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Newsletter 10-64
September 2010

Chapter 1. Afghan Culture in Counterinsurgency Operations

"The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population; instead, the course of conflict will be decided by forces operating among the people of the world. Here, the margin of victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success."

-Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell
Former Commander, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center

As we look at the counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan, knowledge and understanding of Afghan culture can greatly facilitate dealing with the local population. That knowledge and understanding will set the stage for applying the diverse Afghan culture in operations planning and execution. For Soldiers, the challenge is their daily interaction with the local Afghan population and the Afghan security forces. How do Soldiers relate to and with these Afghans who are very much a part of Afghanistan's complex cultural environment? Will Soldiers actions win the support of the Afghans or turn the Afghans against the U.S. efforts?

Section I: Counterinsurgency Operations and Culture

The U.S. Army, in conjunction with the U.S. Marine Corps, identified the importance of culture in COIN operations and incorporated it into U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency.

  • Cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful counterinsurgency.
  • Members of other societies often have different notions of rationality, appropriate behavior, level of religious devotion, and norms concerning gender.
  • Counterinsurgents-especially commanders, planners, and small-unit leaders-should strive to avoid imposing their ideas of normalcy on a foreign cultural problem.
  • Insurgents hold a distinct advantage in their level of local knowledge. Insurgents speak the language, move easily within the society, and are more likely to understand the population's interests.
  • Counterinsurgents, therefore, must have a thorough understanding of the social and cultural environment to conduct successful COIN operations. U.S. forces must know and understand the following about the population in the area of operations:
    • Organization of key groups in the society.
    • Relationships and tensions among groups.
    • Ideologies and narratives that resonate with groups.
    • Values of groups (including tribes), interests, and motivations.
    • Means by which groups (including tribes) communicate.
    • The society's (including tribe's) leadership system.
    • The essential nature and nuances of the conflict.
    • The motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgents.
    • The roles of other actors in the area of operations.

* * *

Integrating Cultural Sensitivity into Combat Operations

MAJ Mark S. Leslie, U.S. Army

Reprinted with permission from Armor magazine. This article was originally published in the January-February 2007 issue of Armor magazine.

Although this article addresses Iraq, it equally applies to Afghanistan.

"Guerrillas never win wars but their adversaries often lose them."1

-Charles W. Thayer

Mentioning cultural sensitivity or cultural awareness in regards to combat operations is often met with rolled eyes or groans from those who execute the orders. Many Soldiers often think that cultural sensitivity is a weakness and is secondary to actual operations-this is incorrect. Cultural sensitivity incorporated into operations in Iraq is sometimes more valuable than other more conventional weapons in the U.S. Army's inventory. Soldiers who are culturally aware and know how to apply that cultural awareness on the battlefield are 21st-century warriors. Integrating cultural sensitivity on the battlefield is something we all must do without putting Soldiers at risk.

The Army has come a long way on the subject of cultural sensitivity. All units deploying to Iraq [and to Afghanistan] are required to complete a certain amount of cultural awareness training. Soldiers learn a little of the language and a little about the culture. Units deploying also train on traditional combat skills at the individual, squad, section, platoon, and company levels.

Prior to my last deployment, I had been in combat several times. I assumed the rules of engagement (ROE) were the only kind of cultural sensitivity I needed to understand. After all, he was the enemy and deserved as little consideration as legally possible in regards to humanity. It did not take long to realize that I had the wrong idea. I spent the majority of my time in Iraq living, working, eating, and fighting with the Iraqi National Guard (ING), and quickly came to realize that I had to change my thinking if we were going to be successful.

Through daily, often personal interaction, our Soldiers saw U.S. units through the eyes of the Iraqis. This perception was not only from Iraqi soldiers, but everyone from the average Iraqi farmer to local "power brokers," such as sheiks, council members, and police chiefs. Our unit leaders spent many hours with local citizens in their homes, on the street, and at our patrol base discussing various issues of concern. Because of this newfound knowledge, we gradually adopted a more sensitive approach, and we were successful at not only finding and eliminating insurgents and caches, but also fostering and developing a good rapport with the local community. The intelligence we collected because of these relationships was incredible, and often we (the advisors) and our ING counterparts were the only people local informants trusted.

What worked for our unit is not a cookie-cutter solution for all situations and all units. However, a few common themes of cultural sensitivity, when integrated into combat operations, can greatly influence the desired outcome. Cultural sensitivity is not something learned and then tucked away in a rucksack for later use. Instill it in your Soldiers, in your training plan, and use it in everything you do on the Iraqi battlefield. I am not advocating treating the enemy with kid gloves; when it is time to be brutal (when engaging the enemy), then it is time to be brutal and eliminate the threat. However, all Soldiers must be capable of making a mature decision, and at the precise moment, switch back to nonlethal force. Integrating training scenarios where Soldiers must make these decisions in a few seconds will save both American and Iraqi lives. Below are suggested techniques for integrating cultural sensitivity into combat operations:

