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U.S. Air Force (Rasheen A.


Wall is breached in Hyderabad,

Afghanistan, as part of Operation
Riverdance, helping villagers defend
against Taliban attacks

Village Stability
Operations and
Afghan Local Police
By Robert Hulslander and Jake Spivey

his article examines the security and stability programs known as Village Stability
Operations (VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP). Created through the combined efforts
of the U.S. military, other U.S. Government departments and agencies, and the Afghan
government, VSO/ALP enhanced security, governance, and development in strategically impor-
tant rural areas critical to the Afghanistan campaign but beyond the effective reach of the Afghan
government and U.S. conventional forces. VSO/ALP attempts to link and effectively balance
centralized and decentralized authority by bolstering traditional governance mechanisms. The

Robert Hulslander and Jake Spivey are Military Analysts in the Joint and Coalition Operational
Analysis Division of the Joint Staff.

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hulslander & spivey

program was designed to mitigate shortcom- Background

ings in Afghan governance and security capac- The VSO/ALP program was created
ity and capability, while buying time for those through the collective efforts of Combined
capabilities to mature. Although the programs Forces Special Operations Component
official inception was in August 2010, its roots CommandAfghanistan (CFSO CC-A),
go back to earlier efforts that served as the basis Combined Joint Special Operations Task
of the current initiative. Ultimately, VSO/ALP ForceAfghanistan (CJSOTF-A), U.S. Forces
aims to provide a framework through which the Afghanistan (USFOR-A), other U.S. depart-
Afghan government can strengthen its rela- ments and agencies, and the Afghan govern-
tionship with its citizens and wrest control and ment. For a number of reasons, CFSOCC-A has
influence away from the Taliban, other insur- the lead for the VSO/ALP mission and serves
gents, and criminal networks. as the executive agent for its implementation.
First, while VSO/ALP is a task that may
not be defined as unconventional warfare, it
while VSO/ALP is a task that may not
is clearly an unconventional approach that is
be defined as unconventional warfare, within the traditional purview of special opera-
it is clearly an unconventional approach tions forces (SOF). Second, CFSOCC-A can
that is within the traditional purview of be viewed as a strategic headquarters for SOF in
special operations forces Afghanistan. Its proximity to the International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters
Evidence suggests that VSO/ALP has had in Kabul facilitates close collaboration with
positive effects; however, there are challenges the ISAF commander and ensures a consistent
related to the future of U.S. involvement in vision between the two headquarters relative
Afghanistan and with the program post-2014. to campaign plan goals and objectives. Third,
Among these challenges are the emerging CFSOCC-A drew on historical lessons and
requirement for conventional forces to studies of other similar initiatives conducted
conduct highly nuanced foreign internal elsewhere, the majority of which were FID mis-
defense (FID) missions (such as VSO/ALP), sions containing elements of unconventional
for which they are mostly untrained and warfare conducted by SOF. VSO/ALP has its
unprepared; continued assistance to the roots in earlier, rural Afghanistan initiatives
Afghan government that emphasizes building undertaken by SOF and/or CJSOTF-A long
its credibility and popular support with the before the program was jointly approved and
people; and ensuring U.S. organizations that officially sanctioned by the Afghan government.
remain in Afghanistan as part of a post-2014 As early as 2005, well before the establishment
theater security cooperation agreement are of CFSOCC-A, CJSOTF-A undertook initia-
appropriately structured to leverage the tives in Uruzgan Province aimed at strengthen-
expertise and collaboration built through ing local community efforts to resist the Taliban
VSO/ALP relationships. This article offers and tie those efforts to aspects of governance
an opportunity to examine the value of VSO/ and economic development. However, lack-
ALP as a component of the overall strategy ing adequate support, those efforts were unsus-
in Afghanistan. tainable. With the return in 2006 and 2007 of

