Small Wars Journal

Village Stability Operations: An Historical Perspective from Vietnam to Afghanistan

Thu, 03/28/2013 - 3:30am
"The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking." 

                                                                               - Karl von Clausewitz

Over the course of America’s 235 year history she has declared major war five times and has been involved in over 180 small conflicts (Boot 2002). The United States has experienced every facet of warfare in almost every geographical setting on earth (Boot 2002). Extensive archives of military strategy which could undeniably provide potential solutions for the strategic problems we are facing in warfare today are as easily accessible as a Google search. However it took the United States over eight years of fighting in the austere terrain of Afghanistan before the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) finally proposed the strategy of the Civilian Defense Initiative (CDI). Within less than a year’s time this strategy was renamed and finally rested with the title of Village Stability Operations (VSO). Today Village Stability Operations is the premier strategy touted by the current US administration and is considered by many the strategy for success in Afghanistan.

When first tasked with implementing what is now called the Village Stability Operations (VSO) strategy in April 2009, a proposal of what the strategy should roughly resemble was forwarded through the 7th Special Forces Group’s chain of command to Operational Detachment Alpha 7224 (ODA or “the Detachment”). The briefing that was included in the mission description was established by input from Dr. Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation and Brigadier General Reeder, the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan Commander (CFSOCC-A). The proposal depicted the typical counter insurgency (COIN) mission under the overarching mission in Afghanistan of Foreign Internal Defense Mission (FID). Special Forces conduct both of these mission sets on a routine basis. However the VSO mission differed from the usual mission of train, interdict, and disrupt which the Special Forces and conventional counterparts had been waging since the inception of the war in Afghanistan. The ODA realized that the VSO strategy proposal was essentially a combination of COIN and FID, and was similar to tenants that are taught in the Robin Sage portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).

When the Detachment started its initial planning on how to operationalize VSO, it conducted a historical study of some of the proposed tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and came to realize that some of the key components harkened back to the Special Forces’ strategy of Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) in Vietnam. CIDG was one of Special Forces’ greatest success stories in American history and by far the greatest example of how to fight unconventional warfare with an economy of force approach and modest foot print. Amongst all the different theories, schematics, and pillars of counter insurgency, the CIDG experience was American made and executed with precision.

During the period from 1954 to 1971, the longest COIN/FID mission ever conducted by an American force was directly implemented by the US Special Forces (USSF) in South Vietnam. In the initial stages of American USSF involvement in Vietnam, President Kennedy emphasized to new Army lieutenants graduating from West Point “[t]hat this is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin - war by guerillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him” (Arnold 2009).  President John F. Kennedy stated that pure military skill is no longer enough to address the current defense challenges that our nation is facing (Olson 2011). He further elaborated that a full spectrum of military, paramilitary and civil action must be blended to produce success (Olson 2011). President Kennedy’s proposal of a whole new military strategy was considered to be ahead of his time by many. He displayed an innate ability to recognize the future of modern irregular warfare and identify it as one of the greatest existential threats to the United States beyond that of high intensity conflict. Many who have done the thorough analysis would agree that President Kennedy rather than a visionary could have been a tremendous steward of US military small war history.

Various Special Forces elements operated under the auspices of military advisory groups in South Vietnam as early as July 1954, just three months after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu (Kelly 1973). From 1954 until 1957 there were roughly 342 trainers in country, advising, training, and assisting the fledgling South Vietnamese Army (Kelly 1973). By 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group had trained over 58 men of the South Vietnamese Army which formed the trainers of the elite Vietnamese Special Forces units (Kelly 1973). With the exponential growth of the Viet Cong insurgency, the counter insurgency strategy drastically needed to be expanded and it came to be known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (Kelly 1973).

The Civilian Irregular Defense Group took place in rural villages where Special Forces would set up area development centers and focus on local defense and civic action. Primarily the CIDG strategy resulted in an ODA occupying a village after they made their initial assessment which encompassed tribal elder wishes with rapport building. That ODA would be responsible for establishing a village security force comprised of roughly 10-12 men per village depending on populace size and enemy activity in the area (Kelly 1973). A larger village within that same province would have a more fortified position with the construct of a Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) and civil action platform. The MIKE force was essentially a 35 man element or larger of a more highly trained indigenous force (Kelly 1973). The MIKE force’s main mission was to provide a counter offensive strike capability to defend villages, local defense forces, and the ODAs in them. The MIKE force was trained, advised and led by an ODA.

The original concentration of Special Forces targeted the rural areas in Vietnam because roughly 90% of the population at the time in Vietnam was rural (Arnold 2009). The early CIA studies also verified that the rural peasant population was not ideologically committed to either the Viet Cong or South Vietnamese cause and was thus impressionable (Booth 1992). The Special Forces soldiers found that they should focus on recruiting members of the Montagnard tribes to build the main concentration of irregular forces. The Montagnard tribes of Vietnam are the indigenous people of Vietnam and at the time made up roughly 3 million people in Vietnam.[1] Throughout the war the Special Forces had immense success recruiting people from these tribes as the communist insurgency of the Viet Cong were highly suspicious of the indigenous tribes (Booth 1992). Not only were the Montagnard predominantly Christian in faith because of the early colonial efforts of the French but they also were oppressed by the Vietnamese in both the south and north. The Special Forces found that providing medical assistance to the tribes and rural populace garnered them almost immediate support from these tribes. By 1961, the CIDG forces had grown from a mere few hundred villagers to 40 villages defended with a total of 14,000 villagers, over 1000 trained local defense forces, and a more than 300-man strike force (Kelly 1973).

In 1962, the most prominent CIDG success was the Buon Enao village project in the Dar Lac province and took place under the command of CPT Shackleton and his five other ODA members. In essence the detachment minus offered only training and some medical and weapons resources to the Montagnard tribe in the central highland province. The key factor of the whole program, which is the underpinning for today’s VSO strategy, is that they did not offer pay to the Montagnards for their dangerous undertaking as a local defense force (Booth 1992). The ODA’s tremendous rapport building skills, cohabitation with the tribe, and inseparable commitment resulted in establishing the most famed CIDG site in the war and in turn assisted the exponential growth of the strategy. In one of CPT Shackleton’s after action reports he displayed just how effective the CIDG program was; “As more and more villages were trained and armed, the Viet Cong lost more and more support. The accessibility and freedom of movement they once enjoyed no longer went neither unnoticed nor unreported. The Viet Cong were now forced to revert to repressive measures: seizing rice, conscripting men, and taking hostages in their desperation to survive. But even with terror, the guerrillas most potent weapon and a standard part of his strategy, they lost popular support. They were soon without communal sanctuaries for regrouping after military defeats. The Viet Cong now had to devote a majority of his effort merely to survive.....this program released Vietnamese regular army units to conduct offensive operations in force against the Viet Cong. Otherwise, these forces would find themselves confined to garrison cities, entirely encircled by a hostile countryside. ... the protection of the Montagnards was no longer a military responsibility. The village defenders were responsible for their own protection and security" (Shackleton 1975).  Shackleton’s report resonates with multiple other accounts from other ODA’s in Vietnam at the time and seemed to prove President Kennedy’s aforementioned statements absolutely correct.

