“How to win in Afghanistan, one village at a time” Doug Stanton

"When I tuned in to Obama's speech, I was hoping for a plan that did not solely resemble a conventional counterinsurgency strategy, like McChrystal's, with its traditional aims to "clear, hold and build" ground and undertake the complicated task of nation-building. While this strategy has worked in degrees in Iraq, it was preceded by a more nuanced, complex strategy of working with and through local Iraqis, principally in Anbar province. There, men such as retired Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Andy Marchal, who had fought in Afghanistan in 2001 with the first team to enter the country, instigated social change and tamped down violence by creating jobs and working with tribesmen who had decided to stop fighting alongside al-Qaeda. "  Doug Stanton


"This model works tribe by tribe and village by village. It considers violence, unemployment and unrest as part of the same cloth. Special Forces soldiers may arm and train militias to defend themselves, as well as help build water systems and provide jobs and medical care. It can be slower, nuanced work, and it relies on building rapport with citizens, which is why Special Forces soldiers receive language training and believe awareness of local customs and mores is critical. Think of soldiers engaged in such efforts as Peace Corps members — only they can shoot back.

This model can be far less bloody and far less costly than deploying tens of thousands of conventional Army troops, and there are signs that a "tribal-centric" approach is gaining traction with some strategists. One signal is the buzz created by an informal paper called "Tribe by Tribe," by Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant. "When we gain the respect of one tribe," Gant writes, "there will be a domino effect throughout the region and beyond. One tribe will eventually become 25 or even 50 tribes." " Doug Stanton


"The debate about what to do in Afghanistan has often seemed a simple, binary discussion: all in, or all out. Do we flood the zone with thousands of troops and risk appearing to be imperialist occupiers? Or do we take a light-footprint approach, as in 2001, avoiding the "occupier" label but risking a longer march with the Afghans toward a peaceful society? As Obama pointed out in his speech, there is no simple right and wrong. But some answers are better than others.

One better answer is to revisit the lessons from the Special Forces campaign immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. This may not be easy. Within the military, there is resistance to this kind of warfare. The conventional Army, one Special Forces officer told me, was uncomfortable with the decentralized nature of the war effort in 2001 and with how cheap it was.

He recounted how he was once stopped by a senior officer from the conventional Army who told him, "You must be proud of what you did in Afghanistan." The Special Forces officer said he was.

"Good," replied the other, "because you'll never get the chance to do it again." "  Doug Stanton


The long standing animosity of the "big army" conventional generals for US Army Special Forces is still there.  The "SOF" community is full of it.  Special Forces soldiers reading this know that I do not exagerate.  COIN is a fad, the "flavor of the year."  It is accepted wisdom at this point.  Unfortunately for that fad, it is not really possible to use conventional troops to do real COIN work. The infantry fights.  That is their role in life.  They have no real taste for integrating their lives with those of tribesmen and villagers.  A senior person in Rumsfeld's Defense Department once told me that their goal was to make the infantry more like Special Forces.  He waved off my observation that Special Forces soldiers and infantrymen are two quite different breeds.

Training, helping and leading the locals as a way of life has never appealed to the big army.  Stanton offers an interesting explanation for that.  The Green Beret approach to war is inherently decentralized, inherently cheaper in money and an inherent threat to the need for giant budgets and massive equipment programs.

Green Berets are a self aware elite.  Other soldiers, including generals, see that self awareness in the eyes of the "Greenies, the Snake Eaters."  They understand that men who are not afraid to do this kind of isolated, self motivated duty judge everyone by their own standards.  Perhaps that is part of the problem.  pl

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19 Responses to “How to win in Afghanistan, one village at a time” Doug Stanton

  1. zot23 says:

    I’m not a soldier and really do not understand the subtler points of COIN and nation building, but all this “surge” strikes me as building a castle out of sand. Even if we could build a perfect Afghanistan, using our money and blood to build a decent country, what keeps it together the day, month, year, or decade after we leave? What can they build a nation on (with roads, public works, education, etc) when all they have is heroin fields? Where is the value add or legal natural resources other than poppy fields?
    It’s a sick joke, there is no way Afghanistan can ever be sustainable on its own. Iraq had history, culture, and oil. Afghan has poppy fields, a possible oil pipeline, and a culture of heavily decentralized tribal life.
    What the hell are we trying to build out there, Dubai II? If we’re really set on building infrastructure in depressed, barren areas, there might be a few indian tribes here in the USA that would like to send in their applications. And we don’t even need to leave the country to get there. It’s a nation builder’s dream.

