Honorable Mention – Ground Truth: A Comparison of SOF Operations and Strategic Objectives in Afghanistan

In October 2015 the U.S.-Afghan conflict entered its fifteenth year, the longest-running war in U.S. history, but with little progress to show for it in terms of both security and development. A Taliban force that numbered roughly 45,000 in 2001 is now estimated to exceed 60,000 despite having incurred 20,000-35,000 casualties.1 A World Affairs Journal article reports that more than 100 billion USD in foreign aid, “has not brought the United States or Afghanistan a single sustainable institution or program,”2 and of the sixteen experienced Special Operations Forces (SOF) members interviewed for this research project, only six (38 percent) believed that the conflict is winnable under our current approach.

Yet while many agree that the conflict has not gone well for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), there is no accepted consensus as to why. In this paper I argue that two key ISAF failures have been an inability to adhere to its own counterinsurgency doctrine as described in Field Manual 3-24: Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, and a failure to adjust strategic-level policies and objectives to the reality of what is feasible at the tactical and operational levels—the “ground truth.”

Using 16 interviews of former and active Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Intelligence Community personnel, I conducted a qualitative analysis of three major SOF mission areas in the Afghan conflict: village-scale clearance operations, High Value Target (HVT) operations, and Village Stability Operations (VSO), in order to understand whether practices at the tactical and operational levels support strategic-level objectives, and conversely, to determine whether those objectives incorporate the ground truth. Analysis reveals that while all three of the SOF mission areas were highly effective at the tactical level, two of the three mission areas were ineffective at the strategic level.

This paper proceeds as follows: First, I define U.S.-ISAF’s strategic objectives for Afghanistan and discuss ISAF counterinsurgency practices as described in Field Manual 3-24: Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies (FM 3-24). These will provide clearly defined benchmarks through which to evaluate whether SOF actions at the tactical/operational level have been strategically effective in terms of both execution and outcome. Second, I describe the research methodology used. Third, I discuss observations from the interviews, organized by mission area. Finally, I discuss findings and their potential implications for policy and research.

Defining ISAF Strategy and Strategic Objectives

In order to determine the effectiveness of practices at the tactical and operational levels in contributing towards strategic aims in Afghanistan can be made, it is necessary to first define what the U.S. objectives for the region are. According to a Council on Foreign Relations report on U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, “The basic long-term U.S. aspirations for Pakistan and Afghanistan are uncontroversial and easy to list: stability, prosperity, and good governance.”3 We should add to this that the overarching reason for pursuing these aims is to deny international terrorist networks such as Al Qaida a sanctuary to operate from.4

Responding to a growing Taliban insurgency following the collapse of their regime precipitated by U.S. and Northern Alliance forces in 2001, the combined U.S.-NATO International Security and Assistance Forces (ISAF) have employed a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. FM 3-24 outlines the core doctrine used by ISAF. The manual defines an insurgency as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” Conversely, counterinsurgency is defined as, “comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes.”5 Because FM 3-24 establishes the core doctrine under which ISAF operates in Afghanistan, it is the obvious benchmark from which to evaluate actions on the ground. However, the manual readily acknowledges that the complexities and dynamic nature of insurgency environments are such that a clearly defined “one-size-fits-all” strategy is neither provided nor desired and, “as such, the objectives of a counterinsurgency must be contextual to that insurgency.”6 This creates an obvious methodological problem: how to evaluate tactical and operational effectiveness in an environment where “best” practices remain open to interpretation.

In order to clarify this ambiguity I evaluate counterinsurgency practices on two main parameters. First, I evaluate whether practices contribute to the stated goals of stability, prosperity, and good governance. Second, I evaluate how execution at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels conforms to FM 3-24, specifically chapters one and nine. Chapter one outlines ten “strategic principles” which are “provided for the practitioner and planner as a foundation for how they think about planning and executing counterinsurgency operations,”7 these principles provide broad yet still clearly defined concepts from which we can assess execution. Chapter Nine outlines the “Direct Method” of counterinsurgency that has been employed in Afghanistan, which is structured around a “Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition” framework. This framework functions as a means of organizing and implementing resources at all three levels—tactical, operational, and strategic—to defeat an insurgency, and forms the conceptual foundation by which the entirety of ISAF strategy operates.