Though the CIDG program was initially a tremendous success, the outside assistance from China, Russia and other communist soviet bloc countries bolstered the growth of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army. By 1963, the Viet Cong were able to more effectively mass forces, conduct large scale subversion, perform assassinations, and escalate direct attacks on a greater scale of success. CIDG efforts did thwart many of the Viet Cong insurgent efforts but the outside state actor involvement from communist countries, and their efforts of communist expansion, began to worry the corrupt South Vietnamese administration. This anxiety was felt by the heads of State Department and the US ambassador in Vietnam. In turn that concern was transferred to senior US military officials and the Johnson Administration. Though most post-World War II presidents agreed with the strategy of containing the spread of communism, the US administration under President Johnson possessed a fundamentally different strategic view from that of President Kennedy. Shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination, the pressure from the conventional Army built and President Johnson gave in to their desires to assert a conventional Army commitment in Vietnam (Arnold 2009).

The CIDG program in turn was quickly placed under the command and control of the conventional minded Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC-V) which directed Special Forces elements to utilize both their local defense forces and MIKE forces as offensive irregular entities (Booth 1992). This caused a systematic change in the focus of the CIDG strategy. Local defense forces and MIKE forces found themselves shifting from the primary responsibility of denying enemy freedom of maneuver, defensive operations, and protection of their local villages, to the conventional coveted missions of “search and destroy” (Arnold 2009). This same mistake is being made today in Afghanistan where the conventional Army refers to the same tactic in a different vernacular, calling present day missions “sweep and clear” (Johnson and Mason 2009).

Though the strategy was critically changed, the USSF command worked diligently to save what was left of the CIDG program and maintain its importance throughout the remainder of the war. From 1963 through 1969, the Special Forces had trained a total of 72,000 personnel in the CIDG force, 5,700 personnel in the MIKE Force, and protected over 200 villages in rural Vietnam (Kelly 1973). They performed gallantly in various missions like operation Attleboro and Blackjack 33 where many of the conventional commanders sang great praises for their prowess in battle and ability to locate the enemy (Kelly 1973)[2]. On any given quarter with in a year the CIDG and MIKE forces were killing roughly 1,300 enemy personnel and capturing half that many (Kelly 1973).[3]

In 1970, the CIDG program and MIKE forces were either disbanded or assimilated into the South Vietnamese Army. The integration program was termed “Vietnamization” by President Nixon (Booth 1992). Vietnamization was a policy where the US military force escalated training and equipment issue to the South Vietnamese Army so they could assume more of the lead role in combat. This required the irregular forces to become part of the South Vietnamese Army or disarm and disband. When the Special Forces were ordered to abandon the local defense forces and MIKE forces, 16 years of rapport building and loyalty were destroyed. While many Montagnards were Christian, the Vietnamese still looked down upon them and referred to them as savages. The CIDG tribes and personnel were looked upon as ineffectual by the South Vietnamese Army even though that opinion could not be further from the truth. In reality the South Vietnamese army was highly intimidated by the successful CIDG and MIKE force units. Within a few years the conventional army pulled out and handed the military mission over to the South Vietnamese Military. In 1974, the remaining indigenous personnel of the CIDG and MIKE forces were, along with their tribes, systematically hunted down and murdered by the North Vietnamese when they took over the South.

If we fast forward to present time we see that the same mistakes are being made in Afghanistan. In the Vietnam War it was not until 1969, roughly 15 years after initial US involvement and the inception of the CIDG strategy, that General Abrams admitted that pacification was the “gut issue” of Vietnam (Arnold 2009). Abrams further stated that, “if we were successful in bashing down the VC and the Government can raise its head up, the villages and hamlets can maintain their militia units and keep a few police men around and people are not being assassinated all the time, then the government will mean something” (Arnold 2009).  Like Abrams, it took our current conventional commanders in Afghanistan roughly 8 years of protracted war until VSO was initially implemented in the Day Kundi province of Afghanistan. They had finally realized, like in Vietnam, that the populace was the ticket to winning the war rather than focusing solely on large scale centralized nation building.

The initial stage of the Afghan war was predominantly a Special Forces focus. As they are trained to do, the Special Forces covertly invaded Afghanistan, joined the irregular force of the Northern Alliance, and sought about destroying and overthrowing the oppressive government of the Taliban. This was a key demonstration of the unconventional warfare prowess which Special Forces pride themselves on. The involvement of the conventional forces quickly followed the Vietnam storyline and the pressure to shift focus to a sweep and clear operational strategy coupled with large scale centralized government nation building became the norm (Johnson and Mason 2009). The Special Forces maintained some latitude of operational independence until they lost control of battle space or more commonly known as joint special operation areas (JSOAs). The conventional Army asserted its control over these areas and mandated that everyone operate under the command of battle space owners within the different regional control areas of Afghanistan.[4]

With the decision to put all forces under the command of regional battle space owners, the overarching mistake made in Vietnam repeated itself.  Like in Vietnam, the conventional Army leadership in Afghanistan attempted to transform the root Special Forces’ mission into a more familiar conventional mission with clear battle lines drawn, a forward line of troops, and clearing pieces of land of little strategic value (Johnson and Mason 2009). Special Forces were pressured into focusing on direct offensive action and measuring metrics of success through body counts and improvised explosive devices dismantled (Johnson and Mason 2009). The premise of counter insurgency seemed to be shelved and lessons learned from the past forgotten, including the fact that insurgents do not care about territory. Afghan villages were subsequently forgotten with the populace within them. Special Forces found themselves building overly fortified fire bases like the conventional forces and left only when they set about to interdict and destroy the enemy. After the successes of the initial invasion of Afghanistan, the subsequent eight years brought dwindling progress and pundits, policymakers, and the American people began to question if the US military could be victorious.

The implementation of the VSO strategy quickly brought about real benefits to the rural populace in terms of security because it used sound COIN policy tailored to the Afghan culture. This was evidenced when ODA 7224 implemented the prototype for VSO in the Day Kundi Province in July 2009 (Maurer 2009) (Naylor 2010). When the ODA infiltrated the province they were greeted with tremendous fervor. The Hazara tribal populace of Day Kundi had in place very pro-western leadership and even possessed the country’s first female mayor in the district center of Nili. Within weeks of implementing similar tactics, techniques, and procedures utilized by the first CIDG teams in the Darlac province of Vietnam, the ODA was able to establish rapport with the tribal leaders, local mullahs, and attend jirgas and shuras[5] on a regular basis. This rapport proved fruitful for the men of the Detachment as they were able to foster several local village defense sites and train an exclusive counter offensive force that resembled the MIKE Force (based on the author’s personal experience).

The beginning stages of operationalizing VSO did encounter complications. Some of the initial phases of the early implementation of the operation were saddled with confusion about funding methodologies not to mention the challenging logistics. In the initial phases of the operation, the ODA coordinated with the combined joint special operations task force’s (CJSOTF-A) staff to address these issues and comprise a sound methodological approach to implementing the strategy.

