How to win: Village Stability Operations


By Douglas A. Samuelson
Best Defense guest columnist


A retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer offers a new perspective on the political debate raging over how to defeat terrorism: “They’re all wrong.” What we need, he contends, is a change in focus from conventional force, applied in support of national governments, to village stability operations (VSO), emphasizing developing local leadership and building from there.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Scott Mann should know. In his 22 years of service, he led VSOs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Leading U.S. experts labeled his accomplishments, and those by his Special Forces colleagues, as the “game changer” in Afghanistan in 2010-2012. In his new book, Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Violent Extremists, he outlines the VSO approach in four steps:

  1. Get yourself surrounded. Move in with the locals, get to know their concerns first-hand and on a day-to-day basis, let them get to know you.
  2. Meet them where they are. As he explains in his book, “For VSO to work, we must embrace local realities. That means working with what is already there, and not with what we want to be there. In Nangahar Province (Afghanistan), it took two successive teams of Special Forces to identify all of the local grievances standing in the way of village autonomy and connection to the Afghan government. Only when these Green Berets started to help locals address their own local problems did they persuade them to stand up for themselves.
  3. Connect through extreme collaboration. “It takes more than a village. It takes a network to empower that village,” he writes. “Let’s not forget our own organizational complexity, tensions and self-induced feuding as our second enemy in defeating violent extremism.”
  4. Tell a story that sticks. “The side that tells the most compelling story, and backs it up with meaningful action, is the side that wins,” he asserts. In Nangahar, he adds, it took about two years for the “master narrative of local clans standing up for themselves, supported by their government, against an oppressive and unwanted group of violent extremists” to take hold. The narrative spread to other communities in the area. “This expansion was possible largely because of a compelling narrative and well-told stories,” he adds.

“There’s nothing new in this approach; it’s just that nobody’s listening,” Lt. Col. Mann told Analytics magazine in a recent interview. “We had a coordinated program called FID, foreign internal defense, to apply all our instruments of power in fragile countries. It’s run by the embassy country team, coordinating defense, law enforcement and economics. We’ve been doing it for decades, and we’re good at it. We did it in Colombia, El Salvador, and the Philippines. But after 9/11, we abandoned it and went back to COIN, counterinsurgency, and it was as much a failure in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had been in Vietnam.”

Mann cautions, “It takes a long time. At this point we’ll have to punch our way back in, but then we need to conduct long-term FID, position our talent at both bottom-up and top-down, looking for stability inhospitable to violent extremists at the local and national levels. In these places where violent extremists set up shop, 80 percent of the land is tribal, outside national control.” Hence, he adds, “we have to learn to exploit an honor-based society to create the opportunities we want.”

Douglas A. Samuelson is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, a small research and development/consulting company in Annandale, Virginia.