The Dhofar Campaign And How It’s Lessons Can Be Applied In Afghanistan

by Nick Higgins

Nick Higgins, the author of this paper, is employed by CRA Inc as an instructor on the USMC Level II Anti-Terrorism Officers Course. He spent six years in the British Army as a member of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment including a 2 year tour in Northern Ireland involved in intelligence gathering duties. >From 2003 to 2007 he lived and worked as a security contractor in Afghanistan including nearly a year in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.

He can be contacted at nhiggins@cra-usa.net

“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

Von Clausewitz

1: Political map of the Oman showing Province boundaries.

Introduction

From 1971 to 1975 a small but none the less hard fought counter-insurgency campaign was waged in Dhofar, the most southern province of Oman. In fact the flag of rebellion had been raised much earlier, in 1962, and by 1970 the communist backed tribal guerillas controlled the whole of the Jebel Dhofar.

The half-hearted and inept operations by the (mostly northern Omani) Sultans Army had done little to stem the insurgency but everything to drive recruits into the rebels’ hands as they failed to come to grips with the guerilla groups but lashed out at the local civilian population.

However, in 1970 things began to change as the old Sultan, Said Bin Taimur, was deposed with British help by his son Sultan Qaboos Bin Taimur. The old Sultan had kept the country firmly in the middle ages by his feudal system of Government and his refusal to allow any kind of modernization. Speaking to Omanis about this on a recent visit to the Oman the author was told that the country was like one big prison in which the people were allowed to do nothing.

There were no roads, no schools, no hospitals and no development of water resources for home or agricultural use. Many of the young men left the country in frustration to work else where in the Middle East and others travelled to Northern Yemen, or the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) to give it its true title, to attend schools. This opened their eyes to the deprivations they were suffering at home.

Initially the rebellion in the Dhofar was fronted by a political party calling itself the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) which had the idealistic slogan of “Dhofar for the Dhofaris” and was pledged to modernizing the Dhofar region. Across the border in the PDRY another group came into being which was the Peoples Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) though they changed their name after the British withdrawal from Aden and called themselves the Peoples Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). They were backed first by the Chinese and then later by the Soviets with arms, money and training and they were firmly Marxist in their ideology.

The traditional tribal DLF were no match for the highly motivated communist inspired members of the PFLOAG and they were quickly absorbed in spite of the teaching by the communists that there was no God and the expectation that everyone would renounce Islam.

Once PFLOAG had control of the area they started to try to break down the tribal system using fear and coercion as their primary tools. Men were blinded for refusing to deny their God and tribesmen were forced to offer their daughters in marriage to the fighters. Children were taken forcibly from their parents and sent to schools in the PDRY and many young men were sent to Russia and China to be trained as guerilla fighters. One can but wonder how they were received and how they coped in places that were a world away from the life they led.

It would seem, however, that the PFLOAG over played their hand and the remnants of the old guard of the DLF responded to an amnesty offered by the new Sultan and refused to cooperate further with the PFLOAG which caused PFLOAG to order the total disarming of DLF and a battle took place between the two groups. As a result of this twenty four of the most hardened fighters from the Eastern Jebel came down off the jebel and surrendered to the Sultan.

Military Operations and Civil Development

The Sultan, who had been educated in Britain and commissioned into a British infantry regiment, knew he had several problems and two things were clear to him. Firstly, that the answer to the insurgency lay in civil development and that secondly the war and the answers to the problems had to be seen to be solved by the Omanis themselves.

That said he realized that he needed all the help he could get and that his army needed retraining and re-equipping. To do this he decided to use British officers on secondment from the British army and contract officers hired directly by his own armed forces who were usually ex British or Commonwealth officers. He also requested the assistance of British Army Training Teams (BATT) and they were provided by men of the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment.

So, in 1970 Lt Col John Watts, the commanding officer of the Regiment and his operations officer flew out to the Oman to see how the Regiment could be of assistance. At that time many of the troops in the Sultans Army were from Baluchistan (the Baluchis Regiments have since been disbanded) in Pakistan and unable to speak Arabic let alone the local dialect known as Jebeli and so would be of little use and the native northern Omani Regiments would be not much better as there was no love lost between the Dhofaris and the Omanis.

Watts and others quickly came to the conclusion that local Dhofaris would need to be recruited to do the fighting; they had a nucleus in the twenty four surrendered enemy personnel (SEPs) but many more would be needed. It was also understood that this was a national revolutionary war and Watts was aware of the lesson being learned in Vietnam; that there was little future for a foreign intervention in such a conflict- so the use of British troops (though respected by the Omanis, stemming from the Jebel Akhdar campaign in the 1950s) as in full scale units was out. Watts also realized that any military action had to be based on sound, timely intelligence without which any unit would be as an elephant blundering about in the dark- and it was precisely this kind of behaviour by the SAF that had driven many young Jebeli males into the PFLOAG.

The Sultan was firmly committed to modernizing the country and this was not just to take place in the north but all over the country including the Jebel Dhofar- once it was secure. (To this day ALL Omanis receive free cradle to grave medical services and free education to degree level) Information about this modernization had to be given to the people and secondly the virulent lies and abuse being broadcast by Radio Aden had to be countered so it was decided that a robust public information campaign had to be set up. This was primarily radio based due to illiteracy among the population of the Jebel but there were some leaflet drops during the course of the campaign. It was also decided that the radio station would be 100% honest and tell the truth at all times rather than engage in “black propaganda.” In this way, once they had realised this, people would begin to trust the government again.

It was also realised that people’s health and the health of their animals was supremely important to them and that there was no provision of medical let alone veterinary services. The wealth of the tribes on the jebel was in their herds of cows and goats and if they could be improved through better health and selective breeding programs the tribes would be wealthier. Watts knew that the SAS were admirably suited to the first task, that of providing medical assistance to the people. The SAS, operating in small patrols had a much higher ratio of medics than the rest of the army and they were trained to a far higher standard (SAS medics in training spend time working in Emergency departments at some of the busiest UK hospitals in the most violent inner city areas) but he also knew that this could only be a stop gap measure until the Omanis could take this over.

As for veterinary services, the Regiment couldn’t do that at all but staff could be seconded from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps to cover this side of things and that is exactly what happened.

Watts’s assessment was complete and he recommended that the SAS could assist the campaign on “Five Fronts”:

  1. An Intelligence cell.
  2. A Public information Team.
  3. A medical officer but supported by the patrol medics.
  4. A veterinary officer.
  5. The raising of local, Dhofari units, to fight for the Sultan.

All these measures were agreed to and for 6 years members of the Regiment served in the Dhofar to further these Five Fronts. All these, though, were short term aims until the Omani government was in a position to assist its own people and the training of Omanis to take over was the real long term aim. All military operations were seen as a means to an end rather than the reason d’être.

Without covering the campaign in any detail, it was successful and is generally regarded as a model counter-insurgency campaign when it is remembered at all. While Watts Five Fronts were adhered to for the whole of the campaign there were other elements of counter insurgency that helped to make it successful and they will be examined along with the Five Fronts in the next section.

Counter-Insurgency in Southern Afghanistan

Fig 2 Map of Afghanistan showing Helmand and Kandahar Provinces

Southern Afghanistan, in particular Helmand and Kandahar Province, is tribal in nature, distrustful of central government and outsiders and undeveloped. In short much like Jebel Dhofar was in the 1970s. The question is can Watts “Five Fronts” be successfully replicated in this area?

Fig 2 Map of Afghanistan showing Helmand and Kandahar Provinces

Southern Afghanistan, in particular Helmand and Kandahar Province, is tribal in nature, distrustful of central government and outsiders and undeveloped. In short much like Jebel Dhofar was in the 1970s. The question is can Watts “Five Fronts” be successfully replicated in this area?

Let’s take the original Five Fronts and generalize them and then examine each one individually to see if it can be applied to southern Afghanistan:

  1. Identify the enemy and friendly forces by establishing an effective intelligence gathering and collation system.
  2. Communicate clear intent to the population and government agencies and forces- and by default the enemy.
  3. To provide security by helping the locals to protect their own areas by involving them in overall provision of security.
  4. Provide medical aid to the people in areas where there is none.
  5. Provide veterinary services for herds in areas where there is none.

Identify the enemy and friendly forces by establishing an effective intelligence gathering and collation system.