The initial implementation strategy very much resembled the outline currently being used – that of “shape, hold, build, transition.” First, the ODA assesses the human terrain to determine whether a particular village will accept the proposition of defending themselves – in other words, shaping the battlefield. This is the most important part of the process because the VSO strategy cannot be forced on the indigenous people, to do so would negate the whole principle of the strategy. Once a location has been selected, the village holds a Jirga or Shura to decide whether to accept the proposition.  If accepted, the ODA lives amongst the people and holds the village and surrounding territory through influence, deterrence, and the advent of a local police or militia. In the build phase, the ODA connects the village or villages under its control with the district and provincial government. This phase resembles the larger control hub or civic action platform utilized in the CIDG program. The villages, local population and local police feel that they are then part of the larger national government. This in turn establishes a feeling of relevance in the legitimacy of the system going forward, a sense of nationalism, and produces an actual or perceived notion that the local villagers are firmly committed to something greater than themselves, in essence the establishment of the social contract.

The final phase of the VSO strategy is the transition phase. This phase is one of the most delicate phases of the operation and can be compared to the latter stages of the CIDG strategy when Vietnamization occurred. During the transition phase, after certain metrics of success are met, the Special Forces team will hand the local defense force over to the Afghan national police (ANP), the Afghan National Army (ANA), or the local forces will disband, disarm and reintegrate into society. Thus far few VSO sites have transitioned.  The few sites that have transitioned have been seen as feckless by the ANA or ANP and have been mistreated in much the same way the Montagnards were treated by the South Vietnamese Army. 

In the first month of VSO implementation in the Day Kundi province, ODA 7224 was recovering improvised explosive devices both pressure plate and remote activated. They also recovered various caches for Taliban and armed group resupply. The ODA had determined that much of the area was a rest and recuperation (R&R) area for Taliban and anti-coalition forces during the winter seasons. During the fighting season, roughly from spring to fall, the enemy would trickle back across the mountain ranges to target US-Coalition forces throughout southern Afghanistan. Enemy activity in the area was not immense but was commonplace throughout the central province.

The populace quickly worked with the Detachment to expel enemy forces.  The mutual respect that was established between the ODA and the local forces led to the Detachment’s first line of defense – the populace. Once the first local police/militia force was implemented, enemy activity was severely reduced and the province shifted from a non-permissive to semi-permissive environment (personal observation).[6] ODA 7224 was able to conduct most travel throughout the entirety of the province in non-armored pick-up trucks, remain lightly armed, and meet with the locals on a regular basis. Operational Detachment 7224 was essentially able to exert control over a province comprising over 18,000 square kilometers with roughly 18 US forces, 120 CIDG personnel, a 24-man pseudo MIKE force, and 100 Afghan National Police.  This confounded many naysayers of the strategy as the ODA was the first overt American force to establish a long-term presence in the province since the inception of the war.  But, the strategy was a proven success and was quickly coveted by the higher command as the way forward in Afghanistan (Mann 2011).

From 2009 to 2010, various segments of senior US military leaders advocated for the VSO strategy until final approval was codified in a presidential decree by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in September 2010 (Bolduc 2011). The only VSO sites that existed in 2009 were the primary site of Day Kundi and two others that were established shortly thereafter in western and southern Afghanistan. By 2010, the number of sites had grown to nine around the country of Afghanistan.

In late 2009-2010, another site of prominence and success was Khakrez, Afghanistan. The Khakrez district is a rural agrarian community with a population of approximately 20,000 people located in north-central Kandahar Province. It is the home to the Shah Agha Maqsud Shrine, one of the oldest historical Islamic sites in Afghanistan and a popular tourist destination (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). Because the location is in close proximity to Kandahar City and it has tourism interests, Khakrez’s economic center was once a booming hub of commerce prior to the onslaught of repressive Taliban policies. Through the hard work of the VSO strategy, prosperity grew within about six months, an incredibly short period of time (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). Shortly after the implementation of VSO, the local bazaar in now Khakrez touts more than 40 shops and stores and is thriving with commerce similar to the golden ages of Afghanistan (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). The VSO example in Khakrez is testimony that if the local populace is protected and in turn empowered, then they will reject the ideology of the Taliban and other repressive regimes.  Not only have businesses improved but the security in the area has allowed the displaced populace to move back to Khakrez. As the ODAs rotate through the area, they continue participating in local shuras to resolve conflicts, increase tourism, coordinate with the national government and renew civil action projects (Catanzaro and Windmueller 2011). As happened with the CIDG strategy in Vietnam, the Taliban is furious that it is gradually losing control over the populace. It continues to escalate its acts of terror against the populace which does nothing more than cement its resolve towards a brighter future of Afghanistan.

Currently there are about 70 VSO sites and each site consists of approximately 12 local police. The total force in Afghanistan to date is about 800 local police and is a far cry from the proposed 10,000 sought out by President Karzai and NATO/ISAF forces (Jalali 2010). The MIKE force option is still gaining traction. Currently the commando elements in Afghanistan are being utilized to fill that void, but the unfortunate side is that the commando elements are a national force and lack the cultural bond in some areas in which they operate even though they are from the same country. Afghanistan is a tribal state which has four main ethnic groups and over 60 Pashtun tribes and sub tribes. The CIDG strategy in Vietnam concerning the MIKE force differed from the VSO strategy because the MIKE force was typically made up of the local villagers. In the case of Afghanistan, the commando forces are smatterings of people from all over the country. What VSO sites do exist and have been transitioned are having difficulty integrating and have been mis-utilized by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) because of this lack of tribal bond.

The parallels between the two strategies of CIDG and VSO are indisputable, although there are also distinct contrasts. The cultural and geographical aspects of the two countries where the strategies were and are located are vastly different. Those aspects, while important, do not change the overall strategies and the tenants of the strategies. If the US continues to study its own small war history and understand that it does not have to repeat the same mistakes of the last war, then success will be achievable. The underlying focus should be to recognize the aforementioned mistakes in the Vietnam War and why CIDG was hampered. If the US were to make the strategy of VSO the main military effort then positive results will undoubtedly increase.

Making VSO the main strategic focus in Afghanistan will require military leaders to put the conventional and unconventional war fighting machine bias aside. Conventional forces will need to cede control and understand that the right tool for this job is an unconventional force-led strategy and not the large scale high intensity conflict strategy. Making this change will allow the populace to rally. VSO, like CIDG in Vietnam, must be granted time to mature and change the minds of millions of people who have seen nothing but war and atrocities for the entirety of their lives. As a nation and military we must come together under one clear goal and a unified effort. This unity will only take place once leaders put aside the self-centered goal aside of who garners the credit for success and instead focuses on the innocent lives that are at stake in Afghanistan and should be the real concern.  Over the past 11 years in the Afghanistan War, millions of people have been given hope and a newfound resolve because of our presence and efforts. We have to pointedly ask ourselves if we are willing to desert millions of allies like we did to the Montagnards of Vietnam and witness their systematic slaughter and oppression, or will we make good on our promises and stand for something greater?

