Understanding Afghan Culture
Understanding and Communicating: Neutralizing the Arghandab River Valley Insurgency
LTC Michael J. Simmering
This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of Security Force Assistance, COIN
Common Sense, Volume 3, Issue 1 - COMISAF Advisory and Assistance Team, https://ronna-
Observations from the Field
Over ten years after the United States and our coalition partners intervened in Afghanistan to prevent the country from remaining a terrorist safe haven, there is some debate whether progress has truly occurred. In reality, the coalition's military and civilian efforts helped forge a strong central government with representation from throughout the country. Villager by villager, the coalition worked hard to forge enduring political solutions around a framework of governance the people of Afghanistan could accept. In certain areas, Afghanistan National Security Forces maintain security independently. While some may hesitate to guarantee mission success at this point, progress in select areas is undeniable. The Arghandab District in Khandahar Province is one such area of marked progress. Over the last year, we witnessed a 90% reduction in enemy activity despite drawing down the number of ISAF and ANSF Army units in the valley by almost 50%. Achieving progress and the prospect of enduring stability here has not been the result of happenstance but instead is a direct result of an ability to understand the human terrain and to effectively communicate and implement a system for governance that ties the villagers to the District using a vision they helped create.
"The fractures in political and social dynamics of the country serve as a basis for the insurgency in Afghanistan..."
Over the last thirty years the Arghandab District has been home to some of Afghanistan's most fierce fighting and its most infamous leaders. During the Soviet invasion, the people of the Arghandab soundly defeated a Soviet Division's onslaught that left the region badly scarred. Osama Bin Laden walked the streets of the Arghandab at one time during the Taliban regime. The Taliban's seat of government (and Mullah Omar's house) lies a mere thousand meters from the Arghandab's southern boundary. In 2001, key personalities in the area negotiated the withdrawal of the Taliban from Khandahar City. Regardless, an insurgency developed in the region that forced the coalition's hand, resulting in a surge of forces into the region. As recently as last year, Arghandab District found itself garrisoned with nineteen different company-sized U.S. and Afghan Army elements along with almost 400 Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) and 170 Afghan Local Police (ALP).
Today, the Arghandab District records the lowest number of attacks per month tracked since 2006. The number of units positioned in the area has been cut in nearly half from the height of the surge in October 2010. The people of the district largely support GIRoA, and the security forces and government officials demonstrate to their partners on a daily basis that Afghans are preparing to assume the lead for both security and governance. This massive change in both the attitude of the populace and the capabilities of the ANSF is a direct result of two factors - understanding the area and communication between all parties to achieve enduring stability. This progress was a result of the ability to listen and communicate with the people, the ability to understand grievances, and the ability to negotiate, arbitrate, and compromise to achieve an enduring Afghan solution that resolves the root causes of instability. We followed basic COIN doctrine (focus on the population, enable indigenous forces, etc.,); however, our attention to specific aspects of COIN doctrine tailored for the Afghan environment allowed us to make unexpected inroads more quickly than expected. Although we learned some hard lessons along the way, we followed some simple guidelines. In our opinion, broad application of these guidelines to each contentious district in Afghanistan could result in a decrease in violence.
Understand the People
As with all insurgencies, the fractures in political and social dynamics of the country serve as a basis for the insurgency in Afghanistan. The failure to achieve an adequate long term political settlement at the conclusion of major hostilities continues to serve as the basis for grievances at the strategic and operational levels. Whether ideologically, religiously, or politically motivated, hostilities will ultimately end through political means. In the Arghandab, these longstanding and unresolved grievances served as the basis for tensions and violence among the tribes, villages, and various political factions - some related to the mujahideen rivalry period of the early 1990s. Until recently, we did not understand the implications of these long standing grievances at the tactical level in the Arghandab; we underwent a massive effort to understand the human terrain and the history of the district.
As a military force, the tendency of patrols outside the wire is to ask "where are the bad guys?" Others will say "please come to the next shura" in an effort to strengthen governance at the lowest levels. However, our approach differed somewhat. Our primary questions were "tell me about your village...tell me about the people...tell me about the history of the area." Done on a massive scale, the development of a true, deeper understanding of the local history allowed us to piece together the social and political dynamics of the District, map the human terrain below the village level, and more clearly understand the various competing factors that needed to be balanced to achieve enduring stability.
Foster a Sustainable Government System at the District Level
At its very core, a government exists for one reason: to maintain security for a collective group of people. After mapping the human terrain, understanding the grievances of the populace, and placing the people at the center of the solution, we created a system-based solution for enduring governance that kept grievances to a level such that the indigenous security forces would be able to combat the residual violence independently. With the help of district leadership, we mapped the human terrain into thirty three village clusters (or sub districts) of people who identified themselves as a distinct area. Within each of the 33 areas, we convinced these clusters, through negotiation, to formally (through village shuras) choose a malik (district representative) whom the District governor approved. We further grouped the 33 village clusters into 11 police sub zones that divided security responsibilities for the entire area. The AUP appointed an Afghan police commander for each area to settle grievances at the lowest level. From there, we created a representative council at the district level, with leaders from the 33 different sub-districts. This enduring governance mechanism provides a forum for communication and dispute resolution that helps maintain security.
