Seven years ago this week, a team of Green Berets with the 7th Special Forces Group was enroute to mud-walled villages run by members of the Afghan Local Police.
An ALP leader they worked with, Sultan Mohammed, had been recently gunned down by the Taliban. The assassination was retribution — and a warning to others. Days later, four U.S. soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device near the base.
The Green Berets were on their way to visit the checkpoint Mohammed had patrolled, in Kandahar, the province where the Taliban was born — one of the most restive places in Afghanistan. The plan was to drink some tea with the commander there and find out what he needed.
The soldiers loaded up in MRAPs named “Batman,” “Joker,” “Bain” and “Riddler” — so called “because it’s easier to remember those names than the serial numbers,” said the team sergeant — and headed outside the wire.
The small team of commandos and support troops who left the base in Kandahar were working with Afghan villagers to help the local population resist the Taliban once the majority of U.S. and NATO troops pulled out a year later.
The goal was to create a patchwork of areas across the country where indigenous forces — made up of members of the local tribes and clans — make it difficult for insurgents to operate.
Part of the Village Stability Operations (VSO)/Afghan Local Police program, it was a classic mission for special operations, especially Green Berets.
But in September, at the end of this fiscal year, the U.S. is pulling the financial plug on what remains of that mission, which had success but at times was mired in controversy about extrajudicial killings, helping warlords and using children as troops.
In a recently released Operation Freedom’s Sentinel lead inspector general’s report to Congress, it was announced that the NATO Special Operations Component Command–Afghanistan (NSOCC-A) confirmed plans to dissolve the Afghan Local Police. Not only that, but the Afghans are supposed to gather up all the weapons and integrate the remaining 18,000 ALP members into the larger Afghan national security forces. Neither will be easy tasks.
“Resolute Support continues to work closely with Afghan partners to provide train, advise, assist support on a wide variety of institutional issues, to include ALP dissolution, as noted in the IG report,” a defense official told Military Times. “We refer you to the Afghan Ministry of Interior. ASFF funding for the ALP will culminate at the end of FY2020.”
Afghan officials could not be reached for comment.
But it’s a move that leaves those who helped create the program concerned that the weapons roundup and integration will be a “disaster” and worried about the Afghans who risked their lives to help America.
“If we had maintained the VSO and ALP Program, the situation in Afghanistan today would be much different,” retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, dubbed the “Godfather” of the ALP program, told Military Times.
“The Afghan government would be negotiating from a position of strength, the Taliban would be neutralized, AQ would be neutralized, and ISIS would never have seen an opportunity to join the fight. The Afghan people would be experiencing advanced social reform, safety and stability. The focus would be on strengthening their economy, governance, and regional stability. More importantly, the United States would be in a position to responsibly transition from combat operations to non-combatant operations.”
Instead, “bad political policy by the Obama administration, poor strategy, and the wrong operational approach by our senior military civilian and military leaders has led to the Taliban controlling the peace talk narrative, a weak Afghan government, continued regional instability, and a more effective AQ and ISIS,” Bolduc said.
VSO and ALP was designed in 2010 and implemented in 2011.
“The VSO and ALP was the most successful bottom-up COIN program implemented in Afghanistan,” said Bolduc. “It was not perfect, but it was effective. It did what it was designed to do. The SOF teams with augmentation did a superb job organizing, equipping, training, advising and assisting our Afghan partners to disrupt, degrade, and neutralize the Taliban.”
Gens. Stanley McCrystal, David Petraeus, and John Allen “saw the effectiveness of the VSO and ALP Program and ensured we had the resources needed to expand VSO and the ALP,” said Bolduc, now running as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. “Adm. William McRaven also supported this program and ensured SOF component commanders resources the effort.”
The program used the Afghan historical model of defending its nation by uniting villages and connecting districts by using villagers and organizing them to protect their village, family, and livelihood from the Taliban.
"This is how they defeated Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, the British, Russians, and now an international effort,” Bolduc said.
“When we started the program, the Taliban controlled the rural area in Afghanistan,” said Bolduc. “By the middle of 2013, the Afghans controlled over 80 percent of the rural Afghanistan. It is no secret, control rural Afghanistan and you control Afghanistan. In 2011, Mullah Omar (leader of the Taliban) declared that we cannot defeat this new American strategy.”
