Turning the tide


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

For years, being harassed and intimidated had been the norm for villagers in Khas Uruzgan, a district in the Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, until a new reality was presented to them. This new alternative offered the potential for stability and security, the only requirement for the villagers was to act.

Khas Uruzgan has been an insurgent-controlled district, providing a safe haven for insurgents to coordinate and stage operations into nearby Kandahar. This, coupled with an already strained environment due to tribal disputes and ethnic rivalries, was problematic for villagers that simply wanted to exist peacefully without having to worry about hostilities or fighting.

This was their existence until a year ago.

Although coalition forces have always operated in the region, this eastern most district of Uruzgan was left relatively alone and isolated except for occasional operations. And although success was achieved over the years, a lasting change was never achieved. Sharing this frustration were small teams of U.S. special forces who had operated in the area since 2005.

That would soon change.

With the start of 2010, came a new plan and a new USSF team, or Operational Detachment-Alpha, working in the region. The team was assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group and led by Capt. Adam Paxton. Through his team’s thorough analysis and research, they developed and would execute a plan designed to better support the population in its efforts to achieve a stable and secure community.

Over the next couple of months, the ODA made slow, but significant progress in establishing relationships, and more importantly trust, with the leadership in the district. They garnered support from the regional Afghan National Police chief, Amir Zahir, and eventually Sadar Wali, then a district governor who would ultimately become the district chief of police. These relationships would help to build confidence among the villagers as word and momentum spread about this new approach to bringing stability and security to the area. Building upon each small success, the ODA met and discussed with each tribe this new solution to a problem that had affected the Afghan people for so long.

The solution was simple: tribes had to take responsibility for their villages and act.

The initial step taken was significant. Tribal leaders formed a tribal leadership council, represented by an elected villager from each tribe, whose primary duty was to maintain security in the district. This duty was not taken lightly by the elected representatives.

Effects were seen almost immediately with villagers providing tips on improvised explosive devices and cache locations, encouraging young men to join the ANP, and providing information for future kinetic operations on local Taliban fighters that refused to lay down their arms.

With security and stability slowly taking hold, the ODA and a civil affairs team offered incentives to the TLC in the form of small-scale development projects and programs to compliment the progress made. In line with the initial shuras, the projects were developed and agreed upon by the TLC with the understanding that each project would serve to benefit the majority of the populace in the district or build capacity from within the community itself.

The tide was beginning to turn.

As with any period of change, there were challenges that the tribes and villages faced, especially with the onset of the fighting season. The summer saw nine members of the Hazaran tribe killed by insurgents, a Kwajazai tribal elder was killed by the Taliban, an ANP checkpoint came under fire by insurgents, and the district chief of police, Abdul Bowari, was fired. Each situation was dealt with swiftly and in the traditional Afghan custom, but not everything that occurred during this time, however, was negative.

The summer saw a change in the district leadership. Sadar Wali, a former ANP officer and at the time the district governor, was asked to take the district chief of police position, which he accepted. Wali, from Tarin Kowt and a member of the Popolzai tribe, was exactly what the district needed.

“Since he didn’t share a tribal affiliation with any group in the district, he became one of the most influential, impartial and honest partners in the community,” said Capt. Terry Gambrel, the current ODA team leader working in the district. “He shared information with us, conducted patrols along side us, and took on responsibility for checkpoints that held ground in areas that we were working to improve security.”

The summer also saw the arrival of a new USSF team, an ODA from 7th Special Force Group, led by Gambrel. This ODA would replace the team that had fostered this shift in thinking. It would require new relationships to be built while maintaining momentum; both were accomplished.

Early on, villagers, specifically the men, were nervous to interact with the members of the new ODA, expecting treatment similar to that received from Taliban in the area. The team continued to engage villagers willing to talk to them and found that Taliban had historically beaten the military-aged males for not supporting their efforts. Through follow-up visits and regular radio broadcasts, villagers were repeatedly reminded that Americans were not there to cause harm, but rather to help improve security and find out how they could help.

The ODA’s actions over time would support these messages.

“The locals here will tell you that during every engagement with insurgents we never harmed any innocent civilians,” stated Gambrel. “On several occasions we chose not to return fire to avoid endangering civilians or risking damage to their property and it has gone a long way with the Afghans.”

Despite setbacks through the summer and into the early fall, the community’s desire for a different way of life outweighed the alternative. With confidence and support in the local governance growing, the community was ready for an opportunity to take even more control of its future. The opportunity came in the form of a new program established by President Hamid Karzai, called Afghan Local Police.

