The enormous challenges in Afghanistan are forcing International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) leaders to reconsider the use of SOF for population centric counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies. Reasonable fears of warlords and tribal factionalism have been over come by the lack of success in conventional forces efforts to control the vast area of operation and the time line for withdrawal of ISAF. Empowering village self-defense has become the major line of operation for the coalition. This effort has been undermined by recent suicide attacks. Smart leaders are making changes to protect ISAF forces and expand this effective strategy.
The primary U.S. objective in Afghanistan is to prevent the use of Afghan territory for terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland and American interests. Drone strikes and direct action missions have not been enough to accomplish this. Sanctuaries in Pakistan are a ongoing source of leadership and technical expertise for insurgent groups operating inide Afghanistan. Geopolitical realities constrain operations in Pakistan and the 1,500 mile Afghanistan-Pakistan border cannot be controlled.
Afghanistan can become a place hostile to these foreign fighters. Mao said that the insurgent must move through the population like a fish through water. Empowering the population, will change the temperature of that water so that insurgents can not flourish.
International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan don’t have the forces to protect every village, nor should they try. Like water flows around obstacles, insurgents avoid strength and seek weakness. Afghan Local Police (ALP) provide 16,000 armed Afghans protecting their own villages as a way to spread security to remote areas of the country. ALP allows villagers to control their own destiny to an unprecedented degree. The ISAF campaign plan has shifted from protection of the population to enabling the population to protect itself.
The bad guys hate this. Their latest tactic is to find disgruntled men in the program and encourage them to attack ISAF troops. On August 17th, a new Afghani Local Police recruit at a small outpost in western Afghanistan shot two American Special Forces members. Since 2010, there have been three other instances of Afghan Local Police recruits turning their guns on their American counterparts.
Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, commander for Special Operations forces in Afghanistan has suspended training with new Afghan recruits until current Afghan troops can be re-vetted for ties to the insurgency. This is a positive move to take an operational pause and work out a new response to enemy tactics.
In 2004, Green Berets from 19th and 20th Special Forces were working in eastern Afghanistan. They identified vulnerable areas outside the influence of the Afghan National Army and ISAF. In classic SF fashion, they convinced CJSOTF-A to allow deployment of A teams to strategic villages along known infiltration routes. Once there, they used attached infantry or Marine platoons to established a secure perimeter. They then recruited organized and trained local defense forces. After initial attacks, insurgent activities dropped off sharply. Bad guys were unable to recruit or move freely in areas with armed locals.
Recognizing this success, in 2007 General Petraeus’ started the Afghan Auxiliary Police (AAP). This initiative, while great in principle, lacked adequate resources. Without SOF oversight, this poorly trained and equipped force was more likely to harass locals than fight insurgents. The project was cancelled.
An improved effort, called the Afghan Public Protection Police (AP3), was managed by the Afghan Ministry of Interior, trained and equipped by ISAF, Though successful, it was doomed because it created forces too slowly to satisfy ISAF planners. Eighteen months of AP3 only put 1200 men in the field.
The current program, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) , started in July 2010. It is run by US Special Operations Forces. The ALP enables local villagers to protect their own homes and villages. ALP units have no authority outside their own village. This supports Afghani elders efforts to keep insurgents out of their areas. When villagers can defend themselves against attacks and intimidation, they can deal with outside groups from a position of strength. It doesn’t matter if the outsiders are insurgents, corrupt government officials or warlords.
Once a village is selected, local tribal leaders recommend recruits from the village. Recruits must pass background checks and are on probation for a year. ISAF can blacklist ALP members for criminal or insurgent activities.
The ALP recruits are given from 5 days to 3 weeks of training and are paid 60% of an Afghan National Policeman’s salary. The units are provided AK-47 rifles, radios, and uniforms. Expected to perform only limited duties, General Petraeus described the ALP as a “night watch with AK-47′s”.
Initially, the target was 10,000 police. US Special Operations Force trainers ran the program, with Afghan Interior Ministry personnel. In October 2010, this was revised upward to 20,000. There weren’t enough SOF trainers to support these new numbers. A conventional US Army battalion, as well as Afghan special forces, was assigned to supplement SOF.
U.S. officials have admitted that as the Afghan army and police have been expanded, many common sense measures have been ignored in the name of expedited training and recruiting. Special Operations officials believe their process for vetting recruits was effective, but it did not take into account the recruitment of those already vetted. The insurgents sought out men disillusioned with the Afghan government.
The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program has the support of ISAF and the Government of Afghanistan. It has been effectively targeted by the enemy. ISAF must react effectively and continue to support to local security, development, and effective local governance.
Afghani society is wildly diverse. This is not an environment conducive to top down cookie-cutter solutions. In Pashtun areas where the insurgency is strongest, it is characterized by an honor based value system called Pashtunwali.
Any effective COIN strategy in Afghanistan will have to recognize that it is considered shameful by these clans for a man to be denied a role in protecting his own family, clan, or tribe. Even under the best conditions, they view ISAF with suspicion.
Because Afghan Army troops and Afghan National Police are assigned from across the country, they are often viewed by villagers as foreigners just like ISAP. This otherness is exploited by Pashtun insurgents from Pakistan.
Self defense is honorable and comes naturally to Afghans. There are legitimate concerns over tribal violence, but denying people a role in protecting their own families and villages creates an atmosphere of uncertainty in which insurgency thrives.
The solution is clear. Giving people the ability to protect their families and live free of armed coercion works. The challenge is how to make this program work nation wide with a remote central government and limited SOF resources.
Any viable course of action will require commanders and adequate numbers of soldiers trained to work with indigenous forces. They will need sufficient time to train and assess these forces. There will be bad guys that infiltrate and good guys that become bad. (knowing how to identify these bad actors and what to do with them is an essential part of the training required to work with indigenous forces).
PHOTO – Afghan Local Police, ALP, listen to a speech during a ceremony presenting new uniforms for ALP at Gizab village of Uruzgan province south west of Kabul, Afghanistan, in this April 24, 2011 file photo. AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili