UK — Stabilisation in Afghanistan: winning the population from the insurgent

It is often said that in a counter-insur­gency cam­paign ‘the peo­ple are the prize’ and it is this mantra that per­haps best describes the dri­ving force behind the Mil­i­tary Sta­bil­i­sa­tion Sup­port Group — or MSSG. Report by Tris­tan Kel­ly.

A Grenadier Guards Battle Group foot patrol in the bazaar area of Shawzad, Helmand province, along with elements of a Military Stabilisation Support Team

Source: SSgt Mark Jones (Army), Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The MSSG is based in Gibral­tar Bar­racks, Cam­ber­ley, and is led by Colonel (soon to be Brigadier) Gre­ville Bib­by. He is an expert in sta­bil­i­sa­tion who was award­ed a CBE (Com­man­der of the Order of the British Empire) for his work as deputy com­man­der of both the Provin­cial Recon­struc­tion Team (PRT) and Task Force Hel­mand in 2009. 

Colonel Bib­by explained why the MSSG is work­ing in Afghanistan: 

“In terms of try­ing to pro­vide secu­ri­ty to what is a very volatile and inse­cure sit­u­a­tion, we are oper­at­ing amongst peo­ple. We are oper­at­ing in a province that is ful­ly pop­u­lat­ed by peo­ple with both large and small com­mu­ni­ties, all very close­ly linked by roads, canals and rivers and the rest. 

“So we are try­ing to secure the pop­u­la­tion because that is what it comes down to. Because an insur­gent, his fight­ing ground, his bat­tle­field, is the population. 

“It is all about influ­enc­ing the pop­u­la­tion and using the pop­u­la­tion to his own ends and there­fore it is not as straight for­ward as killing the insur­gent, it is much more com­plex than that, it is about out­wit­ting and out-influ­enc­ing the insurgent.” 

As an organ­i­sa­tion the MSSG has evolved out of the expe­ri­ences of the CIMIC (Civ­il Mil­i­tary Co-oper­a­tion) forces deployed to the Balka­ns, Sier­ra Leone and Iraq, with the aim of fur­ther pro­fes­sion­al­is­ing the dis­ci­pline and embed­ding it into the every­day cul­ture of land operations: 

CIMIC used to be about co-ordi­na­tion and co-oper­a­tion between the mil­i­tary and civil­ians,” Colonel Bib­by explained. “The sta­bil­i­sa­tion group — my peo­ple now who go over to Hel­mand — are actu­al­ly doing stabilisation. 

“They are doing the facil­i­tat­ing, they are work­ing with civil­ians and mak­ing sure that the mil­i­tary and the civil­ians are work­ing togeth­er, but they are also now tru­ly doing stabilisation. 

“They are on the ground work­ing with local nation­als with­in com­mu­ni­ties, assist­ing them with sta­bil­is­ing their own com­mu­ni­ties — and that has been a fun­da­men­tal shift in the military’s approach to this.” 

Local workers employed in the regeneration of the bazaar area of Shawzad, Helmand province
Local work­ers employed in the regen­er­a­tion of the bazaar area of Shawzad, Hel­mand province
Source: SSgt Mark Jones (Army), Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Colonel Bibby’s men and women on the ground come from all three Ser­vices — Reg­u­lar and Reserve — and are select­ed for their peo­ple skills as much as their mil­i­tary skills: 

“They tend to be a lit­tle bit old­er with quite a lot of expe­ri­ence in life and with a desire to do what we are ask­ing them to do,” Colonel Bib­by explained. 

“They have worked on oper­a­tions in places like the Balka­ns and Iraq and they have also organ­ised their mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and peo­ple for a while. And the chances are they are fam­i­ly peo­ple as well so they under­stand fam­i­lies and chil­dren and school­ing and all the things that come with being a fam­i­ly person. 

“You put all that togeth­er and you have already the raw prod­uct of some­body that has absolute­ly the right skills set because this is all about life skills.” 

How­ev­er, mod­ern sta­bil­i­sa­tion work in Afghanistan is far from ‘pink and fluffy’, as the CIMIC work of old has some­times been described. 

MSSG mem­bers are required as they can deploy to areas too hot and dan­ger­ous for civil­ian sta­bil­i­sa­tion advis­ers to vis­it and there­fore real mil­i­tary skills are need­ed by all — whether they be sub­mariners, air­men or infantry soldiers. 

There is also a whole raft of cul­tur­al aware­ness train­ing pro­grammes that MSSG mem­bers under­go, high­light­ing the cul­tur­al mores of Afghanistan and the best way to inter­act with a cul­ture whol­ly dif­fer­ent from our own. 

This is then over­laid with the prac­ti­cal train­ing need­ed to deal with the exchange of mon­ey, plan­ning of restruc­tur­ing pro­grammes and the day-to-day needs of rep­re­sent­ing the PRT in the field. 

Explain­ing the ben­e­fit of the MSSG, Lindy Cameron, Head of the Hel­mand PRT, said: 

“They essen­tial­ly give us the eyes and ears fur­ther out into the field than we can get from the DSTs [Dis­trict Sta­bil­i­sa­tion Teams]. 