Unfortunately, said Bolduc, “by 2013 the Obama administration wanted to downsize in Afghanistan and change strategy. This resulted in a return to top down SOF CT approach and using the police and Army to defeat the Taliban. This was a transition from combat operations to non-combatant support operations.”
Bolduc said he “respectfully communicated to my superiors and the ISAF and IJC staff that changing strategy at this time is a bad idea.
"My staff assessed that by changing strategy now would have detrimental effects on the security situation. That is exactly what happened. I failed in my attempts to drive a different outcome. I was sent to Africa Command and the SOF 2 Star command began its transition to a CT focus command, leaving the VSO and ALP program to function in name only.”
Trouble in the program
What started off as a promising effort to build up a bulwark against the Taliban eventually encountered serious problems.
“A minority of villagers describe it as an indispensable source of protection, without which their districts would become battlegrounds or insurgent havens, but it is more common to hear complaints that ALP prey upon the people they are supposed to guard,” according to a June 2015 report by the Crisis Group. The report argued that: “Too often, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) has preyed on those it is meant to guard. Some members are outright bandits, exacerbating conflict. Rogue units should be disbanded, and better ones integrated into the armed forces. This must be done carefully and slowly, or else insurgents will win a new military edge.”
Such behavior, according to Crisis Group, “often provokes violence: in 2014, an ALP officer was three to six times more likely to be killed on duty than his ANSF counterpart.”
At times, the report argued, “this reflected the way ALP units have become a central part of the war, singled out by Taliban as important targets. In other places, the high rate resulted from abuses — extortion, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings — that instigated armed responses.”
The local police “are being used a lot as security guards for the local warlords," said John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in an October 2015 report. “We don’t know how bad it is because we — and I mean the U.S. government — really don’t have a presence out in many of the areas where the Afghan Local Police are operating.”
The Afghan government” has made progress on the issue,” of child soldiers, said Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. representative for children and armed conflict, the Associated Press reported in February 2016. “But she said the Afghan Local Police — government-allied groups that often operate as independent militias and are widely seen as unprofessional and corrupt — are major perpetrators.”
While the ALP "have gained some local support as a result of recent reforms, in many localities these forces have been responsible for numerous abuses against civilians, as well as summary executions of captured combatants and other violations of international humanitarian law, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report.
The proposed Afghan Territorial Army would ultimately replace the Afghan Local Police as a defense force at the local level, according to that report. “There is concern that existing Afghan Local Police units could remain armed as militia forces.”
The U.S. government initiated three specialized police programs after 2005: the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, the Afghan Public Protection Program, and the Afghan Local Police, SIGAR reported in 2017.
“With limited oversight from and accountability to the Afghan government and the United States, these police forces were reported to have engaged in human rights abuses, drug trafficking, and other corrupt activities, ultimately serving as a net detractor from security,” the report stated.
Yet, “while the United States stopped supporting two of the programs due to these issues, the Afghan Local Police continue to operate today,” according to the report.
Bolduc acknowledged there were problems.
“Yes, it is not a perfect program, but it did what is was intended to do,” he said. “There were administrative issues, there were abuses by district and provincial governors and chiefs of police. Some ALP abused their power. We acted on these issues and did see our best to mitigate these issues.
“Bottom line, the cost of this program was one-sixth the cost a soldier and one-eighth the cost of a policeman,” said Bolduc. “The return on investment was significant. This was a program the Afghan government could afford."
The program, he said, “accomplished what the police and military could not:
1. Neutralized the Taliban
2. Established security in the rural areas
3. Allowed development and good services to be delivered to the populace.
4. Legitimized the Afghan government.
5. Allowed justice to be enforced by village elders and not the Taliban. Allowed farmers to farm. Allowed business to open and run.
“Most of the issues with the ALP have been due to a lack of supervision,” said retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann, another key architect of the VSO/ALP program.
