Village Stability Operations and the Future of the American Way of War
SWJ Book Discussion with Linda Robinson on “One Hundred Victories. Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare” (Public Affairs, 2013).
Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Robinson's areas of expertise include national security strategy, international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, security force assistance, joint force development, special operations forces, irregular warfare and stability operations. She has worked in South Asia, Iraq, the Middle East, and Latin America. She was senior adviser to the AFPAK Center at USCENTCOM (2010-11) and author of a Council on Foreign Relations special report on the future of special operations forces (2013). She is also the author of Tell Me How This Ends (2008), Masters of Chaos (2004), and Intervention or Neglect (1991).
To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. - Sun Tzu
SWJ: Why did you choose to write a book about Village Stability Operations?
Linda Robinson: Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police is definitely the heart of the book. I looked at that in depth because I think it represents special operations forces going back to their roots and rescuing some of the skill-sets for working with indigenous populations that to some were lost and submerged in the last decade of heavy focus on combat and direct action. I also looked to how those initiatives worked together in Afghanistan including the development of the Afghan Special Forces and the Afghan commandos and the entire Afghan special ops structure that was a very important second mission going on at the same time. Also there was ISAF SOF --I.E., NATO and other partners-- conducting a very intensive parallel effort to train and operate alongside the various police forces growing 17 different Province Response Companies, as well as the high-end Minister of Interior counter-terrorist and counter-narcotics forces. Finally the last few chapters are focused on the evolution of the US special ops command and control structure which is a little bit of an inside baseball story, but very important because for the first time, all the special ops tribes, all those stove-piped units were put together under one command. I tried to touch on all of these things that were going on and look at what the operators brought from their operational experience elsewhere and project forward where these things may be used in the future.
SWJ: Being there, on the ground and observing what the special ops were doing, how influent was the classical image of T.E. Lawrence for the operational philosophy at the core of the VSO/ALP initiatives?
Linda Robinson: Every operator, as well as the vast majority of US conventional forces sent out to these countries, have internalized, read and have been preached to about T.E. Lawrence. Of particular symbolism is the guidance about not doing so much with your own hands what they may do less perfectly with theirs. I think it is the actual insight to say that their hands are the critical hands. They in fact know their own country much better. All that the US can hope to do is to be the helping hand, the enabler. I think that is what the real T.E. Lawrence story was about: about him going over there and never pretending that he was the leader. He might be the translator back to the foreign capitals or a connector but never putting himself in the lead. That was where perhaps a wrong turn was taken in all the emphasis that developed almost unintentionally, when the US began seeing itself as the primary counterinsurgent. That is never going to be the case, never should be the case except if the US is confronted by an insurgency on its own soil. That is the optic really, to find out what it takes to operate successfully according to another countries’ standards. That is almost diametrically opposed to our process of building our own campaign plans and structuring our own approach because it has always come back to them, what they are willing to do and what they can do.
SWJ: You started the book with Sun Tzu and you ended the book with Sun Tzu. I think it is a symbolic choice especially today when we are talking so much about rebalancing. What is the broader message that you want to send by leveraging his influence including the title “One Hundred Victories”?
Linda Robinson: The key is not to win 100 victories in 100 battles, but to subdue the enemy without fighting. The interpretation or the spin that I put on without fighting means without the US taking the lead in the fighting. Of course there will likely be fighting in many of these cases, but the key is for them, the local actors, to do the fighting and for the US to enable them.
SWJ: You interviewed extensively all the main participants in the VSO project. How would you describe village stability operations and the associated challenges, because as you point out in the book, they seem very different than Call of Duty or just the pure kinetic part that we’ve seen emphasized when we talk about special ops?
