Colonel William (“Billy”) H. Shaw

By: Interviewed by Dr. Douglas Borer, Naval Postgraduate School

This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project.1 Dr. Douglas Borer, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, spoke with U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel William H. ("Billy") Shaw on 22 July 2013 in Stuttgart, Germany, where COL Shaw was serving with Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). They discussed a groundbreaking training program for the Afghan Army Special Forces that COL Shaw developed while serving in Afghanistan in 2010–2011.2

DR. BORER: Billy is going to recap some of his experiences for the historical record. So Billy, take it away.

COL SHAW: Thanks, Doug. My background is mostly in the Special Forces. I spent a year in Djibouti, and 13 months in Afghanistan, as well as a couple of tours to Iraq, the first in Provide Comfort Desert Storm, and then Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now I work at SOCEUR. Specifically, I want to talk about what I did when I was in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. When I originally got there, I was the deputy commander for CFSOC (Combined Forces Special Operations Command) Alpha under General Austin S. Miller. General Haas came in a couple of months later. A position opened up as the commander for the Special Operations Advisor Group, so I became the senior American and de facto camp commander for Camp Morehead, which was collocated with the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC) Headquarters.

DR. BORER: What year was this?

COL SHAW: This was in 2010. My job was to do a couple of things. First of all, I was a base commander with a very small contingent base that was located inside a larger ANASOC base called Camp Commando. That was the headquarters for one of the kandaks, which is the Afghan equivalent of a battalion, as well as the location of the School of Excellence, which was basically the Afghan Special Warfare Training Center where we trained all of these guys. The second thing I did was to act as primary advisor to Brigadier General Lawang, who was the commander of ANASOC at the time, and then later to Major General Karim when he became the commander. That in itself was probably about an eight- to 10-hour-a-day job because everywhere the commander went, I went as well. The third thing my staff and I did was to oversee and resource the School of Excellence, which trained Afghan commandos, Afghan Special Forces guys, and then also some MISO (Military Information Support Operations), civil affairs, etc. Specifically, one of the things that we did was try to address and counter the insider-threat problem. Along with that, there were some issues like retention, and we were trying to figure out how to make all that work.

The commandos were the iconic heroes of Afghanistan. They saw probably 80% of the combat action. They had never been defeated on the battlefield. They were advised by either SEAL, SF, or MARSOC (Marine Corps Special Operations Command) teams, but there were still issues below the surface for the commandos. We also had Afghan Special Forces guys there. So the insider-threat piece really got everyone's attention. We said, Okay, what can we do to counter corruption—the corruption piece was another huge piece— as well as solidify the resolve of our force so that they don't turn on their American advisors?

My academic background was teaching ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) in a number of leadership venues prior to coming back into SF as a colonel. While in college, I was exposed to a number of academic programs that I found to be very useful for this project that we were taking on. One was a class with Dr. Brian Hall, who wrote The Omega Factor and was one of the leading U.S. experts on values. His theories on values identify them as the underpinning reason for all thoughts, ideas, behaviors, etc. If you want to change behavior or the way somebody thinks or feels, you have got to address their values at the root level. So that is what we decided to do. We allowed the Afghan National Army to define their values. We held a seminar so that the senior leadership could expound upon what their values meant, and then we assisted them in product development and campaign design.

The values campaign, specifically, was introduced through the chain of command and through the School of Excellence back into the force to try to shore up the program. In our preliminary research and study, we found that the average Afghan had very limited exposure to new ideas. He heard three primary voices: family and friends, the mullah, and a little bit of media, whether it be radio, TV, text, cell phone, or whatever. Those three voices we found were inadequate when it came to trying to inoculate our soldiers from being turned by the Taliban. General Karim and I were very close friends, and this happened under his watch. He was also a direct descendant of Mohammad—he was a two-star Army general, but people from the surrounding communities revered him as being from the holy tribe or holy family, which greatly assisted us in what we were doing. Because of the taboo of trying to get involved with the soldiers' religious activities, we were walking a pretty fine line, but between General Karim and me it was good because of our trust level. We were extremely close, almost like brothers. We agreed early on that we would be transparent with one another, and if we agreed to disagree, obviously he would win because he was the two-star general and it was his country!