Unfortunately the strategy of VSO is one which is geared towards fighting an insurgency, and countering an insurgency effectively could take decades. If we continue to apply this strategy along with the task of westernized nation building, then it could take generations. Based on the aforementioned analysis we can surmise that VSO is not the proverbial silver bullet to the Afghan problem. It is however a viable alternative to the current strategy which has been given 11 years to succeed. If the US was to apply the current strategy in an economically scaled back fashion coupled with VSO it likely will produce concrete results. Some of the very dynamics will have to change and the main effort will have to be the VSO strategy subordinate to a USSF command. The US will also have to determine precisely what its goals are in Afghanistan and may have to be willing to accept an Afghan good enough approach. Combined, this hybrid strategy could provide the right formula for success over a period of time. This hybrid strategy could be accomplished with fewer forces than are currently on the ground, thereby providing the US an option which could be sustainable for an indefinite period of time, if necessary. The time issue cannot be overstated in its importance.  An insurgency’s main weapon is time. Removing the hard timeline to remove all US troops would destroy the insurgency’s main weapon and demonstrate a resolve and promise to the world and the populace of Afghanistan.

The antithesis of a positive review offers a stark contrast and in most of those arguments the one question remains – if we continue an enduring presence, what is in it for the US and are the current and unforeseen costs worth it? The majority of the accessible literature seems to support that staying the course is worth the price. Stabilizing Afghanistan would stabilize the region, and a steady Afghanistan would result in economic and security possibilities that would in turn benefit US interests in Eurasia. In essence all theories positive or negative seem to support the idea that the costs of a premature withdrawal would greatly outweigh the costs of an enduring presence. 


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[1] The term Montagnard comes from the French translation of “mountain people.” The Montagnards were comprised of roughly 5 different sub tribes (Shackleton 1975).

[2] Operation Attleboro (SEP 1966 – NOV 1966) occurred in the Dau Tieng district which is northwest of Saigon. The operation was a victory for the US and resulted in over 1,000 enemy casualties and the seizure of vast enemy logistical caches. The logistical caches were believed to be prepositioned for a Tet offensive in 1966. Due to the efforts of the conventional 196 INF and CIDG/MIKE forces these plans were thwarted.

Operation Blackjack 33 was a USSF led mission in 1967 to locate the 271st main force VC regiment so the 1st INF DIV could engage and destroy. The USSF led CIDG/MIKE force located elements which resulted in over 300 enemy killed and multiple members of their force being personally decorated for their efforts by Major General John Hay of the 1st INF DIV.

[3] Their ability on the battlefield did come at a price on various occasions and the proof of their effectiveness and courage in battle are recognized by the sheer amount of Medals of Honor and other awards for conspicuous gallantry presented to the Special Forces advisors of these brave forces.

[4] Command and control is imperative on the battlefield to prevent things such as friendly fire incidents or what is commonly referred to as fratricide.

[5] Jirgas and Shuras are assemblies or meeting with village elders and leaders.

[6] A non-permissive environment is one in which US troops do not have freedom of movement.  In contrast, a permissive environment is one in which US troops have full freedom of movement.  In a semi-permissive environment, troops have some freedom of movement but it is not free flowing.


About the Author(s)

Mark L. Brown Jr. is a major in the US Army Special Forces and thesis student at the National Defense University. He originally enlisted in the Army in 1994 as a Combat Medic before attending the Special Forces Qualification Course and graduating as an engineer sergeant. He was commissioned as a 2LT after graduation from Virginia Tech and became a CH-47 Pilot before once again attending the Special Forces Qualification Course to become a Special Forces Officer. His Special Forces Operational Detachment A was the first to implement village stability operations in July 2009 in Day Kundi Province, Afghanistan. Before his Master's program, he served with 7th Special Forces Group. His next duty assignment is with Human Resources Command, Fort Knox, KY.



Thu, 04/25/2013 - 4:32pm

One of the problems with juxtaposing events and experiences from VN to AF is the immense difference in the scale of the order of battle of the Taliban and the NLF/PAVN. The differences in the physical numbers can sometimes be lost in a debate wherein TTPs and AARs can read as similar in nature but in reality the limited means of the Taliban and the essentially inexhaustible resources of the NLF/PAVN invariably cast different tactical, operational and strategic lessons to be learned.

The largest Taliban assaults have up to now involved between 100 and 200 assailants. More often than not they have numbered a dozen if not fewer. The CIDG on the other hand might have had to repel a battalion-sized force hell-bent on either over-running their position or annihilating itself in the attempt.

The NLF/PAVN and the Taliban use almost identical Chicom 107mm rockets, 82mm mortar, ZPU 14.5mm, DSkh 12.7mm, RPG-7 etc. but where the Taliban can manage a dozen or so direct-fire rounds or a few highly inaccurate indirect fires before withdrawing the NLF/PAVN could bracket a CIDG position with hundreds of rounds for hours on end.

The NLF/PAVN fielded a huge logistical infrastructure that at one point was believed to stand upon the backs, shoulders, bicycles of 2 million volunteer cadres. The Taliban would struggle to muster a thousand chowkidar for logistics - all of whom would insist on being paid by the kg …… in advance.

Whilst the command, control and communication of the Taliban has been compared to bushkazi (but not as well organized) the formidable C3 of the NLF/PAVN shocked the whole world when on the night of Jan 30th 1968 they achieved complete surprise when they attacked 100 fortified US & ARVN positions with over 80,000 fighters. The resources available to apply this level of operational power meant an almost inexhaustible number of NLF/PAVN could be thrown at any isolated CIDG position anywhere in the country at any time. The Taliban struggle to sustain one percent of this assault capacity.

Obviously the task for the VSO is not one hundred times easier but the CIDG were facing an impossible task wherein mere survival was considered a victory. A NLF/PAVN Quartermaster would recognize every piece of equipment the Taliban utilize with the exception of the cell phone. He would be somewhat surprised by what the Taliban do not have that was available to him 50 years ago and he would be bewildered by the miniscule quantities. The equipment fielded by his old American enemies however would appear to be from another planet.

It is important that the VSO enjoys a less daunting military challenge than the CIDG but I believe it is the VSOs political legitimacy that offers the most crucial difference to VN. The Montagnards were probably the only ‘peoples’ the NLF/PAVN hated more than the French colonialists and the US military. Whilst the French and US forces were the focus of political and military rejection they both possessed numerous cultural attributes that the NLF/PAVN admired and emulated. The Montagnards on the other hand were considered by the NLF/PAVN as sub-human and the persecution was historical.

The VSO do not have to contend with an adversary motivated by a dehumanizing hatred owing to the fact the Talibs are generally from the same stock as the ranks of the VSO. In fact, with their rat lines emerging from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, I would argue it is the VSO who are providing the native Resistance to the foreign-based Taliban usurper.

At the back of every Talib’s mind - whether Af, Pak or Arab there worries a sense of unease that a village defense force manned by mullahs, fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins etc. providing protection for elders, children, mothers, sister, aunt’s nieces etc. is exactly what they would be doing if it were their village or neighborhood that was under attack by people such as them.

