Operation “Jatagani”: Working to Win the Hearts and Minds of the Afghan People

By: LTC Arjan Hilaj, Albanian Army

For almost 11 years, coalition forces in Afghanistan have been battling an insurgency in a very complicated environment that includes Islamic religious fanatics, warlords, and common criminals. Kinetic actions are not enough to prevail. In this protracted war, winning the support of the population is imperative.

Former International Security Assistance Force commander General David Petraeus, in his 2010 guidance on the conduct of counterinsurgency operations against insurgents, placed renewed stress on the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people if operations are to succeed: "The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the center of gravity. Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail."1 With these guidelines in mind, a combined Albanian– U.S. Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) called "Striking Eagles 1" conducted an operation codenamed "Jatagani" in mid-December 2011. The operation, which I led, was conducted in conjunction with the Afghan National Army (ANA) battalion with which the OMLT was embedded, and with other U.S. Marine and Army personnel.

The commander's plan for the operation included the conduct of a "key leader engagement" with the elders of the village of Shine Shavara, as well as the distribution of humanitarian aid (school and hygiene kits) to the village's children, and medical check-ups for adults and children. It was hoped that these efforts would extend the influence of the Afghan government and army and the coalition forces, increase military control in an area hostile to the Afghan military and government, and undermine support for the insurgents by projecting a favorable image of coalition forces to friendly, neutral, and hostile audiences. All of this effort, ultimately, was designed to "win the hearts and minds" by removing the root causes of unrest on which the insurgency fed.2

Preparing in the Dark

Despite making all possible preparations to maximize the chances for a successful mission, Operation Jatagani would prove yet again that in the battlefield environment, the "fog of war" persists. In this case, however, the fog of war also obscured the "human terrain."

Initial coordination for this operation was started in November 2011 by the U.S. deputy commander of the OMLT, who tapped into the vast logistic supply lines of the U.S. Forces–Afghanistan to secure the necessary humanitarian aid the operation would deliver. Meanwhile, I continued to work out the specifics of the operation with the Afghan battalion commander. We selected this particular village, Shine Shavara, because reports indicated that the population was not friendly and because our interpreters spoke of the villagers in contemptible terms. The villagers were ethnic Pashtuns, former refugees in Pakistan who had settled in the area. Reconnaissance missions conducted by my team members confirmed that the villagers were hostile to coalition forces. For example, on two occasions, children threw stones at our vehicles as we passed through the village. In general, children are very good indicators of the overall mood of the people. One of the difficulties that hindered our planning was a lack of useful intelligence. From our side, we developed the best intelligence we could. A week prior to the operation, we conducted site reconnaissance to locate the best possible place to conduct our key leader meeting with the village elders, and to determine where we should distribute our humanitarian aid and medical assistance. In addition, we contacted a human terrain team at our superior command, but found that they not only had no information about the village, but did not even know where this village was located. Our Afghan counterparts were not much help either. Bearing all this uncertainty in mind, I sized up my group's ability to cope with unpredictable events.

The operation itself bore several tactical risks. First, we needed to ensure that the ANA forces would maintain proper fire discipline. (ANA soldiers had a reputation for opening fire at everything moving in front of their gun barrels when under attack.) Second, we were concerned about maintaining effective command and control, especially as we had never trained or conducted operations with more than half of OMLT. Lastly, the terrain itself, particularly the poor road conditions, posed risks. As one Afghan proverb puts it, "When God created the world he had some spare rocks and steep mountains. With those, the Almighty created Afghanistan."ƒ1

The Mission

Early in the morning on the first day of our mission, our coalition vehicles were lined up in column formation waiting for our Afghan counterparts, who, not surprisingly, arrived late. In all, 83 soldiers and 16 vehicles assembled for the operation. Before getting underway, I gave a short briefing to the ANA commander to reiterate all essential tasks to be performed. Our first contact with the population occurred in a village adjacent to our objective. Initially indifferent to our presence, kids followed our slow-moving column through the narrow roads, which were barely wide enough to provide a few inches of clearance from the mud-brick walls on either side of the vehicles.

Immediately after we arrived at the main village and had established a security perimeter, I, as the commander of the operation, went to meet the elders of the village in front of the village's mosque. After the formal greeting and offer of tea from my hosts, I explained why we were there. While I was speaking about the benefits the villagers would get from supporting the Afghan government, the ANA, and the coalition forces, the Malik (the most senior among the elders) told me that "not every Pashtun or person who lives in the mountains supports the Taliban insurgency." All they wanted were better living conditions for themselves and their children. I also learned that other coalition forces had visited this village before us, but had not fulfilled their promises. Despite our intentions and efforts, the population remained wary of us, at best, and some were openly hostile. Again, the children proved to be a useful indicator of the mood of the people. During our mission, the children were the most aggressive individuals and the hardest to control. Wave after wave of them stormed the site where the humanitarian assistance kits were being distributed and the area where the medics were dispensing medical aid. One of our vehicles was damaged by rocks thrown by children who did not receive the kits, and some of our gunners were slightly injured by the rocks.

What We Can Do Better

In our post-mission review, we discussed several lessons learned. One was that small decisions, like parking the vehicles close to a house, could be considered tactically sound but could alienate the population if females were present in the yard. We also realized that giving water bottles to the children led to fights over these prizes and to resentment of our forces by the children who did not receive any water. Additionally, we determined it was better to have the ANA distribute the humanitarian assistance because they were more familiar with the cultural nuances and potential cultural landmines. One successful aspect of the mission was that the Afghan commander expressed his readiness to go out on such missions in the future, after coming to appreciate that these missions are more likely to win over the Afghan population than are guns. From our perspective as coalition forces, it is important to understand that the human factor in counterinsurgency is the principal element that dictates the course of events. Understanding culture and being flexible with the human terrain are the most important "weapons" that can guarantee long-term success in the modern battle space, which so often is where people are living.


1. David Petraeus, ISAF Commander, "COMISAF's Counterinsurgency guidance," 1 August 2010. Available at: http://graphics8. nytimes.com/packages/pdf/world/2010/COMISAF-MEMO.pdf (accessed April 12, 2012).

2. Robert Mockaitis, Resolving Insurgencies: http://www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.mil/ (accessed Dec. 15, 2011).

3. US Air Force, Afghanistan Handbook, 2010.

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