Walking the Thin Red Line: DANSOF in Afghanistan

By: MAJ Birger Soerensen, Danish SOF


Denmark has a long tradition of contributing to stabilization engagements. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Denmark was heavily involved in peacemaking and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, specifically in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. From 2003 to 2007, Danish forces participated in the stabilization mission in Iraq, notably in the southern region around Basra.1 Denmark has also been engaged in Afghanistan since 2002, primarily in Helmand province between 2006 and 2014. This main effort was supported by extensive operations centered on a battalion battle group of about 700 soldiers close to the major city of Gereskh. Other branches of the Danish government have been active in Helmand as well, including a police detachment and political, legal, agricultural, and health advisors.

These missions contributed valuable lessons learned with respect to the Danish government's whole-of-government approach to stabilization engagements. This approach is described in a 2013 report titled Danish Integrated Stabilization Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Areas of the World.2 The intentions of this policy—to stabilize post-conflict areas by taking advantage of and creating synergy between every Danish, international, and local government tool—were well-known to the members of Task Force 7 (TF7) when we deployed to Helmand in 2012. The policy further emphasized that we were working in another country, on that country's terms, and that we must observe and respect its culture and customs. The policy's goal was to build up the country's institutions to be self-sustaining rather than make them dependent on Danish technologies and procedures.

Background on DANSOF

The Danish Special Operations Force (DANSOF) is composed of a maritime SOF unit, the Royal Frogman Corps (Froemandskorpset), and a land SOF unit, the Hunter Corps ( Jaegerkorpset). During the period described in this article, the units were under the command of the Danish Army Operational Command and the Royal Danish Navy. In 2015, both units were transferred to the newly formed Danish Special Operations Command.3

Historically, DANSOF has focused on the two NATO SOF tasks of direct action and special reconnaissance.4 A third SOF task, military assistance, which is in part a combination of what US SOF call foreign internal defense (FID), security force assistance (SFA), and counterinsurgency (COIN), has largely been neglected by Danish SOF.5 Some of the other roles within military assistance that are relevant to stabilization engagements, however, are familiar to DANSOF. For example, DANSOF has provided special support to the Danish police and supported Danish conventional forces with stabilization operations. In fulfilling these missions, DANSOF personnel gained experience in training and operating in a non-kinetic (or less kinetic) environment.

At the beginning of 2011, we learned that DANSOF would contribute to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) SOF task of building up Afghan provincial response companies (PRCs)—quick-response police units capable of undertaking special operations. DANSOF decision makers therefore decided to improve their knowledge of the SFA/FID/COIN aspects of military assistance. They opted to send a fact-finding team to Kabul to join the US TF10, a unit made up of an Operational Detachment Bravo (ODB) from Special Forces Group 10 that was building up several PRCs in the provinces around Kabul. I was part of this preliminary fact-finding mission and commanded the partnering detail of TF7 on its first four-month rotation. For the duration of TF7's mission, I was in command of the operations section back in Denmark and closely observed the progress of TF7 and PRC-Helmand (PRC-H)—the PRC that TF7 would eventually be responsible for.

Gaining Valuable Knowledge with TF10

The Danish fact-finding team joined TF10 in April 2011. The team staff detachment, of which I was a part, stayed with the US ODB in Kabul, while two Danish SOF teams, along with embedded SOF from Hungary and Romania, joined two US Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs) in the provinces of Wardak and Logar. This international variety of SOF personnel did much to improve our learning experience by giving the DANSOF staff and operators an opportunity to observe each team's approach to training, advising, and assisting the PRCs.

The DANSOF fact-finding team stayed with TF10 for three months, until July 2011. The staff detachment participated in planning sessions, monitored ODA missions, and accumulated valuable lessons from TF10 staff. Foremost was the lesson on how to build a self-sustaining PRC. Imagining ourselves in the Afghans' place and envisioning what they needed was both a practical and an intellectual challenge. TF7 would need a keen understanding of Afghan culture and customs, as well as Afghan approaches to both daily routines and operations. Otherwise, we could easily make the mistake of building the PRC as a Danish or Western unit. The Afghans are a much more patient people than the Danes, and it became apparent that TF7 could easily do irreparable damage by trying to rush the creation of PRC-H. On the one hand, we had to ensure the company had the necessary depth and substance to sustain itself and be effective. On the other hand, to do this it seemed we would have to introduce a measure of organization that the Afghans lacked. Another issue was that, too often, Western units doing SFA fixated on the kinetic part of a unit—the platoons and teams—and ignored the staff, the very part of a unit that makes it self-sustainable.