As we developed this plan, General Karim was very much a player in the development of it. What we found was that the Taliban—especially when guys were going home on leave for 30 days or so—were stepping in and becoming what we termed the "fourth voice." They became that fourth source of information that could convince someone that the Taliban were doing the right thing. The average Afghan soldier didn't have enough educational background to refute things that people would tell him. So that fourth voice became very important, and we wanted to become the fourth voice. We did not want the Taliban to do that. The values campaign and then the messaging strategy became the way ahead. The essence of this is that ANASOC values are very similar to our values and go back to Qur'anic scripture. That was one of the things that General Karim would continually talk about, because he knew those values were the center of gravity, what the average Afghan Muslim soldier held as the essence of his existence. That essence was what was frequently being targeted by the Taliban. So we began a series of efforts. Religious and Public Affairs defined the Afghan National Army values and then tied them back to Qur'anic verse through a series of pamphlets. Additionally, each kandak had a mullah. General Karim obviously couldn't tell these mullahs exactly what to say, but he did give them the themes that he wanted taught at mosque. Those themes directly tied our (Afghan) values at ANASOC back to the Qur'an. That was the first piece.

We developed four lines of effort. One line of effort was what is called adaptive leadership, which was developed at Harvard University. The adaptive leadership model lends itself very much to mentorship, where you don't have the authority or the position to direct people on what to do—in my opinion, that is not actually leadership; it's management. What you have to do is create conditions that hold a person in an environment long enough for them to deconstruct values that are not consistent with what is required, and then reconstruct those values. But it requires a captive audience, and it actually requires some stress. They don't have to be super stressed, but just enough. That stress—what we called the crowbar; that was our private little term that we used—came from illuminating and holding the soldiers accountable for the difference between their lived values and their espoused values. The difference between those two is disequilibrium. Unless the person is just a sociopath, when you hold them in that environment and you offer positive reinforcement, then they deconstruct those values that are associated with poor behavior. It could go the other way as well, and that is how they got to where they are. These men had been in a survival situation for an extended period of time under very chaotic and terrible conditions, without being continually reinforced to maintain the positive aspects of their life. It would be really easy for them to slip into the negative and steal and lie and cheat and do all the things that they know are wrong from the Qur'an. But they have grown up that way, first because of the conditions in which they lived, and second, because there was not enough positive pull the other way to offset their survival-type situation.

So adaptive leadership and mentorship were important, but no one there other than myself had any background in how to do these things. The first thing I had to do was teach the mentors and get my cadre onboard with these methods. Applying the methods of adaptive leadership is not easy to do by any stretch of the imagination. But I had to educate my crew because they were the ones who were going to carry the message to their crew: their Afghan counterparts.

DR. BORER: When you say "your crew," who were those guys?

COL SHAW: I had 64 MPRI (Military Professional Resources, Inc., a private military contracting firm) contractors, and I had some transmedia3 guys, who actually understood what we were trying to do and helped to do it. Then I initially had about 12 active duty or green suiters—these were not necessarily active duty but people who were assigned to me—and that group grew to around 50 before I left. We were the ones who engaged the Afghans. Here's a little sidebar on why it was important to get us all synced up: We found that you could personally engage each person, but they are part of a network or a structure that has some pretty constant themes and positions. It's like a spider web, and they are kind of stuck in that environment. Even if you could move one person away for a time, the environment would deconstruct what you had taught him and he would go back to the status quo.

DR. BORER: Billy, the challenge of reshaping values sounds like the famous recurring line in the The Sopranos [an American television show about a Mafia family]: "Just when you think you're out, they suck you back in." Is that an accurate analogy?

COL SHAW: Yes, exactly. We did a lot of modeling with two guys from MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who were out there. They were doing systems analytics for the VSO (village stability operation) program. So they helped out, and one of the transmedia guys, Mike Marks, really got involved with it. He had a background that supported a lot of our theories. We told our crew, If you have random efforts to deconstruct and reconstruct values, or you're trying to get your counterpart to shift a little bit, it has to be a synchronized, holistic approach so that the whole network shifts. Then you can hold your ground a little bit there. If not, then the environment will pull them back to where they were. This stuff is a slow go. It isn't something you're going to fix in an hour or a week or maybe even a year. The deconstruction and reconstruction of values can take years and years and years. So anyway, we started that program, and it worked out pretty well.

