married up the Marine’s ability to provide firepower, MEDEVAC, air support, artillery fires, and training with the Popular Force’s knowledge of the terrain and people. (See Wikipedia’s post on the Combined Action Program).

Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG)

A program similar to the Marines Combined Action Program was a project of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.S. Army Special Forces. The CIDG program embedded Special Forces 12-man teams in numerous locations in remote areas of Vietnam to establish security utilizing villagers of the local area. The CIDG program was established to form up paramilitary forces from minority groups of South Vietnam to strengthen and broaden the COIN effort of the Vietnamese government. In addition, it was an attempt to prevent the Viet Cong from gaining the support of the Montagnards (and other minority groups) and keep the highlands area of Vietnam from being dominated by the Viet Cong. (See U.S. Army Special Forces: 1961-1971, by Colonel Francis J. Kelly, Vietnam Studies, Department of the Army, 2004).

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Establishing Security in Binh Nghia Village

The embed of the Marine squad into the village with the mission of training, supporting, advising, and leading the Popular Force (PFs) of the local area addressed the security aspect of the mission. Numerous nightly patrols around the area of the village denied the Viet Cong the support they needed to freely operate in the area. The insurgents were denied freedom of movement which restricted their access to lodging, intelligence, rice, and contact with villages – among other things.

Renewing Local Governance

The security established in the village area prevented the Viet Cong from coercing the local population to support the insurgents and allowed local government officials and employees to work at their jobs. Government officials once again visited or worked in the village. Some officials began to sleep overnight in the village with the increased measure of security.

Village Development

The Marines worked with the local district officials to build a medical clinic, local government offices, and a school classroom. While they attempted to work these issues through the local government officials it became apparent that corruption, politics, and inept officials were an obstacle. It was sometimes easier to go to the local U.S. Army or Marine unit to get the needed support (lumber, cement, or whatever).

A Victory?

Training the PFs, establishing security, encouraging local government officials to work in the village, and gaining the trust of the villagers was a long hard fight. This was a battle that would cost the lives of many of the Marines of the Combined Action Platoon. After many long months the efforts of the Marines at the village was judged a success and the Marines left leaving the security of the village in the hands of the PFs and local police officials. At the end of the fight the village could be counted as being under ‘government control’. For the most part the village remained in this status up until the fall of the South Vietnamese government to North Vietnamese regular forces in 1975.

America’s Newest Longest War - Afghanistan

Afghanistan has now replaced Vietnam as the location for America’s longest war. The Afghan conflict (with U.S. military involvement since 2001) has been a war of insurgency and counterinsurgency. As in the Vietnam War the insurgents enjoy the support of outside actors and sanctuary within a neighboring country. The Taliban also benefit from a population disenchanted with a corrupt and inept government that seems unable to deliver security, governance, and development at the sub-governance and local level in many rural areas.

Although the United States and other Coalition nations took immediate steps after the invasion of Afghanistan to re-establish the police force and the army - many critics judged the initial efforts as too little. The national security institutions did not exist. Neither did an army or police force. The security organizations were established from scratch. Early efforts to establish local security forces (many times from various militias – sometimes called the Afghan Militia Force or AMF) by U.S. Special Forces were eventually phased out. The need for these militias were lessened in the view of senior U.S. officers with the Afghan army and police growing in size. Various programs and projects similar to the small Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) did work with police at the provincial and district level but this advisory program was eventually phased out as well – giving way to traditional U.S. and NATO combat formations.

Early Efforts at Governance and Development

Along with the establishment of the Afghan police and army there were programs established to develop government organizations and structures at the national and provincial level. To assist in this effort at the provincial level the U.S. and then the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formed up the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The first one was set up in Gardez in late 2002 by a twelve-man Special Forces detachment augmented with medical, PSYOP, and Civil Affairs personnel – and an infantry element for security. These PRTs were to work the governance and development aspects of counterinsurgency while Afghan security forces and U.S. and Coalition combat units would provide for security.