The framework has five broadly defined phases: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build, and Transition. Shaping operations involve “identifying which areas in an operational environment exhibit conditions that counterinsurgents can impact to change the capability differential between insurgents and counterinsurgents.” This phase primarily involves a short-duration insertion of forces into an insurgent-controlled area (often village or district size) to assess and prepare that area for future counterinsurgency operations by engaging the population and understanding the human terrain of the battlespace in order to identify enemy networks and resources, to learn how they influence the battlespace, and to strategize on how to isolate and defeat them.8

The purpose of the Clear phase is to “to eliminate the insurgency’s combatants to enable the host nation to develop the capability to address the insurgency’s root cause and eliminate the conditions that allow it to exist.” Though the Clear phase is distinct from the Hold phase, FM 3-24 is clear that “Counterinsurgents do not execute tasks associated with the clear component unless they have developed the capability to execute tasks in the hold” and is explicit that the counterinsurgent should not clear an area that they cannot hold: “Until those conditions exist, the counterinsurgent may choose to continue to prepare or shape the environment for future shape-clear-hold-build-transition framework operations.”9 The primary objectives of the Hold phase are to safeguard the population, to reduce enemy strength, and set conditions for the host nation to take over responsibility for security.

The Build phase is meant to commence once host-nation forces are able to provide for security. Its main objective, “comprises carrying out programs designed to remove the conditions that allow the insurgency to exist, specifically addressing the root causes, tying inhabitants to host-nation security institutions, governing and rule of law, and strengthening the host nation’s ability to provide legitimate and effective governance.”10 Finally, the Transition phase is designed to effectively turn over responsibility for security and development to the host nation, with the goal, “to create the conditions necessary for the host nation to counter an insurgency independently.”11

It is important to note that the phases of the Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition framework are not executed discreetly but on a continuum in which actions in one phase may be ongoing simultaneously with actions in another phase. Furthermore, different geographic Areas of Operation (AO) may be at different points along the continuum at the same time. This paper seeks to evaluate whether ISAF actions taken at all levels have been logical and consistent with the Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition framework in terms of their timing and execution for a given area, and whether those actions had a positive strategic-level impact consistent with the policy objective of “stability, prosperity, and good governance.”

Research Methodology

The research methodology for this paper involved the collection of micro-level qualitative data in the form of sixteen interviews conducted with current or SOF and Intelligence Community members with significant Afghan theater field experience. Interviews were conducted by phone or email during October and November 2015, with phone interviews that were typically between 60 and 90 minutes. I posed a base set of 20 questions (Appendix A) during each interview, though conversations evolved dynamically in order to allow interviewees to articulate their views. Interviews were conducted on the guarantee of anonymity in order to facilitate candid discussion without fear of repercussions, as many candidates are currently serving in the military or Intelligence Community. I requested that information related to classified practices be omitted.

The interview candidate pool was built from personal professional networks, but I chose interviewees who I thought would capture as diverse a range of experiences as possible. Interviewees were military and civilian, officer and enlisted, American and NATO ally, and between 24 and 41 years of age. Participants have between 5 and 23 years of work experience, and between 6 and 23 months of Afghan field experience. Deployments took place between 2006 and 2014, encompassing 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. An effort was made to obtain as broad a sampling as possible in terms of background and theater experience, but because SOF units often serve a much different role than conventional units it would be incorrect to apply conclusions from this paper to ISAF forces as a whole.

However, there are sound reasons to believe that SOF operations are an ideal starting point in evaluating the effectiveness of current counterinsurgency practices. First, SOF forces generally have a much higher level of training and comprehension of the cultural dynamics of counterinsurgency, as they are often tasked with missions that involve integrating and engaging directly with the host nation’s population. Though all four branches SOF components are trained to perform in this role, U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) particularly specializes in operations that “are characterized by their strategic and operational implications. Unique SF skills in language qualification, regional orientation, cultural awareness, and interpersonal relations,” which are “keys to the successes experienced by SF units in the field… Blending their skills and expertise enables SF soldiers to navigate in ambiguous environments that affect the political, social, religious, and humanitarian aspects of today’s uncertain environment.”12

Second, because SOF forces work in frequent close proximity with the host nation’s population they are well positioned to assess the impact of their practices on the population. Activities often include: training indigenous security forces; supervising the building of infrastructure and governance in their area of operations; and participating in meetings with local elites called Key Leader Engagements (KLE), but locally known as shuras or jirgas.13 Third, because SOF units are specifically trained for irregular warfare, they are often given considerable autonomy within their Area of Operations, and are generally provided with greater resources than conventional forces.14 Because SOF units practices should most closely approach what would be considered “best practices”, they represent a reasonable benchmark from which to evaluate the strategic effectiveness of counterinsurgency practices.