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village stability operations and afghan local police

former CJSOTF-A leaders, the concept was The SOF community recognized the need for a
revitalized. One officer described the process: higher level headquarters that could better align
its strategic efforts with ISAF and the Afghan
We established the Afghan Auxiliary government. Such a construct would eventually
Police program with [Dutch army general become a reality in late 2008 with the establish-
officer, ISAF commander in Southern ment of CFSOCC-A in Kabul.
Afghanistan] blessing. Tribal elders, Brigadier General Edward Reeder, USA,
police chiefs and the [Kandahar governor] the first commander of CFSOCC-A and a pre-
worked with us to vet these folks. . . . The vious commander of CJSOTF-A, organized the
CJSOTF-A commander at that time . . . new headquarters to support the ISAF com-
helped us lobby for support. We worked mander and ISAF Joint Command commander
with the governor . . . to build line min- in order to nest SOF activities into the ISAF
isterial capacities and [U.S. Agency for counterinsurgency strategy and ISAF Joint
International Development] embedded Command operational plan. CFSOCC-A was
in our headquarters to marry development appropriately positioned to provide expertise
at the local level with security we were to ISAF and the Afghan government on imple-
creating by our guys living and operating mentation of what would eventually become
in these remote areas. We integrated [the VSO/ALP. CFSOCC-A would also provide
Department of State] into the effort to strategic guidance and greatly enhanced support
assist in influencing governance appoint- to CJSOTF-A operational/tactical activities.
ments at the district and provincial level. Capitalizing on this new organization and
[The CJSOTF-A battalion commander] building on previous CJSOTF-A experience,
leveraged influence with the [North the Afghan Public Protection Program, a pre-
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cursor to VSO/ALP, was initiated in Wardak
and U.S.] chains of command accordingly Province to counter Taliban control. Owing
and we were able to get additional inter- to the inability of the Afghan government or
agency funding for the effort. . . . But ISAF to provide security for remote villages and
again, lacking a viable collective-governing districts, local defense forces were established
strategy country-wide, and because every- under the Afghan Public Protection Program
one in Kabul remained focused on a top- that sought to emulate historically recognized,
down approach, it ultimately fell apart.1 autonomous approaches to security:

These and other early initiatives were led Zahir Shah (~19481978) supported vil-
by CJSOTF-A, at the time the highest level lage-level defense forces called arbakai
SOF headquarters for such missions. CJSOTF-A to establish order in eastern Afghanistan.
is an O6-level command located in Bagram; These village-level forces were used for
ISAF headquarters, the U.S. Embassy, and defensive purposes and organized under
Afghan government ministries are all located the auspices of legitimate tribal institu-
in Kabul. The lack of a strategic-level SOF tions. But, the result was clear: law and
headquarters in Kabul was at least one factor order were established by locals, not the
why early VSO-like efforts were unsustainable. central government.2

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hulslander & spivey

The first of these defense forces had been criminal and insurgent repression. According
established under the auspices of malik (local to Shahmahmood Miakhel, Historically,
strongmen). Traditional tribal leadership that Afghanistan had always had a weak central gov-
had provided direction and control of the his- ernment but it has developed a strong district
torically viable arbakai was badly damaged by level structure. In the past, successful central rul-
years of violence and intimidation or in some ers have worked with tribal and religious leaders
cases was nonexistent. The result was a general to achieve balance through compromise.3
lack of integrity and accountability to both These program refinements were occurring
local communities and the central government. when Brigadier General Austin Scott Miller,
Ultimately, a construct had to be devel- USA, assumed command of CFSOCC-A
oped that placed the central government in in early 2010. Under his auspices, the pro-
the forefront, while taking into account the gram continued to evolve, yet it was still not
culture and traditions of the Afghan people. officially sanctioned by the Afghan govern-
General Reeder challenged his staff to design a ment. Working with then ISAF Commander
program that would reflect a range of historical General Stanley McChrystal, the Afghan
lessons and the unique context of Afghanistan. Public Protection ForceVillage Stability pro-
Largely influenced by Seth Jones, the result was gram concept was approved. In the following
the Community Defense Initiative, later known months, in consultation with Afghan govern-
as the Local Defense Initiative. ment officials and with the support of the new
ISAF commander, General David Petraeus, the
program became the present day VSO/ALP. To
a construct had to be developed that
obtain buy-in from the Afghan government,
placed the central government in the
the provision was made that all local security
forefront, while taking into account forces, thereafter known as the ALP, would be
the culture and traditions of the wholly subject to Afghan authority through the
Afghan people Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and answerable
to their respective district chief of police. Equal
Between early 2009 and the spring of 2010, emphasis was placed on facilitating the U.S.
experiences from the field continued to provide and Afghan whole-of-government approaches
an evolving proof of concept for the program to empower local governance and further eco-
refinements required for success. Not only did nomic development to enhance community
the Afghan forces have to be locally raised, but self-determination. Furthermore, this pro-
they also needed to stay local. Recruits had to be vided the Afghan government opportunities
vetted and required proper training, oversight, to strengthen valuable connections with the
and, most important, accountability to the cen- populace and expand influence to areas where
tral government. Also clear was that while the it was previously impossible.
initial tie between local and central govern-
ments was focused on security, it would be more Construct
important in the long run to reinvigorate tradi- The VSO/ALP program works within the
tional governance structures and foster economic framework of counterinsurgency operations
development damaged by years of conflict and and consists of three pillars: establishing and