Just as happened in during the long-running Vietnam War the Afghan conflict has witnessed a variety of military and aid programs that have come and gone. Some programs have been successful while others have not. The PRTs were judged by most observers as a success – providing an assist to the Afghan government in establishing its sub-governance institutions that would provide government authority and services at the provincial and district level. Once the PRTs were phased out regular combat units were expected to interact with local officials to assist in the governance and development at the local level – some did, and some didn’t.

Top Down, Not Bottom Up

An analysis of the effort to shore up the Afghan government and security forces shows that a lot of effort was put into establishing security and government institutions at the national and provincial level but at the local level there was less attention. Efforts to establish security, governance, and development were not implemented at the local village and community level on a large scale. Many students of counterinsurgency recommend a ‘bottom up’ approach to establish security similar to that used by the Marines in The Village. [2]

A Shift to Security Force Assistance (SFA)

In 2012 the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) reduced its combat formations and transitioned the lead for security (district by district, province by province) to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). During the same time frame ISAF deployed hundreds of Security Force Assistance Advisory Teams (SFAATs) to train, advise, and assist (TAA) the ANA from the kandak (battalion) to the corps level and the Afghan National Police (ANP) from the district center to the provincial headquarters level. These teams were not tasked with a counterinsurgency mission but rather with a train and advise mission along functional lines (operations, personnel, logistics, communications, intelligence, fires, etc.). Some SFAATs interacted with district and provincial officials in the areas of governance and development; but, for the most part, only the security aspect of COIN was being addressed. At the national level there was no corresponding effort to transfer a stability capability (governance, development, etc.) to the Afghan government. [3]

SFA Mission

In addition, the SFAATs were not charged with establishing local security forces like the Popular Forces of the Vietnam War. The SFAATs worked with the units of the Afghan National Army and the organizations of the Afghan National Police. While the SFAATs were conducting their Functionally-based SFA mission at the district and kandak level they usually were working and living on Combat Outposts (COPs) or Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Unlike the Marines in The Village they did not ‘embed’ (work and live in villages) and train up local community defense forces.

Village Stability Operations

In 2011 the U.S. special operations forces operating in Afghanistan established a program designed to establish security, governance, and development at the local community level. The Village Stability Operations (VSO) program was designed for Key Terrain Districts (KTDs) where establishing Afghan government control was deemed essential. Village Stability Platforms (VSPs) were formed to operate at community or district level. These platforms had as its core a U.S. Army Special Forces, SEAL or MARSOC team. This SOF team, augmented with ‘enablers’ such as PSYOP, Civil Affairs, medics, mechanics, intelligence analysts, and Cultural Support Teams would form up the VSP. In addition, SOF LNO’s (called District Augmentee Teams or DATs) worked at the district centers to assist the VSPs with implementing the VSP activities and projects through Afghan local government officials. [4]

Afghan Local Police

A vital component of the VSO program was the Afghan Local Police (ALP). This was a local self-defense force that was recruited locally, vetted by local officials and community leaders, and trained by U.S. special operations forces. The ALP came under the control of the Ministry of Interior (MoI). The VSO program – and the ALP – was considered successful in establishing security and governance in many of the districts where it was implemented. Eventually – with the significant downsizing of U.S. and NATO forces – this VSO program was transferred to the Afghans. The ALP – always a part of the Ministry of Interior – is now fully controlled by the MoI.  Certainly, the ALP program has had its detractors; but the overall consensus is it was successful in establishing security in many of the local communities where it operated. [5]

Reduction of Advising at the Tactical Level

With the reduced troop level of U.S., NATO, and other partner nations there was no capacity to train, advise and assist Afghan army and police units and organizations at the lower levels. For a few years (2014 – 2016) the advisory effort was confined to the Afghan National Army corps and corresponding police zone headquarters. The only advising at the tactical level was SOF units attached to the ANA’s Special Operations Kandaks (SOCs) and NATO SOF attached to the Ministry of Interiors special police units (CRU 222, Commando Force 333, and Afghan Territorial Force 444). There were no local community defense units like the ALP (or the PFs in The Village) advised by international forces; although the U.S. maintained a Special Operations Advisory Group (SOAG) that provided assistance at the MoI for the ALP.