We decided to focus on the entire PRC, from the commander down to each individual policeman. The staff's lessons were supplemented by observations from the SOF teams in Wardak and Logar. One important lesson was to weigh the need for training the PRC against the constant pressure from ISAF SOF to produce results, such as neutralizing (capturing or killing) adversaries or stopping major criminal activities. This dual purpose, coming down from ISAF SOF, could potentionally confuse TF10 and other TFs. The main purpose of TF10 was to build the PRCs up to a self-sustainable level before the end of 2014, at which time ISAF combat troops were to leave the country. At the same time, ISAF hoped to keep the adversary suppressed to a manageable level, which meant that TF10 was often forced to take the PRCs on missions for which the Afghans were, at best, only partially ready. The result was that too much of the time allocated for the main mission was wasted on the secondary mission. The fact-finding team observed this delicate balance and noted its importance for building a sustainable internal security force.

TF7: Deployment and Encountering PRC-H

After completing a thorough pre-mission training session in Denmark, a DANSOF preparation team, of which I was a member, deployed in January 2012 to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand. The preparation team established basic necessities like setting up the camp for TF7, and more important, we initiated the training, intelligence, and operations procedures required for the mission. We also quickly began developing a relationship with the British Helmand brigade (TF Helmand), which operated the main ISAF base in Lashkar Gah, Main Operating Base Lash (MOB Lash). MOB Lash was to be the main base for TF7 for the duration of the mission, while TF Helmand would provide essential supporting elements such as a quick reaction force, counter-IED teams, medical support, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). We also built important relationships with other SOF units in Helmand, and with the US Marines in MOB Bastion, in the western part of the province.

In early February, TF7 arrived in Helmand and immediately started its mission. TF7 had organized its 51 personnel into four elements—staff, combat support, combat service support, and combat—tailored to match its PRC counterparts (see figure 1). Resource shortages limited DANSOF's concept for a more robust task force, but overall, TF7 was well organized to partner with PRC-H. PRC-H had already been partnering with a British conventional unit for six months, and this unit conducted the handover to TF7. Though the British had done the best they could in the circumstances, PRC-H was in terrible shape on all accounts: manning was at just 50 percent of the planned 125 policemen; the base was run-down; poor hygiene was spreading sickness; and the food was limited and of poor quality.

As the commander of TF7's partnering effort, I was also the direct mentor to the PRC commander. My first move was to consult with him for an in-depth assessment of the PRC. The PRC's makeup was based on a standard American SOF unit, with the usual headquarters (HQ) unit (four personnel), a staff (16 personnel), and multiple combat units (three platoons of 35 personnel each) (see figure 2). As previously mentioned, personnel levels were low, and I would describe many of the 60-odd policemen present as, at best, farmers with guns in their hands—which, in fact, they mostly were. The PRC commander had simply hired all available hands in an effort to meet the demands of the ISAF-styled organization.

Making a Plan for a Self-Sustainable PRC-H

With this information as a baseline, TF7 took a few days to update the two-year plan we had made back in Denmark for the partnering mission with PRC-H, using onsite observations to fill in the gaps in the initial plan. The components of the new plan were as follows.

  1. A timeline with milestones for essential development phases of the PRC over the two-year period. This timeline included an initial six-month partnered phase, in which TF7 would lead most training sessions and head all operations. This was to be followed by an enabled phase of approximately eight months, during which the Afghans would gradually take over parts of the training and lead operations, closely supported by TF7. In the final 10-month advanced phase, PRC-H would conduct operations on its own, monitored by TF7, and would receive our advice and support only in extreme cases. After this, TF7 would redeploy back to Denmark, leaving in place a PRC-H that could work independently with minimal or no supervision.
  2. A plan to build relations and cooperation with other key Afghan units, HQs, and legal entities. The most important of these was the Helmand provincial police headquarters (PPHQ), which was the PRC's main supplier of intelligence and administrative and logistical support, including manning, food, accommodation, and vehicles. The PPHQ also ran targeting meetings, at which potential targets for investigation or arrest were assessed and distributed among the available police units. The PRC was "the new kid on the block," which made it essential to quickly integrate the PRC into the PPHQ and make it part of the Afghan security system and targeting cycle, as opposed to having it remain dependent on ISAF. An essential actor in the police system was the chief of the PPHQ. To facilitate a good rapport between TF7, PRC-H, and the provincial police chief, our TF7 commander served as a direct liaison. He and the chief held weekly meetings to ensure they shared an understanding of the direction and goals for PRC-H.