Direct Action (DA)

Direct Action operations cover a broad spectrum of actions encompassing, “Short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions”.15 In Afghanistan, SOF Direct Action operations generally comprise two broad mission areas: multi-day village-scale clearance operations, and precision raids to capture individual High Value Targets (HVT). Both mission types are conducted in conjunction with an Afghan National Army (ANA) or Afghan National Police (ANP) partner force.

Of the six interviewees who participated in village-scale clearance operations, none (zero percent) felt that it was effective at contributing towards strategic goals. They cited two main reasons for this. The first main reason cited was a failure of the counterinsurgents to hold the cleared territory. All participants strongly agreed that ISAF and ANA forces took on great risk in clearing a village, which often resulted in firefights and [improvised explosive device] attacks, only to leave shortly after the clearance without holding the ground that was taken. As one interviewee remarked, “I found myself clearing the same villages that I had cleared during shaping ops on a deployment two years earlier, sometimes even clearing the same buildings.” All participants in this mission area believed that the risk was generally not worth the reward for these operations, that the rate of enemy kill or capture was low, and that the Taliban who often fled at the beginning of the clearance operation quickly returned once the counterinsurgents left. As one particularly experienced interviewee remarked, “At most clearance ops resulted in us destroying an enemy weapons cache or killing a fire team to squad size element [5-10 insurgents], but it was readily apparent to almost everyone that what we were doing wasn’t going to affect the overall outcome of the war. This isn’t the type of war where you can kill your way to victory.”

The second main reason cited was the hostility that clearance operations generated in the population, particularly because of the ANA partner force’s aggressive and corrupt behavior. While some participants believed that their partner forces’ treatment of civilians was acceptable, most agreed that their excessively aggressive behavior resulted in a negative strategic impact on the population. Afghan forces were observed engaging in activities such as beating villagers, stealing valuables, and attempted executions of prisoners. Most interviewees also agreed that their partner force behaved more aggressively when they were operating in a village of a different tribe or ethnicity. One interviewee noted that, “even if you could discount the negative impact of the [Afghan partner force], the repetitive nature of clearances ops likely resulted in a strategic loss given the hostility that they caused with the population.”

In contrast, six out of the seven interviewees (86 percent) of interviewees who participated in the High Value Target (HVT) mission area felt that it was strategically effective. Most reported that although night raids were viewed as odious by the population, and Afghan partner forces still sometimes behaved corruptly and overly aggressive, removing critical Taliban leadership from the insurgent network had positive strategic-level effects that outweighed their negative effects on the population. This is attributed to the minimal impact of HVT operations on the broader population due to their small scale and precise nature. Positive strategic effects were characterized by an observed devolution in enemy practices and a reduced overall fighting effectiveness in successfully targeted networks. One person related that, “HVT targeting enabled us to remove critical nodes in the Taliban network that resulted in an observable degradation in enemy effectiveness by removing their most experienced members.”

Based on an assessment of the data, village clearance operations appear inconsistent with ISAF counterinsurgency strategy in both execution (FM 3-24 criteria) and contribution towards the strategic objectives of stability, prosperity, and good governance. The hostility created by the repeated nature of clearance operations, often exacerbated by overly aggressive partner forces, is inconsistent with FM 3-24’s first Strategic Principle that fostering legitimacy in the host government is the primary objective. It also violates the eighth Strategic Principle of using the lowest level of force required for the mission.16 Furthermore, clearance operations are inconsistent with chapter nine’s Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition framework, which clearly states that Clear operations are not to be undertaken without the ability to transition into the Hold phase.17

In summary, two important themes emerge. First, Village-scale clearance does not appear to produce a net positive contribution towards the strategic goal of a stable Afghan state because of an ISAF failure to hold cleared territory and the hostility that repetitive clearance operation caused in the population. Second, HVT operations do appear to demonstrate a positive strategic effect by degrading enemy capacity, allowing for increased regional stability through tactics that do not significantly disenfranchise the larger population.