  2. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    “it is not really possible to use conventional troops to do real COIN work”
    Thus, from a policy analysis standpoint it would logically follow that Obama has been led (willingly or not) down the wrong policy path. Mission failure would seem to be looming for our country despite the glitz, glamor, and vacuous media buzz.
    Meanwhile polling data suggests that over half of the country opposes escalating in Afghanistan. This, however, does not deter the delusional politicians in the White House and in Congress who are supposedly representing the American people.

  3. Arun says:

    Everywhere, in corporations, schools, and even in the Army, it seems, institutional interests dominate over the best way to get the job done.

  4. @Arun,
    Everywhere, in corporations, schools, and even in the Army, it seems, institutional interests dominate over the best way to get the job done.
    Sadly true. Is it always thus? Or simply the tenor of our angst-ridden, pessimistic, post-9/11 times?
    At some point, complete defeat and unavoidable acknowledgment of failure must come. Until then, tho’, “getting the job done” will occur only in the cynical machinations of institutions bent on expanding their power.

  5. The Twisted Genius says:

    I recommend SST readers check out the website for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. It was on his site that I first found Major Gant’s article. On this issue, I believe he is a kindred spirit and a very outspoken one. His connection to Afghanistan is deep and goes back to the war against Soviet occupation.
    Perhaps the way to save the “one village at a time” approach is through a one congressman at a time approach.

  6. Mad Dogs says:

    Pat wrote: “…A senior person in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department once told me that their goal was to make the infantry more like Special Forces. He waved off my observation that Special Forces soldiers and infantrymen are two quite different breeds…”
    Rummy’s dream lives on.
    As to who is in charge of the GWOT (yes, that term is still very much in favor at DoD), from page 5 of this September 10, 2006 WaPo article when Rummy was still hanging about:

    …In 2004, Rumsfeld finally won the president’s approval to put SOCOM in charge of the “Global War on Terrorism…”

    (My Bold)
    But that must have only been in the Bush/Cheney Administration, right?
    Don’t bet on it!
    The command of JSOC when this decision was made back in 2004 was none other than: LTG Stanley McChrystal – September 2003 to June 2008.
    Yes, that very same Stanley McChrystal (now General) who is Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
    In case anyone missed the significance of this assignment of the GWOT to SOCOM and its relevance to Afghanistan née Pakistan, here’s the very latest as of July 1st this very year (thanks to Secrecy News for this 125 page PDF) – page 18 and then again, page 80:

    Commander, US Special Operations Command (CDRUSSOCOM) is responsible for synchronizing planning for global operations against terrorist networks, and will do so in coordination with other combatant commands, the Services, and, as directed, appropriate USG agencies…
    Command and Control
    3. United States Special Operations Command
    CDRUSSOCOM is a global synchronizer for the war on terrorism and responsible for synchronizing planning, and as directed, executing operations against terrorist networks on a global basis in coordination with other combatant commands, the Services, and as directed, appropriate USG agencies…

    Some may view putting JSOC in total charge of the US’s Global War On Terror as analogous to putting the US Coast Guard in charge of the entire Pacific Theater during WW II.
    Separately, I would note that while the Afghanistan Surge of 30,000 troops has been publicly announced with units such as the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, there has yet to be (and perhaps never will be) any public announcement regarding the deployment of SOCOM units to Afghanistan.
    Given the secrecy of SOCOM unit deployments in general, one wonders whether that 30,000 troop figure is inclusive of SOCOM troops or merely the number of conventional troops to be deployed.
    Want to bet on it being the latter?
    I do!