The program, run by the Ministry of Interior, was developed to assist communities that were isolated with little to no Afghan National Security Force presence. This galvanized force, organized into village watch teams, would serve as a security bridge for the rest of the community. The ODA, through the shura process, discussed the option with village elders explaining that this needed to be requested by the local populace and supported with men from within the community. The decision by elders was solidified when Mullah Sur Hamdullah, a senior Taliban leader who had been operating in the area for more than eight years, was killed during an operation. Realizing they had the opportunity to take ownership of their community and defend themselves against the Taliban, village elders requested, through the MOI, the program’s implementation locally.

Identified as a natural choice based on the program’s designed intent, Khas Uruzgan District was approved by MOI to stand up an ALP force. By the end of September 2010, the ODA began training its initial 25 volunteers to become the district’s first community self-defense force. Within two weeks, the ODA received additional volunteers requesting to be a part of this new initiative and by the first week of January 2011 the number of volunteers enrolled in the program, representative of multiple villages and tribes, would reach more than 200.

“The introduction of ALP has been one of the most influential programs for us in garnering support,” declared Gambrel. “By giving Afghans the ability to secure themselves and their own villages we have given them a real choice that they didn’t have before.”

ALP would immediately begin defense of their community, unilaterally working with the local ANP to man checkpoints in the district and over time assisting with the construction and manning of additional checkpoints.
The villagers had chosen to act.

In early October, the district center saw the arrival of a new Afghan National Army Special Forces team. The ANASF, partnered with and mentored by USSF, provided the villages with another means to stabilize the area.

Early on the ODA felt the benefits of the Afghan team through its ability to simply interact with the populace. “We would take them with us on patrols, which provided us a level of interaction with the locals that we as foreigners would never be able to achieve,” said Gambrel.

An Afghan ODA on the ground helped to further break down barriers and provide Afghan support to an Afghan problem.

Through the fall and into the winter, the ODA and its Afghan partners, both the Afghan National Security Forces elements and the population, again experienced setbacks in various forms.

Ethnic dynamics continued to have an impact on the population. In the fall, a Hazarran man married a Pashtu woman then left the district to live in Ghazni without telling family or friends. This led to rumors that the Pashtu woman had been kidnapped by the Hazarran man, which led to acts of retaliation from both groups.

The ODA spent hours sitting and discussing the issue with members of both groups to diffuse the situation, ultimately finding the couple and bringing them home to the district. The local Afghans were very appreciative of the efforts made to resolve the conflict not just for the families, but for the district as a whole.

“That particular incident really stands out in my mind and is unlike anything I could have imagined having to deal with in my time here,” said Gambrel. “It took a lot of patience in talking through the problem to figure out what was the root cause of the conflict.”

In November insurgents fought back, attempting an attack on an observation post that was successfully defended against and attacking a separate checkpoint that resulted in the loss of seven members of the ANP. These acts, although unfortunate, brought about the realization to the villagers that the insurgency was now reacting to them, that the community had succeeded in altering what was the normal way of life in Khas Uruzgan. Although not complete, the plan had succeeded.

Both special forces teams operating in the district over the last 12 months had understood the environment, had understood the limitations and had understood available resources. They were operating under significant constraints, but incorporating into the plan what they knew about the culture and what was important to the people of Khas Uruzgan had assisted in building the populace’s confidence in their own abilities and those of their government officials. Consolidating this new belief and confidence with programs like ALP and governance systems like the Tribal Leadership Council allowed significant strides to be made within the framework of the plan conceptualized by Paxton’s team in late 2009.

By year’s end, Khas Uruzgan had turned the tide.

Looking back to early 2010, the security bubble that Paxton’s team faced was measured by the maximum effective range of its weapon systems. Attacks by insurgent networks occurred almost daily, but through the empowerment of this war weary populace, stability and security improved and over the course of the year would spread throughout the district. Currently the ODA operates within a security bubble that measures 50 square kilometers and the district has enjoyed a significant reduction in the number of IEDs. At the root of this improvement was a well developed plan by the ODA that provided the direction while the Afghans provided the willingness to take a stand.

By no means is the district completely secure. However, with a governing council in place that is representative of the tribes and villages, a district chief of police that is impartial and respected, and an internally developed local police force that is capable of providing a defense against insurgent operations, the people of Khas Uruzgan have made major progress in a short period of time.
This is but one example of a district in Afghanistan, but success, as seen in Khas Uruzgan, is spreading in other districts and provinces throughout the country. Special operations forces are working with their Coalition partners, partnered ANSF, the Afghan government and leaders of villages and tribes to provide the same opportunity to change a community’s reality.

In the case of this district, both ODAs provided the village elders and tribal leaders with the right tools to fix a problem, but more importantly, it provided the people with the confidence to know they could fix it.

A U.S. Special Forces team leader conducts a shura, or meeting, with village elders during a Village Veterinary Outreach Program event in the Khas Uruzgan District, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo.

Members of a U.S. Special Forces Operational Detachment - Alpha, assigned to Special Operations Task Force - Southeast, patrol through a village Jan. 16, 2011, in Khas Uruzgan District, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo.