U.S. Army Soldiers patrol in the village of Wosulwali Kolangar in the Pole-Elam district in Afghanistan's Logar province, March 17, 2010. The Soldiers, assigned to the 118th Military Police Company, routinely patrol the area to maintain security and good relations with residents. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Russell Gilchrest

Afghanistan: COIN and the Human Terrain

By Mike Costello

After spending 5-months in southern Afghanistan on a Human Terrain Team (HTT), I learned that utilizing basic COIN practices
is a very viable CIED strategy that is easy to learn and implement. In fact, the COIN strategies covered in this paper are
measurable and can be taught in a 1-hour block of instruction together with a few squad or platoon size patrols into an Afghan
village. It’s that simple.

In October of 2009, our three-man human terrain team accompanied a platoon of infantrymen on a routine patrol west of Kandahar City. Our mission entailed walking one half kilometer from an American Strong Point into the nearby village of Sanjeray. When we arrived at the village, our thirty-man patrol walked into Sanjeray and back to our FOB without holding one conversation with the Afghans – not one conversation! What was the purpose of our patrol? (more... )


A shura organized by village elders at Haji Babba, meeting with the commanders and soldiers from the canadian forces stationed in nakhonay. Photo: Mike Costello

Give your patrols purpose.

Stop to talk with and get to know the Afghans in your AOR. If you do not see any adults walking in the village streets, its okay, knock on doors and introduce yourselves. Explain the purpose of your patrol, which is most likely a clearing operation or a demonstration of coalition force presence to give Afghan villagers a sense of security.

Purchase cookies, cake and chocolate in local shops and distribute them to the adults and kids you meet in the streets. Most importantly, note GPS coordinates of your meetings and go back a second and third time to talk with the same people in order to build relationships.

Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Jose Gonzalez gives snacks to Afghan children during a patrol in Dagyan village in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 21, 2010. Gonzalez is assigned to Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones )

The Taliban are successful in some areas of Afghanistan, because they talk with the people. However, have you ever heard of a Talib handing out chocolate? A Canadian once reminded me that American soldiers handing out chocolate to kids in the streets is an American tradition started during WWII. American troops in Afghanistan should continue that great tradition.

The Afghans are a very hospitable lot and they enjoy meeting and entertaining new people, especially foreigners. Eventually your new Afghan acquaintances will invite you to sit down for tea outside their compound doors and for dinner within their homes. Accept their invitations! Where are we going? One thing our troops have in Afghanistan is time and nothing is more important than our troops getting to know the Afghan people – nothing.

Afghan villagers at nakhonay welcome a Canadian patrol, accompanied by Human Terrain Team AF-04, inviting them for tea. Photo: Mike Costello

Cultural anthropologists and others have been studying the tribes of Afghanistan for years, and they will continue to study them long after coalition forces are gone. There are over 1,250 tribes in Afghanistan. Your unit will spend no more than 12-months in Afghanistan, so don't get bogged down concerning yourself with inter-tribal relationships or the individual tribal affiliations of villagers in your AOR – in all probability, tribal issues will have little or no impact on your mission.

Do not worry about insulting the Afghan people because you are not familiar with their customs. The Afghans have their customs – we have ours. The Afghans are friendly people and will not take offense if you point the bottoms of your shoes at them or if you eat with your left hand. In all probability, they will think our ignorance of their customs is humorous. Try your best; be yourselves, show common courtesy and respect to the Afghan people and you will receive the same in return.

Once you get to know a few of the Afghans, organize a shura. Give one of the elders a pre-arranged date, time and location for the shura. Word travels extremely fast through the villages, so shuras can be arranged within a couple of days or even within a couple of hours, if necessary. If the Afghans accept your shura invitation, ask them for the names of the elders and mullahs who will be attending the shura. Once you have their names – how do you learn where the elders and mullahs live? Just ask around the village.

If your unit calls a shura, make sure you have plenty of blankets to sit on, water, tea, teapots, teacups, sugar, food platters and sweets to share. You can buy these items from the local village shops, which will make you even more Afghan friends. At the shura, the Afghans may not allow you to take individual photos of them, so take group photos of the shura and afterwards you can crop the photos and start placing names with faces.

At the first shura, take the time to learn the names of your Afghan guests and their positions within the village. Arrange to hold shuras once a week. Agree to a specific agenda for each shura.

Examples: needs assessment, security, and the status of projects or compensation for damage to properties. Work the ANA and/or ANP into the shura process.

On subsequent patrols, you will now recognize some of the villagers and perhaps remember their names. In most cases, the Afghans will be glad to see you in their village again and it will be easier for you to strike up a conversation to learn more about them and their village.

Want to be a star? Our HTT has learned that if your patrols provide just half of the following information to your commanders at the company, battalion or brigade levels your unit will be considered the area experts to go to – guaranteed!

  • Names and borders of the villages in your AOR
    (they may not be shown on any of your maps)
  • Names of maliks (ask to take photos at a Shura)
  • Names of mullahs (just ask around the village)
  • Names of key businessmen (again, just ask around)
  • Names of major landowners
  • Needs Assessment
    (the village may be self-sufficient and not need anything).

COIN Measures of Effectiveness (MOE)

in natural order of occurrence

  • How many conversations patrols initiate with villagers
  • How many times patrols are invited for tea
  • How many times patrols initiate or are invited to shuras
  • How many photos are taken with associated names
  • How many IEDs are pointed out to you by the villagers
  • How many bad guys are pointed out to you by the villagers
  • How many times your patrols are invited to dinner by the Afghans.

Ironically, once your patrols start to interact with the local population, you may experience an increase in IED incidents, indirect fire or ambushes by the insurgents. Why? You are accomplishing something! You are infringing on the insurgent’s territory. No self-respecting insurgent is going to spend his hard-earned money blowing up a coalition patrol if the patrol is not accomplishing something.

However, do not let the increase in IEDs discourage your COIN efforts. In Nakhonay, the villagers started to point out IEDs to us 45-days after our first introductions. As of this writing, the villagers still have not pointed out any bad guys, but we believe the reason for this is that most of the insurgents in the Greater Nakhonay area are outsiders or drug dealers. Last month, I was informed by one of the Canadian platoon leaders that they were invited to dinner for the first time in Nakhonay. In fact, his whole platoon was invited!

Because of the hard work, courage and sacrifice of Canadian soldiers, the ANA and HTT AF-04 team members operating in and around Nakhonay, an instructor at the Kandahar Airfield IED Training Center was able to state that the citizens of Nakhonay have recently turned in more IEDs to coalition forces than any other village in Afghanistan.

About the author:

Mike Costello is an ex-Green Beret Weapons Sergeant and Vietnam veteran with extensive experience working with indigenous peoples in over 65-countries including the war zones of Cambodia, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a member of Provincial Reconstruction Team #1, embedded with the US Marines Regimental Combat Team #1 in Fallujah, Iraq. Most recently, Mike served as a Research Manager with HTT AF-04 embedded with the Canadian infantry in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Graduate of Columbia University’s East Asian Studies Institute with Mandarin Chinese language skills.

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