Another important HQ within the PRC-H orbit was the General Directorate of Police Special Units (GDPSU) which, on paper, was in charge of the PRC and all intelligence surveillance units. The GDPSU was responsible for most operational and administrative issues for the PRC, but in many situations the proximity of the PPHQ to PRC-H made it the de facto HQ for all practical purposes. An intelligence surveillance unit was the PRC's direct partner for gathering human intelligence and was the main source of intelligence for the PRC. Consequently, we invested a considerable amount of effort in that relationship. It was equally important to have good connections in the Afghan judicial system, because the PRC would be going after some of the "high-value targets" in the area. Too often, suspected criminals were apprehended but not prosecuted—a practice that did not engage the Afghan judicial system as a whole and in many cases led to a suspect's release. For this reason, it was essential that the PRC actually bring those it apprehended to justice according to the Afghan rule of law. Other important potential partners included the many Special Police units in Helmand, with whom the PRC could cooperate for training or operations, and the newly formed Afghan helicopter unit.

  1. A program to build the internal capacity for a balanced and self-sustainable PRC by training all sections of the HQ, staff, and combat units. This was, simultaneously, one of the most important and most difficult tasks, because the Afghans were not familiar with our Western penchant for thorough organization. We had to balance between Western organizational methods and Afghan culture—and to a certain extent, impose our ideas and methods on the Afghans. This dilemma had to be handled delicately, or our best efforts could prove counterproductive. In addition, developing the whole PRC organization meant training all members of each element not only in tactical and technical police skills, but also in other general skills such as literacy.
  2. A program to develop a cadre of Afghan instructors as quickly as possible to support the PRC. This would be accomplished by sending policemen to non-commissioned officer training at an Afghan NCO school, and through additional TF7 training. As the cadre gained proficiency, the Afghans themselves would take an increasing role as instructors in the PRC's regular training program.
  3. A plan for selecting and training the future leaders of the PRC as soon as possible. The PRC lacked planners, practitioners, and role models, and was sorely in need of qualified leaders. Similar to the plan for developing instructors, we would remedy this by sending candidates through the NCO school, the officers' academy, and daily officer and NCO training.

The Plan Unfolds

The plan did not unfold smoothly. Even with our systematic preparation, many surprises hit us on a weekly, if not daily, basis, mostly related to our focus on self-sustainment. TF7's conviction that we had to help the Afghans stand on their own two feet was so central to our concept that we were ready to sacrifice operational success for a time. For months, we struggled with manning, the targeting process, and the Afghan judicial system, while slowly raising the PRC's organizational proficiency to an acceptable level. In addition, we balanced the need for intensive instruction to drive progress with the need for the Afghans to learn from their own mistakes. In this process, we did all we could to protect the PRC from overly complicated or dangerous missions, or took the lead ourselves if we thought the potential gains outweighed the risks. Another issue was equipment: we repeatedly pushed for the kinds of gear that the PRC would be able to maintain themselves, while avoiding expensive technical tools they could never hope to maintain after we left. Again, this focus on self-reliance sacrificed short-term results in operations in favor of healthy long-term development.

Another challenge to our efforts was corruption. Every layer of the Afghan justice system, including the police, seemed to be exposed to a high level of corruption. We constantly had to judge whether an issue of misbehavior was worth pushing or better abandoned to avoid further complications. For example, only two months into our mission, we had to ask the provincial police chief to fire the PRC commander after the commander was caught misusing his power. This set the PRC back a bit, because the commander took some of his closest men with him when he left. In the end, though, it proved to be a good decision, because the new commander, who arrived a month later, had Special Police experience and went on to play an essential role in making the PRC self-sustainable over time.

While developing the PRC, TF7 occasionally supported the British-led TF Helmand. This TF, however, usually conducted operations with large armored infantry formations using conventional search and destroy tactics that did not sit well with our Special Police force and did not seem to reflect efficient COIN tactics.6 It was my impression that these operations seldom achieved much, because the Taliban simply refused to give battle and disappeared into the countryside. We therefore cooperated primarily with other Afghan Special Police forces and focused on building long-term relations for the PRC.

After 10 months of "massaging" the provincial justice system and building the PRC's proficiencies, we reached a milestone. PRC-H went on its first warrant-based operation, carrying an arrest warrant signed by both the Lashkar Gar prosecutor and judge. PRC-H was, to my knowledge, the first Afghan PRC to achieve this, and the operation was subsequently used as a model throughout the ISAF system. As TF7's redeployment deadline in December 2013 approached, PRC-H achieved further successes that, in my mind, set it apart from other Afghan units. It was almost fully manned; it had a solid cadre of officers and NCOs; it was well-integrated into the Afghan police organization; and it could conduct successful, independent operations based on information from an intelligence surveillance unit or the PPHQ. In sum, we felt we could hand over a PRC that was not a Western-style police unit, but a self-sustainable Special Police unit tailored to Afghan conditions.