All counter-insurgency campaigns need to be intelligence driven, this goes without saying. But all too often this is not correctly interpreted or applied. Every single patrol that leaves a FOB be it a two hour local patrol or a five day patrol going further afield needs to have clear aims. The whole patrol should be briefed by a member of the intelligence cell before departure and on return the whole patrol is debriefed and a written report generated. That is then collated with other information and once collated it needs to be analyzed for with out analysis it isn’t “product.”

Once analyzed it needs to be disseminated so that it can be acted upon; the gathering of information and storing it with out acting on it is pointless and a waste of man hours. This was often the case in Northern Ireland until the system was reorganized in the early 1980s. Some sort of central steering committee in a region is useful- in that all intelligence flows into it and they allocate tasks and units that will respond to those tasks.

It’s not to be thought that the “central steering committee” takes over the tasking of all patrols and operations. Units still run their own areas and ensure that there is constant aggressive patrolling. “Aggressive patrolling” does not refer to how the troops treat the civpop but refers to the fact that patrolling is constant but random. A well run patrol program requires monitoring to see that patterns aren’t been set and that all areas of the AOR are being covered- especially where one AOR butts up against another.

If a steering committee is set up then ALL units in theatre fall under it, including SF and covert units. There can be no exceptions.

The point about friendly forces is important and let’s rewrite that to say the civilian population. Society in Southern Afghanistan exists as a closed tribal society that is hard for outsiders to penetrate and hard to understand. There are alliances and divisions that go back years but these break, splinter, and reform and shift constantly. Any unit operating in a given area needs to know which tribe controls that area and where they rank as a tribe- there are minor, unimportant tribes and there are senior important tribes but it doesn’t do to offend a tribe by bringing outsiders into their region.

As well as meeting with Woliswols (District Governors) senior officers need to meet with Maliks (village head men) and the Shuras (governing councils of elders). Junior officers should never be sent to meetings with out been introduced by a senior officer as this will offend the Shuras because they will think you aren’t giving them the necessary level of respect.

Wearing civilian clothes and growing a beard does not an intelligence man make! Getting out on the ground and talking to the locals at length and making contacts does. In 2005 the author lived in Helmand working as security manager for a large multi-million dollar aid project. The project had Afghan staff in many areas of Helmand and on one occasion a Taliban gang moved into a village with the aim of using it as a secure operating base to conduct operations from.

The project had an engineer on the books that lived in the village and soon afterwards he came into the office for some reason. He was approached and asked if he would come up to the PRT and talk to people about what was happening in the village. Quite sensibly he said no, he didn’t want to be seen going into the base but he would talk to the soldiers if they could come to the office. I drove up to the PRT, found the intelligence guys (who else on the FOB wore civilian clothes and had beards?) and said if they came down to the office they could debrief my man and if they were lucky recruit him. To which they replied they weren’t allowed to come down to the office. I don’t know whose rule that was but you have to let your people do their work!

Communicate clear intent to the population and government agencies and forces

A well thought out communications program will work wonders and exactly as was done in the Dhofar it must tell the truth at all times. Once the program starts to lie it just becomes a cynical propaganda tool and people will quickly see through it. There are several radio stations broadcasting in southern Afghanistan already so it would be worth looking into what they are and who runs them. Not least is the BBC Pashto (and web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pashto/index.shtml ) radio program and liaison with them would seem to be a good idea. Giving out the solar powered/clockwork radios is a sound idea though it is disheartening to then see them turning up in the bazaar for sale! If those are being distributed they should be tunable not on fixed stations because again, the people will soon see through that and you play into the hands of the insurgents by giving them something they can use to score propaganda points against you.

To provide security by helping the locals to protect their own areas by involving them in overall provision of security

All Pashtoon tribes from the most to least important have a Lashkar or tribal war band and if the tribe is willing (and this is a good gauge of how friendly the tribe is towards you) all or part of the Lashkar can be employed for FOB security duties. This is a two fold gain in that it is then in the tribe’s interest to keep you informed of insurgent activity in their area because that protects their people and secondly you are creating employment locally and putting money into local pockets.

However, there is another concept from the Dhofar campaign that needs to be examined closely. This is the “Firqat” concept. (Firqat seems to translate as “Task Force.”) The Firqats were tribally based war bands mainly made up from Adoo (the name given to the insurgents) who had rallied to the Government side.