Village Stability Operations (VSO)

Village Stability Operations are an extensive SOF strategy begun in 2010 that involves embedding SOF teams in villages with the dual purpose of marginalizing the insurgency and building stability in their Area of Operations. This is to be accomplished by managing security and development at the village-district level. Security is managed through the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, and development is managed by working jointly with the population to assess needs, administer aid, and source development projects. According to a recent Joint Special Operations University report, “Village Stability Operations (VSO) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) have been key instruments of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, constituting the principal contribution of Special Operations Forces (SOF) to population-centric counterinsurgency.”18

Of the interviewees who participated in the VSO mission area, three out of ten (30 percent) felt that it was effective in contributing towards strategic goals. They cite three main reasons for this. First, all participants strongly agreed that aid projects were extremely ineffective at winning popular support. As one interviewee remarked, “the villagers we were working with had lived in the region for hundreds of years without a well, and they were just fine. We built them a well, and somehow we expected them to love us for it.” Another interviewee remarked that, “After we pulled out of the region, the ALP disassembled the police station we had built them so they could sell the scrap wood. None of the public projects meant anything to them.” Finally, another interviewee observed that, “Our inability to understand the human terrain was a detriment to us. We falsely assumed that our western material values would translate, like democracy and McDonalds. It was possible to win the support of local actors in the short term, but not in the grander strategic sense. The appeal for material things were an appeal to people’s individual greed, and not a greater desire to build a successful society.”

The second reason cited for VSO failure was that the ALP are an ineffective fighting force against the Taliban. All agreed that the ALP performed poorly in combat, and most agreed that they lacked adequate arms and resources to reliably protect the population from the insurgents. Despite frequent requests by SOF teams on the ground for more manpower and equipment, they were often ordered to withdraw prematurely. One interviewee related that, “We (U.S. SOF) would get into all-day gunfights where the Taliban would attack us relentlessly with PKM [light machine guns] and RPG [rocket propelled grenades] in spite of having constant Close Air Support. In one firefight we killed more than 50 Taliban. The ALP were only given AK-47’s, and we knew the ALP couldn’t stand up to the Taliban with what they had, but no one [in upper leadership] wanted to listen, and when we left our [area of operations] they all got slaughtered.”

The third main reason cited for VSO failure involved the population’s short-term and long-term survival calculus. All VSO participants agreed that demonstrating power and control over territory was the only effective strategy for obtaining collaboration with the population. Interviewees observed that villagers began to offer support only once their team had established tactical dominance to a degree that made the local population feel safe from reprisal. As one interviewee observed, “Only once we destroyed the local Taliban could we count on the population for support within our area of control. They would often volunteer information to us, like [improvised explosive device] locations, even if no reward was involved. But outside of our [area of control] we couldn’t count on anything.” However, nearly all participants also agreed that while public collaboration was possible in the short term, the population ultimately believed that once ISAF forces withdrew, the Taliban would immediately return. One interviewee remarked that, “At the end of the day, they knew were going to leave and they knew the ALP wasn’t going to keep them safe. They cooperated with us at the time for survival, but we never had them on our team.” Finally, nearly all interviewees agreed that they were ordered to withdraw from their VSO sites before their Areas of Operation were sufficiently prepared for turnover.

Based on an assessment of the data, Village Stability Operations appear inconsistent with ISAF counterinsurgency strategy in both execution (FM 3-24 criteria) and contribution towards the strategic objectives of stability, prosperity, and good governance. The inability of VSO to transition areas that were capable of unilaterally providing security for the population is inconsistent with FM 3-24 chapter nine’s Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition framework, which clearly states that transition should not commence in an areas until host nation forces can provide for its own security.19 This failure is also in violation of FM 3-24’s fifth Strategic Principle which states that the counterinsurgent should be prepared for a long term commitment.20 However, it is crucial to note that the decision to withdraw prematurely was a strategic-level failure, made in spite of objections by SOF teams on the ground.20

While the ALP’s knowledge of the local area was a distinct advantage in regards to intelligence and insurgent identification, the inability of the ALP to provide for local security (given their inadequate numbers and equipment) is inconsistent with the broader strategic goals of stability, prosperity and good governance, as is the inability of aid and development projects to generate support for government legitimacy. Overall, I assess that Village Stability Operations do not appear to have created a positive strategic impact. My assessment is consistent with a Joint Special Operations University report which notes that, “VSO and ALP have not been strategically decisive because they have been too small a size to have sweeping effects on security and governance, owing to top-level policy decisions.”21


Because of this paper’s small sample size and narrow scope, findings can only suggest future research. However, if the conclusions hold up to further scrutiny, then the potential implications of these findings for strategic-level policy and research could be significant. For clarity, conclusions drawn from the data are roughly organized by the three relevant actors: Afghan Civilians, Afghan Security Forces, and U.S./ISAF.

