Linda Robinson, in her book “One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare” covers quite a bit about Village Stability Operations and the American counterinsurgency in Afghanistan For those who are curious, like myself, about the evolution of VSOs in Afghanistan this is a good book to start with.
Robinson is insightful; as a senior international policy analyst at RAND she intermingles personal stories and anecdotes about operators and Afghans along with many of the technical aspects that come with bringing disparate groups under one command and control structure. Robinson conducted numerous interviews with Afghan and American individuals at their sites that she repeatedly visited.
Her book is detailed and rich in description. We get a good sense of the hives of activity, the personnel and their efforts to build up 17 different village response companies. ISAF, SOF and others interact and evolve with the indigenous population in order to counter the Taliban.
In order to do this special operations forces must move into various insurgent-dominated Afghanistan villages and deeply engage with the civilian populations. Understanding the complicated dynamics of the relationships of the villagers to the Taliban can better serve SOF because they can get to the root of the problem, but is it that simple? Many villagers are hesitant to speak out against the Taliban and some commanders who fight alongside SOF, once fought arm-in-arm with the Taliban.
Robinson posits that the mindset necessary for operating effectively at the individual and institutional levels are those with an interest in the world out there-those who can drink tea, live with villagers and work alongside their civilian counterparts. This wasn’t easy to do for accomplished veterans like T.E. Lawrence nor is it for SOF who learn they must be less of doers and more of an enabler to train the locals and motivate them too.
Robinson admires the men she writes about. She notes the team leaders are able to garner the respect of the men who they are trying to enable. It is no easy task to integrate into a foreign culture but SOFs are required not only to do this, but to gain trust of the villagers and ask them to fight against the Taliban; impressive indeed.
The men here have to understand the long-seated conflicts and the current tensions which arrive obliquely from time to time. Robinson distinctly recounts S.Sgt. Bales shooting rampage which killed sixteen Afghan civilians outside the gates of Camp Belambay in Kandahar Province.
Bales was supposed to provide security but clearly didn’t do this. As a soldier he was tasked to support the support the Green Berets in training Local Afghan Police but instead, got drunk during an alcohol ban, and through his actions nearly overturned the hard work done by Special Forces in that region. Local Afghan officials had to try and calm down those who sought revenge.
The SOF have to get to the root of why some villagers are subjugated to the Taliban or why others work alongside with their enemy. The goal for them is to develop a true understanding of the situation and the decades old conflicts in order to provide a basis for forming a defense force. The job of the SOF is difficult because they must parse apart the complicated rivalries in order to motivate the villagers into one common purpose; to be a kinetic force that can deal with the Taliban.
In an excellent interview in the Small Wars Journal with Octavian Manea, Robinson stated:
“Today to be the most effective at this kind of activity, units need to have repeat tours in the same place. It doesn’t mean that they are going to become PhDs in that area but familiarity would make them much more successful. Similarly, at an individual level, allowing some to specialize in a particular region would provide a leadership cadre for young soldiers sent out to do these tasks in conjunction with special ops. The final point that I would make is the importance of building a system that allows sufficient time to prepare. The Army can’t just plug these individuals or units into an unfamiliar country. What I found most impressive in Afghanistan was the intensive academic week-long program that trained those assigned to conduct VSO/ALP. It became so popular that conventional forces began requesting the program even if they were not going to conduct VSO/ALP.”
There are good stories about those in the Special Ops community. Captain Dan Hayes and his Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3314 work in Mairwand to rally the old leaders of the militia to come forward. Hayes and his team knew it was important to fight through every encounter and kept an aggressive and grueling schedule of day and night patrols to create a bubble for themselves and the village.
Robinson writes about Major Jim Gant a legendary Special Forces commander who was quietly forced to leave the U.S. Army. Gant, it was said by some superiors, saw himself as a Lawrence of Arabia but his ego threatened to derail the progress made in Kunar province. Gant drove a Kawasaki dune buggy with antlers on the front. Reports state that he kept a mistress in his compound and had a supply of drugs and alcohol.
News feeds today definitely show the relationship he had with his mistress (a former Washington Post reporter) over a harrowing 22 months that he served in combat. His commanders believed he had “indulged in a self-created fantasy world” of booze, pain pills and sex in a tribal village deep in Taliban and al Qaeda country with his “wife,” journalist Ann Scott Tyson.
Careers are made over a long period of time and can be destroyed as instantly as a life is lost. Gant saved mens lives and many came to his defense while his life was eroding. One of the most poignant moments in a soldiers life will be the time he enters the gates of a base for his first day of training; it will also be when he exits the gates of his last station as his tour comes to and end. Retirement should bring good memories. How will Gant see his own journey?
There are far too many stories to be told and the book names dozens of amazing men, held up by constraints, who sacrifice much to do their job.
The most interesting story to me from the eight-chapters was the story of Aziz, who was the lone survivor of a Taliban suicide bombing at a restaurant, and Green Beret Captain Michael Hutchinson. United they fought against the insurgents and even were caught up in a hand-to-hand battle against the insurgents. Hutch and his team actually have to use their William. P. Yarborough Special Forces knives. You cannot make this stuff up and ‘Hutch’s’ story in this chapter is inspiring, confounding and amusing.
One Hundred Victories is a good read for anyone seeking to understand the evolution of SOF and the war in Afghanistan. I felt one of the shortcomings in the book was the lack of maps showing the areas the Special Operators had worked in. It would have been good to understand where they were traveling and how they managed doing this because there wasn’t really an established highway system or significant roadways.
She writes descriptively and insightfully about these sincere and elite-warfighters who have to maneuver around Afghanistan’s political labyrinth on a daily basis. They come to learn that narrowly focusing on kinetic operations will not work as well unless they begin to protect the civilian population. Over 300 special operators were interviewed for this eight-chapter book.
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Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Robinson’s areas of expertise include national security strategy, international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, security force assistance, joint force development, special operations forces, irregular warfare and stability operations. She has worked in South Asia, Iraq, the Middle East, and Latin America. She was senior adviser to the AFPAK Center at USCENTCOM (2010-11) and author of a Council on Foreign Relations special report on the future of special operations forces (2013). She is also the author of Tell Me How This Ends (2008), Masters of Chaos (2004), and Intervention or Neglect (1991).
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