Linda Robinson: This is really the key thing to highlight what has changed in the US approach in Afghanistan over time and what is hopefully going to be applied in the future elsewhere. Village Stability Operations represented a real evolution in how special ops interacted with the indigenous population. Early on in the war they would, in their own words, round up some “indig” to go hit targets. So they were simply leveraging the indigenous population to better serve a kinetic direct action mission, of going, finding and hunting down the Taliban. The VSO is a totally different concept built on the task of engaging deeply with civilian populations in remote areas. The logic was that in order to find out if these villages are willing to defend themselves we have to find out why they are fighting to begin with, why they have been subjugated by the Taliban or have actively cast their lot with the Taliban. So SOF has to move within villages, get a hearing with the village elders and then begin to understand very complicated dynamics. All this provides a sounder basis for forming a defense force of Afghans - the Afghan Local Police. Once you’ve understood the village, you understand why they would be willing to stand up and protect themselves and you can form a defense group on a durable basis of village leadership.
But this is very difficult; it is very hard to reliably diagnose decades old conflicts. It is a long-term approach - and the US always has a hard time devoting sufficient time to operations in such places. But to the credit of commanders in Afghanistan there were instances where time was invested in order to develop a true understanding of the local situation. What was usually found was a mix of marginalized tribes being cut out of economic sources of power as well as other formal or informal sources of power. It was really a matter of trying to find a power sharing solution to conflict. This formula is very promising but it is time consuming and requires some skill-sets that may not be readily available. I also think it is very important to look at this formula as one that requires a partnership with other entities or individuals that have the necessary expertise. It is wrong to expect special operators to learn everything or acquire all required skills. But overall it was an important pivot away from the immersion in combat that became a feature of the decade following 9/11 for the SOF community. The special operators relearned the art of sitting with the elders to figure out the complicated web of rivalries, to understand the alliances between the individual villages, but also understanding how the villagers could be motivated to come together for a common purpose.
SWJ: You have emphasized that one important innovation at the core of projecting the VSO on a larger scale was the partnership developed between the SOF community and conventional infantry forces. Concerning the current debate about the utility of “strategic landpower” what should be institutionalized as a good practice from the Afghan experience as we move forward?
Linda Robinson: This is critically important given the small size of special operation forces. If one expects the US defense strategy to be implemented in order to build partner capacity around the world one has to realize the task is far beyond special ops capacity to do alone. An interesting experiment undertaken in Afghanistan was to assign two infantry battalions to the Special Ops Command and divide these infantry battalions to send a squad to each of 52 special ops teams that were spread across the country - and thus building a force multiplier by providing teams force protection and, in some cases, enlisting the squads in the core tasks of stability operations and building the local police. In order for this to be applied successfully several things need to happen as the Army is very reluctant to have specialized forces and this is the nub of the problem. Today to be the most effective at this kind of activity, units need to have repeat tours in the same place. It doesn’t mean that they are going to become PhDs in that area but familiarity would make them much more successful. Similarly, at an individual level, allowing some to specialize in a particular region would provide a leadership cadre for young soldiers sent out to do these tasks in conjunction with special ops. The final point that I would make is the importance of building a system that allows sufficient time to prepare. The Army can’t just plug these individuals or units into an unfamiliar country. What I found most impressive in Afghanistan was the intensive academic week-long program that trained those assigned to conduct VSO/ALP. It became so popular that conventional forces began requesting the program even if they were not going to conduct VSO/ALP. I think this is a model for what needs to be done and I hope that there will be enough funding for these types of programs; but more importantly, a bureaucratic mindset to support such efforts must be institutionalized, an understanding that this is how you enable success.
SWJ: Responding to an insurgency requires more than just a military component, a comprehensive approach is necessary. Should partnerships go beyond SOF and conventional forces, bringing in development, governance, and other experts?
Linda Robinson: In the last chapter on Kunar I describe what a post 2014 small footprint presence should look like and it includes CIA, State, USAID, as well as special ops. To some extent this is going back to what I saw in Central America in the 1980s - where it was routine to have those elements as part of a partnership. It was much easier ironically for civilians to get out then than it is now. Today regional security officers restrict to an incredibly degree the ability of civilians assigned to embassy country teams to get out in the field in risky situations to work with special ops or any indigenous element. I think this reluctance is even greater now after the Benghazi incident.
SWJ: What kind of a mindset, at the individual and institutional levels, is required in order to operate effectively and be able understand and craft an answer to political-military challenges?