Afghan Civilians

One of the most remarkable trends to emerge from the data is the ineffectiveness of foreign aid and development projects in garnering support of the Afghan people. This finding is consistent with the scholarly work of Lyall, Blair, and Imai, who found that, “Economic assistance appears to hold little sway over attitudes, whether in the form of quick, 30-day Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP) initiatives or more deliberate National Solidarity Program (NSP) community grants.” 22 In light of these observations, and the overall impotence of billions in aid in advancing strategic goals over the past fifteen years, a reassessment of the role and application of foreign aid in counterinsurgency could be warranted.

Equally remarkable is the universal observation that overwhelming tactical dominance has a strongly positive effect in gaining collaboration from the population, a finding that is consistent with Kalyvas’ argument in The Logic of Violence in Civil War that collaboration maps to territorial control regardless of preferences.23 This view is bolstered by the finding that short-term collaboration was possible despite widespread popular belief that the Taliban would ultimately be victorious after ISAF withdrawal. However, interviews seem to suggest that the minimum threshold of control that enables collaboration is quite high. VSO participants agreed that collaboration could not be expected from a population if insurgent reprisal was still a credible threat. This point was stated well by an interviewee who recalled, “We would go to villages that we didn’t have a strong presence in, to hand out supplies and [provide medical aid] for the purpose of building rapport with the locals, but they refused our help. We later found out it was because as soon as we would leave the Taliban would come in and give beatings to anyone who had accepted our support. They were very successful in keeping us isolated from villages we didn’t control.” The finding that an exceptional degree of territorial control is required in Afghanistan to facilitate collaboration would seem to require a redefinition of the “Hold” phase in FM 3-24. These findings may also warrants a candid reappraisal of the manpower and resource commitments necessary to meet the threshold for collaboration. As Kalyvas observes, “Once a civil war is on, the military requirements for the establishment and preservation of control over the entire territory of a country are staggering.”24

Afghan Security Forces

Some important themes emerged from the data about Afghan military and police forces. First, nearly all interviewees reported that both Afghan military and police demonstrated increased aggression and indifference towards the population when they were operating in a region that was non-local to them. In contrast, forces that were native to the area they were working in typically treated the local population within culturally normative bounds. Most interviewees attributed the normative police behavior to the degree of accountability that comes from living within the community they were working with.

Second, every interviewee I spoke to agreed that ethnicity and tribal culture played an integral role in the relationship between Afghan security forces and the local population. All interviewees observed that Afghan military and police demonstrated increased aggression and indifference towards the civilian populations that were not of the same ethnicity. When Pashtun forces were in provinces that were predominantly Pashtun, a similar dynamic was observed but along tribal cleavages. In addition, ethnicity also appeared to play a role in public perception of Afghan forces. In provinces that were not homogenously Pashtun, interviewees found that the Pashtun villages were far more likely to show hostility towards ISAF and Afghan forces, and to provide aid to the Taliban. While interviewees attributed this observation to the fact that the Taliban is a largely Pashtun organization, it is possible that the observed hostility was a response to previous aggression by Afghan forces. Overall, the observed importance of ethnicity in shaping the dynamics of Afghan security force relations with the population is consistent with the work of Lyall, Shiraito, and Imai on co-ethnic bias.25

Second, Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces were typically recruited from two sources: directly from the village (often former Arbakai militiamen under the control of village elders), or by co-opting a local warlord and his militia. Interestingly, the source of ALP did not appear to play a significant factor in determining how ALP treated the local population. When ALP were sourced by the local warlord (who became the de facto ALP commander) some isolated instances of intimidation and extrajudicial killings were reported that were attributed to the warlord’s maintaining control of the region. However, overall the ALP were reported to have treated the local population in a manner consistent with cultural norms, regardless of their source. This appears inconsistent with Mike Martin’s observations in An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, who argues that co-opting warlords and their militias undermines Afghan government legitimacy because the militias maltreat the local population.26

Third, all interviewees agreed that the greatest strategic benefit that Afghan forces provided was their cultural understanding and superior ability to identify insurgents. This capability was greatly enhanced if Afghan forces were of the same ethnicity as local people, but more so when forces were local to the area in which they were operating. One interviewee remarked, “When our ANA guys started operating unilaterally they would often bring back more HVTs and better intelligence than we could get ourselves. Their language skills and nuanced understanding of the culture gave them in edge that we didn’t have.” Another interviewee assessed that, “The ALP had two advantages that we didn’t. First, they could sometimes change the public’s mind when westerners could not. Second, their ability to gather actionable local intelligence was excellent. Some of our ALP were former ANA Special Forces, and would leave at night to do ops and show up the following morning with Taliban bodies, weapons, and explosives.”