Needless to say matters of conscience haven’t stopped the Taliban attacking the VSO but it may explain their lack of success. If the 107mm has missed by 500 meters, firewood gathers detonate an IED or half his team are KIA it is somewhat justified if a foreign flag is fluttering above the targeted village or a few MRAPs are parked up but it is a different matter when death and injury comes about when attacking the village faithful rallying around the village mosque. Attacking a legitimate (in the minds of the Talibs and the VSO) village-centric force poses questions of pakhtunwali which very few Pathans could easily reconcile. Obviously these doubts will be infinitely greater if the village he is attacking has inhabitants who are family.

A blood violation of the pakhtunwali at the behest of Pakistani Punjabis is probably the most unforgivable act of dishonor a Pathan could carry out. IMO nothing could be more contrary to a claim of a Pakhtunwali inspired Revolution or Resistance than a Pathan green on green killing. It stands to reason that in the 40 years the Haqqani and Gulbuddin networks have resided in Pakistan they have come to be recognized by the people who actually live in Afghanistan as thugs fighting for a Pakistan Army pay master.

The Pak Army fights its corner the way it sees fit and whether we like it not they are the meanest SOB in the valley so they get the major vote. I believe it is important to put forward the possibility that VSO opens the gateway to a strategic path that has the potential to appease the Pak Army leadership. IMO it is important to accept the view that the purpose of their proxy force is keep the east of Afghanistan in a continuous state of political flux and thus prevent a secessionist Pathan Army emerging on their border. If we take this as a given then a security networks which lays down a grid of village-centric units whose AO 'ink-spot' extends only a day’s march from its base then we a proposing something the Pak Army may be inclined/forced to accept.

VSO relies upon potency and legitimacy thru the blood ties that end usually no more than a day’s march in any direction. Sometimes this pakhtunwali (An oath I found to be a serious with kin but much more opportunistic and perfidious when applied to non-relatives) may extend to another valley but normally the obligation to these distant cousins is marginal. The Pak leadership would appreciate that a security network which extends only to the village or farmland of one’s blood relative is something the Pak Army would understand and more likely to accept.

Who knows…maybe they’ll ask SOOCOM to do VSO on the Pak side as well?



Thu, 04/04/2013 - 12:18pm

On my comment of April 3rd, where I mention the I and II Corps Mike Forces as Montagnard, the number following it should read "III and IV Corps" for Cambodian / Ethnic Khmer MIKE Forces. Also, I should have noted that the term MIKE Force appeared when the Eagle Flight morphed into company sized unites. MIKE was an acronym for "Mobile Strike Force", and owed nothing to Mike De la Pena's name except perhaps in III Corps, notwithstanding the Veritas article. Had names been chosen based upon personalities, the II Corps MIKE Force would have been the "Chuck" Force for it's founder, then Captain Chuck Frye, or perhaps the "Jake" Force for Lieutenant Jacobelli. (Apologies to Clyde Sincere, another founder, but "Sincere Force" wouldn't have cut it;-)

Bill M.

Thu, 04/04/2013 - 3:45am

In reply to by lirelou

I hope you and the author of the article keep writing, your insights are very valuable and difficult to find doing research on CIDG. Thanks very much for posting. Some of these stories I heard because I fortunate enough to come into SF when there were still Vietnam Vets on the ODAs who were valued mentors, but I have never seen such a great collective roll up on the program.

Can you point us to any references that would help with researching the CIDG program?


Wed, 04/03/2013 - 11:57pm

I salute Mark Brown’s integrity and courage in writing this piece, which does raise some interesting questions. I can claim no long experience in counterinsurgency, save for a year split between SFOD A-502 and the B-20 MIKE Force. I’ve read widely on the French experience over the past forty years and the views I had between 1965 and 1975 are only partially the views I hold today. So, for what it’s worth, here are my two cents:

“…the CIDG experience was American made and executed with precision.”

In truth, the CIDG experience was very similar to the Partisan and Suppletif forces of both the French colonial, and French Union Forces period. Simply put, the French mission in Indochina would hardly have been sustainable had the French needed large numbers of European Frenchmen. Starting in 1861, the French began recruiting locals for full time regular military duties, and despite some occasional difficulties managed to form and maintain a regular force of one Annamite Tirailleur Regiment, three Tonkinese Tirailleur Regiments, a Cambodian Tirailleur Regiment, and a Battalion of Montagnard Tirailleurs, in addition to filling companies within the 10th and 19th Colonial Infantry Regiments, and the 5th Artillery Regiment as of 1 September 1939, when 17,500 “Indochinese” regulars were serving in the Army in Indochina, 1,000 in the Air Force, 500 in the Navy, with 16,500 in the then equivalent of the CIDG, the Indigenous Gardes.
Post World War II, France reentered Indochina believing that they were facing a simple post-war reestablishment of order mission. But as it became clear that they were facing an insurgency, the French went back to recruiting Indochinese to fill the gaps in their own regular ranks, and expanded the use of suppletif, partisan and commando forces recruited and led by local French military cadres drawn from regular units. These indeed looked very much like CIDG forces in makeup, training, armament, and mission employment. Like the CIDG, down at platoon and company level the French cadre consisted of a few men who lived with, ate with, and fought and died with their indigenous troops, whether Thai, Hre, Bahnar, Nung, Muong, Chinese, or Vietnamese.

The problem in Special Forces is that we got hung up on the G.C.M.A. experience and failed to realize just how wide-spread the French version of the CIDG program had been, despite having had a few DP veterans of it in our own ranks. Had we followed the French experience, there wouldn’t have been a regular army combat arms battalion in Vietnam that didn’t have its own organic Strike or MIKE Force company. But then, had we followed the French colonial infantry experience, every regular U.S. battalion would have had a few regular Vietnamese troops within every squad. Sort of a “VATUSA” program.

“…During the period from 1954 to 1971, the longest COIN/FID mission ever conducted by an American force was directly implemented by the US Special Forces (USSF) in South Vietnam.”

I don’t think we can count from 1954 to 1966, since our training missions were mostly non-SF, and generally conducted in training areas not requiring combat.

“…From 1954 until 1957 there were roughly 342 trainers in country, advising, training, and assisting the fledgling South Vietnamese Army (Kelly 1973). By 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group had trained over 58 men of the South Vietnamese Army which formed the trainers of the elite Vietnamese Special Forces units (Kelly 1973). With the exponential growth of the Viet Cong insurgency, the counter insurgency strategy drastically needed to be expanded and it came to be known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (Kelly 1973).”

The Vietnamese Special Forces of 1957 were essentially a palace guard. They were not what the VNSF later became due to U.S.S.F. interaction.

“…The MIKE force was essentially a 35 man element or larger of a more highly trained indigenous force (Kelly 1973). The MIKE force’s main mission was to provide a counter offensive strike capability to defend villages, local defense forces, and the ODAs in them. The MIKE force was trained, advised and led by an ODA.”

Okay, a minor nit-picking point. The 35 man element was the “Eagle Flight” which evolved into independent companies by 1967, and by mid-1968 had begun to operate in light infantry battalions. It was not the MIKE Force mission to defend villages. By 1967 the war had progressed to the point that SF camps had to be sited on the best military ground that supported its mission (i.e., border surveillance, Comms intercept site, MACVSOG launch site, etc). Our mission was to reinforce camps under threat, take back camps that had been lost, and conduct independent operations in suspected enemy areas, etc.