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village stability operations and afghan local police

maintaining security, developing and/or rein- coordination network represent the central
vigorating traditional governance structures, nervous system.4
and providing the basis and opportunities The VSP employs an integrated, bottom-
for economic development. VSO/ALP relies up approach focusing efforts at the local level
on U.S. SOF and select conventional force to enable communities to defend themselves,
teams to establish trust-based relationships and empower them to make decisions affecting
then work and live with villagers in strategi- their present and future, and foster enhanced
cally important rural areas. The CJSOTF-A is connections to the Afghan government. The
responsible for implementing VSO/ALP at the teams establish relationships with communities
operational level country-wide. willing to resist the Taliban and criminal ele-
The SOF teams directly responsible for the ments. Working with and through local leaders
conduct of VSO/ALP at the tactical level (vil- (for example, a village shura), they facilitate the
lage/district/region) nominally consist of Army, villages security and economic development.
Navy, Marine, and Air Force special operators
and may include civil affairs teams, cultural sup-
VSO/ALP villages are generally
port teams, and/or female engagement teams.
The exact composition of each team is mission-
located in areas regarded as key
dependent and its disposition typically falls
terrain, possessing one or more
under a regional special operations task force strategic characteristics
subordinate to CJSOTF-A.
SOF presence in the village and its inte- CFSOCC-A helps screen, recommend,
grated activities with village/district leader- and select potential VSO/ALP village sites
ship form a platform from which all actions in conjunction with ISAF and the Afghan
to facilitate improved security, governance, government. Village selection is based on
and development are initiated. This combi- campaign priorities, extensive intelligence
nation of the teams presence and actions is preparation, information from teams in the
frequently referred to as a village stability plat- field, and input from regional command
form (VSP). This platform is in turn supported forces. It is also common for villages adja-
by a robust collaboration network referred to cent to existing VSO/ALP sites to indicate a
as Village Stability Coordination Centers that desire to participate in the program. This is
collocate with select district and province an important criterion for selectionthe suc-
augmentation teams to integrate interagency cess of the program depends on a community
involvement. Each regionally aligned Village that is willing to stand up for itself.
Stability Coordination Center is staffed and VSO/ALP villages are generally located
resourced by CFSOCC-A and CJSOTF-A in areas regarded as key terrain, possessing one
personnel who act as coordinators, problem- or more strategic characteristics. Villages may
solvers, and facilitators for all VSP activities be in or near transportation hubs or significant
from the village and district through national ground lines of communication, they may sup-
levels. As one analyst noted, If one were to port important agricultural or other economic
compare all the VSPs to a physical body, then activities, and their tribal and ethnic com-
the CFSOCC-A elements that comprise the position may offer opportunities to leverage

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hulslander & spivey

connections in support of ISAF and Afghan In a counterinsurgency, a certain number