These findings have potentially significant consequences for research and foreign policy. First, the pervasive effects of ethnic and tribal dynamics on Afghan military-civilian relations need to be accounted for in strategic-level planning. That all interviewees stressed the importance of tribe and ethnicity is consistent with the findings of Jason Lyall, who argues in “Are Coethnics More Effective Counterinsurgents?” that ethnicity matters in civil-military relations.27 Second, the observation that forces who are co-ethnic to the population are better able to solve the identification problem is again strongly consistent with Lyall, Shiraito, and Imai’s conclusion that co-ethnic bias exists in wartime informing.28 Third, most interviewees agree that Afghan security forces have often had a far greater negative impact in undermining the legitimacy of Afghan government than have ISAF, a fact that must be accounted for un strategic planning if perceptions of government legitimacy is an objective. Fourth, police forces were generally found to be adequate for their function of local level policing, but were generally ineffective in resisting a battle-hardened Taliban given their low levels of manpower, training, and resources. Most agreed that the VSO program had the potential to be successful if ISAF forces had been replaced with Afghan military personnel as a means of supporting the Afghan police. This strategic-level failure appears to be a consequence of the ISAF drawdown, as VSO conceptualizers originally “viewed local security forces as a supplement to strong national army and police forces, not as a substitute for them.”29

Overall, I observe three broad dynamics shaping Afghan civil-security force relations that strategic policy makers need to account for: police vs military capabilities, local vs non-local, and group identity characteristics (e.g. tribe, ethnicity). Co-ethnic and especially local forces are better able to counter the identification problem, while non-local and non-coethnics are more prone to act with excessive aggression and undermine the legitimacy of government in the eyes of the population. Meanwhile, police forces are adequate to maintain local order but are unsuitable as a substitute for Afghan military forces. While assessing ideal divisions of labor and force composition are beyond the scope of this paper, the dynamics discussed have substantial strategic impact in terms of security and legitimacy.


Some important themes emerged from the interviews about U.S.-ISAF practices, which are grouped into their respective domains of tactical/operation and strategic. In the tactical/operational domain, the first major finding observed is that two of the three core mission areas assessed failed to contribute strategically and were not executed in accordance with FM 3-24’s strategic doctrine. Village-level clearance operations had an overall negative strategic impact in regards to building legitimacy and support for Afghan government. This is because of their typically hostile reception by the public, repetitive nature, and limited strategic effect on the enemy. These findings align with both Martin30 and Kalyvas’ 31 observation that “search-and-clear” operations have historically been counterproductive.

In contrast, short duration raids targeting individual High Value Targets were observed to have a positive strategic impact by degrading Taliban command and control networks and causing an observable devolution in tactics and methods, at least in the short-term. This finding of strategic effectiveness appears inconsistent with Martin’s criticism of Special Forces raids, which states that, “a super-decentralized, patronage-based organization is not vulnerable to any type of decapitation strategy.”32 Also absent from the findings was Martin’s claim that local actors were able to manipulate Special Forces into targeting their enemies. Interviewees expressed confidence in the intelligence behind HVT targeting, a fact that likely indicates ISAF has become wise to the practice of local actors exploiting the informant system to their advantage in the time since Martin left military service in 2010.

Village Stability Operations were assessed to be strategically ineffective because SOF teams were ordered to transfer control to local forces that were inadequately manned, equipped, and prepared to counter Taliban forces, an assessment consistent with a 2012 RAND Corporation working paper assessing the VSO mission in Afghanistan.33 In addition, the VSO mission was not executed in accordance with FM 3-24’s Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition framework, as it transferred responsibility of local security and governance to forces ill-prepared to fulfill either requirement.

The second main theme to emerge at the tactical/operational level is that ISAF’s Afghan partner forces often did more do undermine strategic efforts at creating legitimacy than did western forces. This brings up the obvious question of ISAF’s ability to control partner force professional behavior. Interestingly, most interviewees agreed that the most effective method of controlling partner force behavior was by controlling their access to money and other resources. In instances where ISAF had direct control over the pay and resources of their partner force, they were able to exert a much higher level of control and enforce normative behavior with regards to the local population. In contrast, salary through the Afghan government was often unreliable due to corruption, and Afghan forces would frequently turn to low-level predatory criminal behavior against the population in order to survive when pay was not forthcoming. This has two major implications. Strategic planners need to consider how sourcing salary and resources effects the level of control of the partner force, and how corruption and regularity of pay also impacts partner force behavior, both of which have broader strategic-level implications in regards to perception of government legitimacy.