As for the SFODA’s and indigenous composition. First, the Montagnard MIKE Forces were in I Corps and II Corps (the largest in country), and contributed part of the A-503 MIKE Force. II and IV Corps had ethnic Khmer MIKE Forces manned by Cambodians. The A-503 MIKE Force also had Cambodian and Cham companies. Most of the Cham troopers were Muslim, and wore green scarves vaguely similar to the Saudi flag. That indigenous composition had a bearing on the capabilities of each company, because many of the Cambodians could read and write their own language, and had had some schooling. That was true only for a minority of the Montagnard rank and file, whose ability to absorb instruction varied from one group to another. And not all got along. The Jarai and Bahnar did not particularly like each other, and the III Corps MIKE Force was aligned with the Khmer Serai movement, which was anti-royalist, while the IV Corps MIKE Force was Khmer Kampuchea Krom, monarchists who supported the Sihanouk government, and whose goal was to return the Delta to Cambodian sovereignty.

Back to the ODAs. The Eagle flights, Apache Force, etc., started with ODAs, and reinforced ODA’s made up the A-503 MIKE Force, which was up to six companies by 1968. There’s no way an A Team on an isolated site could have supported operations by six independent companies. A staff element was needed. So the MIKE Forces were made up of B Teams whose A Teams each cadred two to three companies, and they did the latter only because the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam provided the extra bodies to allow each MIKE Force company to deploy with 4 to 6 “Roundeyes”. Understand that each enlisted member of a MIKE Force company was also a platoon leader, whether he was an experienced E-7, or an E-4 just in from Medic training in the States. The real kids who made the MIKE Force run were not the junior officers or senior NCOs, though it couldn’t have been done without them. The rea; kids were not even professional soldiers, though many were on a second or third enlistment. They were kids who wanted to prove themselves, and had volunteered for Special Forces to do so. But once in Vietnam, they had found what they were looking for, and were reluctant to leave until they’d proven whatever it was that they'd come for. They weren’t much different from the ‘Bode” and ‘Yard’ kids trudging along beside them.

Now, to contrast the MIKE Forces with the French: The Thai Colonial Infantry Battalion defending Nghia Lo in 1952 had 120 French, mostly NCO for a 1,000 man battalion. By 1952, each French parachute battalion had two "French" line companies and two Vietnamese line companies. Bigeard's jump into Tu Le included the 6th and 26th Indochinese Para Companies. When the French formed the 3rd ARVN Para Battalion (TD3ND)the next year, the joined 400 Vietnamese with 408 Frenchmen in mid-tour (27 months) and over the next year most of the French rotated home and were replaced by Vietnamese. Those units had better capabilites than our CIDG units because they had a higher ratio of educated and trained soldiers at lower levels.

“…The early CIA studies also verified that the rural peasant population was not ideologically committed to either the Viet Cong or South Vietnamese cause and was thus impressionable (Booth 1992).”

Those early CIA studies were simplistic to the point of being wrong. Whether the population was neutral, pro-government, or pro-NLF (which many believed existed) depended upon where they lived, who controlled it, and for how long it had been under control. In 1945 the French had to make a decision: What to do with Central Vietnam. Simply put, they never had the manpower to adequately deal with the two major river deltas and the mountains bordering them, much less the thousand miles of terrain that separated them. So they occupied Danang and Hue, and Qui Nhon and Nha Trang, and not much else in Central Vietnam outside that. From Binh Dinh province north, the VC had a lot of support outside the countryside. You can see it today in the well cared NVA and VC monuments and cemeteries there. Yet there are places in other parts of Vietnam where those monuments and cemeteries are poorly cared for.

“…The CIDG tribes and personnel were looked upon as ineffectual by the South Vietnamese Army even though that opinion could not be further from the truth. In reality the South Vietnamese army was highly intimidated by the successful CIDG and MIKE force units.”

Are the Vietnamese overly ethno-centric in outlook? Yes they are. Believe it or not, the present government makes efforts to counter that, but to no avail. The truth is that very few CIDG units could have equaled the best of the regular ARVN forces. We had a CIDG Recon Platoon in A-502 which could, but it was mostly Vietnamese, and led by a committed LLDB Trung-si named Giao (Yao). Study the MIKE Force operations in around Ben Het from March to June 1969, and you’ll find that survival was considered victory. Check out what happened to 232 MSF company. What had been one of the best MSF companies folded. Ray Simpson got his Victoria Cross for barely ho9lding it together. That had also happened at Dak To in 1967. And check out the actions which earned Keith Payne his Victoria Cross. The frank truth is that any unit can be hit so hard it disintegrates. It happened to Americans at the bulge, it happened to some MIKE Force units at Dak To and Ben Het, and it happened to some Vietnamese Marines in 1975.

“…In 1974, the remaining indigenous personnel of the CIDG and MIKE forces were, along with their tribes, systematically hunted down and murdered by the North Vietnamese when they took over the South.”

You mean 1975.In recent years I have run into former MIKE Force members in Phang Rang, Dalat, and on the road between Nha Trang and Suoi Dau. No tribes to my knowledge have been wiped out. But I’ve never seen any old friends and I don’t try to look them up because the Cong An remain active in all minority communities. I presume the NVA went after FULRO, whose leadership in Cambodia was annihilated by the Khmers Rouge. As were, ironically, some former Khmer Krom “White Scarf” veterans of the IV Corps MIKE Force, who tried to ally themselves with the Khmnrs Rouges to fight the Vietnamese.

Again, despite my rambling, a good article, though with some blemishes. I hope you keep writing.


Mon, 04/01/2013 - 1:50pm

MAJ Brown,

Sir, I've always looked at the CIDG experiment as a stellar example of how to do clear-hold-build effectively, yet as in any comparative analysis, the differences between the case studies in Afghanistan and Vietnam can prove to be problematic. Although by no means an expert, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early (pre 1963 Operation SWITCHBACK MAC-V take over) CIDG experience. Drawing off dozens of interviews with ODA Team Leaders and Team Sergeants, I was taken aback by how simple a premise the CIDG program really was--give them something to fight for and something to fight with. By arming the Montagnards (and eventually Nungs and dozens of other tribes), the ODAs were able to cut off a VC recruiting base and limit their freedom of maneuver in naturally strategic areas. The village-centric nature of the local defense forces provided natural buy in by all stake holders, and the added benefit of an ODA medic and other means of support were instrumental to getting the villagers to stand on their own and resist the VC. As you noted, big Army then did what it does so well and tried to replicate what worked in 10 villages in 10,000 and turned the MIKE forces into a more conventional search and destroy unit and lost the emphasis on village policing.