Relations to ISAF SOF

Initially, we shared a good understanding of the purpose of the mission with ISAF SOF. Upon arriving in February 2012, we presented our ideas for a late-2013 end-state and received good feedback. Our plan to deliver a self-sustaining PRC in two years seemed ambitious but possible as long as the PRC's development was gradual. To this end, ISAF SOF agreed that operations, at least for a time, would come second to training and the general development of the unit. But while our superiors agreed in theory, the reality was different. In the early stages of our mission, we were allowed to concentrate on the build-up process, but after two to three months, it became apparent to us that ISAF SOF wanted us to push the PRC harder than was previously agreed.

Although the development of a self-sustainable Afghanistan was the articulated goal of ISAF, a conventional focus on neutralizing the enemy prevailed in fact. I observed this tendency to let the kinetic effect on the enemy take priority over development of the PRCs in many of my mission reports, and my commander had heated discussions with ISAF SOF on this issue. Such an operational focus went against several counterinsurgency ground truths, such as separating the insurgents from the population rather than attacking them directly, and building an indigenous police force that could provide the intelligence and manpower needed to facilitate that very separation.7 We were left trying to balance what we thought was the right thing to do, and what supported the goals of Danish stabilization policy, against the demands of ISAF SOF. I am certain that ISAF SOF was under great pressure from the Joint Forces Command (JFC) to deliver results "on the battlefield," and that it was ultimately within the JFC that this conventional campaign focus originated. In many respects, I cannot help thinking that ISAF was repeating mistakes from earlier US COIN campaigns, such as in Vietnam.


The most important conclusions I draw from this experience relate to the need to build self-sustaining indigenous security units. In this article, I have concentrated on the best practices and successes of TF7 and PRC-H, but during TF7's deployment in Helmand, it was apparent to me that many TFs used their position leading Afghan forces more as an excuse for undertaking operations than an opportunity to guide the Afghans to a high and sustainable level of proficiency.8 In my mind, this was due to the tacit understanding within JFC and ISAF SOF that their main purpose was to kinetically neutralize the enemy faster than it could reproduce itself. I challenge that understanding. I contend, moreover, that for a country to eventually be able to stand on its own two feet, partners must concentrate on working with and through that country's existing systems to separate the insurgents from the population. For TF7, that meant we constantly focused on improving the ability of the PRC to sustain itself within the Afghan system.

An important part of our plan was to make sure we gave the PRC equipment that its members could use and maintain without us. It would have been pointless to train them to depend on devices like mortars or UAVs, which they could not use after we left. Likewise, it was paramount that the Afghans learned to use their own indigenous organizations, both those within the PRC and external ones such as the various HQs and the Afghan judicial system. Corruption was another ever-present obstacle, and I cannot say we outsiders fully understood all the ways it operated. We did our best to balance a tolerance for some levels of corruption as an integral part of Afghan life with the need to strike down hard when it hindered our goal of building a reliable police force that the people of Afghanistan might eventually learn to trust.

I see some contradictions between, on the one hand, a Danish integrated stabilization engagement that works with and through the local population and emphasizes cultural awareness and self-sustainability—a whole-of-government approach—and on the other hand, a US-NATO–led kill-or-capture COIN campaign, such as we have seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Additionally, the ineffectiveness of the conventional armored infantry tactics used by TF Helmand in COIN operations shines a light on the potential usefulness of smaller, more flexible units such as DANSOF stabilization engagements.9 ²

About the Author(s):

MAJ Birger Soerensen serves in the Danish SOF.

  1. Stephen A. Carney, Allied Participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2011), 52: http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/059/59-3-1/cmh_59-3-1.pdfgo back up
  2. Udenrigsministeriet (Department of Foreign Affairs), Denmark's Integrated Stabilisation Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Areas of the World (Copenhagen: Udenrigsministeriet, November 2013): http://um.dk/en/~/media/UM/Danish-site/Documents/Danida/Nyheder_Danida/2013/Stabiliseringspolitik_UK_web.pdfgo back up
  3. I refer to the two units as DANSOF here, because they performed the mission in an integrated joint manner, with similar capacities and qualifications.go back up
  4. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Allied Joint Doctrine for Special Operations, AJP 3-5 (Brussels: NATO, 2013), 2-1–2-2.go back up
  5. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations, Joint Publication 3-05 (Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 16 July 2014), xi: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_05.pdfgo back up
  6. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 11.go back up
  7. Ibid., 10–13.go back up
  8. It has not been a "dance on roses" for PRC-Helmand since the last soldier of TF7 left in early 2014. A new commander was struck by an IED and lost both his legs. When the former commander took over again, he lost a leg to another IED. Changes have also taken place in the Special Police organization, which was dealing with major corruption and operational challenges, so that PRC-H has been restructured under another name. Taking all of this into consideration, I have refrained from saying anything conclusive about the far-reaching achievements of PRC-H and TF7.go back up
  9. I am presently investigating these issues for my master's degree thesis, entitled How Danish SOF Can Support the Danish Integrated Stabilization Engagement Policy.go back up
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