  • Cultural awareness training. Soldiers must know what is culturally acceptable.
  • Language training. This is an invaluable skill that serves you well throughout your tour. Every unit has its language training challenges, but anything is better than nothing. Knowing some of the language helps break down cultural barriers.
  • Leader training. Develop scenario-based vignettes involving escalation of force issues (EOF) and integrate them into training exercises.
  • ROE and escalation of force (EOF) training. ROE and EOF vignettes are culturally sensitive. Every Soldier will have to make a life-or-death decision within seconds. Understanding ROE and EOF enhances Soldiers' chances of making the right decision. Put these scenarios in all levels of training.
  • Diversify training events. Combine ROE, EOF, role-playing, and civilians on the battlefield into all tactical exercises. Ensure there are consequences for cultural ignorance and rewards for incorporating cultural sensitivity into combat operations, without putting Soldiers at risk.
  • Draw the line. Emphasize that cultural sensitivity in no way jeopardizes the lives of Soldiers. Ensure Soldiers understand that sometimes tactical decisions that are not culturally sensitive must be made; but whenever possible, care toward civilians and treating the populace with dignity and respect are "the culture of our organization."
  • Information operations (IO) training. Conduct training at all levels, from private to battalion commander. IO is a powerful tool and grasping the concept of how to integrate it into daily operations is paramount. Knowing IO is the name of the game; incorporate it at all levels of training.
  • Every Soldier is a sensor. Every Soldier is an intelligence collector and must understand that he could observe something important. Verbal engagements on the battlefield happen more than lethal engagements and must receive the same amount of attention. Debriefings are critical.
  • Civil affairs training. Conduct predeployment training on understanding public works and how city governments work-including trash collection, waterworks, and city council meetings. Columbus, GA, or Killeen, TX, is nowhere near Mosul, Iraq, but these cities do provide leaders a working model on which to base their "nation builder" role. Leaders should attend local government meetings and observe how issues are brought up, discussed, and resolved in a small city government.
  • Embrace the culture. This is difficult but possible. Understanding Iraqis and how they think, operate, and act is a combat multiplier. It also reinforces the idea within your unit that neither the Iraqi people nor Islam is the enemy-insurgents are the enemies.

The importance of cultural awareness and putting that knowledge to use in the form of cultural sensitivity during combat operations in a counterinsurgency is put into perspective by Field Manual Interim (FMI) 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations [Note: FMI 3-07.22 has been superceded by FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency in December 2006]. FMI 3-07.22 defines an insurgency as "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict." The manual goes on to state that counterinsurgency includes "those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency."2 These citations should clearly point out to all commanders and Soldiers that our role in Iraq and Afghanistan is far more complicated and challenging than in past high-intensity conflicts.

Our mission in Iraq is defined by more than simple military objectives. Every Soldier is a warrior statesman, an ambassador of our intent to make Iraq safe and secure. The actions of every Soldier during every engagement, verbal or otherwise, are critical in conveying this message. The actions of every Soldier at every level during daily dealings with Iraqi citizens are critical. Perception is reality. If Iraqis perceive us as the enemy, with elimination of the insurgent threat as our only goal, we are doomed to failure.

A counterinsurgency is a much more complicated war. Success is not defined solely by eliminating insurgents; in fact, success is impossible without the application of a much more complex and difficult approach. FMI 3-07.22 puts the warrior statesman duties into perspective by clearly defining the end state and criteria of success: protect the population; establish local political institutions; reinforce local governments; eliminate insurgent capabilities; and exploit information from local sources.3 In our unit's operational environment, it is up to the maneuver commander, with guidance from higher, to determine how to prioritize these goals. However, it is a mistake to think that all are not juggled as simultaneous daily events.

To fight a counterinsurgency in Iraq correctly, we must change the culture of many of our units. Traditionally, as an Army, we focus on eliminating the insurgent threat. Eliminating that threat is the easy part; however, it is only one part of the equation. Other prongs of attacking a counterinsurgency are much harder and more difficult to accomplish. We must establish in our subordinates' minds the whole concept of being there to protect the Iraqi people.

Often, Soldiers spend entire tours in Iraq with the mindset that all Iraqis are only potential threats. However, every Iraqi is also a potential ally, informant, and friend. To consider them only a potential threat is a mistake and will severely limit the unit's capabilities. To best ascertain if an Iraqi is a potential friend or foe, pay close attention to how he behaves. Keep in mind that our actions have a huge impact on his decision to be a friend or foe. A unit that is culturally ignorant and does not attempt to use cultural awareness training on the battlefield during daily operations is doing more harm than good for the overall picture-regardless of how many insurgents it eliminates. A counterinsurgency is less about eliminating the threat and more about eliminating support for the threat. If our actions, either knowingly or innocently, produce more insurgents, we are not accomplishing the goals set forth in FMI 3-07.22 for defeating an insurgency.4

Insurgents often create support for their actions by eliciting us to overreact, and we often unwittingly fall into their plans. For example, if an improvised explosive device (IED) attack occurs on a U.S. patrol or convoy and a residence is located within a few hundred meters, what is the patrol's first reaction? Based on personal experience and from talking with hundreds of other combat veterans, the normal response is to raid that house immediately. This is tactically sensible. If the IED was within sight of the house, then logically, the occupants of the house must be responsible or know something.

It is irresponsible to ignore the residence; however, the way we conduct the search and questioning are more important. If we aggressively approach the house, kick open the door, conduct a search, and question the owner of the house, he will most likely claim to know nothing about the IED. Our overreaction has just humiliated the owner and proved to the local populace that the message the insurgents spread throughout Iraq is correct: "Americans have no regard for you or your property."

Using the same scenario with a different approach can enhance conditions for successful information gathering. For example, assuming there is no direct fire threat from the house, isolate the objective. Use all the normal precautions when approaching the house, but instead of kicking open the door, simply knock. When the owner comes to the door, greet him and ask to search his house. He will comply because he realizes that there are no real alternatives. Ask him to move his family to one room, and assign security to that room.

We cleared houses according to standing operating procedures. We thoroughly searched one room, requested the owner move his family members (children and women) to that room, and placed the room under security. We then began a detailed search of the house and surrounding grounds. During the search, we asked the owner or a male family member to accompany us during the search to prevent any accusations of personal property theft. We also took great care not to "trash" the house; the average Iraqi does not have a lot of material wealth, and for us to destroy what little he has is not the way to demonstrate our concern for those we are there to protect.

While the search was underway, we quietly moved the owner to an area that his neighbors could not see and asked if he knew anything about the IED incident. The owner you question may not know exact details or even be willing to share them with you if he does, but he may give you bits of information that will be useful in finding those responsible. He is much more likely to assist you if you show him dignity and respect. He is unlikely, in most cases, to be responsible for the attack because he knows he will automatically be presumed "guilty by proximity." However, if you find incriminating evidence, you have the option of detaining the individual.