Strategic-level findings can be subdivided into organizational constraints and strategic rigidity. Interviewees agreed on a wide variety of U.S.-ISAF organizational constraints that have contributed towards the current state of the conflict, which include: poorly defined objectives and metrics of success; inadequate understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine; prohibitive rules of engagement that were frequently exploited by the enemy (a blanket attempt to minimize civilian casualties); an onerous bureaucratic system that hindered ground forces’ ability to respond to an agile insurgency; a careerism-driven risk aversion by strategic-level leadership that constrained ground forces; and an inability to comprehend the human terrain, a deficit exacerbated by short deployment. Taken collectively, these practices are inconsistent with FM 3-24’s second Strategic Principle which states that the counterinsurgent must understand the environment, and the eighth Strategic Principle which states that power and authority should be pushed down to the lowest levels.34

Nearly all interviewees’ most emphatically cited reasons for strategic failure were reserved for strategic rigidity: an unwillingness or inability to acknowledge realities on the ground and respond accordingly. The failure of upper leadership to respond to the “ground truth” being presented to them from below was observed in all three SOF mission areas assessed. As one VSO participant related:

“The population had zero faith in the success of the ALP or the government…They knew that once we left the Taliban were going to move in and wipe them out. Our team knew what the ALP were going to be up against and were pleading with [higher leadership] to get them more weapons, manpower, and an ANA contingent, but [higher leadership] wouldn’t listen.”

Similarly, a participant in village-level clearance operations stated, “the point had been brought up to [higher leadership] that large scale clearance ops were high-risk/low-reward and probably created more Taliban than they eliminated, but this didn’t seem to matter to them.” Finally, a participant in the HVT operations observed that strategic-level leadership, “was only concerned with the total numbers of raids and HVT captures, despite the reported negative impact on the population. They should have been looking at overall effects on the insurgent network as a better metric of effectiveness.” These findings demonstrate an overall inability to comprehend the ground truth and adjust strategy and goals accordingly appear distinctly inconsistent with FM 3-24’s seventh strategic principle of “learn and adapt.”35


Using qualitative data, I have undertaken an analysis of practices at all levels of three SOF mission areas in the Afghan conflict: village-scale clearance operations, HVT operations, and VSO, – comparing their execution to FM 3-24 counterinsurgency doctrine, and their outcomes to broader U.S. strategic objectives for Afghanistan. What emerges is a distinct dissonance between tactical/operational practices on the ground, and broader strategic goals and principles. I assessed that village-scale clearance operations resulted in an overall negative strategic impact because of a failure to hold cleared ground, and because of the hostility that often-repetitive operations incited in the population. In contrast, precision raids against High Value Targets resulted in an overall positive strategic impact demonstrated by an observable degradation in enemy effectiveness. Village Stability Operations were assessed to be overall strategically ineffective, largely because local forces were ultimately underprepared and equipped to provide security to the population, and because aid and development projects had a negligible impact on perceptions of government legitimacy.

Next I examined findings with potential research and policy implications. I observed that territorial control had a strong collaborative effect on the population, though the threshold of control required to enable collaboration is quite high. This carries strategic-level policy implications in regards to the time, manpower, and resources required to achieve voluntary collaboration from a population, though one should consider that this threshold is likely to be variable for different groups and cultures. I observed the pervasive effects of tribal, ethnic, local vs non-local dynamics in shaping relations between Afghan civilian and security forces, which carry strategic-level policy implications for government legitimacy. Similarly observed were the different capabilities and limitations of police and military forces with regards to solving the identification problem and combat effectiveness, where proper division of labor carries strategic-level security implications.

Lastly, and to the point of this paper, I observed significant dissonance between the tactical/operational and strategic levels of U.S.-ISAF and its execution of counterinsurgency doctrine as defined by FM 3-24. I observed a variety of strategic-level constraints that hindered ground forces from prosecuting the conflict effectively, and were inconsistent with FM 3-24’s counterinsurgency doctrine. More importantly, I observed a failure at the strategic level to comprehend the ground truth and to adjust objectives accordingly. This resulted in unnecessary failures that have contributed to the current state of the conflict which could have been avoided.