“I can get the civil­ian sta­bil­i­sa­tion teams based at PRT head­quar­ters out to for­ward oper­at­ing bases but they can’t for exam­ple go out on a patrol in the same way that mem­bers of the MSSG can. 

A British soldier in Sangin
A British sol­dier in San­gin
Source: Sgt Dan Harmer RLC, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“So for exam­ple if we need to go out on a rec­ce to find out about one of the places we are going to, what we will often do is use one of the MSSG who will go out with a nor­mal patrol so we don’t divert a huge amount of effort to go and do a cer­tain task. 

“They can do it as part of a reg­u­lar patrol and come back and report on whether it is worth us send­ing out a big­ger team to actu­al­ly do it. 

“So it is a com­bi­na­tion of the eyes and ears on the ground that gives us a whole extra lev­el of sup­port and a whole extra lev­el of vis­i­bil­i­ty and understanding. 

“There is also the insti­tu­tion­al mem­o­ry side of it all. Peo­ple who also go back and help the next brigade on their MRX [Mis­sion Rehearsal Exer­cise] and help the next brigade under­stand the sort of issues and offer far more con­ti­nu­ity than you see in some of the oth­er areas of oper­a­tional deploy­ment. We are much less sta­t­ic as a result.” 

Per­son­nel join the MSSG for two years. It begins with a min­i­mum nine-week course of train­ing before MSSG mem­bers are deployed to the field and dis­persed among the var­i­ous bat­tle groups in teams known as MSSTs (Mil­i­tary Sta­bil­i­sa­tion Sup­port Teams) — six-man groups which include a com­mand­ing offi­cer and engineer. 

Spread around Hel­mand, the MSSTs are the local rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the PRT, charged with deliv­er­ing local projects and win­ning influ­ence away from the insur­gents with the over­rid­ing phi­los­o­phy of ‘the peo­ple are the prize’. 

War­rant Offi­cer Class 2 Chris Davis, a Roy­al Elec­tri­cal and Mechan­i­cal Engi­neers vehi­cle mechan­ic who deployed with the MSSG in March 2009, explained: 

“The job is empa­thy, respect, com­mon sense and man­ners. You apply them and talk to the peo­ple and it will come back to you ten-fold. 

“I don’t think it is under­stood in the wider Army yet about what we do and what it is all about. And there is a per­cep­tion that it is pink and fluffy. I can assure you it’s not. 

“You are out there with the patrols, going out on delib­er­ate oper­a­tions, and you have to think. It’s not just think­ing about what the com­pa­ny is doing, you are advis­ing the locals and poten­tial­ly advis­ing the bat­tle group commander. 

A member of the Queen's Royal Lancers talks to children in the Bolan area of Helmand province
A mem­ber of the Queen’s Roy­al Lancers talks to chil­dren in the Bolan area of Hel­mand province
Source: Cpl Gary Kendall RLC, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“The locals under­stood as well that secu­ri­ty is a two-way thing. We need to com­mu­ni­cate, if we don’t com­mu­ni­cate it’s not going to work.” 

Liv­ing and work­ing with com­pa­nies out in the patrol bases, the MSSTs are there to learn, lis­ten and win trust — using small scale projects such as rebuild­ing a school or clear­ing a bazaar to help show a brighter alter­na­tive to the Taliban. 

Their work can also make life safer for the com­bat troops fight­ing hard to pro­vide secu­ri­ty. By win­ning over the trust and sup­port of the locals infor­ma­tion is often revealed about the loca­tion and plans of the insurgents. 

Colonel Bib­by said that sta­bil­i­sa­tion is increas­ing­ly get­ting into the heart of operations: 

“With each deploy­ment and each ‘turn of the han­dle’ we see more and more empha­sis being placed on sta­bil­i­sa­tion and there­fore the com­mand­ing offi­cers real­ly under­stand­ing the impor­tance of this pop­u­la­tion thing. 

“That is not a crit­i­cism of ear­li­er HER­RICKs but a reflec­tion of the fact that secu­ri­ty was absolute­ly appalling. You can’t start build­ing wells and bridges when you are being blown up and shot at.” 

Colonel Bib­by empha­sised that the increased impor­tance of sta­bil­i­sa­tion was pos­si­bly due to all the ‘blood and trea­sure’ expend­ed over the years, and, while con­ced­ing that ‘Hel­mand is not Hamp­shire’, there are large tracts of the coun­try where secu­ri­ty has increased to such a lev­el sta­bil­i­sa­tion is possible. 

WO2 Davis added: 

“The British mil­i­tary is mas­sive­ly chang­ing its atti­tude to sta­bil­i­sa­tion. The com­pa­ny com­man­der I was work­ing with got the DSO [Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Order] and in the cita­tion it actu­al­ly goes on about open­ing the school, engag­ing with the locals and things like that. He got it. 

“A lot of peo­ple say to you ‘you go to Afghanistan and you can’t make a dif­fer­ence’. But you can start to make a dif­fer­ence. It real­ly is a fan­tas­tic job.” 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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