This is just one example of integrating cultural sensitivity into combat operations. There are thousands of situations, but no cookie-cutter solution, as the tactical situation is different in every case. A few rules of thumb apply to many situations in Iraq when conducting operations similar to the one above:

  • Assuming there is no direct fire threat; knock on the door instead of kicking it in.
  • Whenever possible, allow the head of household to give instructions to his family.
  • Allow the women and children to stay inside in a central location (under security).
  • Do not zip tie or question potential informants/suspects in front of family or other males detained for questioning.
  • If the decision is made to detain an individual, allow him to get personal items, such as medicine, shoes, and glasses (under security)-this serves well during tactical questioning and demonstrates you are humane and concerned for the welfare of the detained individual.
  • Depending on the situation, a gift to the family may be appropriate; maybe a box of clothes for the children or some other token gift. This may seem a naive gesture, but the effect on the village and neighbors is surprisingly positive.

It is important to separate the detainee from his family (remember, he is not the enemy yet). Our actions determine which path they choose. For example, the gesture of good will and the care taken in searching his home demonstrates respect for his property. Respecting the family and preserving the detainee's dignity have far-reaching benefits in the community. The message that reaches the members of the community will confirm that a "bad guy" was detained, but American Soldiers treated his family and property respectfully and demonstrated genuine concern for the welfare of the family. This message supports one of the goals in defeating a counterinsurgency by "exploiting information from local sources." If the people of the community feel you are truly concerned for their welfare and interest, they are more likely to approach you with information on potential threats.

The fight in Iraq is not only with insurgents, it is a fight for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. It is not easy to win over people's hearts and minds, but demonstrating humanity and compassion in our everyday actions helps. Every Soldier should embrace and understand his role as an ambassador and intelligence collector for his command. Every Soldier must understand that we are not just in Iraq to fight an insurgency. We are in Iraq to win over the population, which is where this fight will be won or lost.

More often than not, when insurgents choose to engage us with direct fire, we are clearly the victor. The enemy chooses to fight as an insurgent because he is incapable of defeating us militarily. He chooses instead to attack using hit-and-run tactics and then disappears into the population. To find such an elusive enemy, we must demonstrate through words, deeds, and actions at all levels that we, not the enemy, have the best interests of the Iraqi people in mind.

Our victory in Iraq is not to just eliminate the insurgency threat, but to establish an environment where the Iraqi people can affirm their loyalties to a newly established government and pursue peace.


  1. Charles W. Thayer, Guerrilla, M. Joseph, c.1963.
  2. U.S. Army Field Manual Interim (FMI) 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., October 2004.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

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Section II: Afghan Culture in a Counterinsurgency Environment

When employing military forces in the Afghan COIN environment, the diverse cultures of Afghans in the local area must be taken into consideration. According to CPT Carl W. Thompson in his Winning in Afghanistan papers, there are key points to consider:

  • Evaluating influence. First, evaluate who has influence, why the person has it, and how he uses it. Part of the commander's job is to determine who has influence and of those people, who can be turned to a more positive government position. If it is determined the person who has influence cannot be turned, the commander must determine how to neutralize, discredit, or get rid of that person. People who have influence include:
    • A local Mullah who preaches at the Mosque.
    • A village elder who has lived within the same 15 kilometers of his house for 60 years.
    • An insurgent leader whom the people know will send bad guys into the village at night to kill them if they do not cooperate with the insurgent.
    • A local police chief who is respected for the performance of his duties.
    • A local doctor who is constantly treating people.
    • A respected former Mujahedin warrior who fought the Soviets.
  • Time. Time will never be on the commander's side when fighting an insurgency. Commanders need to do everything they can to make lasting connections and resolve differences with the Afghan people. The element of time means the villager will wait and governments will not. Consider these time elements:
    • There is a cost from national treasury every day.
    • There is a cost in human life every day.
    • There is a cost in public support every day.
    • The villager who has lived there his whole life lives in the same house his family has been in for hundreds of years.
    • The same villager is very concerned about his family's honor and reputation within the 15-30 kilometers of his house. He has rarely gone further than that-the entirety of his 50 years of life is wrapped up in that area.
    • The villager is dismissive of most of the rest of the planet.
    • Military forces assisting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's (GIRoA) COIN operations get tired of being in country and want to go home.
    • The enemy does have the same concerns, but on a much smaller scale.
    • Time is power. Insurgents can wait the government out.
  • Resources. The one area where U.S. forces can dominate the battlefield is in resources. However, just spending money is not necessarily what needs to be done. Just because the U.S. has the advantage does not mean resources are used wisely or efficiently. However, without having large amounts of resources available to begin with, the fight becomes tough. What exactly makes resources valuable in the Afghan COIN environment is the ability to use them to strengthen the people on the side of the GIRoA. However, if resources are not used wisely, the cost can be in loss of support from the resource provider.
  • Afghans have multiple and divergent agendas. The key thing to remember is that U.S. forces are there to accomplish their mission-not someone else's. Afghan and U.S. forces need to link their missions. Afghans should not be able to succeed unless the U.S. gets what it wants. However, it is best to "put an Afghan face" to the U.S.'s efforts to enhance the creditability of the GIRoA.
  • U.S. solutions will not work for Afghan problems-Afghan solutions are needed for Afghan problems.

* * *

COIN Operations in Afghanistan

CPT Brad Israel, U.S. Army

Reprinted with permission from Infantry magazine. This article was originally published in the August-December 2009 issue of Infantry magazine.