government objectives. Areas favored for con- of troops are considered necessary to secure a
sideration are often those that demonstrated population against insurgents. According to
opposition to the Taliban during its expansion Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, Most
and rule from 1994 to 2001. The nexus of sup- density recommendations fall within a range
port for any insurgency is the population itself; of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000
thus, there is no better place to begin to wrest residents. 5 Given that the population of
control of the population away from the enemy Afghanistan is 30 million, it is easy to recog-
than in areas that previously resisted insurgent nize the unattainable number of security forces
influence. Finally, villages selected for VSO/ that the coalition would require to secure the
ALP must be operationally and logistically sup- population. Additionally, with the current
portable for the program to remain viable. drawdown timeline, the coalition does not
have the necessary time to develop (recruit,
vet, screen, and train) a qualified Afghan
VSO/ALP concentrates on areas where force to the numbers needed. Many coalition
the government cannot assert its partner nations already seek to disengage from
sovereignty and coalition forces cannot Afghanistan and the security needs of the peo-
provide consistent security ple are immediate. According to John Nagl, it
is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to sug-
At its core, VSO/ALP is about community gest that, on their own, foreign forces cannot
mobilization. While training the local security defeat an insurgency; the best they can hope
element (the ALP) and supporting the startup of for is to create the conditions that will enable
economic development projects is the responsi- local forces to win it for them.6
bility of the VSO team, selecting the ALP and VSO/ALP seeks to mitigate these secu-
what village projects will be undertaken are deci- rity shortfalls. By mobilizing the population,
sions made by the local shuras. By supporting and the immediate security needs of the com-
facilitating the community shura, the village munity can be met. The men who comprise
begins to support itself and, with the involve- the local force are selected by community
ment of the embedded teams, begins to build leaders; their integrity, loyalty, and commit-
relationships with its district government. ment to protecting their homes and families
The VSO/ALP program employs a four-phase are known. Additionally, their behavior and
methodology: shape, hold, build, and transition. conduct, particularly in the regions where
Pashtunwali7 is influential, tend to adhere to
Phase 1: Shape expected standards.
Across Afghanistan, the lack of effective Understanding the human terrain of the
Afghan government/ISAF presence in many village or community is a key factor in deter-
rural areas allows the Taliban, other insurgents, mining how to work with the inhabitants.
and criminal networks to exert control. VSO/ALP Each village and district is unique and must
concentrates on these areas where the govern- be approached individually. As previously
ment cannot assert its sovereignty and coalition described, VSO/ALP is village- or community-
forces cannot provide consistent security. based, not tribal- or clan-based. Living in or

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village stability operations and afghan local police

near the village they support, VSO/ALP teams adjacent villages relieves pressure on supporting
become aware of the identity of key leaders, units, provides an opportunity to expand and
rivalries between families and clans, enter- connect security efforts within the district, and
prises village leaders may be engaged in, and offers further development opportunities for each
the influence of illegitimate entities. For this community by denying insurgents unrestricted
reason, efforts to understand and map such access to an area.
relationships must draw from diverse sources
and are enhanced when cultural and anthro-
pological factors are considered. One of the
security of the population underlies
reasons cultural support teams and female
everything; without it, efforts to move
engagement teams are routinely relied upon governance and development forward
in VSO/ALP is to help provide those insights will fail
and leverage that knowledge.
In its initial phases, VSO/ALP focuses on By focusing on a village or group of villages
establishing the physical security of the village beyond the effective reach of ISAF or ANSF,
and developing the partnerships that help ensure VSO/ALP enables a stable environment. The
its safety and eventual transfer of security respon- security of the population underlies everything;
sibilities to the Afghan government. To this end, without it, efforts to move governance and
SOF partner with diverse elements of the Afghan development forward will fail.
National Security Forces (ANSF) to establish
long-term relationships between the village and Phase 2: Hold
ANSF. The VSO/ALP team may also need to fill The ALP is staffed by the villages own
interim security gaps by partnering with other people; it is an Afghan governmentsanctioned
coalition force elements whenever feasible. MOI initiative and is defensive in nature. The
Of primary importance, SOF will seek to ALP is intended to be a temporary (25 years),
reduce or eliminate any intimidation of the vil- village-focused program in areas with limited or
lagers. This may involve unilateral combat opera- no ANSF presence. The ALP provides security
tions to drive out Taliban and Taliban sympa- to communities where Afghan government can-
thizers from the village or area. The team, with not directly provide it and, importantly, buys
ANSF whenever possible, conducts presence time for ANSF capacity to grow:
patrols to gain information on enemy activity
in the area and enhance relations with village The coalition and [Afghan government]
inhabitants. Generally, ANSF are well received have neither the time nor the resources to
and residents are more willing to interact with secure the most relevant and threatened
the partnered patrols. As VSO/ALP operations segments of the population by using only
increase and daily contact with the villagers coalition and [government] resources.
becomes commonplace, the teams are better able This has led to a shifting in ISAFs cam-
to counter Taliban and criminal activity. In some paign plan from operations almost exclu-
cases, the enemy initially reacts strongly to the sively designed to protect the population to
VSO/ALP teams efforts, but with time, insurgent operations designed to enable the popula-
activity typically declines. Establishing VSPs in tion to protect itself.8