Our second line of effort was our engagement strategy with the ANASOC chain of command, and their engagement strategy with their soldiers. We did this fairly effectively once we all got through the training. It took about four months to get my instructors through a mentorship academy, a threeday school, as well as give them the academic background to understand values and adaptive leadership. Prior to getting there, I had guys who were just randomly assigned—you know, Air Force reservists who were not only my supply officers, but also the primary mentors to the Afghan brigade staff. We were all dual-hatted as advisors, plus we were doing our normal duties in whatever position we were in. Prior to that, there was not a common platform for the close-to-100 people who were advising. There was no mentor academy; there was no pre-train-up to come to ANASOC. People would just kind of show up. We had to have that common ground, so we started running a mentor academy and got everybody through, and then after that, we would run it quarterly so that people who were newly assigned would go through and understand what we were doing.

The third line of operation was obviously the religious aspect. That was fully outside of my realm. I was just an advisor to General Karim. I advised Karim on how to frame the message and then how to disseminate it back into the force, which he did through his mullahs. It was bigger than just that, though; to do a story on why commandos were important. We showed him the values briefing and told him that everybody else who came to see us wanted to see night-vision goggles and M4 assault weapons, but that was not the story. The story is the human element behind that. So Ted made a film trailer, and I think he has produced a movie now, or a series, called "God, Country, Duty: The Commando Story." If you Google that, you will see it. The trailer was all values-based. It was personal stories of Afghan soldiers who were from different tribes, and how they initially didn't trust one another, but after going through the training and everything else, they became like close friends and brothers. Ted was planning on following them through combat, etc., for a period of time and producing this story. Whether that actually happened, I don't know, but you can still see the trailer "God, Country, Duty" on YouTube.

The final piece of this process was institutionalizing the training into the Afghans' systems. Obviously the leadership was already onboard, but we wanted to have venues in which to do this. The first thing we did was work with the School of Excellence. We went through the POIs (programs of instruction), and instead of just teaching someone how to fire a weapon, we also infused the message of how the Afghan value system would support them as soldiers in combat—that it is about doing the right thing, not hurting women and children, not stealing, whatever. These little vignettes were actually infused into the instruction. In addition, some of our performance-oriented training had values-based or ethics-based scenarios where each trainee had to make the call.

The way that we got to this point was also pretty interesting. ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross) had come out, because of some allegations in the open-source media about atrocities committed by village stability platform guys. These were the Afghan Special Forces guys who were out there doing VSO, or commandos. In fact, three months prior, there was an allegation that the commandos had murdered somebody who happened to be one of Karzai's friends, and so a general was fired along with his entire staff. The allegations were totally false. It was actually the Taliban that did it. But the general was a casualty of rumor at that point. ICRC had some legitimate concerns about what was being taught, who was teaching it, how much time we were spending on it, and all that other stuff. So the initial reaction from our side of the fence would have been to keep them at arm's length. We would have assumed that these ICRC guys are not necessarily making the accusations, but they are supporting the people that do make them.

The ICRC representative, Art Bristol, had military experience from the Australian Air Force—he had retired in '06, but he fully understood the military mission. He was not against the military mission, but he was also responsible for the law of land warfare. So after a 10-minute discussion, it came down to "What we are trying to do is have a values-based, ethical, professional force. Well, what is the law of land warfare? It is synonymous." We were in violent agreement at that point that we needed to do something. So my staff and I laid out the entire values campaign: what we were doing and how we were doing it. We then invited Art and his instructors to come and personally give the law of land warfare blocks of instruction to our Afghan instructors because, first of all, we didn't understand it as well as they did. The Afghan it was also training with media. We ended up working with a guy named Ted, who came from Great Britain. He was a freelance journalist, and he wanted instructors were fluent linguists and understood the context, and could convey their subject much better through vignettes or stories or whatever else. My guys weren't actual teachers—our Afghan instructors were the commandos themselves. They just didn't have the background that ICRC did. So we wanted ICRC to do that for us, which they agreed to do, and that was the first time that has ever happened. At the same time, ICRC was very excited about the access, about the transparency, about the ability to ensure that the law of land warfare was being adequately addressed. The by-product of this was that initially there was some nervousness at the higher levels, at the GO/FO (general officer/flag officer) level as well as the O6 (colonel) level.

As a result, the next time an allegation was made, ICRC became the defense attorney: "Hey, that is not at all correct, and let me tell you what we are doing. We personally give the blocks of instruction. This is the POI they go through. It is 20 hours' worth of training plus etc., etc." So the unintended consequence was that we had a very close ally with very heavy-duty global credentials in this area. Like I said, in the end, we were both in violent agreement that we wanted the same thing, but at first we couldn't figure out how to work together.

DR. BORER: It was the "odd couple."

COL SHAW: It was, but if it hadn't been for Art Bristol and his open-mindedness and his ability to understand the military mission—he understood and saw what could work. We also got those ICRC guys to help us build law of land warfare ethical dilemmas into our training environments. They had very good context because they received all the reports. So they could take the latest and greatest of the bad things that were happening, and we would put those into our training events. When the Afghan soldiers went through that training, they had to address the problem, and that was part of the afteraction review process. So the learning model was not just didactics. It wasn't just a motivational speech from the commander of the day. It was actually experiential learning in a realistic environment, just like how U.S. forces train, which had a pretty good impact. So that was a big positive.

Art took his program—the program that we were currently doing—back to Geneva and briefed it. They kept him there for another week, and I believe they decided that they were going to change the way they presented their global engagement strategy, basing it on values and adaptive leadership. I mean, you can teach the laws of why this is good and why this is bad, but if you understand the values of the culture you are talking to, you can relate it back to them in a way that will gain and maintain their attention a lot better than putting it in American-speak. ICRC also adopted the learning model of how we infused those vignettes into the training, as opposed to just the classroom. There is a guy who is very high up in ICRC, and right before I left, he had a meeting with General Haas—he basically came in and gave General Haas a hug and said, "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread." Art Bristol brought this program from Afghanistan back to ICRC and said, "We are rethinking the whole way we are doing business." So that was a great extra point there that we didn't even plan on getting.

The person who made sure it was received at the senior levels of the Afghan command was General Karimi, a U.S.-trained four-star who was the chief of the Afghan MoD. He was also U.S. Special Forces-trained back in the late 1970s. I used to meet with him about once a week because ANASOC fell directly under MoD. Because of ANASOC's assets, it didn't fall under one of the regional commands. General Karim wanted to brief General Karimi, who was a very busy man. I mean, he was always signing papers, or he was listening with one ear and you would get the "Yes, yes," even if it wasn't a yes or no question. We tried to explain to him a little bit about values up front, but he was too busy, so we said, "Okay, sir. You need to watch this video." So he watched that trailer, "God, Country, Duty." After that, he called his aide in and said, "Lock the door. I don't want to be bothered." MoD was actually attacked by suicide bombers while this was going on. General Karimi just handed his phone to his J2 and said, "You handle it. I am busy right now." That is how much attention it garnered from him. General Karimi said, "This is exactly what we need for our force," because they were having problems with people stealing. They were having problems with people going AWOL (absent without official leave). And the insider-threat thing was really weighing heavy on their minds. MoD was getting a lot of pressure to do something that would counter that. So when General Karimi understood the "fourth voice of influence" arguments that we described, he said, "I am adopting this for the Afghans—for the whole armed forces." Now I don't know whether that actually happened—this was about five days before I left in May 2011.

There are two other pieces to this—and this was all very fortuitous because it took about three months to conceptually get this right. We had about 20 whiteboards in a conference room that no one was allowed to touch, and me and my guys were trying to turn our ideas into a plan: "How do you operationalize these academic theories into an executable program or plan?" Then we had to train ourselves, so that's how the whole process started.4 It would have been nice if all of this was precooked and we rolled into base hot and ready to implement a plan with pre-trained instructors. But it wasn't that way. Very much towards the end there, a couple of things happened. Ted (the filmmaker) had come in six months earlier—with MoD approval but without ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) approval—as a freelance journalist to do a story. I didn't have any authority to control his access or censor his message. We had to be transparent because it was the Afghans' post; it wasn't a U.S. post. I think we influenced his perspective of what was important and what wasn't with the values piece, which turned out to be brilliant. I mean, the guy is brilliant. It is a moving three-minute clip. You are just saturated in values through these personal stories of people.

About a month before I left, around April (2011), Ted showed back up, and he had this video on disk. I watched it, and I said, "Fantastic." So I gave it to my boss, General Linder, who was deputy commanding general for Special Operations Forces NTM–A (NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan). GEN Linder (who is now commander, Special Operations Command–Africa) was fully onboard, and he had been facilitating and contributing to this whole values campaign. He would come out and do whiteboard sessions with us and get down in the weeds of "How are we going to make this right?" He disseminated our ideas very quickly through ISAF Headquarters. Then Ted put the trailer on YouTube, and it went viral—on a very small scale, but a lot of Afghans were downloading it and looking at it. It had English subtitles, but it was spoken in Pashto. So I got that video from Ted at a very good time.