There are many factors that dictate success or failure in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, and these outcomes are largely determined on how the unit handles the specific opportunities presented in its unique battlespace. As Infantrymen, we are asked to do many very disparate tasks, which require that we develop a large skill set so that those tasks can be accomplished. Traditionally, an Infantryman's job is to close with and destroy the enemy. This role changes significantly in a counterinsurgency fight. The Infantry Soldier is asked to not only find and kill the enemy, but to train an indigenous force, help establish a stable government, assess village living conditions, pass out humanitarian aid (HA), treat sick or wounded locals, build structures, fix roads, utilize engineer and construction abilities, along with the myriad of other responsibilities that come from properly building and maintaining working relationships.

There are three basic tools that have proven successful in managing all these tasks and "winning the hearts and minds:"

  • Gaining trust through building relations with the indigenous population.
  • Distribution of humanitarian aid coupled with infrastructure development.
  • Mentoring the various government forces so that they can provide security for their own people.

These three premises are dependent on each other, but one must do all three well in order to have impacting effects in the battlespace.

A unit's leaders build relationships through constant interaction with the local populace and Afghan forces. The establishment of a strong relationship requires more than just an occasional village visit; it is imperative that leaders get to know the people as individuals. The unit leadership should know the village elders' names, their tribe, and their unique tribal history. I would also encourage leaders to learn the names of some of the children, local shopkeepers, and farmers; they will prove to have useful information from time to time. The more locals that recognize the leader as a familiar friend-one that is committed to them and not someone they or their children should fear-then the better the chance the leader has to build a bridge between the host nation government and its people. By genuinely listening to the people and addressing their concerns, leaders can help actively facilitate relationship building. It is important that the unit, not just the leadership, act in kind-have the gunners wave to the locals as the convoy passes through the villages (see how many locals actually wave back and use that as a measurement of support over the months).

When the lead truck stops to search a vehicle or while setting up a hasty traffic check point (TCP), the leader needs to speak with the individual, treat him with respect by thanking him and shaking his hand, and wishing him well on his journey after the search is complete. Through these types of interactions, the unit will slowly have success, and individuals will begin to come forward with valuable information about the situation in the area of operations (AO). Be an expert on the history of the assigned battlespace by knowing the tribes, sub-tribes, village origin, family disputes, etc; the more a leader knows and the more knowledge he has, the more ground he will gain.

Before conducting a leader engagement, ensure security is established and an over-watch position is in place covering all possible exfiltration routes out of a village.

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)-whether that be the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP), the Afghan Border Police (ABP), or the Afghan Security Group (ASG)-should request for the village elders to escort the unit into the town. If it is or becomes necessary for the unit to conduct a search through the compounds while the leadership is meeting, permission should be requested first. Success in leader engagements has been created by knowing the villages and occasionally quizzing the children on school curriculum before discussing the talking points with the adults. It is vital that the leadership be seen as men first and Soldiers second, so that tribesmen and the unit leaders can share common ground as individuals in order to make progress towards building trust and relationships.

Once the leaders of the village have opened up, a smooth transition into village assessments and issues can be made. These issues and assessments include potential future projects, security, education, active participation and support of the government through joining the police force, ANA, and attending shuras. Most village elders do not mind if pictures are taken and their information is recorded, but always ask permission and explain why (so that they can be identified by name and to help better build on the relationship between his village and the unit).

At the bare minimum have at least one ANSF leader present during the engagement. This consideration will not only put an Afghan face on the meeting, but it can lead into recruitment and a question and answer session with a government representative. The relationship displayed between the coalition and Afghan leaders is as important as that of a platoon leader and platoon sergeant or a company commander and first sergeant.

When an engagement is finished and the unit leaves the village, the Afghans talk. It is human nature to want to be part of a strong team or community, one that takes care of each other and provides opportunity. By showing this united front with strong bonds, Afghan tribes will not only be interested, but it will stir inspiration among those who want to better their lives and those of their families. Always rehearse the talking points with the Afghan counterpart to ensure the values and vision are shared.

The long term effects of winning a COIN fight are how these people will remember the footprint American Soldiers left in their country. It is about our character, our kindness, and our generosity. The Afghans have strong feelings of distrust and anger towards the Soviets. We must consider how we want to be remembered. If we help construct the base infrastructure for each district to build upon, we will always be recognized for the help and community development that we provided.

It is important that a leader have an area of operations that is not bigger than what he can influence. Visiting a village in the battlespace once a month is hardly winning the COIN fight; it requires tireless effort, an almost "campaign trail" approach in trying to visit each village at least once or twice a week if possible. Gomal is the largest district in the Paktika Province. It is impossible for one platoon to control and develop Gomal in its entirety. If this is the case in any given battlespace, determine what sphere of influence the unit is possible of having and seek to achieve effects in that targeted area.

Ensuring that the unit has enough dismounts available to engage and interact with the local populace, while still maintaining sound security, is of the utmost importance. Remember, the more a leader believes he is protecting his force by staying grounded to the forward operating base (FOB), the less secure he and his force really are. To truly protect his unit, the leader must get out and live amongst the people and use the FOB to refit and grant downtime when necessary.

Be patient with the tribal elders. They have been around long enough to fight and survive for generations. The leadership needs them on their side-that being said, they still have strong beliefs in tribal law and often will not recognize the governmental laws of Afghanistan. The military leader needs their advice, opinions, and support at the weekly shura meetings. While many of them make overly broad requests, tolerating them with a congenial attitude is what gains ground. For example, at a shura in the Gomal District, a village elder told the Afghan leadership that the tribesmen will punish people as they see fit, be it killing a man, burning his home down, or killing his family and livestock, depending on the severity of his crime. The Afghan and coalition leadership countered his argument by reinforcing how this only causes deeper tribal tension among villages; in a culture rich in honor and revenge, such acts could be fought over for generations. By allowing the Afghan government to uphold an equal law for everyone and objectively pursue those who disobey, the people do not have to continue the internal conflicts that run deep in their history.

