As a young Army Green Beret major in December 2001, Don Bolduc fought shoulder to shoulder in an offensive against Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital, with a little-known Pashtun resistance commander named Hamid Karzai.
The offensive was nearly aborted when a 2,000-pound bomb dropped from a high-altitude American B-52 fell on their position, a friendly fire catastrophe that killed three Green Berets and five Afghan militiamen — and could have ended the life of the future Afghan president.
His hip damaged in the blast, Major Bolduc declined medical evacuation. He tended to the grim task of gathering the remains of the fallen soldiers, and, resuming their advance, Mr. Karzai’s militia and the Army Special Forces advisers swept into Kandahar, routing the Taliban in retaliation for supporting Al Qaeda in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
That campaign sealed the success of the American invasion, an early example of the emerging new way of war in which tiny bands of Special Operations forces successfully trained and organized larger units of local fighters to advance a grander, shared security agenda.
The young major spent five years deployed to Afghanistan after the fall of Kandahar, and is now a brigadier general. But in the more than 11 years since that offensive the war at times shifted to a conventional fight even as it became a sideshow after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Today, though, as the deputy commander of all Special Operations forces in the country, General Bolduc is reapplying lessons of that first victory, creating a program to train Afghan villagers to protect their homes from insurgents.
“What inspired me was my first rotation here into Afghanistan, where I learned how to use the tribes and other ethnic groups to secure local and rural areas with small numbers of people,” General Bolduc said.
“I saw the power of this culture in protecting itself at the local level, which I believe is the secret to security in Afghanistan — at the district level and below,” General Bolduc said. “You can be very effective, but in a way that is traditional, and congruent with how they have protected themselves for hundreds of years.”
Critics say the initiative, called Afghan Local Police and now with a roster of 22,150 in 55 village districts across the country, risks creating rogue militias that could turn against the central government. And some local policemen indeed have been responsible for atrocities.
But supporters, including senior Afghan Interior Ministry officials and some high-profile provincial governors, say the program is the key to a long-term security strategy that requires building layer upon layer of defense from the borders inward to Kabul, and from the village up to the provincial capitals. But they demand that it fall under strict government control.
General Bolduc said 96 allegations of misconduct by Afghan Local Police members had been investigated, with 77 found valid, resulting in administration release from the program or jail time. The International Committee of the Red Cross is now deeply involved in the 21-day training program for recruits, conducting programs in human rights as well as first aid.
From the capital to the provinces, senior officials now embrace the Afghan Local Police program, with the caveat that it must remain folded under the authorities of the official Interior Ministry police forces.
In an interview at his Kabul headquarters, Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahman, the Afghan deputy interior minister, described the Afghan Local Police program as “the most beautiful ingredient” in the emerging, multilayered security architecture for the nation. And out in the far west, the governor of Herat Province, Daud Shah Saba, said, “The ALP will be ‘the’ solution, so long as the police department supports the program and remains in firm control over its activities.”
General Bolduc agrees that oversight of the ALP is “a valid concern.” “We don’t want to put guns in the hands of people and not have them accountable,” he added. He said the whole program was expected to report to the government through the Ministry of the Interior. “We’ve moved through different periods of this war, applying different types of combat power,” General Bolduc said. “But it wasn’t until we came to grips with the fact that this was a counterinsurgency, it was rural based, that we had to start thinking about the center of gravity, which is the populace, and conducting operations that complement each other.”
General Bolduc acknowledges there is a “back to the future” feel to the Afghan Local Police effort, not only because it draws on the lessons from the initial offensive to topple the Taliban but also because it is related to a traditional core mission of Army Special Forces; since their founding, the Green Berets have specialized in training partnerships with indigenous security forces. That has been a shared effort of General Bolduc and his two brothers, raised on a maple syrup farm in New England: One brother was also among the Green Beret units to first land in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the other continues to serve as a Special Forces officer.
As he prepares to depart for a senior assignment with the military’s Africa Command, General Bolduc is most concerned about ensuring the Afghan Local Police effort becomes what is termed a “program of record” with long-term support from the central government.
“Some of the mistakes we’ve made over here is that we have created things they can’t sustain,” General Bolduc said. “The ALP is a program they can manage over time by themselves.”