The week after that, the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, visited. I happened to be out on a camp leave, but during that exchange, the briefing of values and that video were a very important part of the demonstrations and his visit to the school. Mr. Rasmussen understood about the ICRC piece, and he said, "We have got to take this to the NATO summit in Chicago." Or so I was told by his aides. Then the week after that, the chairman (of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Martin Dempsey, came. NTM–A had four hours with him, and they gave me all four hours—which I wasn't very excited about initially because four hours is a long time to spend with the chairman. But after he saw the video, he became very, very interested in our program. We laid it out for him, and then took him on an interactive trip around the base. Our briefings were given at the top of the mountain on a piece of plywood and Plexiglas, but you are standing on top of a 2,000-foot mountain, and you can see where all the battles happen. That is a hell of a lot better than being in a hot, dusty conference room looking at a PowerPoint. I tried to hit the general with a PowerPoint, and when I got into the car he said, "You don't understand. I don't take PowerPoint from three-star generals. I am not going to start with a colonel." I said, "Maybe you want to watch the video." After he watched the video, he started asking questions. I said, "Sir, I've got it right here. I can explain it to you, or I can show you." He said, "Okay, I will look at the PowerPoint." So we went back, and I gave him a copy of the disk with all of the stuff on it.

I gave the presentation all the way up the line to General Linder. I think General Bolger had sent parts of it back to his Center for Army Lessons Learned. COL Joe Duncan's job at the time was the special operations division chief at JRTC. (As of today, he is the new J3 for SOCEUR.) So I said to Joe, "Hey, this is what we did, and this is what we sent back." The chairman's words were "Where are we going wrong with this? Why haven't we done this? We've been here how many years now? Ten going on 11, 12 years? Why haven't we done this?" That was a very good question. My initial reflection was "Sir, our system doesn't promote long-term stuff. I mean, if I have a combat rotation as a major and I have my company in combat, what is the metric we use here? It is pretty much kill/capture, number one. Number two, even if I had the best values campaign ever, within six months I am not going to have any measurable difference—or a very small measure of difference. That is not a part of my OER (officer evaluation record) that is going to get me or my battalion command promoted." He said, "Wow. You're right."5 Consequently, as we talked, I noted that the United States gave a lot of money and equipment and taught a lot of skills to the Afghans, but they didn't have the values necessary to sustain that long term without our continuing engagement, in my personal opinion.

So anyway, that is the Billy Shaw story, of being in Afghanistan for about eight months. It is kind of a different approach—not your average combat story. We were trying to use other tools that were not necessarily associated with military doctrine, and then worked with very unconventional partners like ICRC to fix problem sets. That level of trust had to be there, but we worked with the right guy at the right time, who had the right vision. So it ended up working out pretty well for us.


COL William ("Billy") H. Shaw is currently working on a doctorate in Adult Education from Auburn University, where he has also served as professor of military science for the Army ROTC.

About the Author(s): Dr. Douglas Borer is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis department of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, where he teaches war and political legitimacy and national security strategy.


1. The Counterterrorism Archive Project aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the 21st century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future.

2. This interview was edited for length and clarity, and at the request of COL Shaw, some names were changed to pseudonyms. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone, and do not represent the official positions of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or any other official entity. The original interview is available on video to CTFP members at

3. This is a term for spreading information, i.e., "storytelling," across multiple platforms and in different formats using digital media.

4. COL Shaw later explained the time line more clearly: "The first month at Camp Commando we worked around the clock to adjust the production model and quality of the soldiers we were training in the School of Excellence. We were not making the numbers the command needed and the quality of our graduates (especially Special Forces) was poor, in my opinion. It was in about the second month of my time at the camp that we started to design the values campaign. It was initially intended to fight corruption, which was terrible in the unit. It was not until after about six months there that we actually put our plan into effect."

5. COL Shaw later clarified this point: "The metrics we use to define our military success and earn promotion are based on kill or capture, and have nothing to do with values. No one would divert their attention from achieving those metrics in order to experiment with values. The problem is, while we can train anyone to pull the trigger and develop military skills, if they don't have the values or ethical base to be responsible, then there will always be problems with behavior."

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