The weekly shura should be an organized and efficient meeting, and rest assured it will take time until this landmark is reached. They are accustomed to disorder and chaos, but with coalition mentorship they can become a successful group. Unit leadership must address the issue of representation for each village or tribe in the district (at least one village elder); otherwise, some areas will prosper while others continue to struggle. If there is not a sub-governor or a shura president, then encourage them to elect both.

Help get the shura established by teaching them about how to run meetings, conduct business, and work together. Always have an agenda, set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals, and plan tasks for the follow-up meeting. Provide shura member ID cards for the elders, military ID cards for the local forces, and write memorandums for the sub-governor and police chief (conduct a follow up on the memorandums with the American counterparts such as provincial reconstruction teams [PRTs] or embedded tactical trainer [ETTs]). Once they grasp the concept, allow the shura president, sub-governor, and military or police leadership to lead the meeting. Once things seem to be running smoothly, teach the sub-governor, police chief, and shura president about task organization. Sub-governors are often so overwhelmed with requests, demands, and issues that they can hardly get anything done; so with the support and vote of the shura, elect members for cabinet positions at the district level (i.e. minister of education, finance, development, agriculture, etc). This gets everyone involved in some aspect of district improvement and allows the sub-governor to manage the shura rather than being the backstop for complaints. However, be mindful that each elected cabinet minister will naturally look out for his village and sub-tribe before any others in the district (be prepared to counter this). Remember, U.S. forces are guests at the shura meeting, so encourage the Afghan leaders to conduct the engagement and empower them through battalion and company resources. U.S. forces are there for mentorship, security, and to aid in reconstruction projects. The tribal leaders will never be successful if we do not allow them to be independent; the leadership should quietly support them, but avoid making the locals dependant on the coalition forces for everything. Utilize battalion resources to empower the sub-governor, shura president, and police chief. There are many resources available at the battalion level so keep organized notes of meetings and requests, and be persistent in getting aid to the district.

Remember to use extreme discretion, caution, and care with both direct and indirect hostile intent fires (HIF); every unit has more firepower than it will ever need in any village, so use disciplined control measures to determine the best course of action if it ever goes kinetic in a populated area. Tactical patience is one of the most important attributes a leader must have in combat. A new unit in country was out on a patrol in a district; they were in an observation post (OP) overlooking a road into the valley, when they spotted two individuals with a shovel down near the road. They immediately took these two locals for insurgents trying to emplace an improvised explosive device (IED) along the route and engaged them, killing one and wounding the other. When they moved down to the engagement area, they came to see that the wounded individual was just a boy and the one killed was his father. They were attempting to fix a wash out in the road when they were shot. This is the easiest way to lose the trust of the people and possibly never gain it back. This village and sub-tribe will certainly not support the government or coalition forces, and there is a good chance that his son and others may join sides with the insurgents.

Humanitarian Aid Distribution and Projects

Humanitarian aid distribution is the most popular and successful way to create a positive image for a unit. Many of the women and children fear coalition convoys as they roll by, but when the vehicles stop and Soldiers distribute supplies or give medical treatment, these locals no longer see the unit as foreign invaders or infidels whom they need to fear. With few exceptions, most of the village elders will not be swept off their feet by the American guests in their country. This lack of support can be helped by focusing on the next generation that will become elders. By gaining ground with them, the ideals of the coalition and Afghan government can flower. If this generation of children remembers us as positive representatives of freedom-individuals that they want to emulate-then the hard work we have put in will have borne good fruit. Get as many supplies and resources from your battalion as possible, and encourage the American public to get involved. Supporters back home have sent a wide variety of goods such as school supplies, candy, toys, dolls, children's clothes, shoes, and games (,, USO, etc). Wheat and corn seed distributions are vital for economic growth in any district, so go the extra step and provide fertilizer as well. The mosque refurbishment kits are not only accepted with open arms by every village, but provide concrete evidence that we support Islam and are not here to threaten it or its people. This attention will help in the information operations (IO) campaign by not giving the enemy propaganda to use against us.

Giving out HA is one of the more enjoyable experiences for Soldiers. After security is in place and a defendable and safe site is established to conduct the distribution, the leader should afford Soldiers the opportunity to switch out if they want to hand out any supplies. In order to keep things organized, bring the villagers and children in through one search checkpoint and send them out another. As they enter the perimeter, have the children sit down and keep them separate from the adults. The Soldiers can then give the children toys, clothes, school supplies, and candy, while the adults receive the plant seed, flour, sugar, mosque kits, etc. One of the more memorable distributions was when we had a Soldier lead a personal hygiene class for the children. He taught them how to brush their teeth and use soap and shampoo. Every time we visited that village in the future, the children would come running out grinning ear to ear with their toothbrushes in hand.

It is important to keep an accurate inventory of humanitarian aid and the villages in which it has been distributed. After conducting an initial assessment of the size of a village, cater the HA loads to meet the number of individuals in a village. A leader should always carry HA in each vehicle; it should become part of the vehicle load plan. The unit leadership will come to learn that most villages keep the same list of priorities for HA. The mosque refurbishment kits and solar panels are always highest on the list, followed by cold weather gear and boots in the winter, wheat and corn seed during the harvest months (as well as fertilizer), school supplies for areas with teachers and facilities, and then the rice, beans, flour, hygiene kits, dolls, candy, etc. Allow the ANSF forces on the patrol to distribute the HA; this courtesy will not only give power to them, but allow the people to physically see that their government supports them.

Once the leadership has identified the most important development/reconstruction needs of the village (be it a well and hand pump, floodwall, irrigation dam, or school) write up a proposal for the S-9 and/or provincial reconstruction team (PRT). Something we were not fortunate enough to have but would have been ideal is an embedded PRT Soldier or liaison with us at all times or even once a month to assess these projects and get things in motion through their channels. Ensure not to allow the villagers to believe they are getting these projects until the contract has been approved; otherwise, the village will quickly lose faith and interest in their government. Follow up on these contracts and provide a timetable to the village so they know when to expect the project to begin. These developmental projects will clearly display to the local populace how the government's actions coupled with the people's cooperation will benefit them.

