Retired Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve
3:24 AM 11/29/2017
One day while working for a multinational corporation in Europe, I began receiving emails about what I will call Project Blue. I had never heard of Project Blue. I then contacted one of my colleagues to enlighten me about Project Blue. Known for her straightforward manner, she said it was much the same as Project Red, but Project Red wasn’t working, so they changed the name.
Yes, that really happened.
The Pentagon military leadership, many of whom fancy themselves corporate executives, seemed to have adopted that method of bureaucratic legerdemain.
Around 2010, the U.S established the Afghan Local Police (ALP) to serve as locally-based village self-defense forces. The ALP units were recruited from local communities in areas where Afghan government control was minimal. The recruits were selected and vetted by community leaders and also screened by the Afghan National Police and Ministry of Interior.
The ALP was part of a larger counterinsurgency program called Village Stability Operations (VSO), which was a comprehensive and complementary plan incorporating aspects of security, governance, and development using a bottom-up approach, that is, nation-building at a local level.
Previous versions of VSO in Afghanistan were the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3), Community Defense Initiative (CDI), and Local Defense Initiative (LDI), but without the nation-building components of “development” and “governance” pushed by former ISAF commander, Gen. David Petraeus.
Many believed: “that the establishment of local security forces similar to the Afghan historical ‘Arbakai’ would capitalize on Afghans who would likely fight for their own tribes and communities but would be less inclined to fight for a central government located in a distant Kabul.”
Often, what may sound intuitively logical in theory, may not play out as intended in practice. The ALP soon went far beyond providing local security, being accused by diplomats and civil rights groups of long series of violations, including torture, extortion, extrajudicial killings and sexual abuse of boys.
The U.S. is not alone in making such tribal-level miscalculations. In 2008, Shafiq Mengal, a Pakistani intelligence (ISI) asset organized a pro-government tribal militia in the southwest province of Balochistan called the Baloch Musallah Difaee Tanzeem, which enjoyed the confidence of the local Pakistani Army Frontier Corps. The Pakistani authorities saw it as being in the vanguard of the fight against Balochistan independence insurgents. Mengals’s group soon degenerated into a local death squad, killing people for political as well as non-political or personal reasons frequently based on intra- and inter-tribal disputes.
Nevertheless, Project Red is now apparently becoming Project Blue.
A new initiative called Afghan National Army Territorial Force, essentially self-defense units of locally recruited men serving in their own villages, is being launched, which, according to a NATO proposal, is meant to stabilize areas cleared by regular security forces and establish law and order.
Some argue that Afghan National Army Territorial Force is simply the ALP in new clothing, or, as Navy veteran Adam Weinstein notes, the latest iteration of the failed Vietnam era program known as the Regional Forces and Popular Forces or “Ruff Puffs,” village militias designed to supplement the South Vietnamese Army, but, in reality, supporting little more than the parochial aims of the local chieftains.
Rather than increasing security, the new Afghan Territorial Forces are more likely to foster a similar level of “corruption, insurgent sympathy, and do-nothingism” observed previously in the ALP because the Afghan chain of command still lacks the end-to-end leadership necessary to control the new local militias.
Yet, there may be may be some inner wisdom in the Afghan National Army Territorial Force proposal.
When I questioned the logic of changing the project name from Red to Blue, while potentially dismissing some inherent flaws, my straightforward corporate colleague said, “We’re still funded, aren’t we?”
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.