Where this case study becomes problematic is in that the Montagnards are ethnically different from the Vietnamese and generally distrusted all brands of Vietnamese, communist of not. The problem was further compounded by the fact that the Montagnards were well treated by the French during their colonial period in Indochina, and I've had several ODA TLs tell me that Montagnards naturally trusted Caucasians due to this fact. The last issue, and the one that probably resonates the most with the ALP program, is that the CIDG villages really never developed any sense of loyalty towards the SVN government, so in attempting to cut off VC and NVA rat lines and support zones, the program is definitely a success, but in terms of building up a legitimate SVN government, it missed the boat. Moving to Afghanistan, I feel that in an Hazara held area, I the CIDG concept makes perfect sense. However, it becomes more troublesome once you enter more densely populated Pashtu areas.

I say this now having just finished up a deployment as a Rifle Company Commander in the Arghandab River Valley, working hand in hand with 30 ALP detachments and one VSO site. I feel strongly that ALP is the answer, particularly in rural areas of Afghanistan that lack ANA and ISAF forces, to provide protection to the villagers. My experience with ALP was that they were also unanimously supported by their villagers, as they were protecting their own homes. However, and understand that I only possess a limited window into a limited problem set based off my own experiences, while VSO/ALP are absolutely the way ahead in remote areas like Khakrez and Day Kundi, there is a significant issue in trying to force ALP as the "silver bullet," as is still being done in Afghanistan. Conventional forces routinely get guidance to "build ALP," as if that in and of itself will win the war, and my experiences were that too often, both SOF and the BSO define success in terms of numbers of ALP grown, number of villages protected, etc, and take no consideration into the quality of the force. While these numbers brief well, as I'm sure you are aware, there is a lot more than just having 10 guys in an ALP detachment to make it successful.

Further compounding this problem is that in areas like the Arghandab, both ALP and ANP are present, creating a almost "Super Troopers" like phenomenon where both police forces detest one another and refuse to cooperate. I've seen ANP disarm ALP on multiple occasions, and the natural level of distrust between these two forces creates a very real dilemma for US forces trying to transition to true Afghan independent operations. Another issue, in my eyes, is that at least in the Arghandab, particularly in Nagahan, the formation of ALP early in the early stages of the program led to unrealistic expectations on the part of ALP guardians. The whole ALP construct of a local defense force has been contorted by over funding by US forces, both conventional and SOF, where they ALP receive almost equal pay to ANP, and has led to a check point mentality where ALP detachments believe they must have fortified bases to operate out of, essentially creating another ANP force that conducts check point based operations and not the community policing they were designed for. Lastly, the "SOI" issue remains; what do you do with the ALP when all is said and done? Do they get rolled into the ANP when we leave? Have we just armed another generation of village militias that will fight, akin the the 1990s, once we leave?

I thoroughly enjoyed your take on both the CIDG and VSO projects. Again, I lack your (and most posters on this forum's) experience and hoped to simply offer some insight into a topic that I have a genuine interest in. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

CPT Liam Walsh

Mike in Hilo

Mon, 04/01/2013 - 3:25am

Thanks for posting this, lirelou...I have from time to time touched upon US misapprehensions of the ethnic dimension--specifically, the animus between the three Vietnamese speaking ethnic groups, Northern, Southern and Central. Southern regionalism was certainly used to French advantage, but they didn't invent it. The very sound of the Northern dialect grated irritatingly on Southern ears, and the prospect of DRVN rule was on ethnic grounds a motivating factor to Southern combativeness. ....But the Thieu regime, Neo-Diemist at least in the fact that Northerners (mainly but not exclusively Catholics)were heavily over represented in its officer corps and civilian ministries, was therefore precluded from appealing to the people's anti-Northern passion in making the argument for their resisting a DRVN takeover....Didn't stop the advisers, though...Not infrequently they'd make speeches urging, "You Southerners are better than those Northern invaders (meaning the NVA)"...And the locals would laugh out loud, "What Northerners is he talking about--our District Chief?" Of course, many Americans were seeing VN through Northern eyes, as the counterparts, military and civilian were often of Northern origin, as were the overwhelming number of local employees of all US agencies.


Absolutely true in one sense, and false in another. Yes, the DRVN and RVN both refused to recognize Vietnam's separation.

The fact is that Vietnam had been ruled as two separate states since the Trinh-Nguyen split in 1598 until Gia Long's ascendance to the throne in 1802. And those were the very same years that Vietnam expanded into today;s Central and Southern Vietnam. Yet right up until the French took control of all Indochina in 1887, various parts of the "Tonkinese Alps", Central Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta remained independent of Vietnamese control. It was the French who pushed Vietnam's boundaries to its present trace.

Under Gia Long and his immediate successors, the South was ruled by the Eunich warlord Le Van Duyet, who dealt with the Court at Hue much like the Nguyens had dealt with the North. Duyet recognized the multi-cultural frontier character of the "Gia Dinh" region from Bien Hoa to Camau and Ha Tien, so he ignored any decrees which would have undermined its peace and prosperity. Upon his death, however, the royal desecration of his tomb, and the annulment of many of his decress, sparked a series of rebellions. The hard handed measures taken by his officials did much to pave the way for the success of French intervention.

Up until 1949, the French had recognized Cambodia's claims to certain parts of the Mekong Delta. In 1946, when the French were scrambling for troops to re-establish order in South Vietnam, Prince Sisowath Monireth ordered the drafting of two battalions of troops to serve under French command. One of these was drafted within Cambodia itself, and the 2nd Battalion of the Far-East Brigade was recruited out of Cochinchina's Mekong Delta, illustrating that Cambodian administration continued to function within parts of South "Vietnam" as late as 1946.

These multi-cultural characteristics of Cochinchina are what induced Thierry d'Argenlieu's ill-fated attempt to establish Cochinchina as a separate republic. In any event, on the face of it, the Republic of Vietnam had a better chance of surviving as a separate state in 1964 than the Republic of Korea did, yet it is the latter which endured. Self-government independent of central authority was not an alien concept in the South.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/31/2013 - 1:20pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Perhaps it is a means to pressure Karzai, which would point to a bifurcated strategy. As for transforming other nations, I think you consistently overstate this, but to some extent it is true. It has been true throughout much of history and hardly unique to the U.S.. The colonial powers, the USSR, Catholic Church, Islam, and a host of others have pursued transformation efforts. Most were partly effectively, changes took place, but the people adapted these foreign concepts by integrating them with their local culture.

Bill C.

Sun, 03/31/2013 - 1:17pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Should we see this somewhat differently? For example:

Consider that our strategic goal is not to empower a certain local government to hold its own.

Rather, our strategic goal is to (1) transform outlier states and societies along modern western lines and to (2) incorporate these transformed states and societies into the global economy.

Thus, we would not seem to be wedded to any particular local government -- but only to our transformation and incorporation goals.

This being the case, then we must be prepared to achieve our objectives with or without the help of any specific or particular local government; installed by us or otherwise.

Should we find ourselves in a position in which the local government has an agenda which is different from and/or contrary to our own (Karzai?), then we must be prepared to (1) jetison and replace such a government, (2) coerce and/or compel such a government to more correctly and more completely conform to our will and/or (3) develop a means to effective go around said government and achieve our objectives without and/or in spite of said government.

Thus, should we see our CIDG and VSO efforts from this very specific and unique perspective?