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hulslander & spivey
U.S. Air Force (Rasheen A. Douglas)

Afghan and U.S. special forces speak

to local in Hyderabad, Helmand
Province, site of projected village
stability operation

ALP relies on and uses village inhabitants, people who have a vested interest in defending
their community and who reject the fear and intimidation imposed by the Taliban. The process of
establishing a village ALP force begins with the village elders (normally, those comprising the shura)
nominating prospective recruits. CFSOCC-A, in conjunction with the MOI, established a planning
figure of 30 ALP per village and 300 ALP per district as a guide for recruitment.
The MOI vets and biometrically screens potential ALP recruits through the Afghan
National Directorate of Security to uncover criminals or insurgents. If no obstacles to selec-
tion are encountered, the recruits are enrolled in the program. The U.S. Government funds
ALP salaries, acquisition of weapons, and ammunition through a combination of resources,
primarily the Afghan Security Forces Fund administered by the MOI. The MOI distributes
registered weapons and ammunition to the ALP and pays their salaries. CFSOCC-A describes
the ALP approval process:

Once the decision is made between district, provincial, and village leadership to establish an ALP pro-
gram, a tashkil approval must be requested from the Ministry of Interior. A tashkil is an organizational
document, similar to a U.S. Army [Modified Table of Organization and Equipment], which
dictates force structure, personnel end strength, command relationships, unit/staff functions, and mission
descriptions. The embedded SOF team will assist the district leadership in submitting a request through the
provincial chief of police and governor for submission as a formal nomination to the MOI. In parallel to
this effort, the SOF team will submit the nomination up their chain of command to CFSOCC-A and on
to [NATO Training MissionAfghanistan/Combined Security Training CommandAfghanistan]
for processing.9

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village stability operations and afghan local police

After approval, SOF VSO teams provide tips on [improvised explosive device] loca-
a 3-week period of instruction for the new tions and potential future insurgent attacks.
ALP recruits, focusing on basic combat skills, Due to the diminished influence by insurgents
rifle marksmanship, communications, first in the greater operational area around the vil-
aid, improvised explosive device detection, lage, [coalition forces] are attempting to
checkpoint procedures, and search and deten- establish ALP programs in selected adjacent
tion procedures. Additionally, Afghan-specific villages to further stabilize security. The pres-
core classes are taught, including rule of law, ence of the VSP in the village helped elders
human rights, use of force, ethics, morals and engage with [the Afghan government],
values, police policy, and the Afghan constitu- resulting in improved ALP recruitment.10
tion. Upon completion of the course, the new
recruits participate in combined activities with SOF VSO teams seek to partner ALP units
coalition forces and/or ANSF elements oper- from their inception, with other elements of the
ating in or near their area. Following these ANSF operating locally. This typically includes
partnered evolutions, and as the ALP become elements of the Afghan National Police and/
more experienced, they then report and answer or Afghan National Army. Because FID part-
to the district chief of police for community nerships among U.S. SOF, Afghan army com-
policing assignments. While ALP do receive mandos, and ANA special forces are strong,
rudimentary police training, they have no building ALP partnerships with those elements
arrest authority and are focused on community is fairly common and preferred. The Afghan spe-
defense. They can detain individuals temporar- cial forces are similar to and have been trained
ily, but must turn them over to the police chief extensively by U.S. Army Special Forces, and
for resolution: their training in unconventional approaches
imparts a greater understanding of the value of
When the first VSP was established . . . the VSO/ALP program, making them among the
local nationals fled the area anticipating an most qualified partners to take responsibility for
attack by local insurgents. However, within the program as it transitions to an Afghan lead.
four months, the villages elder informed For the short term, ALP provides a credible
the [coalition forces] almost all of the and capable defensive security force proficient
local nationals had returned because of the enough to conduct partnered hold operations
improved security. The added security within in and around their respective villages. For the
the village allowed [the Afghan govern- midterm, ALP forces are expected to be able to
ment/coalition forces] to hold development independently defend their communities against
shuras, which helped the locals, creating a resurgent Taliban or other insurgent/criminal
process for approving projects and hiring local activity. For the long term, it is planned that
builders. As a result, multiple small commu- ALP forces will be assimilated into one or more
nity projects evolved, including refurbishing elements of the Afghan special forces, although
a local school and projects to redirect water this process will happen on a case-by-case basis
through the village. Improved atmospherics as decided by the Afghan government.
resulted in better communications between Not every VSO site has a dedicated ALP
locals and [coalition forces], mostly through element. As General Miller emphasized, You

