“The commander must work in a medium which his eyes cannot see, which his best deductive powers cannot always fathom, and with which, because of constant changes, he can rarely become familiar.”
-Carl von Clausewitz
The conflict in Afghanistan has fundamentally altered the responsibilities of the soldier to the extent that individuals in combat zones are serving simultaneous roles as diplomatic representatives and liaisons at the local, regional, and national levels. As a part of Counterinsurgency Strategy (COIN), Special Operations Command (SOCOM) conceptualized and instituted a Village Stability Operations Strategy (VSO) to be spearheaded by Special Operations Forces (SOF). As articulated in a September 2011 report entitled, Village Stability Operations: More Than Village Defense, authored by the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and published in Special Warfare, “VSO are one of several national priority efforts currently conducted by joint/combined SOF teams in rural village areas across Afghanistan in support of the International Security Assistance Force’s, or ISAF’s, comprehensive campaign of counterinsurgency, or COIN.”
The ultimate goal of VSO is to work in the area between the district and the village in order to connect the villagers back to their district and provincial government. Efforts to empower soldier-diplomats on the ground, as well as SOF counterparts including Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assist Teams (CAAT), were fostered with the institution of Stability Operations Information Centers (SOIC), founded to facilitate information sharing and empower decision makers operating at the district and provincial levels with timely and accurate assessments, reports, and plans.
A recent publication in the Small Wars Journal (SWJ) by Captain Andrews Feitt, an active duty Military Intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, argues that a VSO strategy involving information sharing and collaboration with security alliances, for example the Afghan Local Police, may be a “recipe for stagnation and may in fact be counterproductive to overall efforts” if SOF and stakeholders focus myopically on the village level. Such a strategy may prove ineffective due to the lack of effort or inability to leverage real power in the local area to actualize development initiatives. Advocating for a strategy involving “vertical engagement” Feitt seems to argue that operators may alienate themselves if/when efforts become exclusionary towards neighboring communities and tribal leaders, thus straining support streams vital to the mission.
Considering a broader scope, this approach still holds implications for sustaining a productive civil-military VSO strategy that involves international development . As Fellow at the Brookings Institute, Noam Unger, notes, it is difficult to “keep pace with the rapidly changing context” in developing countries and/or in countries experiencing conflict. He continues, “Government-to-government programs have proven ill-equipped to support development when recipient governments themselves are perceived as part of the problem of underdevelopment, rather than as part of the solution.” This lies at the crux of the issue of VSO in Afghanistan.
Returning to our understanding of the goal of VSO, “to work between,” it is imperative to understand that effective means of implementing VSO within the scope of a larger COIN strategy depends largely on knowledge that is not fashioned in text and before the human eye; rather, the soldier-diplomat and operator working alongside civilian stakeholders in the mission must leverage their presence, patience, and persistence to act responsibly in order to coordinate stability and development initiatives being spearheaded by, for example, the Department of Defense (DoD) Female Engagement Teams (FET), Department of State (DoS) Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), and USAID‘s Non-governmental Organization (NGO) network.