Warrior Sweep: An Examination of Applied Counterinsurgency Theory in the Zormat Valley
Joseph E. Osborne PhD.
It starts with a vibe. Not the most scientific term but for anyone who has ever operated in an insurgent environment it is very real. Psychologists might help us to understand that our subconscious perceives micro-communications and segregates those that signal danger or ill-will; like the absence of eye contact from villagers or the kids missing from the village square. Sometimes you sort out the cause, more typically, you check to make sure you’re not the only one catching the vibe. In the summer of 2003, the village of Zormat and most of Paktia province had a vibe that was being felt all the way up to the Special Operations Task Force headquarters in Bagram.
The reality of 2003 Afghanistan was an environment full of insurgents, conducting insurgent type activities against a coalition that was, in large part, desperately trying to avoid saying the words insurgency or counterinsurgency. For me, this story really begins with opportunity, timing, and luck. In reality, it begins with classic Counterinsurgency (COIN) theorists like Galula and Trinquier and the intervening influence of scholars like Gordon McCormick and John Arquilla. The timely convergence of a like-minded counterinsurgency practitioners was also fortuitous. Most importantly, and despite later implicit claims of finally getting it right, this story shows that Operation WARRIOR SWEEP, and the actions in and around Zormat in 2003, represented the first real counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan.
During that summer, air mobile operations followed by multi-day movements to contact were the standard fare for the conventional forces in Afghanistan. Officially, the US was focused on providing security for stabilization and reconstruction efforts. Based on the coalition’s sporadic forays out of established bases, there was no way they could provide that security. Any effort involving interaction with the population and indigenous forces was limited to the small number of special forces scattered around the country in remote camps. COIN did not emerge as a mission until Lieutenant General David Barno established Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A) in October of 2003 and developed a COIN campaign strategy.
The inception of Warrior Sweep, at least the inception that turned it into a counterinsurgency campaign, emerged from one of these routinely ineffective operations. The Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF 180) Headquarters was preparing to conduct several operations that would put forces in the field in or around Paktia Province. Paktia, and the village of Zormat had seen a recent uptick in Taliban activity.
It was also useful that the Combined-Joint Special Operations Task Force- Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A), had key leaders that largely saw the ambiguous gray-scape of Afghanistan through a lens shaped by scholars like Gordon McCormick and John Arquilla who had earlier equipped us with the theoretical foundations of Thompson, Galula, Trinquier, and others. Our general conceptualizing jumped into planning using the same graphic that McCormick uses in class lectures to explain an insurgent environment.
Paktia Province is due south of the Afghan Capital of Kabul and sits astride major border crossings into Pakistan. The provincial Capital is Gardez and the town of Khowst is the first major urban area on the Afghan side of the border. The village of Zormat, the surrounding valley, and for the most part, all of Paktia Province were presenting symptoms consistent with an increasing insurgent presence. Some symptoms were obvious; in my notes from late June and early July, I referred to the area south of Gardez as Ambush Alley. Humanitarian organizations could no longer safely work in Paktia, there was confirmatory intelligence reporting, and finally, the villagers changed their outward behavior toward US forces. To be certain, the signaling was subtle but the fact that this sort of intangible event made it into reporting was significant.
The indicators were substantiated through solid analysis. The CJSOTF-A Commander, Colonel Joseph D. Celeski, directed a series of Red Team analyses, essentially viewing the battlespace from the perspective of the Taliban and identifying vulnerabilities. Celeski had been the CJSOTF-A Commander the previous year and recalled in our 2017 interview that “in 2002 Paktia was largely quiet, and in 2003 insurgent activity in Paktia was clearly picking up”. The analytics were based on simple questions and assumptions and the answers overlapped in the Zormat Valley.
Dovetailing the concept
There were several planned operations on the calendar for the months of June and July. UNIFIED RESOLVE kicked off around the same time that we began wrestling with the Zormat Valley. The operation involved a significant air assault of elements from the 82d Airborne Division into areas of Nangahar and Kunar Province. An operation cleverly characterized by the CJTF 180 Public Affairs Office as a “cooperative combat and civil affairs operation”.
