COIN in practice: bottom-up tactics to develop the districts of Afghanistan


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice Archive/2010/May/100512-02.html

ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Courtesy of CJSOTF-A Public Affairs, May 12, 2010) – At first glance the San Gar Mountain range in Zabul province's Shin Kay district may not appear to be the ideal location to conduct counter-insurgency operations. With peaks more than 7,000 feet tall and ridgelines extending the entire length of the district, the mountain range successfully separates the district center from most of the district's population. The lack of coalition and Afghan National Security Forces near the only improved mountain pass has allowed insurgents freedom of movement through the district.

By military doctrine, the theory of counter insurgency, or COIN, focuses on a three areas: security, governance and development. The US Special Forces team located in Shin Kay district, acts as mentors to the area's Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army's 1st Kandak and the District Chief, Abdul Qadeem. As mentors, it is the team's job to advise and assist the ANSF with planning and execution of missions to provide local security, district governance and support to economic development.

Counter insurgency may appear to be a simple concept, but for many, employment is challenging.

"Although the COIN initiative has plenty of published literature, there are very few practical applications that the guy on the ground can take and implement," explains the Shin Kay USSF team leader. "But my team has found that by mentoring the ANA and ANP and bringing those two together creates a team that the people fully support."

The Operational Detachment – Alpha, or ODA, was asked by Afghan forces to assist on a patrol through the San Gar Mountains. The ANA had received reporting that suggested a local insurgent group was staging on the other side of the mountain range and had already emplaced several roadside bombs.

The ODA had several meetings with the ANA and Shin Kay district ANP to listen to plans for a chosen route and a contingency plan.

"We told the Americans Dab Pass needed to be secured," explained the ANA 1st Kandak Recon Platoon Commander, 1st Lt. Dodreman. Dab Pass, which runs through the San Gar Mountains, is a frequently-used route by locals for commerce. It also connects to the provincial center city of Qalat. Afghan civilians, ANSF and CF also use the pass to travel from the District Center to the Shin Kay sub-district Surri.

After contacting the ANA, ANP and coalition forces located at the Forward Operating Base in Surri, the ODA advised a change in the mission. The ODA looked to expand "white space" in the area. White space is a military term, which refers to the amount of space around a unit or firebase in which the population supports the Afghan government or coalition forces.

Recently Lithuanian Special Forces, or Lith SOF, began establishing itself at the Surri FOB to act as mentors to the new Zabul Provincial Response Company of the ANP, a special tactics unit. Even with multiple deployments, Lith SOF missions that put the focus of operations on protecting the population are a new concept. A small detachment comprised of British SAS and US Navy SEALs were assigned as logistical supporters, intelligence analysts and COIN mentors for Lith SOF.

Since the ODA and ANSF were already developing missions to help unify Shin Kay district and coalition forces at Surri sub-district were looking for an example of current COIN in practice, a combined mission in Surri became the perfect solution for all of the forces in the area.

"This was the perfect set up," explained the USSF team leader. "We accompanied our partnered force and ended up working through, with and by them to shape the COIN fight with the ANSF in Surri and their Coalition partnered forces."

The team leader added the ANP work best in smaller, urban areas. The ANA work best on larger missions because there are more personnel in the force. Together the two forces can complement each other.

Combining the forces projects civil and military influence while legitimizing the Afghan government and bringing it to the people, the USSF team leader explained. This information was shared by the ODA with the 4th Kandak and other SOF partners.

Understanding the importance of having all the different forces in the area working together during the planned mission, the USSF team and traveled to the sub-district to gather representatives from each unit and conduct a meeting for the planned mission.

Upon arrival at Surri, the ODA gathered representatives from the units involved: Lith SOF, U.S. Navy SEALs, British SAS, the ANP, the ANA's 4th Kandak. The 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division were also represented since they would be partnered with each local ANSF element in areas of responsibility around Surri.

In a meeting room with barely enough seating, the USSF team leader explained COIN and how it would be applied throughout Shin Kay district.

"There is a theory that if this government is going to work, it is going to work at the lowest level, and that lowest level is the district level," the ODA team leader explained during the initial briefing. "It is my goal to work with everyone in this room in order to make our two areas work together, as a district, for the benefit of the people."

After the first meeting, the district ANA and ANP were asked to work with their sub-district ANA and ANP counterparts to develop their portion of the first operation, a patrol to a small village nearly two kilometers from the firebase, but still within the white space.