Linda Robinson: On the military side, I think there is a need to ensure recruiting literature and the recruiting pitch includes and appeals to those with an interest in the world out there - working and living in other cultures. That is not to say that you don’t need or that you won’t recruit people that desire the direct action side of things but you need to make sure that you are getting those people that really want to get out there, drink tea and live with the villagers and work with the civilian counterparts.
On the civilian side there is a whole group of Foreign Service officers appointed as foreign policy advisers for the military commands, a program that was massively expanded over the past decade. These officers often don’t get considered for higher positions. I think the Foreign Service promotion system should really reward those who have an interagency mindset - those who are working best with other elements of the US government. The system should reward and require a tour in another agency because it provides powerful friendships, relationships and the knowledge of how another bureaucracy operates. Somewhere we got lost in talking about all the other agencies. Let’s be clear, State and USAID are the two key ones. We must get the three Ds (Defense, Diplomacy and Development,) lashed up and make use of all these people that have been out there in the field (whether it is in PRTs or whatever) over the last decade. We may not have any big wars going on, but if the US can get that talent and put them in these places in small teams and I think we will be very successful.
SWJ: What was the role of the ALP/VSO effort in the broader effort of the Afghan surge?
Linda Robinson: The ALP/VSO grew perhaps more quickly than they could effectively manage given the number of SOF teams augmented by conventional squads. Overall the ALP/VSO (a ground-up, elder validated defense force) should be the main effort because it is a rural insurgency and this is a low cost method of providing security in major belts of the rural insurgent zone. It was also a localized approach, because this is a very difficult country to move around. They are not going to have a large air-mobile capability for quite a while simply because it is very hard to train Afghan pilots. A more appropriate model for Afghanistan going forward is a smaller overall force that is sustainable - but also a force that includes and is based more on local defense initiatives that can start replicating themselves. We need to make sure they are being empowered with their own decision-making.
SWJ: How important were past indirect formative experiences like Colombia and Philippines?
Linda Robinson: This is very important because I found without exception that every special ops team I encountered directly referenced their experiences elsewhere and these were highly relevant. The two main groups that spent most of the time in Afghanistan were the 3rd and 7th Special Forces Groups. The 7th had time in Colombia - where they were entirely focused on supporting Colombia’s development of its own security to combat the FARC narco-terrorist insurgency. 3rd Special Forces Group also had Africa experience as did Navy SEALs in Colombia, Africa and the Philippines. A lot of people don’t realize how much time the SEALs have spent working to bolster other countries capabilities because they associate them with direct action missions. 1st Special Forces Group teams were entirely oriented on Asia by policy. Some of them had time in Iraq providing training to local SWAT teams but their primary mission in Asia was working with other countries’ military forces in a non-combat mode. They had a lot of experience, 10 years now, in the Philippines.
SWJ: It is fashionable to talk about El Salvador in the 1980s, and the Philippines and Colombia, post 9/11, as examples of effective small scale Foreign Internal Defense (FID) campaigns. But history shows that counterinsurgency is a state-centric process requiring developing and investing in a massive state-building component. Is low cost FID possible when the expeditionary counterinsurgent doesn’t have a reasonable local state structure to leverage? In Colombia and Philippines we can talk about a successful low cost FID because behind the effort there were reasonable local institutional and administrative machineries.
Linda Robinson: You make a very good point and this is certainly the case with Colombia and the Philippines, although the state structures in the Colombian case absolutely did not reach out to the countryside. So the counterinsurgency effort led and formulated by Colombia has been very much one of projecting first state security and now state governance and fixing the economic disparity. But it is important to point out that the construct of VSO/ALP does aim to connect up the local people with a nascent formal governing structure. Nascent is the operative word here. Additionally, we have to fix our counterinsurgency model so that we are focusing first and foremost on police. The counterinsurgency model as we have practiced it has neglected police / law enforcement.
On the other side, it takes a lot of time to build any state structure so what VSO was really leveraging in the first instance was the desire of local people to defend themselves and the key elements of the local setting - tribes, elders, those grass root informal structures. The goal of the VSO program was community mobilization, by helping villages identify and address the problems that were creating conflict and instability in their area. This provides the formula to work while there is no sufficiently developed state structure and that model can be applied in places like Yemen (heavily tribal where the government does not reach outside the city limits) or Mali. I think it is very pertinent for many parts of the world to look at the tribal basis that doesn’t contradict eventually building state structures, but it is using what is there to defeat a threat for the near term.
SWJ: If the willingness of the local communities to mobilize against the Taliban was there why did it happen in 2009 and not earlier?
Linda Robinson: The reason it didn’t go spontaneously was due to the level of Taliban intimidation. No one was standing at that time because no one was reaching out to help these people stand up. The countryside was pretty much on its own. That psychological benefit of having someone out there gave many of these leaders the courage to come forward. I won’t underestimate that for many in these poor areas the prospect of pay, the prospect of a job helped. What it really took was a team being there that provided an umbrella of security.
SWJ: Do you see this model of working locally, with the grass root structures, as being sustainable when there is no broader institutional framework able to anchor these community defense initiatives?
Linda Robinson: It depends fundamentally on the quality and the ability of the local leadership. This is what I found in the microcosms that I focused on in the book. A strong, charismatic leadership able to use their tribal stature as a legitimizing force to galvanize villagers is going to be the key no matter what. I think also that the people’s will, that existential will to survive can be enough to sustain a local defense effort, even if there is no money coming down from government sources.
If our pipeline of aid to Afghanistan stops after 2014 some local defense initiatives will continue as a purely voluntary effort because it is in their interest to guard their homes, families and farms. I can see that happening at least in the couple of places that I focused on - Kunar and Paktika.
SWJ: How does this end?
Linda Robinson: For Afghanistan the most important determinant of success will be the US willingness to maintain a small but distributed presence. The emphasis is on distributed. If SOF are just sitting in Kabul or Bagram and only have as a core mission occasional CT strikes, I think they might as well come home. If they are willing to have a distributed special operations presence, perhaps augmented by conventional forces, and continue this for some time, I think the country will make it through and it will move forward. Ultimately, success really involves applying this model elsewhere. The special ops community is quite poised to apply all these four things that I have mentioned - using local forces, developing local SOF, using coalition SOF and combining these elements in a unified command. These are the hallmarks of any operation conducted in other parts of the world. This is the vision that Admiral McRaven is driving toward. It is also one that has been embraced in part by the Administration, but the Administration also has voices that would prefer just stand-alone CT missions. This is a debate to have not only in policy circles but also in the public.
At the same time, I am quite concerned about Americans becoming very isolationist and unwilling to do anything to help countries in areas where we do have vital interests and failing to understand that a small commitment over a period of time can have a great effect at a much lower cost than waiting until a problem or a threat is so severe that we need to intervene unilaterally at a great cost and size. It is a problem of policy-makers driven by public opinion polls. The other problem is the US military may find it much easier to say that we can use a high tech approach to defeat the threat when in fact at the end of the day somebody has to be there on the ground knowing what is going on and probably helping those partners. I don’t think we can have a model where we can outsource our security entirely to other countries.
SWJ: A key word, and in the end mindset of the VSO practitioners is that of presenting themselves as “teachers”. Do we have here a symbolic center of gravity shifting from the combat SOF to the task of empowering partners and becoming teachers?
Linda Robinson: To teach, to facilitate, to listen---all these verbs come in to play here. I was very impressed by the team leaders that seemed to grasp the skills that were required to work in a foreign culture with people many years older, able to gain their respect, but still in the end also prepared to teach them. Often it will not be about overt teaching, but enabling and facilitating. Just as we underrate the teachers in our society this has been an underrated skill-set of the special operations forces. Their ability to do that rests on some internal institutional changes. The SOF leadership should reward those with these aptitudes and prepare the leaders able to orchestrate campaigns that are largely “by, through and with” others. They like to say they do it, but they’ve spent way too much time focused on the tactical level. This is where the US Special Ops Command is trying to reorient to do, but it requires shifting bodies and money to this. I am waiting to see more bodies and money shifted.