Following on the heels of UNIFIED RESOLVE, HAVEN DENIAL was scheduled for the first week of July 2003 and involved a combined force of 1300 U.S and Italian paratroopers. The operation was centered on the Gardez to Khost highway and the surrounding mountains. We determined that this presented the first opportunity to start setting conditions for WARRIOR SWEEP. Our initial thinking was to get the local Taliban on edge with several hundred coalition troops in the area. This would be followed by an immediate lull as the troops left the area and would hopefully provide a false sense of security.
From this juncture, we proposed that WARRIOR SWEEP should transition to a more nuanced counterinsurgency operation. The objective was to displace the Taliban out of the population areas and then keep pressure on them in the surrounding countryside. The conventional forces would conduct area denial in the mountains east of Zormat and interdict any stray Taliban trying to evade or make their way to the Pakistani border. In contrast to previous operations, once Zormat was occupied by both US and Afghan forces, they would stay and lay the groundwork for a permanent Afghan government presence.
When we had the concept roughed out, we conducted preliminary planning with the staff from CJTF 180. In an unexpected turn, they embraced the concept of modifying WARRIOR SWEEP into a COIN-centric operation. What was intended to be a check on the CJTFs willingness to play ball had suddenly become a preliminary approval to execute.
Coordination and synchronization
At this point in Afghanistan, US and coalition forces were not organized or configured for COIN. Most of the US and Coalition forces had independent headquarters and their operations, while serving an overall plan, were not optimized to achieve any form of synergy of effects. The first hurdle was to get buy-in and commitment from the Combined Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force (CJCMOTF) and the Combined Joint Psychological Operations Task Force (CJPOTF). Additional players included a Joint Interagency Task Force focused on high value targets, the conventional battalions under CJTF 180, and the Coalition Special Operations Units that worked directly for CJSOTF-A in addition to the two US Special Forces (SF) Battalions.
Initial planning placed an immediate emphasis on operational security. Zormat and the surrounding areas were designated as no-go zones for coalition forces. We were concerned that any up-tick in patrols or even coalition vehicular traffic might tip our hand to the Taliban. As it turned out, these efforts were important, but we still only narrowly avoided signaling our intent.
Particular attention was given to the role of the nascent Afghan National Army (ANA). Despite very limited tactical capabilities, we made a conscious decision to incorporate the ANA into the operation, ensuring they put an Afghan face in front of the Afghan population. Because of a pressing concern for operational security, full knowledge of the operation was held back until the last possible moment. For some formations, such as the group that occupied Zormat on the night of 23 July, this was just hours prior to departing their compound in Gardez.
The CJSOTF-A Intelligence Section assumed a leadership role in terms of synchronizing resources from both Department of Defense (DoD) and the broader intelligence community. The former CJSOTF-A J2 recalled, “intelligence is the coin of the realm in counterinsurgency and at the time of Warrior Sweep, the bulk of the US conventional intelligence community was not really trained or focused in this direction”. For most conventional organizations the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) was a comfortable tool, but only fit for providing content for briefing slides. Despite these challenges, the CJSOTF Intelligence section did journeymen’s work in folding conventional collection assets and resources into the fight. Notably, this was possibly the first time in living memory that tactical control of conventional intelligence assets was passed to a special operations headquarters.
There were shortfalls that could not be corrected in time. Human intelligence networks were underdeveloped and there was no Special Branch of the Afghan National Police, or any type of Intelligence Directorate. Effectively, the Afghan government was a giant void – once security and control was established there was simply no ministerial support available to establish a governmental presence. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was also in full swing and Afghanistan was feeling the effect of being considered a secondary front.