“You can walk back the instances of abuse of power and there was usually a violation of VSO tenant,” he said in a text message. “In other words, ALP were brought in from outside areas, ALP were pushed beyond their community zone, or again lack of supervision. This is very typical when local, bottom-up programs like VSO become conventionalized into programs like ALP. The two are far from synonymous.”
Better to end it
Mann is not mourning the death of the ALP program. Given the current status of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — fewer than 10,000 now drawing down to 8,600 by July as halting peace negotiations with the Taliban fumble along — Mann told Military Times that the program wouldn’t work without the requisite oversight of teams like the one I was with out there visiting the ALP
“I am OK with it being over and let me tell you why,” said Mann, now an author and playwright who writes and speaks extensively about stability operations. “I am a purist on the whole advisory piece. I believe, if you are going to advise irregular forces, you have an inherent responsibility to be in close proximity to them.”
Programs like the VSO/ALP “are a long-term endeavor, not a flash in the pan advance to cover a withdrawal,” he said.
Now the hard work begins
As the program ends, the Afghans are going to have to round up the ALP’s weapons and help integrate the ALP into other Afghan security agencies.
In the inspector general’s report to Congress, NSOCC-A said that “to mitigate potential security risks, the Afghan government has tentatively scheduled a plan for post-dissolution employment options for ALP members and for recovering ALP weapons and equipment.”
The command reported that in order to” prevent the creation of future insurgents, it is working with the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, and the Office of the National Security Council to identify and encourage recruiting of ALP members into the Afghan National Army (ANA) and ANA-Territorial Force (ANA-TF), and the Afghan National Police.”
All that may be easier said than done, according to Bolduc and Mann.
“The integration will be a disaster and so will the weapons round-up,” said Bolduc. “I doubt very much the villagers want to be in the army or police. They would have already joined. They are mostly farmers and shop owners and need to be home.”
Disarming them now “will leave them vulnerable to attack by the Taliban,” he said. “ISAF tried this in earlier years along with a buy-back program and it was a disaster. It could also result in violence due to resistance and the Afghan government and international forces will be conducting operations against the populace. Now you got the Taliban, AQ, ISIS, and the populace against you.”
“Oh man,” he said. “Demobilization is always, in my opinion, the trickiest part of standing up an irregular force. My initial inclination is that this is very, very challenging. The military is not in the position to have any responsible oversight. We can say all day long that we are going to demobilize, but if you are not in a position to be in the rural areas, how can you do that?”
Taking their guns away is also going to be a tremendous challenge, Mann said.
“This is a heavily armed population,” he said. “Let’s assume there is positive intent. These are still decent folks who do not intend to do harm. Well, they are going to face retribution for their activities in those rural areas by bad actors. To willingly give up their weapons is probably a hard sell.”
The recent IG report seems to back up this gloomy assessment. The concerns also echo warnings issued by the program’s critics that ending it could prove difficult, even dangerous.
“DoS officials reported that implementing this strategy will be challenging, as ALP leadership has stated that they have limited ability to carry out the strategy and there is a lack of coordination with civilian public and private sector organizations that could help to find employment opportunities for former members of the ALP.”
Previous Lead IG reporting" raised questions about whether well-armed but newly unemployed ALP members would join the ranks of violent extremist groups or local power brokers, who have previously used ALP units as their own private militias," the report states.
Left on their own
Seven years ago, the ODA commander and some of his men sat cross-legged underneath shade trees blocking out the hot sun. They sipped tea and talked with the ALP commander about his wants and needs.
The ALP commander, wanting to let bad guys in the area know he was protected, asked for a show of force. The TACP traveling with us made a call and a short while later, a Navy F-18 roared over the valley, putting a big smile on the ALP commander’s face.
But now the ODA is gone and with it, such shows of force, leaving the ALP commander, who risked everything to stand up against the Taliban, all alone. There are thousands like him across Afghanistan.
And that troubles the men who helped create the VSO/ALP program.
“Yes, I do worry” about the ALP,” said Bolduc. “Especially since we will leave them vulnerable.”
Mann said that “to some degree...yes,” he is worried about the ALP, too. “But I’ve been worried about those ALP since we pulled Special Forces and other operators out of the villages back in 2012 and 2013.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.