An appreciation of ground truth could have diverted resources from ineffective development projects towards establishing a level of territorial control adequate to facilitate collaboration. As Emile Simpson succinctly explains in War From the Ground Up:

“If a village is broadly supportive of the Afghan government, but is being intimidated by a particular group of alien insurgents, it matters not how many leaflets one gives them, or schools one builds; they will still be intimidated and will not subscribe to the Afghan government narrative. If the insurgents who intimidate them are killed or captured, change can come about.”36

VSO participants agreed that had operations been extended until Afghan military forces were able to support the ALP, the VSO mission would have been far more successful. Similarly, village-scale clearance participants agreed that clearance operations should not have been undertaken unless a holding force was able to establish itself there, and that a VSO team would have been ideal for that purpose. Finally, participants in HVT operations agreed that their missions could have been more successful if they were able to tap into the local intelligence provided by ALP forces. In short, acknowledging the ground truth could have greatly improved SOF integration between mission areas and improved overall effectiveness.

The results of this paper are only suggestive given its small sample size. However, provided the findings stand up to more in-depth scrutiny, we will have gained two key insights into SOF operations that may also apply to U.S.-ISAF forces as a whole: that there has been a failure to operate in accordance with written counterinsurgency doctrine, and a strategic-level failure to acknowledge the ground truth and to adjust policy and objectives accordingly. Simpson summarizes the problem well in War From the Ground Up, “If the soldier on the ground can see that policy is unrealistic, but is unable to challenge it because he is at the end of a one-way flow of policy, policy cannot be adjusted in light of practical possibility.”37

Special Operations Forces are the most highly trained, skilled, and experienced counterinsurgents in ISAF, making SOF practices a sensible benchmark from which to gauge strategic effectiveness. As one interviewee stated, “I would encourage any and all policy makers to take advice from those who are in direct contact with the population.  We must be careful not to make decisions in a vacuum far removed from the culture.  Additionally, for anything to work we need to be very cautious of bias and groupthink to ensure it does not degrade the reality of the situation.” It has been my aim with this paper to share their wealth of experience, not only to inspire future research but also to open up a much needed strategic dialogue within the military.


Ryan Pearson is a junior (’17) in Berkeley College.



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  1. Ibid.
  1. , 1-19.
  1. , 9-5.
  1. , 9-6.
  1. , 9-8.
  1. , 9-9.
  1. Alvarez, John, Robert Nalepa, Anna-Marie Wyant, and Fred Zimmerman. Special Operations Forces Reference Manual. 4th ed. MacDill AFB: JSOU Press, 2015. <http://fas.org/irp/                        agency/dod/socom/ref-2015.pdf>.
  1. Moyar, Mark. JSOU Report 14-7: Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police. MacDill AFB: JSOU Press, 2014. <http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/                                  JSOU14-7_Moyar_VSO_FINAL.pdf>.
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15. Ibid.

  1. S. Department of Defense. FM 3–24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, 2014. Washington, DC: GPO, 2014. 1-19.
  1. , 9-7.
  1. Moyar, Mark. JSOU Report 14-7: Village Stability Operations and the Afghan Local Police. MacDill AFB: JSOU Press, 2014. <http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/                                  JSOU14-7_Moyar_VSO_FINAL.pdf>.
  1. S. Department of Defense. FM 3–24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, 2014. Washington, DC: GPO, 2014. 9-9.
  1. , 1-21.
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  1. Lyall, Jason, Yuki Shiraito, and Kosuke Imai. 2015. “Coethnic Bias and Wartime Informing”. The Journal of Politics 77 (3). [University of Chicago Press, Southern               Political Science Association]: 833–48. doi:10.1086/681590.
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  1. Martin, Mike. An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 243.
  1. Lyall, Jason. 2010. “Are Coethnics More Effective Counterinsurgents? Evidence from the Second Chechen War”. The American Political Science Review 104 (1). [American                 Political Science Association, Cambridge University Press]: 1–20. http://www.jstor.org/                stable/27798537.
  1. Lyall, Jason, Yuki Shiraito, and Kosuke Imai. 2015. “Coethnic Bias and Wartime Informing”. The Journal of Politics 77 (3). [University of Chicago Press, Southern               Political Science Association]: 833–48. doi:10.1086/681590.
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  1. Martin, Mike. An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 244.
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  1. Martin, Mike. An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 244
  1. Saum-Manning, Lisa. VSO/ALP: Comparing past and current challenges to Afghan local defense. RAND Corporation Working Paper, WR-936. Available at http://www.rand.                       org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/2012/RAND_WR936.pdf [Last accessed 19                        June 2015], 2012.
  1. S. Department of Defense. FM 3–24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, 2014. Washington, DC: GPO, 2014. 1-20.
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  1. Simpson, Emile. War From the Ground Up: 21st Century Combat as Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 149.
  1. Simpson, Emile. War From the Ground Up: 21st Century Combat as Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 121.