Current Security Environment in Afghanistan

Reports provided by the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG), the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) all document the growth of insurgent control (or ability to contest or influence) Afghan districts since 2014. The percentage of district control (and of population control) by the Afghan government is trending down. [6]

Current RS Strategy Not Enough

Resolute Support, NATO, and the international community need to look beyond the protection of Kabul, the provincial capitals, the district centers, and the main lines of communication if it is to defeat the insurgents. The current path of doubling the size of the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and increasing the capabilities of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) is a positive move. The elite SOF units of the Afghan National Defense Forces are conducting 70% of the offensive operations. The AAF is becoming increasingly capable at providing close air support, logistic support, and medical evacuation. The ASSF used in conjunction with the AAF will become increasing capable in the ‘clear’ part of a ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy. The regular units of the Afghan National Army may see improvement with the deployment of tactical level advisory teams from the newly formed Security Force Assistance Brigade combat advisor teams currently deployed to Afghanistan. But this is not enough.

Lessons for Afghanistan from The Village

Need for Local Community Defense Force

It is local security forces, supported by the ANA and ANP, and working in conjunction with competent government officials delivering governance and services that are best suited for the ‘hold and build’ phases in the Afghan counterinsurgency campaign. Local defense forces have a commitment to defend their home villages from insurgents. Organizations like the Afghan Local Police or the newly established (Dec 2017) Afghan Territorial Army (ATA) are key organizations for establishing and maintaining security at the local level. [7]

Support for the ALP and ATA

The U.S. should continue to press the MoI to institute important reforms necessary for the ALP to be a trusted force for community defense and to ensure that the MoI continues to support the ALP program. In addition, the Resolute Support Mission needs to provide adequate oversight and seek out ways to support the newly established Afghan Territorial Army. [7] Perhaps an advisory program similar to the Marine mission outlined in The Village would be appropriate for the ATA. The ‘insider threat’ (green-on-blue) is a problem that limits the ability to embed in a local community as the Marines of The Village did in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Surely there must be some imaginative commanders and staffs within Resolute Support that can come up with a program(s) that can support the ALP and ATA while incorporating adequate force protection measures.

Advising at the Tactical Level

The deployment of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) shows that NATO’s Resolute Support Mission understands (once again) the importance of placing advisors at the tactical level (brigade and kandak). Over the past few years RS headquarters has pushed Expeditionary Advisory Packages (EAPs) out to brigades and sometimes kandaks for short periods (days to a couple of months). In addition, the 1st SFAB deployed about 36 advisor teams for the ‘Train, Advise, Assist, Accompany, and Enable’ (TA3E) mission in early 2018. The advisors of the SFAB should be well-trained in the aspects of advising as a result of their attendance at the Military Advisor Training Academy (MATA) and Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). Advising at the kandak level on a permanent and persistent basis (once called Level I advising) should continue.


One wonders how well the newly minted SFAB advisors understand counterinsurgency; was the topic introduced and studied at the MATA and JRTC? Are they postured to advise their Afghan counterparts in the conduct of counterinsurgency? In addition, will the SFAB advisors be limiting their interactions to just the kandak commander and staff? Perhaps some advisor teams will see value in reaching out to district governors, district chiefs of police, and other government ministry representatives of the district centers found within the area of operations of the advised kandak. A reading of The Village could be helpful in understanding the importance of interaction with local government officials and community leaders.

Understanding COIN

The Marines of The Village learned how the insurgents operated at the local level and adapted their fight to successfully oppose the insurgents. There are many factors that have affected the course of the Afghan conflict – sanctuaries, government corruption, inept Afghan senior leadership in the security institutions and ANDSF, tribalism, and more. However, it is likely that the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost at the local community level. It is a counterinsurgency fight where the center of gravity is the civilian population. If the Afghan government can establish security, governance, and development in the local communities and districts it will have a strong chance to resolve the conflict. If not, then the insurgents will win. Advisors deployed to Afghanistan should be knowledgeable of how an insurgency operates and functions at ground level. Perhaps consideration should be given to re-establishing the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A). It would be a good training experience for trainers and advisors as they arrive in Afghanistan. [8]