Warrior Sweep began on July 20, 2013 with the insertion of elements of two battalions from the 82d Airborne Division, Italian and Romanian infantry units, and elements of the ANA and local militias (with Special Forces Advisors). While the announced intent was to clear the Taliban and other militants from the mountains between Gardez and Khost, which it likely did, it also signaled to any Taliban in the area that the mountains between the Pakistan Border and the Zormat Valley were not safe for transit or sanctuary. There is nothing subtle about area denial with a thousand infantrymen tromping over the mountains.
On the night of July 23, 2016, led by a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (SFODA), the ANA moved into the village of Zormat and conducted a series of targeted raids against suspected Taliban locations and operatives. The great care in maintaining operational security paid off. The sudden presence of coalition forces in the village was a complete surprise and sent the Taliban scrambling so quickly they abandoned a significant cache of weapons, munitions, and intelligence materials. That they escaped at all was largely due to luck; many of the Taliban were bedded down in a compound on the opposite end of the village from the team’s initial target and the ANA had neither sufficient force, nor probably the tactical skill, to cordon the entire village in the dark.
The following morning a follow-on force arrived in Zormat to help establish a permanent footprint. The effect of the previous night’s operation was evident. Many of the residents had slept through the raids from the night prior and were clearly surprised to see coalition forces on the streets. The follow-on elements established a command post in an abandoned school to set up clinics and conduct the follow-on civil affairs activities. As the Civil Affairs (CA) detachment went about their business, the A-team processed the few suspects detained the previous evening and the ANA troops collected all the rocket launchers, recoilless rifles and various other heavy weapons that had been abandoned. There was also a significant haul of ammunition and explosives.
With Zormat under control, the civic actions and information operations went into full swing. Medical Civic Action Programs (MEDCAP) and Veterinary Civic Action Programs (VETCAP) kicked off almost immediately. The MEDCAP treated over 2,000 patients in just under two weeks while the VETCAP provided an array of services including vaccinations and deworming to over 21,000 animals.
In addition to occupying Zormat, constant pressure and area denial was applied to deny sanctuary and freedom of maneuver to any Taliban elements remaining in the area. Over the next several weeks the 1st Battalion of 3d SF Group (SFG) had SFODAs partnered with ANA Platoons (approximately 30 soldiers) patrolling the areas around Zormat village. During periods of darkness, they coiled their vehicles in wadis or forested areas and responded to cueing from various intelligence platforms. The close intelligence integration allowed for dynamic adjustments and moving assets and resources as needed – the short-term loan of a dog team from the Military Police on Bagram was one memorable example. A revisit with a dog team to some of the compounds previously targeted resulted in the reportedly dramatic detention of at least one suspect hidden in a hollowed-out space under a pile of firewood.
Innovation and tactical flexibility proved critical. Several Taliban hide sites were discovered and destroyed. In one building they discovered a false wall concealing a hidden room dug into the side of a cliff that could accommodate 8 to 10 people. Intelligence reporting confirmed the remaining Taliban were feeling significant pressure; by keeping them on the move, afraid to use any sort of telecommunications, and incapable of reorganizing, we succeeded in shifting their focus to survival.
To be sure, actions in the Zormat valley were not an example of everything going according to plan. Dynamic adjustments and shifting resources around the battlespace remained the norm. Several days after occupying Zormat, the Taliban managed to fire a few mortar rounds in the general direction of the US/ANA compound. Quick and accurate counter-fire from a Mark-19 Grenade Launcher put a stop to any further ambitions and largely punctuated the end of any Taliban initiative to contest control of the village.
Approximately six weeks after establishing a presence in Zormat, the civil affairs footprint was condensed and the surge of resources and capabilities that established government control were reduced to levels that could be sustained over time. The ANA remained the sole Afghan government presence until well into 2004. The most significant immediate effects for the population – a secure environment where humanitarian organizations could operate again.
For Every Action…
The immediate effects of WARRIOR SWEEP were largely positive, but there were also negative repercussions. Just a year later in August 2004, I was back in Afghanistan on a subsequent deployment when two Afghans working for a German relief agency were assassinated by gunmen near Zormat in a targeted killing. Three weeks later, an improvised explosive device was detonated at Zormat’s Mullah Khel school, killing 9 students and one adult. We later discovered that the bomber, who escaped into Pakistan, was a teacher at the school and a Taliban operative.
The return to terrorism, a tactic of the latent-incipient phase of a Maoist style insurgency, was occurring across Afghanistan as the coalition prepared for the upcoming 2004 national elections. In effect, coalition pressure and the moderate success of the Afghan Army, drove the Taliban to use terror as a tactic.
In the end Warrior Sweep was, at best, a beta test of counterinsurgency conducted well prior to official acknowledgement of an insurgency. In light of the August 2021 abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the utility of examining the long-term effects of the Zormat campaign becomes an exercise in forensics. There are nuggets worthy of harvesting – when Paktia received more government attention the population generally benefitted. Unfortunately, the conditions that typically prompted an uptick in government attention was increased Taliban activity. For the local citizens, this means they lived in the sinewave of a continuously contested space.
The classic, neo-classic, and global counterinsurgency schools all provided some manner of foundational knowledge to the Warrior Sweep process. Most relevant, the common view regarding the population centric nature of the struggle, the need for whole of government involvement, and the importance of strategic patience. To analyze this campaign, I borrow from a common thread of doctrinal principles and factors that were first called out by Colonel Celeski in his 2005 monograph and later slightly refined during our conversations at his home in Georgia. By exception, these principles are present in almost all cases of counterinsurgency. They also emerged in some form as principles and factors that influenced the inception, planning and execution of WARRIOR SWEEP.
The analytic factors that informed the assessment of the campaign’s objectives include:
- Will: The inclination of the populace to support the governments programs and agenda.
- Space: Denying freedom of maneuver and access to sanctuaries and population centers, both internal and external, to the insurgents.
- Legitimacy: Validating the role of the Afghan government and the nascent Afghan National Army
- Time: There are two characteristics in play – exercising strategic patience and synchronizing effects to unbalance the insurgents.
- Support: This is a principle that can be applied as an adjunct to all the others – understanding the insurgent support dynamic.
Did WARRIOR SWEEP achieve the voluntary support of the population in terms of government agenda and programs? Yes, but only partially. The vacuum of effective policing and citizen focused services was effectively insurmountable and ultimately one of the important lessons from this operation. In 2003 the only viable institution was the ANA. In hindsight this operation has to be acknowledged for what it was - a baby-step that managed to use all the tools available in the best way possible.
Did WARRIOR SWEEP effectively deny sanctuary and freedom of movement to the insurgents? Yes. This is probably the most definitive affirmation of one of the most enduring tenets of counterinsurgency. The use of fundamentally good and innovative tactics that employed the principles of surprise, speed of maneuver and mass, carried the day. The night-time entry into Zormat had the effect of displacing the local insurgents and scattering them to compounds in the surrounding valley. The immediate and aggressive follow-on operations served as an effective one-two punch and forced the insurgents away from any support mechanisms.
Did WARRIOR SWEEP legitimize the role of the Afghan government? No. While our planning for Warrior Sweep intentionally integrated the ANA in a public facing role, and probably created positive impressions for the Afghan Army as an institution, it did little beyond that. The absence of functional ministries was a critical factor in not addressing this principal more completely. Unfortunately, waiting on the development of an effective bureaucracy was not viable. A failure to intervene in Paktia in 2003 would have likely extracted a terrible price if the Taliban were given time to fully develop a functional organization. Up until the fall of Kabul in 2021, the results were mixed. In Afghanistan, this is not particularly surprising. As David Kilcullen observed in 2009, alignment of a community group as either pro-government or pro-Taliban is not a politically fixed commitment for local leaders. Rather, they tend to shift to the side that provides order and predictability as well as safety. In an area that largely remained in play since 2003, the shifting alliances are a predictable part of the environment.
