We’re going to talk about stability this week and this post will lay the foundation for the discussion. Village Stability Operations (VSO) is the focus, but we’re interested in stability at the operational and strategic levels as well. This post will frame the idea of VSO, why it’s needed and what its objectives are relative to the conflict in Afghanistan.This is a perfect topic for The Kabul Cable to tackle because it is important to understand how the theory, planning and execution of VSO interact before any real assessment of the program’s viability or impact can be proffered. The Kabul Cable counts academics, thinkers, students and practitioners among its readers so we should be able to cover all the bases in this discussion. The outline below is intended to be a primer on VSO and draws heavily on Connett and Cassidy’s article “Village Stability Operations: More than Village defence” and through conversations with Scott Mann who runs The Stability Institute.
Afghanistan lacks any real historical precedence for a strong central government that was able to effectively govern both the densely populated urban areas and maintain control over the sparsely populated rural areas where the majority of Afghans live. There has always been tension between urban and rural Afghans and this tension manifests itself today through the conflicts between the constitution, the coalition and the reality of rural Afghanistan. The top down approach to governance in Afghanistan has met with limited success over the course of the last decade. A new model has appeared and is attempting to push governance up from the local/village level and bridge the gap between traditional governance and the western system which has been imposed on Afghanistan.
Rural areas have historically been stabilised by informal tribal systems. During Afghanistan’s more stable periods these systems were acknowledged by the central government and supported through patronage. The Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazara all understand and employ a hierarchical system in their local governance structures and therefore fit into a centralized scheme with less friction. The Pashtuns on the other hand, operate from a more egalitarian approach and are for lack of a better phrase, simply anti-authority.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is largely a rural phenomenon and ethnically Pashtun. Not all Pashtuns support the Taliban, but the Taliban is largely a Pashtun organisation.
The Soviets pursued a campaign which attacked the rural areas and depopulated large swaths of Afghanistan. Following their withdrawal, the Taliban movement was able to flow across the rural areas and fill the gaps in these decimated rural societies; replacing traditional tribal structures with their strict version of Sharia law. This widened the gap between any central authority and the rural village.
The Idea of VSO:
Village Stability Operations (VSO) are designed to provide the organisation and structure at the village level which allows the locals to defend themselves and re-establish traditional forms of government and provide the backstop that tribal leaders need to push back against the Taliban. For the better part of a decade ISAF has tried to push governance down from Kabul to the provinces, districts and villages below them with limited success.
VSO is an effort to establish governance and rule of law at the local level and then link it back up to Kabul. Afghan Local Police (ALP) are the strategic connective tissue between Kabul and the villages. They are for the most part locally controlled but are linked and accountable back to the central government.
VSO teams work their way into local villages that show potential for pushing back against the Taliban. The idea is fairly straight forward. Get in, build rapport, stabilise the village and establish local governance then tie them back to Kabul through district and provincial mechanisms. To support this connection ISAF is employing District Stability Teams (DST), Provincial Response Companies (PRC) and Village Stability Coordination centres (VSCC). This is the theory behind VSO and the Special Operations Joint Task Force is moving ahead in an effort to realise this idea.
Rural Afghanistan matters—it’s where the majority of the population lives. More importantly, it’s where the majority of the Pashtuns are. When local leadership is strong enough they will often push back and deselect the Taliban. The Pashtun tribal code of Pashtunwali is not completely congruent with Islam and is certainly not congruent with state rule. These three sources of authority can provide the strength needed to bring stability back to rural Afghanistan—if they can be kept in balance.
- Village Stability Operations: More than Village defence
- It Takes the Villages: Bringing Change From Below in Afghanistan
- Defining Success in Afghanistan
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