They were also known as SEPs or surrendered enemy personal and a great deal of thought was given as to how they should be treated. Above all they were not treated as prisoners of war; on the contrary, they were welcomed back into the arms of the tribe in much the same way as in the parable of the return of the prodigal son and a friendly debriefing rather than an interrogation produced a great deal of exploitable intelligence such as hides and supply routes but it also developed information such as commanders names and Adoo unit strengths. This treatment of SEPs was of course broadcast on the radio station to encourage others to come over.

The Firqats were formed and operated on a tribal basis- an early experiment with a multi-tribal Firqat didn’t work and the Firqat disbanded with members joining their own tribes Firqat- and the Firqats operated best with in their own tribal areas. It was found that if sent on operations outside their own areas they weren’t very interested in the operation because they could see no direct correlation between their tribal interests and what they were being asked to do.

The Firqats were also useful in carrying the Governments message to the people as it carried more weight than when it came from foreigners.

Looking at the above there would seem to be very little reason why the tribal lashkars shouldn’t be used in the same way and some kind of program set up to do the same with any Taliban that rally to the government side.

Counter-gangs is another option that could be looked at in southern Afghanistan and for anyone interested in going down that route I would recommend a study of the Selous Scouts from the Rhodesian war. There is also a very good book by Gen Sir Frank Kitson, the British officer generally credited with inventing counter-gangs theory as we now know it, entitled Gangs and Counter Gangs.

At the time of writing the Shinwari tribe, in southwest Afghanistan, has just declared for the government which is the first time a whole tribe led by its elders has done this. The catalyst for change was an attack on Afghan engineers who were overseeing the building of a dike in the tribes’ area so it can be quite clearly seen that it was something in the tribes own direct interest that prompted the change of heart.

Provide medical aid to the people in areas where there is none

Provide veterinary services for herds in areas where there is none

These two points are so obvious and should be so well understood that they don’t need to be discussed but I would enlarge upon the second point to include agricultural assistance not just animal husbandry as agricultural farming is as important if not more important in southern Afghanistan.

Farmers could be brought in to advise and assist local farmers in how to increase crop yields etc and when I say farmers I mean just that, not “agricultural experts” but people who have actually owned and run farms in areas with adverse climatic conditions such as South Africa or Zimbabwe for example.

Broader principles of Counter Insurgency

Watts Five Fronts cannot be taken in isolation and there are other factors that need to be considered. Currently British counter insurgency doctrine recognizes six broad principals which are:

  1. Political primacy and political aim.
  2. Coordinated Government machinery
  3. Intelligence and information
  4. Separating the insurgent from his support
  5. Neutralizing the insurgent
  6. Longer-term post-insurgency planning

Looking at these six principals it can very easily be seen how Watts Five Fronts dovetails very neatly and supports most if not all of these principals in a variety of ways.

The first principal is similar to the first principal of land warfare: “Selection and maintenance of the aim” and tied in with No2 it makes the point that all actors must work towards one aim or goal which has to be clearly defined by the political masters.

Points 4 & 5 tie together as well but separating the insurgent from his support is a long and painful process if the insurgent is indigenous to the population as is the case with the resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan. However principal 4, separating the insurgent from his support also covers securing the border areas to interdict supply routes in and out of the country.

In Helmand there is a case to be made for locating a Battalion sized combat group, with its own rotary wing assets at Baram Cha on the border. Southern Helmand south of Garmshir or south of the crescent of the river Helmand has always been a wild and lawless area and it is controlled mostly by Balush tribes rather than Pashtoon tribes. The Balush are heavily involved in the movement of narcotics and this route south, through the desert is one of the main smuggling routes out of the country as well as into the country. It’s opium out, men and equipment in.

Narcotics and corruption

There are two further points to consider when formulating a counter-insurgency doctrine for Afghanistan and they are of course the two demons of narcotics and corruption. Without doubt the corruption would still exist if the narcotics did not because it is part of the way of life in central Asia, however what is certain is that even Afghans feel it has got out of hand and reached endemic levels.

Narcotics cannot be ignored by the military. One school of thought argues that if the military involves itself in countering narcotics at any level it will turn the people against them and any gains under a “hearts and minds” campaign will be lost. This may be the case but it is a temporary set back in the long term scheme of things that the military will just have to accept and plan for.