Did WARRIOR SWEEP effectively adhere to the concepts of strategic patience and rapid execution to take the advantage of time away from the Taliban? No. The operation may have effectively demonstrated that speed of maneuver, constant pressure, and aggressiveness, validate this principle, but America’s political and strategic patience ultimately wore out.
Did Warrior Sweep effectively apply the principle of interdicting the Taliban’s means of support? Yes and no. Yes, in the narrow scope that defined Warrior Sweep. No, if considered in the greater, and perhaps more appropriate context of the region. Warrior Sweep did nothing to influence sanctuaries and supply sources in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Nor was it linked to a broader strategy that addressed those concerns through diplomatic or political channels.
The most compelling observation to come from this analysis is that the common thread across counterinsurgency cases, the population, is present as a dominant factor through all of them. Does that mean the classic school got it right and we can just focus on the people? Not at all. As Kilcullen has correctly asserted, the new normal is irregular and asymmetric in nature but will also likely occur where populations are very dense. Finally, emerging out of all of this is the importance of the supporting government institutions. With WARRIOR SWEEP, we didn’t feel we had the time to wait – and history shows we would still be waiting after almost two decades. However, the lack of ministerial competence in Afghanistan largely doomed effective counterinsurgency. Without U.S. and donor nation support the Afghan government proved to be a house of cards.
Finally, some propositions for practitioners that find themselves wrestling with these dilemmas. First, what I call my first maxim of COIN, an idea used to indoctrinate new staff officers in Afghanistan: “Well fed, busy people, generally don’t revolt.” Secondly, one of the universal truths of counterinsurgency; no two insurgencies are the same. Third, and written from a place of respect, the classic theorists never had to deal with the complexities of globally connected non-state insurgents bound by shared religious dogma and smart phones. The world described by Kilcullen and Celeski is the new reality. For COIN practitioners and scholars, these notions should probably nest in the background of any thinking on this topic. And you should never ignore the vibe.
This article relies on the memories of the author and data from personal notes. To mitigate the clear potential for bias and the impact of fading memories, other key participants have been interviewed to provide different perspectives and for cross-corroboration. Triangulation was employed using open-source historical publications to further strengthen the validity of the information presented in the body of the case. The case itself is presented in a broad overview and is not intended to provide a detailed historical account of all aspects of the operation. Rather, it serves as a laboratory of sorts, providing a medium in which to examine theory in action. Although, given the ambiguous nature of any insurgency environment, crash-test dummy may be the more appropriate metaphor.
The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not reflect official DoD or Air University policy or opinion.
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 Author’s Notes
From an interview conducted on 15 July 2017, Buford Ga. Joe Celeski also contributes heavily to the literature informing counterinsurgency so his name will also appear in references.)
 Midland Daily News, June 20, 2004, Todd Pittman, US Forces Enter Afghan Border Areas, https://www.ourmidland.com/news/article/U-S-Forces-Enter-Afghan-Border-Areas-7187698.php
 Interview, 01 July 2017 CJSOTF-A, J3 and corroborated by Author’s notes
 Author’s notes
 From an interview conducted with the former CJSOTF-A J2 in late June 2017.
 Michael G. Walling, Enduring freedom, enduring voices: US military operations in Afghanistan (Osprey, 2015) 92.
 Author’s notes
 Celeski interview.
 Los Angeles Times, 05 Aug 2004, from the Associated Press, Two Afghan Aid Workers Killed, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-aug-05-fg-afghan5-story.html
 The Washington Post, 05 Sept 2004, Pamela Constable, Afghan Blast Has Alarming Implications, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2004/09/05/afghan-blast-has-alarming-implications/7ca92ba8-7925-42d0-b426-2948492f83ff/
 Joseph D. Celeski, Operationalizing Coin (2005), http://www.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA507338.
 David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerilla, Oxford University Press, NY (2009).
 David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, Hurst, London, (2013)