  7. batondor says:

    Thank you. I finally understand some things, starting yesterday with the question from Kevin Egan and your immediate response and then complemented by the forceful yet compelling long presentation by Sidney Smith…
    … but as with all learning experiences, this one has instigated some specific questions on my part:
    1) Do you think that the difference between SOF and SF was clear to the President when he reviewed the options? I know it should have been and that he is as responsible as anyone if it was not, but I am now wondering whether the distinction between COIN as expressed by Petraeus and Gant was clear to him…
    2) How is it that SF became confused with SOF? Was the consolidation under SOCOM a bad idea (which could be revised) or is the Green Beret ethos inherently in contradiction with the larger conception of military affairs?
    3) Can it be undone so that whatever success that McChrystal may achieve in the next twelve months can be maintained… or was (is) the negligence of a “true” SF capability behind your earlier comment that Iraq is at risk because of the inability – or unwillingness – to insure the long term viability of the Sons of Iraq?
    I mean all this seriously because I’m wondering whether your “metier” was not “simply” subsumed within CIA paramilitary operations post 9/11 (or “abandoned” there by Rumsfeld & Co… and then marginalized when the CIA was discredited over WMD-in-Iraq, etc.). I have often thought that the true allure of this career was damaged by the exaggerations found in both the John Wayne and Marlon Brando representations, but that was long ago…
    … and while it is clear that Major Gant and others (his superiors?) were there to be heard if asked (were they?), I really wonder whether it was not simply an end run too far for the WH.
    All I will add is that I sincerely hope that you are proven wrong by events as they unfold (and I obviously mean that with little to doubt in your critique). Though your initial impressions were anything but tepid, I sensed a more detached appreciation for the distinction between military versus civilian “willfulness” that could always be subject to change…
    Thanks again… and please keep at it!

  8. N. M. Salamon says:

    If this program was started years ago, it may have worked over time. I do not think that the USA has the time [or the manpower] especially so that there was inidcriminate killing by bombs etc – creating too many blood enemies.
    Sending 50 000 green – in reference to the above program; soliders [some on 4th or 5th duty cycle] since Mr. Obama has taken over, does not indicate willingness to deal with individual tribes, but a willingness to use Predators and mass attacks {Cobra], all of which was tried by the USSR without any positive effect.
    An inquiring mind would want to know what percentqage of the rebuilding funding in Iraq and Afganistan went to build USA bases and or Embassies, and what percentage was devoted to feed and house the displaced [approx 4 million in Iraq, 1 or 2 million in Pakistan -via proxy, and untold numbers over 8 years in Afganistan] and what percentage went to corruption.
    I am saddened that there was this surge [though understand the political pressure] for it will cause lot of blood to be spilt, the end result in 18 months will be minor – when the voters will get really upset with the endless war!
    My opinion is that the Colonel is right, and Petreus and company are wrong in how much and for how long the politics will allow thiws war to proceed.
    Thank you

  9. Mad Dogs says:

    A further comment on the publicly announced COIN efforts to be performed by conventional Army infantry and Marine units in Afghanistan.
    Pat has often lamented the increasingly disparaged COIN skillsets within the US Special Forces (talent more akin to having a Masters or even a Ph.D. in specialized knowledge and skills) versus their embracement of the latest sexy CT (CounterTerrorism) roles.
    I, too, have my doubts that placing COIN responsibilities in Afghanistan in the hands of the regular Army infantry and Marine units will prove to be a success.
    Fallujah is not my idea of successful COIN doctrine as implemented by the Marines.
    I’m not saying they couldn’t eventually learn COIN, but decades of hard won experience and learning don’t get assimulated in a few weeks at Parris Island.
    As to whether a heavy duty CT effort will be a secret and mostly unmentioned doctrine to be employed in Afghanistan by SOCOM forces, of this I have zero doubt.
    Wacking 20 mule team Taliban infiltration groups along the Afghan/Pakistan border is the primo CT gig for today’s SOCOM forces.
    COIN? That’s so boring, and besides, it’s a lot of hard work. Leave it for the regular Army and Marine pukes.
    CT? Give us the best in infrared gear, a bunch of Predators/Reapers, a couple packages of MREs, and we’ll kick some cross-border butts!
    I can hear them singin’ it now:

    “We ain’t your grandfather’s Special Forces! Yee-hah!”

    So my bet is that COIN performed by regular Army and Marine units will be the public face to the Afghan Surge (and I’m not betting on its success), and CT performed by JSOC will be the secret, not-so-public face and I’m not betting on its success either).
    We shall see, shan’t we?

  10. DE Teodoru says:

    Imagine a surgeon who incompetently has to stop an operation because he totally screws up and can’t continue. Imagine that surgeon insisting that he has to be allowed to go back in since the patient survived because his reputation as a surgeon is at stake. Obama’s speech made that very absurd case as if he used Bush’s speechwriters. There’s a moral question of whether we have the right to keep imposing ourselves on Afghans, despite our criminal incompetence over 8 long years, only because our reputation is at stake. alQaeda used its commonality with the Pashtuns and knew how to build ties over many years. In our “Crusade” we used raw killing power because Rumsfeld’s original goal was only to bait-and-switch Congress in order to present it with a fait accompli– US troops fighting in Iraq– so it couldn’t refuse to fund that war. Toward that end Franks cannibalized the Afghan force and binLaden got away. Now there is no doubt that he is dead. But Obama is stuck because he used Afghan war as “the real war” in his campaign to avoid being called “soft on terror” when calling for Iraq withdrawal. He can’t now call for ending the Afghan War where we keep sending intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb forces serving, in effect, only as spotters for airpower and artillery. As in Iraq, WE provoked a DOMESTIC insurgency by feeding vengeful hate of our occupation, our collateral damage massacre and the corrupt GOV we imposed. Criminal incompetence does not give us the right to save our reputation at their expense. If we focused on repeating the accidental benefits of dumping of ordnance on the Vietnamese countryside— urbanization of surviving peasants out of reach of the VC infrastructure (per Le Duc Tho)—and attracted Afghan youths to well built cities that NATO– NOT Karzai– designs and controls instead of trying to build “tribal” ties in the countryside, we would attract the Taliban’s cannon fodder to areas we can defend. The remittances they send home from wages earned by working and getting educated would put the lie to the Taliban’s propaganda. Then, when the rural families send all their children to the cities, they will work with us to protect their villages, as in Vietnam.

  11. J says:

    Just think how much better our foreign policy could have been (and still could be) had the ‘suits’ listened and took to heart the advice of the ‘snake eaters’.

  12. Fred says:

    Excellent article. It still points out that the Taliban are less in number than the troops being sent in the latest ‘surge’. More importantly some of the senior NCO’s seem to understand what senior flag officers don’t, that 70% unemployment is the first problem that needs to be addressed: “…There, men such as retired Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Andy Marchal, who had fought in Afghanistan in 2001 with the first team to enter the country, instigated social change and tamped down violence by creating jobs and working with tribesmen who had decided to stop fighting alongside al-Qaeda.
    “As soon as I saw that the main problem in the village was unemployment — at one point it was at 70 percent — I knew I wouldn’t even have to pick up my gun,” he recently told me. “I simply had to create more jobs than al-Qaeda was creating and get those guys to work in this new economy. After that, the hard-core fighters left behind would start fighting each other, and sure enough, that’s what happened.””
    With an attitude like that Marchal will never run a company that gets a billion dollar re-construction contract, but he will win a war. Which one is more important to the generals? Perhaps Obama should start promoting men like Marchal to general, or is that too French?