Development of Indigenous Forces

Developing the indigenous forces is the single most important task in counterinsurgency warfare. It is their nation and the amount of time we spend here in the future depends on the Afghans' ability to act and operate independently and allow their government to become stable. Training the Afghan soldiers, regardless of ANA, ANP, or ABP, is not just the job of the embedded training team mentors. If a unit works with them, goes on missions with them and interacts with them, then it becomes their job as well. Do not neglect this duty, because it is paramount to their success. Without constant guidance and supervision at the beginning of the relationship, the Afghan unit has a much greater chance to fail, be it because of ineffectiveness or corruption. Many units lack education, military doctrine or leadership, and proper planning techniques. Treat these soldiers as part of the team by taking care of them and by remembering to teach, coach, and mentor them.

When the unit stays at a district center, combat outpost, or small firebase with an indigenous element, it is essential to include them in classes and joint meetings. Allow them to give a class to the unit's men on Afghan customs, courtesies, and culture; in turn, coalition soldiers can give them a class on how to properly conduct searches, raids, and set up traffic control points. Leaders should eat with them (if they can handle the food) and invite them to eat with coalition forces when possible. Teach them about personal hygiene, weapons maintenance, and individual soldier discipline; pair them up with squads for these types of educational classes. The trust and bonds gained through constant interaction will help keep the coalition and Afghan soldiers alive.

Afghans have a culture rich in honor; they will feel obligated to protect the unit as their duty. Train the indigenous element on varying the routes and times of travel, and ask them about enemy signs such as stacked and marked rocks because they know the culture and hidden signs much better than we do. In one district, supportive locals would place a circle of rocks in the road to mark improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for coalition and Afghan convoys; these simple acts of courage undoubtedly saved Soldiers lives. In another district insurgents used rock formations to indicate to the locals where the IEDs were; they also used these rock stacks as aiming stakes on when to initiate an attack or detonate a buried explosive. The unit leadership must train Soldiers to recognize these tactics; they must be alert and aware of the situation at all times regardless whether they are driver, gunner, or passenger. The Afghan soldiers can train the American counterparts to identify such signs while on joint patrols; many from the indigenous element know the terrain and the way the enemy thinks better than anyone in the unit. Utilize these individuals because the insight they share is invaluable.

After these missions, build pride within their team by expressing satisfaction for any good work and conducting after action reviews (AARs) with their leadership. Discuss the value of having them on the patrol and give them things to work on before the next mission. If they did something to jeopardize the lives of anyone on the patrol, be sure to mentor the Afghan leadership in proper discipline measures so that it never happens again. Encourage them to conduct local patrols on their own so they can sharpen their skills and become proactive; these patrols are the first step in making them operate independently. It is important to understand that the host nation's forces doing some things tolerably is often better than the coalition forces doing it well.

While back at the FOB or police center, teach the Afghan counterparts about accountability. Under the leader's supervision, the Afghan leadership should conduct an inventory of all unit-issued equipment at least once a month and hold them responsible for anything missing or not collected from any soldiers who quit. Afghan officials, both soldiers and sub-governors, tend to believe government-issued equipment is their personal property. If someone is fired or quits, they will attempt to keep the weapon, vehicle, uniform, or documents provided. It is imperative that the coalition leadership keeps an eye out for these issues because the equipment can be sold to insurgents, and the vehicles and uniforms can become instruments for suicide bombers and vehicle-born explosives.

Make contact with their higher headquarters' American counterpart so that the Afghan element can get the support they need. Help fill out supply, wood, fuel, and ammunition requests so that they can be properly equipped on a monthly basis. Never promise the Afghan counterparts anything that cannot be delivered (this goes for the locals, too!). Use the local forces to spread the word on small rewards program for weapons caches and enemy information; occasionally, villagers will feel more comfortable talking with the police chief than with the Americans. If the information he provides to the police chief turns out to be accurate, ensure that anonymous informant is paid so others will see how much money they can make by supporting their own government.

These are a few of the techniques we found success with in the last 15 months. If one of these works one week, it may not the next; if it is well received in one village, it may not be in the next. Each village is different, and the leadership must tailor their approach based off their initial observation. Because these situations are always fluid, a unit leader must bring dynamic solutions to each individual problem. If the unit leaders and Soldiers bring the proper tactics and attitude coupled with energy and efficiency to their area of operations and do not simply go through the motions, it will be a highly rewarding and successful deployment for both the locals and the unit. The coalition forces are the ambassadors of freedom for their battlespace. Once the locals get a taste of the opportunity for a better life, they will inevitably crave the possibilities to have such. However, stay committed to the cause because success is only granted through tireless effort.

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To enable the U.S. to more effectively understand the Afghan culture and apply that knowledge to how it conducts COIN operations in Afghanistan, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2009 initiated the AfPak Hands language and cultural immersion program in 2009 to build trust with the military and local populations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. AfPak Hands is a group of experts specifically trained to become experts in the Afghan and Pakistani cultures to build relationships.

In Afghanistan, AfPak Hands will help International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials build better long-term relationships with the Afghan and Pakistan people, governments, and militaries. It is anticipated AfPak Hands will accelerate the continual transition of more responsibility to the country's government and security forces. "It is a positive change to the way we do business here," said Air Force Master Sgt. Irene Mason, an engineer and a member of the 1st AfPak Hands Cohort, "because the Afghans value personal relationships."1

AfPak Hands personnel will deploy for 12 months before rotating back to the United States for a period of time before returning, ideally to the same area and position in Afghanistan or Pakistan. While in the United States, they will mentor other AfPak Hands personnel. They will stay involved in AfPak issues at one of four major hub locations and further develop their language and culture skills with Defense Language Institute instructors.