The next morning each force briefed their portion of the combined mission brief. The district ANA commander, 1st Lt. Dodreman, explained the ANA's role during the convoy and the various positions surrounding the village where his men would conduct security during the operation.

After a three-hour convoy, the ANP secured the village and was granted permission to conduct the Shura inside one of the elders' compounds.

The meeting began in a small-rectangular room with introductions. Once the district chief, Abdul Qadeem, was introduced, the elders quickly began a lengthy conversation, talking only to Qadeem and the ANSF present for over an hour.

"District Chief Qadeem, I recognize you from two years ago, it is great to see you in front of the convoy, to see you in front of all these people," the village Mullah said as he motioned at the Westerners sitting cross legged against the wall. The inference there was how great it was to see Qadeem in charge, seeing an Afghan taking care of his countrymen.

One of COIN's main initiatives aims at extending the reach of the Afghan government, which is exactly what this mission accomplished. With the district chief being engaged in the Shura and showing his interest in the entire district, he connected the populace to the Afghan government at the lowest level.

At the conclusion of the first mission, the various key leaders conducted an after action review to assess the mission.

Coalition forces concluded that USSF's inconspicuous and unobtrusive manner during the shura assisted Afghan forces in having an active role in the meeting. The force also agreed that Afghan-led meetings and missions demonstrate the Afghan leadership's ability to govern.

ANA district commander, 1st Lt. Dodreman, said it is important for his forces to learn from the people living in the area and to seek out local village leadership for advice.
With the success of the first mission, the key players were assigned the same task for the next mission brief before conducting the second mission. This time the Surri sub-district ANA and ANP were assigned the lead roles and the District ANA and ANP would act as mentors.

During the mission brief the following morning, the Surri ANP explained the route his men would use to lead the convoy. With the district chief, the ANP would request permission to conduct a shura. The ANP would provide security during the shura.

After picking up the district chief at the front gate, the 43-truck convoy departed.

By the time the last truck was at its security position at the village, the Surri ANP had already secured the village and the district chief had begun the shura. As members of the ODA and other coalition forces joined the shura circle, the village elder handed a folded piece of paper to the 4th Kandak commander.

The note was delivered hours earlier by two men on motorcycles with AK-47s. The note ordered the villagers to discontinue using cell phones, to no longer speak to Coalition force units and to refrain from using any paved roads or Dab Pass to travel to the District Center.

"There were just two men," remarked the district chief, "Why didn't you stand up to them?"

"We are a village of 23 families," the village elder retorted, "even if there was only one armed man, we could not stand up to him."

The enemies of Afghanistan tend to operate more frequently in villages that are poverty stricken, lack nearby ANSF or CF support and are unable to defend themselves, the USSF team leader clarified.

"What's great about having the right Afghans in the right room with the right [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] leaders is information gathering," said the USSF team leader. "The fact that this village of 23 families was unable to stand up to two men on motorcycles representing the enemy is ground truth and the type of information everyone, to include the ANSF and district chief, need to hear."

After the ANA commander photographed the letter and placed it in a sealed plastic bag to undergo further analysis, the district chief continued the shura with the village elders.

During the shura, the district chief asked the village elders if they were willing to send one of their men over Dab Pass to attend the weekly shuras at the district center.
The elder threw his hands in the air and asked, "What man is so brave?" His gesture unexpectedly caused a lot of nervous laughter.

The elders concluded after some debate that if Dab Pass is secure, they will travel to the district center for the weekly shura.

Before finishing the shura, the village elder asked the ODA team leader if he would like to speak.

"The future of Afghanistan is in your hands," the ODA team leader said, pointing to the Afghans. "If the GIRoA is going to work, you have to support it." The villagers nodded silently in agreement.

The Afghan and international military both aim to defeat the remnants of the Taliban by securing the population and extending the reach of the government. Both non-lethal missions contributed to accomplishing that goal, and they did so with the Afghans in the lead.

While Afghan and coalition forces both learned the practical application of current counter-insurgency and conducted two combined missions to physically see the benefits of Afghan-led missions, the road ahead will still be long and difficult.

COIN will continue to be challenged by Afghanistan's rugged terrain, the ANSF's resourcing and the challenges of understanding of different areas needed to develop situation-specific approaches.

COIN can be successful in Afghanistan if the ANSF and CF continue to mentor each other and conduct population centric, COIN-specific operations that continually expand white space and push GIRoA out to the people, even if only one village, one district at a time.