  13. dilbert dogbert says:

    I can’t help myself but here is a interesting Dana statement:
    “If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the world’s most important strategic points,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told a House subcommittee on Dec. 7, 1999, as it debated the handover.
    Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use it as a launchpad for attacking the United States. And former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger wrote that fall that Panama’s contract with Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa to control ports at both ends of the passage was “the biggest threat to the canal.”
    Brings back some great memories.

  14. R Whitman says:

    I would be interested in hearing from all you armchair generals about what your prediction is for the status of US/Afganistan relations five years from now.(Christmas 2014)

  15. More from the policy analysis perspective by someone familiar with the policy issues at the White House/National Security Council level:
    “…the Obama administration will be repeating another of its predecessor’s mistakes — pitting America’s “allies” in Afghanistan against Pakistan’s proxies there. This is a no-win scenario, no matter how it plays out. By supporting the enemies of Pakistan’s allies, the United States will either further escalate the ongoing civil conflict in Afghanistan or push the Taliban and other Pakistani proxies out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan, where they will potentially threaten the stability of a nuclear-armed state…
    More broadly, the Obama administration has alienated Karzai and other important power brokers in Afghanistan with a misplaced focus on Western-style electoral democracy — another Bush illusion — and rooting out corruption. The key players in Afghanistan are not clean, Western-style democrats. But these players have their own legitimacy among their tribal, ethnic or sectarian constituencies and are, therefore, vital to power sharing, stopping the fighting and achieving some measure of national reconciliation and stability.” http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1209/30269_Page2.html
    This analysis, while useful, leaves out broader regional and global factors such as: China, Russia, India, and Iran. These states are players in Afghanistan and cannot be conveniently swept under the rug, IMO.

  16. Mad Dogs says:

    Per my earlier comment, it seems confirmed by this evening’s NYT article:

    …The Obama administration is turning up the pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban inside its borders, warning that if it does not act more aggressively the United States will use considerably more force on the Pakistani side of the border to shut down Taliban attacks on American forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials said…
    …For their part the Pakistanis interpreted the message as a fairly bald warning that unless Pakistan moved quickly to act against two Taliban groups they have so far refused to attack, the United States was prepared to take unilateral action to expand Predator drone attacks beyond the tribal areas and, if needed, to resume raids by Special Operations forces into the country against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders
    …During his intensive review of Pakistan and Afghanistan strategy, officials say, Mr. Obama concluded that no amount of additional troops in Afghanistan would succeed in their new mission if the Taliban could retreat over the Pakistani border to regroup and resupply. But the administration has said little about the Pakistani part of the strategy.
    “We concluded early on that whatever you do with Pakistan, you don’t want to talk about it much,” a senior presidential aide said last week. “All it does is get backs up in Islamabad…”

    (My Bold)
    So to repeat myself:

    …So my bet is that COIN performed by regular Army and Marine units will be the public face to the Afghan Surge (and I’m not betting on its success), and CT performed by JSOC will be the secret, not-so-public face (and I’m not betting on its success either)…

    COIN in public, CT in secret…and in Pakistan as well!

  17. Mike says:

    Is that true, that SOF men judge everyone — al soldiers that is — by their own standards? Does that make any sense, given the very terminology used in their official designation: “Special”? Or is that descriptor not accepted by the tribe as legitimate, ie, “We’re not special; we are simply what the ablest among the USM ought to aspire to be”?

  18. Patrick Lang says:

    Not “SOF.” “SF”
    The “special” in “special forces” is a fifties euphamism for different. pl

  19. DE Teodoru says:

    Stanton’s choices are set up extremes that constitute false choices. “Tribes” are not wooden pieces you move on a board and they stay where you put them looking forever as they did when you put them down. They are people led by men who live by their wits in an absolute Darwinian social order that’s life/death dynamic. How, pray tell, do intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb Americans, one tribe at a time, out together a nation? For a clue look at what a fraud was the Iraq surge from an Iraqi perspective. Their solution involved 1/6 of the best and brightest becoming DPs. Is that what Stanton wants for the Afghnas?

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