1. Sergeant First Class Matthew Chlosta, "AfPak Hands begin Immersion Training," Department of Defense American Forces Press Service News Release, Camp Julien, Afghanistan, 5 May 2010.

Section III: Taking a Village

For COIN efforts to be successful, it is important to shape the operational environment. One method is "clear-hold-build." FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, states that COIN efforts should begin by controlling key areas through security and influence, then spread out from the secured areas. The pattern is to first clear-hold-build one village, area, or city, then to reinforce success by expanding to other areas. This approach aims to develop a long-term, effective host nation (HN) government framework and presence that secures the people and facilitates meeting their basic needs. Success reinforces the HN government's legitimacy. The primary tasks to accomplish during clear-hold-build are:

  • Provide continuous security for the local populace.
  • Eliminate insurgent presence.
  • Reinforce political primacy.
  • Enforce the rule of law.
  • Rebuild local HN institutions.

Applying clear-hold-build in Afghanistan is complicated by the mountains which isolate remote villages and hinder travel. This geography affects contact with the outside world, security, economic growth, and Afghan governmental presence. These same mountains negatively impact U.S. and Afghan Security Force (ASF) presence while positively supporting insurgent force presence. Thus U.S. and ASF commanders and their planners are significantly challenged in their efforts to win the support of Afghans living in mountain villages, building on that support, and promoting the GIRoA to those villagers, while working to reduce and eliminate the insurgents who infest the area.

Clear-hold-build efforts by U.S. and Afghan forces in the non-mountainous areas have increased as these efforts are much easier to facilitate due to the lack of mountain-caused isolation, access to a greater number of people and villages/towns/cities, and the ability to have greater GIRoA presence. Unfortunately, this also brings into the picture warlords who do not readily support the GIRoA, who are themselves seeking to maintain and/or secure greater influence at the expense of the GIRoA or neighboring warlords, and the insurgent/criminal elements' involvement in the massive drug trade which may include some of these same warlords.

The following article describes the process used by the Taliban to take a village and how the U.S. and ASF can counter the Taliban.

How the Taliban Take a Village

SFC Mark E. Sexton, U.S. Army

A current method used by the Taliban in Afghanistan to gain control of an area deemed of strategic interest to the Taliban leadership, which operates from safe havens in Pakistan or within Afghanistan, is to identify and target villages to subvert. The Taliban have recognized the necessity to operate with the cooperation of the local population, with their modus operandi being to gain the villagers' cooperation through indoctrination (preferred) or coercion (when necessary).

Village Nodes of Influence

For a non-Afghan or foreigner to understand how the Taliban can subvert a village, we can use a simple social structure model to identify the key nodes of influence within a typical Afghan village. A village can be divided into three areas that most affect how daily life is lived. These key nodes are political and administrative, religious, and security aspects of village life. Of the three nodes, the one that is the most visible to outsiders is that of the malik (tribal leader or chieftain) and village elders. The malik and village elders represent the political aspects of the village. A second key node of influence is the imam (religious leader). The imam represents the religious node of influence within a village. A third local node of influence is the individuals and system of security found within a village. Security is traditionally conducted by the men of each individual village. If either the Taliban or the Afghan government controls one of the parts or nodes of influence in a village, then that entity also heavily influences or controls the village and perhaps other villages in the area.

Graphic showing diagram of Taliban Organization to Control a Village
Figure 1-1.

Taliban Control of Village Nodes

The Taliban look for villages and areas within which they can operate and use as a base against U.S. and Afghan forces. Areas with little U.S. or Afghan police or army presence are prime areas the Taliban will initially seek to subvert and hold. The Taliban build networks by getting the support of a fighter, religious leader, or village elder. Whichever one or more are initially used will be exploited for tribal and familial ties. The village politics administered by the elders and represented by an appointed malik are the most identifiable node of influence of any particular village. The Taliban will attempt to sway those maliks who are not supportive by discussion and, if necessary, threats, violence, or death. In villages where the locals say there is no malik, it is usually described as a convenience to the village as "no one wants the position," or sometimes "the elders cannot agree on a malik so it is better there is none." In these cases it is most likely the Taliban have neutralized the desired representative of that village. When locals are pressed for a representative they will give you a name of a person who has come to represent the village. This individual will also most likely be in support of and supported by the Taliban. The Taliban will try to install a malik or "representative of the village" by coercion or force.

Graphic showing diagram of key nodes of influence within an Afghan village
Figure 1-2.

A sub-commander will be established in the village to keep those in line who would resist the Taliban or their malik, who will be supported by limited funding. The sub-commander will generally have 2-5 fighters under his control. The fighters will often be armed only with small arms and shoulder-fired antitank rocket launchers (RPGs). The fighters may or may not have an improvised explosive device (IED) capability; if not, they will coordinate IED activities for the defense and, when possible, offense against U.S. and Afghan forces. These fighters may stay in the village, but preferably are not from the village. Locals can sometimes be pressed into service to fight when needed, but the Taliban tend to use fighters from different villages so that when threats or physical violence is utilized, it will not be kinsman against kinsman.

The Taliban often visit the village imam and local mosques. Villagers do not generally oppose this, as it is expected that even the Taliban must be allowed to perform and express their Islamic duties. These mosque visits afford the Taliban opportunities to gauge village sentiment and to build and establish contacts within localities. Village religious leaders also serve to educate children in villages where the Taliban have either closed or destroyed the local school. The mosque and imam serve as an education center for the Taliban while still presenting an opportunity for village children to be "educated." This presents a solution to the unpopular notion of schools being closed. A constant and recognized complaint from the Afghan people is the lack of opportunity because of poor education. The Taliban will supplant the local imam if needed by supplying their own to a village. A village with no imam will receive one and the Taliban will establish a mosque. This mosque will serve as a Taliban meeting place, storage facility, and indoctrination center.