Likewise, is this the way that President Karzai sees and understands our VSO efforts? (To wit: Not as a means of supporting him, per se, but more of a means of replacing him, going around him and/or forcing him to better comply with our demands?)

Bill M.

Sat, 03/30/2013 - 9:05pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.

I think an argument can be made that the VSO program is contrary to our stated strategic objectives of empowering the government to hold their own. I have argued before that improperly used it can subvert the government.…


Karzai has had longstanding unease with U.S. special operations forces, which he blames for causing civilian casualties, and the 21,000 members of the Afghan local police who work with them. He has complained bitterly and publicly that the local police are "militias" and believes they are "outside his control," according to his spokesman Aimal Faizi.


U.S. officials feared Karzai was close to banning U.S. special operations teams altogether when he declared earlier this year, while standing next to President Barack Obama in Washington, that all American forces would be out of Afghan villages by spring.

End Quote

The article also highlights the tactical successes of the VSO program which can't be denied, but the question remains is do they tie into our strategic ends?

We come up with all kinds of justifications once a program starts to keep doing it, so no doubt one justification for this program is that it will deny safe haven to Al-Qaeda, and it might in some areas, but there is also a chance that AQ will co-opt some members of the VSO program after the U.S. pulls out with their rapport building approach, which lets face it can be more appealing than ours from ideological perspective based on their shared religion. Afghanistan is large and AQ only needs to win over a relatively minor area to have a safe haven. If the militias are not loyal to the government, I suspect some will be willing to support the highest bidder.

The bigger issue is will the government be able to control the militias after we leave, or will they serve as the base of cannon fodder for the next civil war within Afghanistan if the government collapses? No one can predict these things, and these risks shouldn't drive us to cease the program, but rather put greater emphasis on getting buy in and support from the government to take the lead on it and maintain it after we leave.

Bill C.

Sat, 03/30/2013 - 8:31pm

In reply to by Bill M.

When I think of the larger strategy, I think that, for the United States, this means transforming outlier states and societies along modern western lines and, thereby, incorporating these states and societies into the global economy.

From this perspective, what appears to be missing is an explanation of how CIDG and VSO helped/helps the United States achieve these objectives.


A legitimate local government, in our eyes, is one that is totally devoted, much like ourselves, to the achievement of the above-noted state and societal transformation/incorporation goals.

Thus, an illegitimate or problem local government, in our eyes, is one that has some other agenda.

Given that we often find that we have installed local governments who have goals and objectives which are somewhat different from our own (S. Vietnam? - present-day Afghanistan?),

How then, and why, would we wish to (1) continue to help legitimize such adversely-focused governments and (2) continue to help them unify their country under terms and conditions which seem contrary to our overall goals and objectives?

In the old days, I think the answer would be: So that they can fight, kill and hold back the anti-western communists.

Today might the answer be: So that they can fight, kill and hold back today's anti-western entities?

While many good points were made, it was a bit excessive and cherry picked history to support the author's view that VSO is the greatest means ever to counter an unconventional threat. CIDG was only effective at the tactical level, and its success was at least partly, if not largely, enabled by superior combat forces. CIDG or VSO militia will not be able to defeat larger combat maneuver units that mass, so the necessity of fire support and larger maneuver units w/in an appropriate 911 range are a critical deterrent if the enemy is capable of massing forces. That is only one aspect of the issue which the author understands. What seems to be missing from the article is how CIDG and VSO supports the larger strategy. Is it an effective tactic for dominating the land and human domain? I think history has proven it has been in certain situations. Does it support the overall strategy of legitimizing the government and unifying the country? I think both CIDG and VSO have failed in that regard, and some academic reviews of both approaches failed to address the tensions that these programs created. In fact in some cases the approach drove a wedge between the people and the government. The author said it was a hybrid strategy combining COIN and FID, but that is illogical in some respects. Assuming we're focused on FID and attempting to assist the host nation government, then any action that undermines them isn't strategically appropriate.

The author begins his article with a quote from Clausewitz:

"The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking."

If we initiated this approach in 2002 or even 2003 we may (or may not) have achieved much more success. I knew a SF Bn commander that was pushing for this concept in 2005, and SF (not just the conventional forces) was very much focused on search and kill missions. He was told he didn't get it.

However, initiating this program in 2009, in some cases against the government's wishes seemed to be bit disconnected with the overall strategy, and in some locations after the U.S. leaves won't be supported. Not unlike the S. Vietnamese being strongly opposed to elements of the CIDG program, especially when it supported the Montagnards. Which in some respects is not much different than the Brits providing support to the Native Americans during the various conflicts in the New World. It was convenient, but often opposed by the settlers.

Overall I'm a supporter of the VSO/CIDG approach, especially when the host nation is doing it as one line of effort in the overall strategy and if the long term value of doing so is greater than the short term benefits. What we have failed to do in "some" cases is effectively nest this approach with the overall strategic ends (whether we agree with them or not, and the ends may be unrealistic, and the VSO approach may be based on ground truth, and in that case SOF needs to lobby for different strategic ends).

Is there a better way to irradicate the insurgent infrastructure and deny support from the people? If so I'm not aware of it. However, I would like to see a debate on this topic, so when we wade into the next conflict we'll be better informed on how to integrate this approach in a way that has buy in from those we're supporting, SOF, and the GPF.

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 03/29/2013 - 10:49pm

MAJ Brown,
Congratulations for a thoughtful article that places Village Stability Operations (V.S.O.) into a clear-eyed perspective for those of us not familiar with them. Also, I just found out that the Khakrez district is 100% Pashtun and so Pasto Wali is not necessarily Pavlov Wali.

The forced dissolution of the Montagnards being repeated earlier on in Afghanistan made me wonder whether it would make sense to break out the pure SOF from their respective services into a fifth service Secretariat within the Department of Defense.

Secondly, the initial success of the V.S.O. seems to be provoking the same questions that arose in Iraq toward the end of the U.S. military presence: ¿what to do about the Sons of Iraq (S.o.I.)? In Baghdad, I argued that we integrate the S.o.I. into the police force.

The V.S.O. and S.o.I. share one strength in common with the C.I.D.G. in Viet Nam: the base of a community policing system. The premise underlying the argument was that, from a non-ideological perspective, a violent insurgency might better be framed as a crime wave.

The initial brush-off that I received about deputizing the S.o.I.s into the police forces was that some (or many) had been former terrorists or insurgents. My counter-argument was that maintaining the peace would not require so many S.o.I.s actually wearing the badge.

Those deemed ineligible could be trained as support personnel (e.g., mechanics) rather than gun-toting policemen to sustain the local police while building the local economic base. Bottomless line: I was neither in the right silo nor able to mount a compelling argument.

Sir, I am curious as to what your thoughts are on switching the V.S.O. into the local police, given your depth of direct field experience and expertise attained over time. Finally, there was on big advantage of the C.I.D.G.: they were not paid, which culled the pool down to the truly committed.

Thank you again for a thoughtful and masterful piece, MAJ Brown. There is no substitute for truly walking in the other fellow's shoes around the other fellow's village. As always, I salute your service to my country, Sir.

Very truly yours,
Ned McDonnell,
Peace Corps-México.