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can do VSO without ALP, but you cant do ALP implementation of the current program relied
without VSO.11 His observation acknowledged heavily on establishing and maintaining mean-
that while security was of primary importance, ingful relationships between the Afghan people,
what made the program of real, lasting value their government, ISAF, U.S. departments and
to the Afghan government was fostering good agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.
governance and economic development. VSO VSO/ALP efforts to solidify these relationships
helps the government make these connec- across all lines of engagement are crucial, serv-
tions with the people and emphasizes its value. ing as building blocks to improvement, expan-
Where ISAF or ANSF are present and provide sion, sustainment, and transition.
the requisite security, standing up an ALP unit Key leader engagements by the VSO team
may not be required. Regardless, the other two support and empower traditional governing
pillars of the VSO program, governance and bodies. Engagements beyond a villages imme-
economic development, are of critical impor- diate area of influence are facilitated by the
tance and are continually emphasized. Village Stability Coordination Center. SOF-led
Village Stability Coordination Centers oper-
ate at the district/regional level and serve as
earlier Afghan stability programs regional platforms for coordination and integra-
struggled to be successful because tion of civil-military planning and collaboration
they often lacked one or more key by engaging other government agencies (State,
components found in the current VSO/ U.S. Agency for International Development,
ALP program Department of Agriculture, among others) and
nongovernmental organizations (for example,
Afghan Social Outreach Program, Mdecins
Phase 3: Build sans Frontires, and Red Crescent) to provide
Once security is established and the assistance to the villages. Participation by the
Taliban or other insurgent or criminal influ- interagency and integration of their specific
ence is diminished, VSO/ALP moves to its capabilities are essential to tie small-scale, local
build phase. Earlier Afghan stability programs development projects together with longer term
struggled to be successful because they often regional efforts. In practice, these efforts have
lacked one or more key components found in the potential to provide a foundation for future
the current VSO/ALP program. For example, engagement activities.
local security forces did not equitably represent Empowering local leaders is intended to
community demographics, were not answerable reinforce the practice of good governance.
to the central government, lacked procedures to Villagers have a say in their own destiny, and
choose and vet recruits, and did not empower relationships with the district center and
local, traditional governance structures. regional center are fostered, connecting the
Additionally, building the relationships local level to the state from the bottom up.
and facilitating collaboration between U.S. Then, as issues affecting the community are
interagency activities to make development brought to the district and regional centers,
and governance aspects of the program suc- the government is provided the opportunity
cessful had yet to mature. The design and to respond to community needs from the top

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village stability operations and afghan local police

down. The governments ability to do so is a the site augmented by U.S. conventional forces
challenge, which is a primary reason VSO/ALP who have received specialized training to assume
and similar programs are important. the VSO/ALP mission. To enable this, in 2011
The district center is the Afghan govern- General Petraeus placed two separate conven-
ment political and economic entity through tional force units under the operational control
which goods and services flow. While improv- of CFSOCC-A to support and supplement VSO/
ing relationships between village leaders and ALP efforts. Working in platoon- and squad-sized
their district governors is intended to generate elements, the conventional forces were integrated
a better relationship with Kabul, the connec- with SOF teams conducting VSO/ALP. Like the
tion with the nascent national government is SOF teams before them, the conventional forces
tenuous. Effective central governance relies on trained to continue the relationships established
a number of important variables. Capability with their ALP, ANSF, and interagency develop-
and capacity are two that Afghanistan cur- ment partners.
rently lacks. Given the austere and challenging
geographic conditions of the country, plus the
governments limited reach, the emphasis on a
the ultimate goal of the VSO/ALP
bottom-up, local approach such as VSO/ALP
program is to turn responsibility for each
may provide opportunities for success.
VSO/ALP site over to complete
Afghan control
Phase 4: Transition
SOF teams cannot remain in a village or This thickening of the force concept was
group of villages indefinitely. As villages gain the first step in training conventional force ele-
experience and move toward independence from ments to play a larger role in VSO/ALP. It pro-
coalition involvement, the SOF element seeks to vided CFSOCC-A and CJSOTF-A additional
move on and establish other VSPs. By establish- capacity to establish new VSP sites in accordance
ing other sites in the district, VSPs expand what with ISAF commander/Afghan government
General Petraeus termed the security bubble. desires to expand the program without risking
This is akin to other historically similar concepts failure in existing sites. A limited number of SOF
such as the oil spot or ink blot theories of (referred to as a tether) typically remain with
expanding secure areas in a counterinsurgency.12 the new conventional force team while the rest
The ultimate goal of the VSO/ALP program of the SOF team moves on to establish a new
is to turn responsibility for each VSO/ALP site VSP. At the point where the conventional force
over to complete Afghan control. This transition team is deemed capable of providing unilateral
has already begun, with multiple sites now under overwatch and support to the VSP, the tether will
the control of the central government. All extant rejoin its original team.
sites are anticipated to have completed this tran-
sition by the end of 2014. Transition involves a Challenges
maturation process. Interim stages require proper The SOF and conventional forces part-
oversight and support to ensure that the transi- nership has proven to be successful, but FID is
tion proceeds smoothly and according to plan. not a habitual conventional mission, and mis-
In some cases, the SOF team may be reduced and sions such as VSO/ALP are nuanced, requiring

