Learning from the Enemy: Alternative Afghan Security Forces1

By: MAJ Sándor Fábián

After a decade of vigorous fighting in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are beginning to understand that a conventional battlefield military strategy, conducted by traditionally organized, trained, and equipped forces, does not work against a determined irregular adversary. With nearly 3,000 dead and tens of thousands of casualties, the allies have started to shift their main effort from conventional operations to unorthodox ways of doing business. Allied leaders seem finally to recognize the key points of Ivan Arreguín-Toft's theory of asymmetric conflict, and have decided to use an indirect strategy to counter the enemy's irregular tactics.2 Even though NATO is starting to use non-traditional forces to enhance the Afghan military's capabilities, however, we are still misreading the lessons of history by trying to fit a conventional military organization to a problem it was not designed for.

This article suggests that Afghan and allied leaders replace both the conventional military force structure and their plans for local irregular militias with a defensive strategy built around non-traditional organizational and operational principles. The goal would be to transform the entire Afghan Security Forces into a full-time, professional irregular force. This proposal is based on three assumptions about how a small country (in terms of population and economic power)3 may best defend itself against a stronger irregular or conventional enemy:

  1. A small state with limited resources can more easily afford effective professional irregular forces than conventional forces;
  2. A small state has a better chance to defeat its enemies by using irregular warfare techniques rather than traditional military approaches;
  3. Such a strategy will be more effective when the irregular force is professional and its members have been trained and equipped for irregular warfare before conflict begins, rather than in response to a conflict that is underway.

Structural changes in most countries' military forces have always come from the lessons learned from their own and their enemies' experiences, yet it seems that in Afghanistan we have forgotten the latter. Despite the fact that Western allies adopted so many organizational and operational principles from Napoleon's Grand Armée, the Germans in World War II, and later from the Soviet Union, it seems we are not willing to learn the same lessons from our "new" irregular enemies. Instead of building an organization capable of answering the irregular threat by implementing the structural and operational advantages of our enemies, the planners of the new Afghan Security Forces are relying on familiar, old-fashioned, massed conventional force structure, training, and equipment. We are developing a military that looks similar to ours in an environment that completely lacks the fundamental principles of Westernstyle military culture.

We need to change this mindset. The current plan calls for an Afghan Security departure of allied forces in 2014. The Afghan army and air force are organized into battalions (kandaks), brigades, and corps, equipped primarily with traditional U.S. and European weapon-systems, and trained according to U.S. military doctrine.4 If we really want to answer the insurgents' indirect strategy with our own, however, then we need an organization built, trained, and equipped to fight irregular wars.

This may not be as difficult as it sounds, because throughout history the Afghan warriors have proven themselves to be vicious fighters, with remarkable skill in irregular warfare—of which allied forces have acquired firsthand experience. Through familiarity with their homeland, resilience in the most difficult physical conditions, and the ability to adapt to the tactics and strategies of different enemies, the Afghan fighters have repeatedly demonstrated their strength against some of the mightiest military powers in the world. As we build the future Afghan military, we should be learning lessons from the organizational structure and military operations of the insurgents of Afghanistan, as well as other irregular forces throughout history. We all have seen how effective the Balkan partisans, the Chechen militias, and Hezbollah were with a handful of fighters, ad hoc organizations, and limited supplies.5 Imagine how effective these organizations could have been if they had been elevated to the state level, with full national economic, informational, and infrastructural support. Instead of forcing our traditional approach on the Afghans, why do we not capitalize on these same principles of irregular warfare, but on a different, national level?

Structure and Training

One of the most import elements of our present conventional strategy (and the one we are preparing for our Afghan partners as well) is to hold onto the territories we already own or have taken from the enemy. We are trying to gain control of the vast Afghan countryside through the establishment of large conventional bases and forward operational bases and outposts, from which we launch operations. Since this approach and our conventional force structure do not allow our forces to maintain a continuous presence in the countryside, the strategy has shown limited success. Without the presence of NATO and Afghan forces, the insurgents prosper in these rural areas, and have had remarkable success in establishing a shadow government in the districts they occupy. To change this situation in our favor, we need to change our approach and build a force really capable of controlling territories. The proposed irregular force would be much smaller (about 100,000 men) than the currently existing one, but it has to be a select, high-quality force.

To be effective both in the current unconventional environment and in a possible future conventional conflict in defense of Afghanistan, the new force should be organized and trained along the lines of John Arquilla's and David Ronfeldt's battleswarm theory.6 According to this theory, the new Afghan Defense Forces must be a network-like organization with a unified command and control element that sets strategic goals, but that intervenes in the operations of the subordinate elements only when it is strictly necessary. The main body of the defense forces would consist of a large number of small units (fighting cells of 30–40 men) capable of operating autonomously in their respective areas of operations by following mission-type orders. These individual units would also be capable of conducting operations as part of a larger formation (for example, as a designated quick-reaction force). The locally recruited and deployed units must possess a mixed set of capabilities, including, at a minimum, an infantry assault force, engineering skills, explosive ordnance disposal, long-range communications, information collection and processing, and enhanced medical skills.

How would this force structure be better than the conventional forces? The small size of the proposed units and their enabling capabilities would have two major advantages over the insurgents or against a future conventional force. First, having only a small footprint and the ability to operate with limited resupply would eliminate the large conventional units' current disadvantages of being visible and predictable, and thus easily targetable. Second, the sustained pulsing and continuous field presence of the numerous small units within their respective area of operations would not only keep the enemy off-balance, but would more effectively extend and consolidate our territorial control.

The most obvious way to create the proposed force structure is to build it on Afghan society's most defining social structure, that of the tribes. Although the idea of Village Support Operations (VSO) indicates the allies are starting to capitalize on local militias, these groups' questionable effectiveness makes it necessary to take this approach to a different level. The locally recruited guerrilla fighters have to become professional soldiers who are organized, trained, and equipped to fight irregular wars. The small, localized units would operate in their home area, the place they know best and where their own interests lie.

Because modern warfare goes beyond combat operations into security/stability building, the proposed forces have to be able to conduct their missions across the entire spectrum of conflicts. On the one hand, these professional irregular units have to possess both offensive and defensive swarming capabilities to effectively counter the current insurgent threat. Their mission sets must include patrolling, intelligence collection, cordon and search operations, raids, ambushes, etc. On the other hand, the new forces also have to have the skills to support non-military governmental efforts to mitigate those societal problems that insurgents thrive on, such as poverty, grievance, and lack of governance. Based on these operational requirements, the training of the new Afghan forces has to encompass a unique combination of skills. They have to be able to operate much more like our Special Forces than our conventional combat units.

We are currently using our elite forces to train and build the Afghan Security Forces along conventional lines to meet traditional infantry standards. Let's be honest: For numerous reasons (lack of discipline as we understand it, lack of cohesion, high levels of illiteracy, no history of Western-type military culture, and so on), we have had limited success with this approach. We would do better to let the Special Forces do what they do best, which would be to reorganize and train the new Afghan forces for special tactics, techniques, and procedures along the lines of the proposed theory. With the new type of training, organization, and tactics, the Afghan Security Forces would almost instantly take away all of the insurgents' current tactical advantages.


To best exploit the proposed force structure and achieve mission success, the professional irregular forces need to be equipped with light, high-quality weapons and communication systems, which should allow them to carry out swift and unpredictable maneuvers while providing accurate local information and fire superiority.7 Instead of proposing specific systems, it makes more sense to consider several requirements and some general frameworks for such systems.

First and foremost, every piece of gear they use has to be locally sustainable. We must avoid equipping the Afghan forces with our high-tech weapon systems, whose maintenance requirements are so high that only a handful of countries can really afford to use them. At the small unit level, the equipment must facilitate the maximum exploitation of battleswarm, and should ensure the ability to operate at night and under severe weather conditions; conduct long-range observation; maintain secure communications; record, evaluate, and transfer data at the site; and rely on an intel reach-back capability from the field to central databases, to name a few basic requirements. At the higher command levels, the Afghan forces have to have the capability to follow operations in real time, conduct secure communication, operate large databases, etc. level of law and order for years as well.

The proposal not only provides a solution for winning the current fight, however, it also introduces a valid and sustainable strategic approach for Afghanistan's future defense. For those who still have doubts, thinking about the answers to the following questions might help clarify things:

  1. Would a professional irregular defense force, using irregular warfare tactics, be more effective for answering the current threat than a conventional military?
  2. Would a professional irregular defense force be better able to protect information about itself in the field than our large conventional formations have?
  3. Would the maintenance of the proposed forces be more affordable for both the allies and the future Afghan government than the current structure?
  4. What size of professional, irregular defense force could be sustained from the same budget used by the current conventional military?
  5. What missions would the proposed forces be unable to conduct, that would require conventional forces?
  6. How long would it take to transform the current tenuous Afghan conventional military culture and organization into a professional irregular defense force?

It is time for us to understand that our military organizational and procedural designs are not the only ones that can work; there is no "one size fits all" solution to military requirements. We need to start learning the right lessons, by focusing not only on how to exploit our enemies' weaknesses, but also on how to incorporate their organizational and operational strengths into our own and our partners' military systems. This outlook would set us up for success in the current conflict more effectively than does our present approach. And it could well prepare us for the next military conflict we are likely to fight.

About the Author(s): MAJ Sándor Fábián is currently senior Special Forces advisor at the Operational Directorate in the Hungarian Ministry of Defense.


1. This article is based on LTC Fábián's graduate thesis, "Professional Irregular Defense Forces: The Other Side of COIN," prepared for the Defense Analysis Department of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, June 2012. It is available on the Dudley Knox Library website: http://calhoun.nps.edu/public/ handle/10945/7338; accessed November 15, 2012.

2. Until recently, allied forces in Afghanistan have been trying to counter the insurgents' indirect strategy with a direct approach. According to Ivan Arreguin-Toft's strategic interaction theory, the weaker side stands a better chance of victory over the long run in the Afghanistan conflict than does the stronger side. It seems that allied leaders have started to realize this, and recently introduced their own indirect approach, which changes the odds in the allied forces' favor. See Ivan Arreguin-Toft, How the Weak Win Wars: The Theory of Asymmetric Conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

3. For the definition of small states in this context, see Fábián, "Professional Irregular Defense Forces," 17–18.

4. Anthony H. Cordesman, Afghan National Security Forces and Security Lead Transition: The Assessment Process, Metrics, and Efforts to Build Capacity, Statement before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, July 24, 2012: http://csis.org/files/ts120724_cordesman.pdf; accessed January 9, 2013.

5. See Fábián, "Professional Irregular Defense Forces," 93–155.

6. The phenomenon, as Arquilla and Ronfeldt defined it, is the systematic pulsing of force and/or fire by dispersed units, so as to strike the adversary from all directions simultaneously. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Swarming and the Future of Conflict (Santa Monica: RAND Coorporation, 2000), 8.

7. William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special

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