Sympathetic locals are used as auxiliaries to provide food and shelter. One way to do this is for known supporters to place food and blankets outside their living quarters or in guest quarters to be used by Taliban in transit or operating within a village. This gives the resident supporter some plausible deniability. When U.S. or Afghan forces arrive, all that is found are the blanket, possibly clothing, footprints, and other signs of visitors. The Taliban have blended into the surrounding village.

Taliban Can Control With Few Fighters

The Taliban method requires relatively few of their own personnel. Its strength is in the local subversion of the most basic levels of village organization and life. It is also a decentralized approach. Guidance is given and then carried out, with commanders applying their own interpretation of how to proceed. The goal is to control the village. The only effective method at the local level, which must be used by all commanders, is to control what we have termed the nodes of influence. Form fits function-an Afghan village can only work one way to allow its members to survive in a subsistence agrarian lifestyle, and the Taliban know it well.

To control an area, the Taliban will identify villages that can be most easily subverted. The Taliban will then spread to other villages in the area one at a time, focusing their efforts on whichever node of influence seems most likely to support their effort first. Using this model, the Taliban could influence and dominate a valley or area with a population of 1,000-2,500-ten villages with 100-250 people each (100-250 compounds)-with only 20-50 active fighters and 10 fighting leaders. The actual numbers may encompass greater populations and fewer fighters.

The Taliban will have an elaborate network to support their fighters in areas they control or dominate. They will have safe houses, medical clinics, supply sites, weapons caches, transportation agents, and early warning networks (the British Army calls them "dickers") to observe and report. The U.S. and Afghan forces, heavily laden with excessive body armor and equipment, are reluctant to leave their vehicles. They are blown up on the same roads and paths they entered the area on. The Taliban will use feints and lures to draw our forces away from caches and leaders in an attempt to buy them time to relocate, or into a lethal ambush. After the attack the Taliban will disperse and blend into the village. The village will frequently sustain civilian casualties and propaganda will be spread of U.S. and Afghan soldiers using excessive force.

U.S. and Afghan forces say one thing but our actions are different. Locals are reluctant to help because to be seen talking with the Americans and Afghan security forces will result in a visit from a Taliban member to determine what they talked about and to whom. The local villagers know the government has no effective plan that can counter the Taliban in their village, and will typically only give information on Taliban or criminal elements to settle a blood feud. The Pashtu people are patient to obtain justice and will use what they have to pay back "blood for blood," even against the Taliban.

Graphic showing diagram of Taliban control of Afghan villages in river valley
Figure 1-3.

Countering the Taliban in the Village

Countering Taliban subversion of the populace is not done effectively with just more troops located at outposts. The troops must coordinate their activities with the local population and establish security through and within the village. When U.S. and Afghan forces do this, the fight will typically take on a particularly violent aspect, and involve the population as the Taliban attempt to maintain or reassert control.

The U.S. and Afghan forces and government will need to identify individuals to employ lethal and non-lethal targeting. This requires in-depth knowledge of tribal structure, alliances, and feuds. Viable alternatives or choices need to be available to village leaders and villagers. Just placing U.S. and Afghan soldiers at an outpost, conducting token presence patrols, occasionally bantering with locals, and organizing a shura once a month are not going to work.

Afghan identity is not primarily national (i.e., belonging within a geographic boundary with a centralized national government). Afghan identity is tribal in nature. Americans view identity as a national government; Afghans in the villages do not. The tribe is most important. The country "Afghanistan" running things from Kabul does not mean very much to the Afghan people in the villages under duress from the Taliban.

U.S. and Afghan forces must be able to infiltrate and shape the village nodes of influence and then target individuals. Our military embraces a centralized, top-driven approach that prevents our military and U.S.-trained Afghan counterparts from doing so. Current U.S. procedures and tactics attempt to identify the Taliban without regard to their influence or social role at the village level. Instead, we attempt to link individuals to attacks and incomplete network structures through often questionable intelligence. The individuals in nodes of influence must be identified as neutral, pro, or anti-Afghan government and then dealt with. To target any other way is haphazard at best and does not gain us the initiative.

U.S. and Afghan forces must also devise and utilize tactics to fight outside and inside the village. This requires true light infantry and real COIN tactics employed by troops on the ground, not read from a "new" COIN manual by leadership in a support base. The tactics must entail lightly equipped and fast-moving COIN forces that go into villages and know-how to properly interact with locals and identify Taliban insurgents. They must have the ability to take their time and stay in areas they have identified at the local level as worth trying to take back. Being moved from place to place and using armored vehicles while scarcely engaging local leadership will not work. Targeting identified high-value targets will only result in the "whack-a-mole" syndrome. This practice is demoralizing for U.S. and Afghan troops, the American public, and the Afghans who just want to live in peace.

A light infantry force conducting specialized reconnaissance in villages, and using proven tactics like trained visual trackers to follow insurgents into and out of villages, proper ambush techniques on foot outside the village, and knowledge of the local village situation, is the key to effective COIN operations. Infantry tactics should also include vertical envelopment of Taliban fighters by helicopter and parachute to cut off avenues of escape. Troop units should have a secure local patrol base from which to operate, send foot patrol into villages at night, and talk with and document compounds and inhabitants for later analysis. Mega bases or forward operating bases are only for support; units and tactics should be decentralized.

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Section IV: Conclusion

Afghanistan's environment defines the unique culture of the Afghan people. A study of Afghanistan's history, and the almost endless warfare resulting from external and internal causes, shows the culture has remained basically intact for centuries. Afghan culture will always affect U.S. and Afghan operations execution and planning. Therefore, it must always be taken into consideration.

Whether you are working lethal or non-lethal COIN operations, remember the importance of knowing, understanding, and applying the cultural influences of the population in your area of operations (AO). Also, it is important to keep in mind that the culture in one village may not be the same as the culture in the nearest village, which could be on the other side of the mountain. Failure to consider Afghan culture, especially in your AO, may lead to greater loss of life and failure to achieve mission goals.



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