Village Engagement Center

The significantly reduced NATO and U.S. footprint (troops levels) precludes the possibility of Resolute Support embedding small units in villages to buttress local defense forces and support governance and development. In addition, force protection measures required to mitigate the ‘insider threat’ would drastically increase the number of required personnel assigned to this mission. What can be done is to establish an Afghan capability to do the same mission. The Afghan SOF have proven to be an extremely professional entity and perhaps their Afghan Special Forces could pick up this mission (I would be surprised if they haven’t already). While the MoI’s National Mission Units and ANASOC’s Special Operations Kandaks and National Mission Brigade are conducting ‘clearing’ operations, direct action missions, responding to Taliban threats (or seizures) of district centers, and degrading ISIS – the Afghan SF components could conduct the mission that U.S. SOF in the VSO program and the Marines did in the Combined Action Program. An adaptation of a plan presented by M. Shands Pickett implemented using Afghan ‘enablers’ instead of U.S. and NATO ‘enablers’ at the village level could be considered. Read “The Village Engagement Center”, by M. Shands Pickett, Small Wars Journal, 2010.

Additional Lessons Learned

In addition to those mentioned above there are other lessons observed in The Village appropriate for the conflict in Afghanistan. Knowing a little of the language and having a knowledge of the culture can go a long way to developing rapport and forming good relationships. The advantages of using artillery fire support and close air support is sometimes outweighed by the chance of causing civilian casualties. The loyalties of villagers may be divided and advisors working at the local level may not fully appreciate how helping one faction of a community will alienate another faction. Winning the small unit COIN fight entails adapting and adopting the tactics of the guerrillas, aggressive patrolling at night, and interacting with community leaders and villagers during the day. Situational awareness of the operational environment is sometimes best provided by the population, local police, and village defenders. The local indigenous intel network will probably provide better information than anything higher headquarters can provide. A counterinsurgency fight is won or lost over months and years – not in a few battles for temporary possession of terrain.


The Village provides an appreciation of a counterinsurgency fight in small communities and is a description of what war is like when you fight the guerrillas at the small unit level. The book reveals how a small advisory element working with local defense forces and local government officials can win over the population. It shows how reducing the ability of insurgents to control or influence the local population will increase support for the local, district, provincial, and national government. Military service members scheduled for a deployment to Afghanistan who wish to understand how counterinsurgency works at the local level would benefit from a reading of The Village.

End Notes

[1] Some students of counterinsurgency argue that information operations (IO) is an essential and decisive element of counterinsurgency. See “Information Operations: From Good to Great”, by Brigadier General Ralph O. Baker, Military Review, July-August 2011.

[2] An article by Seth G. Jones and Arturo Munoz entitled Afghanistan’s Local War: Building Local Defense Forces (RAND Corporation, 2010) is as relevant today as when it was initially published. The paper describes a ‘bottom up’ approach for establishing security in Afghanistan’s rural communities.

[3] To read more on the importance of stability operations in Afghanistan (governance, development, social services, etc.) read “Stability Operations: Lessons from Afghanistan”, by Charles T. Barham, Small Wars Journal, 2018.

[4] For more information about VSO read “Village Stability Operations: More than Village Defense”, by Col. Ty Connett and Col. Bob Cassidy, Special Warfare, July-September 2011.

[5] For more information about the Afghan Local Police read Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police, by Mark Moyar, Joint Special Operations University, JSOU Report 14-7, October 2014.

[6] For more on district control read “Afghan mission releases district-level assessments”, FDD’s Long War Journal, April 13, 2018.

[7] Read “Afghan Territorial Army (ATA)”, SOF News, December 8, 2017

[8] See “Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A)”, Afghan War News.

Categories: COIN

About the Author(s)

John Friberg is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) who served for forty years in U.S. Army Special Forces with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. His last military tour in Afghanistan was as an Operations Officer with the Village Stability National Coordination Center (VSNCC) of the NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (NSOCC-A) in 2011. After retirement he worked in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014 as a Counterinsurgency Advisor for the COMISAF Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT). From 2015 to 2017 he worked as an adjunct contractor at NATO’s Joint Forces Training Center (JFTC) in Poland – with several trips to Afghanistan - providing instructional support for military personnel undergoing pre-deployment training to Afghanistan to be advisors to the ANDSF.