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a high degree of individual Servicemember magnification of concerns about VSO/ALP:

maturity and experience. Longer term aspects Many remain deeply opposed, including
of governance and development associated Oxfam and other aid groups that described
with VSO/ALP and similar FID-like programs the local police program in a May report as
rely on familiarity with and understanding of lacking sufficient oversight and responsible for
interagency and nongovernmental organization communities living in fear of government-sup-
capabilities. SOF typically has a greater experi- ported community defense initiatives they see
ence than conventional forces in working with as criminal gangs.13
diverse interagency partners on the ground. It is difficult to ensure complete integrity
However, if the trend of increased reliance on of local defense forces even among those with
conventional forces persists, preparing select established VSPs. When ALP corruption or
numbers to assume greater roles in such mis- poor performance is discovered or reported, a
sions implies the individual Services and even concerted effort to investigate allegations, cor-
the U.S. interagency will have to address other rect problems, and demonstrate transparency is
doctrine, organization, training, materiel, lead- important to ensuring the integrity of the ALP
ership, personnel, and facilities considerations program. In addition, it is critical to distinguish
to ensure success. ALP from Afghan independent militias in the
minds of Afghan citizens:
weak linkage between Afghan citizens Government officials seeking to break up
and their newly formed republic provides hundreds of small independent militias in
opportunities for insurgents and criminal the volatile northern province of Kunduz
elements to flourish in the provinces have ordered more than 4,000 members
and villages to surrender their weapons within 20 days
or face a military crackdown. . . . The
Even with the relative success VSO/ALP [unsanctioned] militias in many cases
seems to be having, providing security, gover- piggybacked on an officially sanctioned
nance, and development to Afghan villages American-financed program to recruit
faces longstanding challenges. After nearly 40 local men for police patrols to fight off
years of armed conflict, overall lack of devel- the Taliban, an effort that has been tried
opment and economic opportunities affect in other parts of the country with varying
the populace in multiple ways. The weak link- degrees of success.14
age between Afghan citizens and their newly
formed republic, buttressed by a historical lack As previously noted, the integrity of the
of trust of central government, provides oppor- ALP is generally less problematic in Pashtun
tunities for insurgents and criminal elements to areas and where the Afghan government is
flourish in the provinces and villages. responsive to resolving allegations or instances
Another challenge lies with sanctioned of abuse. Themes imparted through training
local forces not adhering to the highest stan- and example emphasizing integrity and hon-
dards of conduct while attempting to cre- orable action are aimed at leveraging Afghan
ate more secure environments. This leads to sensibilities regarding Pashtunwali and other

136 | From the field PRISM 3, no. 3

village stability operations and afghan local police

ethical/ behavioral codes. Regardless, providing consistent overwatch, mentoring, and monitoring
of the ALP is required in order to prevent infrequent lapses from developing into regular patterns
of misconduct.
MOI support and direct involvement with VSO/ALP from the onset are essential to bind the
traditional local village to the government. More important in the long term, integrity of the rela-
tionship between the locals and Kabul depends on the MOI adequately sustaining that oversight
and support through transition from ISAF to Afghan control by 2014.