"By focusing on the political and social dynamics of the region, we were better able to understand the underlying causes of insurgent activity in the area...by focusing on enabling the Afghan to settle these differences, the insurgency within the region quickly dissipated."
Enable the Afghans to Settle Internal Grievances
After 30 years of war, no one understands the implications of violence more than the Afghan people. By focusing on the political and social dynamics of the region, we were better able to understand the underlying causes of insurgent activity in the area. Further, by focusing on enabling the Afghans to settle these differences, the insurgency within the region quickly dissipated. Given that the Arghandab has an effective District Governor and an effective District Chief of Police, we focused heavily on creating solutions that put them at the forefront. While we used our human terrain maps to create a system for sub-district governance, we used the district leaders to ultimately tie the villages to the district level. Routine visits to remote villages by our district leaders slowly built momentum in governance and security.
Enable the Population to Protect Themselves
The ALP program served as a basis for allowing the people of the Arghandab to secure themselves. This CJSOTF-run program is too often left up to the SOF community to execute unilaterally due to the shear size of the country. In our district, the approach differed. All Battlespace owning units had a responsibility to execute Village Stability Operations (VSO). All units had the responsibility for establishing a shura, malik, and village counsel in each of the village clusters. When the opportunity presented itself, all units had the responsibility for coordinating the growth of ALP and enabling this SOF-run, MoI-driven program. Currently, the Arghandab has nearly 300 ALP established in the district. Additionally, these ALP were subordinated to the existing police force through the sub-zone check point commanders. This approach allowed the locals to select those who secure their villages, but legitimized those selected by partnering them under the district police leadership.
Where the Population Can't Protect Itself, Enable the Afghan Security Forces
Police were positioned into areas where we anticipated that the creation of ALP would ultimately not happen because of the social dynamics of the region. Where the 383 man police force for the district could not maintain security unilaterally, we positioned ANA forces. US forces were positioned to enable partnered operations between all indigenous forces with a focus on training the ANSF to lead operations. During lulls in enemy activity, ISAF forces sacrificed security patrols to train the ANSF. The ANSF, in turn, understood that the departure of ISAF from the region was inevitable, and they needed to be prepared to maintain security in the area. While enabling ANSF can prove difficult because of continuing sustainment challenges, the gains made from legitimizing them in the eyes of the populace only served to strengthen our governance efforts.
Everything is Geared Towards Transition
ISAF forces will remain in Afghanistan for a finite amount of time. Given the time constraint, our team established a long term campaign plan that, based upon the desires of the district leadership, worked towards a vision of enduring stability. Primarily, we are not here to combat the Taliban or Haqqani networks. We are here to help the people combat their enemies until a political solution can be achieved. Using the human terrain as a basis, we established a final vision of security in the Arghandab where the 383 police and 400 ALP maintain security in the area on their own. We sold that plan to the Afghan leadership, and then we sank all of our effort into enabling transition towards this enduring vision rather than on the enemy. By focusing on strengthening governance and enabling the ANSF, the people began to slowly view GIRoA as an alternative to the days of violence that litter Arghandab's past. Even key figures that freely admit supporting the Taliban only two years ago now openly interact with the District Government on a daily basis.
Enable Communication Between Everyone to Build the Team
In the end we are all trying to create a self-functioning Afghan sustainable team that we can leave behind for the Afghans to perpetuate of their own accord. The Afghans must do this together. Unity of the population became the theme for everything. "One Team" serves as the motto for all of the security forces - ISAF, AUP, ANA, and ALP. Making the local people identify with successes in the Arghandab became the focus for the entire district. By settling differences, by having the Afghans communicate the need for unity, by creating the governance and security mechanisms for them to do it by themselves, and by the constant drumbeat of inclusiveness, we brought tribes and villages together that had fought for years.
None of these aspects of our unit's counterinsurgency operations differ from the COIN doctrine that the US Army has learned over the last decade. Our application of the doctrine differed in the emphasis placed on understanding the people, creating a long term mechanism for stability at the district level and communicating that vision to bring people together.
The enemy is out there. To us, he presents a challenge, but is not the greatest threat we face. Focusing on alleviating the conditions throughout the battlespace that allow the enemy to exist and operate is the key to long-term stability. If a political solution is to be achieved in Afghanistan, then mechanisms to allow a political solution to take hold must be created at the grass roots level. Long term, inclusive and representative governance must be created at the village and district levels using the Afghan leaders to do it - that is a key to Afghanistan's future success.
Our experiences in the Arghandab have taught us that significant progress is possible...with the help of the population. We continue to focus on enabling the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to maintain this fragile peace. We aren't perfect. There are still attacks here, although we believe that the solutions we have achieved to secure peace will hold over time if the district government and security forces remain on their current course. With a 90% reduction in enemy activity in a one year period, it is evident the effects of our operations and the operations of units before us have begun to set the conditions for enduring stability in the Arghandab District.
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