Special ops forces trying to stabilize rural Afghan villages


By Howard Altman | Tribune Staff

During a five-day series of meetings held in a hotel in the shadow of Mickey Mouse earlier this month, a world-famous negotiator talked about the art of the deal and the U.S. Department of Agriculture talked about rural farming.

The meetings, say U.S. Special Operations Command trainers, will go a long way toward helping small, mud hut villages nearly 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan.

Security is an important component of teaching the Afghans to stand up for themselves and the creation of a robust Afghan Local Police, a village-based security force, is one key element of that, Special Operations Command officials say.

But, in a country where the central government has rarely had much influence on remote rural areas, that’s just part of helping Afghan villagers gain self-reliance.

The meetings were held to help troops — mostly Special Operations Forces — gear up for missions in which small, intensely trained detachments move into Afghan villages to help them re-establish governance, economic development and security as a bulwark against insurgents. Nearly 700 Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps special operators and conventional troops attended the meetings, held at the Orlando World Marriot Center. There they broke up into classes to study details about Pashtu culture, rural Afghan tribal leadership, negotiations and even agriculture.

“Agriculture is huge in Afghanistan,” said Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a Valrico resident who helps train troops for these missions, called Village Stability Operations. “It is a very vital component to village stability, so understanding the basic elements of agriculture is very important.”

So, too, is negotiating, Mann said.

“We had Stuart Diamond, the New York Times bestselling author of ‘Getting More,’ teaching high-stakes negotiations,” Mann said. “How to get into a village, how to get Afghan elders to provide local defense. One scenario involved a village elder and a recalcitrant district governor who historically did not work together. The teams’ objective was to convince both parties to participate. It is a collaborative process in every way.”

The troops, Diamond said, bought into his negotiating philosophy of figuring out what the other guy wants.

“One lieutenant colonel wrote to me that this will save lives,” Diamond said in a telephone interview, “by reducing the size of the enemy and converting more people, reducing the need for armed conflict.”


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In the winter of 2010, a detachment of about a dozen Army Green Berets approached a small village outside the Maiwand district of Kandahar province.

The Special Forces operation was aimed at removing the Taliban, but not by kicking in doors or dropping from helicopters during night raids against high-value targets.

The goal was to get to know the locals and show that they could stand up to the Taliban. The soldiers want to help the villagers establish the kind of stability that has not been found in Afghanistan for decades.

The team faced an uphill battle, Mann said.

“The villagers were living in a 7th Century feudal system,” said Mann, who served as the program manager for Village Stability Operations under Brig. Gen. Ed Reeder, whose command crafted the concept in 2009.

Located in a sandy desert in South Central Afghanistan, the village had no running water, and the only electric power was provided from one or two generators. The residents — largely sharecroppers who grow poppies and marijuana along with subsistence crops like wheat, carrots, okra and corn — have suffered through decades of war, occupation and insurgency. Most of the village elders, the traditional leadership, had fled in fear of the Taliban.

The one remaining elder, who had been thinking about cooperating with the Special Forces detachment, was dragged out of his hut in the middle of the night by the Taliban to one of their “shadow courts” Mann said, and beaten so badly he fled, leaving a power vacuum and increased opportunities for the Taliban.

Of the many challenges faced by the Green Berets, the biggest might have been just convincing the village to allow them to set up operations.

“It takes rapport skills, the trust building and the negotiating skills to convince heavily intimidated villagers, after 30 years of warfare, that a SOF element living among them is a good idea,” Mann said.

By using the skills emphasized and reinforced in Orlando, they did. But that was only the first step.

In order to foster stability, the team had to “understand and sort out a range of human terrain challenges, tribal dynamics,” Mann said, adding that troops need to sort out who has influence and who has bad intentions.

“You have to really be able to read and understand the human terrain on a fundamentally local level,” he said.

The team had to be intimately familiar with the Pashtu Wali — or code of life — and understand sources of instability as esoteric as decades-old land disputes.

Eventually, the Special Forces team talked themselves into the village, but on the outskirts, where they were viewed warily. That lasted as a second team took over, but then the Taliban opened fire on their compound, killing a villager. That incident, said Mann, began to turn the tide.

“The team presented the family of the dead man beans and rice and a goat and apologized,” said Mann. “The family said, ‘It’s not your fault, it’s theirs.’ ”


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The Village Stability Operation concept is nothing new, Mann said.

Green Berets and other special operations forces “have been doing something like this for a very long time,” Mann said. But it wasn’t until 2009 that that the concept of stability from the bottom up was crystallized under Reeder and the staff of his command, augmented by Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., who served as Reeder’s plans officer and adviser.

The VSO concept was ultimately championed by Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as a key component of his counter-insurgency initiative.

And earlier this month, during his testimony to Congress, Socom commander Adm. William McRaven noted that while only 8 percent of troops in Afghanistan are Special Operations Forces, they have taken the lead on the Village Stability Operations program and “recruited and trained nearly 11,000 ALP who are vetted by our Afghan partners. There are now VSO in 57 districts increasing stability and enabling local governance, development, and security at the village level.”

The operations, said RAND’s Jones, are “essential.”

“Even with a minimal definition of success — preventing the overthrow of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai — you have to work with rural Afghan villages,” Jones said in a telephone interview.

Jones said it took a long time for U.S. military and political leaders to realize that relying on Kabul to deliver all services was not working.

“In a country where power is very local, in the hands of tribes, subtribes and clans, this program is essential,” Jones said.


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Will Karzai’s outrage at the recent killing of 17 Afghan men, women and children, which investigators say was carried out by an Army staff sergeant, have any effect on the ability of VSO teams to carry out their missions?

Karzai has demanded that coalition forces stay out of villages and remain on bases in the wake of what investigators say was a massacre by Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

Bales wasn’t part of any VSO team, but his unit was providing security for a VSO site.

Jones, for one, isn’t worried that Karzai’s pique will wreak havoc with the ability of troops to help the people in places such as the little collection of mud huts outside Maiwand.

“I don’t take it that seriously,” he said, adding that Karzai’s demands don’t appear to have affected field operations.

Mann, who never met Bales, can’t talk about his situation or any fallout from the massacre. But he does say he knows that Village Stability Operations work.

The little village now has more than 100 Afghan Local Police, said Mann, who recently visited there.

The villagers have set up a school and worked with the district governor to bring in a teacher.

And the village elder who fled out of fear of the Taliban?

He’s returned, at least part time, adding another layer of stability, Mann said.