During his tenure as ISAF commander, General Petraeus referred to VSO/ALP as a potential
game-changer. While the program has its share of challenges and detractors, it also has a significant
base of support within the coalition, government, and people. In response to allegations of ALP
abuses, ISAF and the Afghan government have conducted investigations to ascertain the facts and
have moved to correct problems that actually existed. Periodic and recurring surveys of conditions
at VSO sites that track important trends relating to villagers perceptions are continuously analyzed.
Focused on important objective areas such as security (including support of ALP), provision of basic
services, economic development, and support for the government (both local and national), survey
results indicate a slow but steady increase in positive trends where VSO sites have been established.
Such positive survey results were a contributing factor to the Afghan government authorizing expan-
sion of the originally approved program.
VSO/ALP is not a panacea for the issues the coalition and the Afghan government must
confront. To be sure, even its most ardent supporters will attest to its challenges. The program,
having evolved in an iterative fashion, is dynamic, and application at each site is nuanced and
unique. Even so, the majority of reporting indicates it has become an important part of the cam-
paign in Afghanistan. At the very least, this implies recognition of the potential value of local
initiatives in a society deeply segmented by geography, culture, and traditions. The VSO/ALP
bottom-up methodology strengthens relationships and provides the Afghan government and the
coalition with new opportunities and welcome connections. Perhaps most important, it appears
to have helped wrest control of the population away from the Taliban and criminal networks
in key contested areas by facilitating security, governance, and development in a way uniquely
adapted to Afghanistan.
How much of a game-changer VSO/ALP turns out to be will not likely be known for some time.
This article is based on a snapshot in time and attempts only to impart a general understanding of
its principles; it is far from being a definitive assessment of the program. However, VSO/ALP reveals
important lessons for counterinsurgency and FID, giving students of both another way to look at
current and future possibilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere. PRISM

U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) J33, Joint Center for Operational Analysis (JCOA),
interview by authors, December 16, 2011.
Seth Jones, Going Local: The Key to Afghanistan, The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2009.

PRISM 3, no. 3 From the field | 137

hulslander & spivey

Shahmahmood Miakhel, Understanding Afghanistan: The Importance of Tribal Culture and Structure
in Security and Governance, United States Institute of Peace, November 2009, 21.
JCOA analyst observation, June 2011.
Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army,
December 2006), paragraphs 167.
John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam
(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002).
Pashtunwali is an unwritten ethical code and traditional lifestyle that the indigenous Pashtun people from
Afghanistan and Pakistan follow. It is a basic common law of the land or code of life passed from generation
to generation. It guides both individual and communal conduct. Pashtuns embrace an ancient traditional, spiri-
tual, and communal identity tied to this set of moral codes and rules of behavior, as well as to a linear record of
history 1,700 years old. Pashtunwali promotes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness,
revenge, and tolerance toward all (especially to strangers or guests). It is considered a personal responsibility
of every Pashtun to discover and rediscover Pashtunwalis essence and meaning. See <http://en.wikipedia.org/
Joseph A. LEtoile, Transforming the Conflict in Afghanistan, Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local
Police and Bottom-up Population Mobilization, PRISM 2, no. 4 (September 2011), 4, available at <www.ndu.
Combined Forces Special Operations Component CommandAfghanistan (CFSOCC-A) Web site,
available at <www.cfsocca.soccent.centcom.smil.mil/sites/CFSOCC-A/vso/Pages/alprecommend.html>.
Regional Command Southwest Afghanistan Report, North Atlantic Treaty Organization International
Security Assistance Force, November 4, 2011.
Brigadier General Austin Scott Miller, CFSOCC-A commander, statement at staff meeting, recorded
by JCOA representative, March 2011.
The oil spot or ink blotits contemporary variety is also known as clear, hold, buildis a French
idea that can be traced back to the 1890s. See Thomas Rid and Thomas A. Keaney, eds., Understanding
Counterinsurgency: Doctrine, Operations, and Challenges (New York: Routledge, 2010).
Gretal Kovach, As U.S. Scales Back in Afghanistan, Local Defense Program ExpandsPush for Afghan
Local Police Proves Controversial, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 16, 2011.
Ray Rivera, Afghanistan Seeks to Disband the Independent Militias It Created to Fight the Taliban,
The New York Times, August 3, 2011, 9.

138 | From the field PRISM 3, no. 3