The whole opium economy is inextricably linked to the insurgency in that the opium funds the Taliban to the tune of over $100 million a year. Obviously groups other than the Taliban profit from narcotics so therefore it is firmly in those groups interests to see the insurgency continue- for in that bubble of anarchy created by an on going insurgency the narcotics trade can flourish.

The diagram in Figure 3 shows graphically that this is the case and so part of winning the counter-insurgency campaign must be the removal of the opium industry which is one of the main stays of Taliban funding. There is also strong evidence to suggest that al Qaeda is heavily involved in narcotics for fund raising purposes so any move to curtail opium production will eventually have a knock on effect. I say eventually because it is said that buried out in the deserts of Helmand and Kandahar are at least two years supply of opium at the current production rate.

Fig 3: Ratio of insecurity to opium production by province. 2008, UNODC.

As said previously the military will have to accept that there will be a loss of popular support brought on by eradication but if planned for this can be countered by an effective all agencies strategy. Planning for eradication should start 18 months to 2 years in advance of actually moving into the fields.

Once the area in which eradication will take place has been identified an all agency planning group, including all key stakeholders- international and Afghan needs to be established. This group looks at the tribal demographic in the chosen area and also at local officials across the board. The Mullahs all need to be identified and those involved with narcotics need to be identified (many Mullahs in Helmand accept their tithe in opium) Corrupt officials need to be replaced with honest men as soon as possible.

A concentrated aid plan needs to be drawn up including such things as roads, health centers, schools, veterinary clinics, well digging and irrigation, agricultural assistance, micro finance and credit for farmers not engaged in poppy production. These news schools, clinics etc all need to be staffed and equipped. Much of this needs to be free to the people or if not free at least heavily subsidized.

A powerful public information campaign needs to be instigated as early as possible using radio, advertising hoardings and traveling theatre groups to carry a united message to the people. Independent NGOs need to be co-opted into the program so that all the players are working towards a common goal.

Once all this is in place eradication can start.

Corruption, on a level rarely seen elsewhere, is the other ingredient in the mix that will work against any counter-insurgency campaign succeeding. A successful counter-insurgency campaign requires a coordinated multi-agency government approach (the armed forces being but one agency) and rampant corruption at all levels of government will prevent that approach from succeeding. One can put forward the argument that with the current levels of corruption in the Karzai regime, from ministers down to the lowliest policemen on the street, the insurgency can never really be defeated. I firmly believe that the Taliban cannot win but nor will they be defeated because the people will never truly rally to the Government as it is now and the insurgency will drag on till the international players grow tired of it and one by one withdraw, handing victory to the Taliban. The Taliban are waging a war of 1000 cuts and time is on their side.

To ignore corruption in a given AOR gives the population the impression that you condone it and they will quickly arrive at the perceived wisdom that you must be involved in it. An extreme example of this was the murder of five British soldiers in November 2009. The policeman in question, named Gulbuddin, had been raped repeatedly over a period of time by his commander and his belief was that since they did nothing about it the British must have been condoning it.  That said it is unlikely that any British troops were aware that it had been going on because unlike the BATTs (British Army Training Teams) in Dhofar, in Afghanistan they do not live among the Afghans.

Conclusions

Every insurgency is different for a variety of reasons, not just for political, ideological and religious factors but also because of geography, terrain and climate.

However, in the case of the Dhofar campaign there are many factors which correlate directly with the campaign in southern Afghanistan and can be imported and used as a template in Afghanistan in spite of the gap of years between the two campaigns.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers by any means and accept that wiser heads than mine know more than I do the aim of this article is to draw people’s attention to other little known counter-insurgency campaigns that were a) successful and b) very similar to what is currently being faced in Afghanistan.

If plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery the author is indebted to Col Tony Jeapes and Col I. A. Rigden, the sensible stuff is theirs and any mistakes are my own.

For further reading:

SAS, Operation Oman. Col T. Jeapes, Battery Press, ISBN 0-89839-054-0

The British Approach to Counter-Insurgency: Myths, Realities and Strategic Challenges, Col I. A. Rigden O.B.E, available online at: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA479660&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf

Seeds of Terror, How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Gretchen Peters, St Martin’s Press, ISBN 978-0-312-37927-8

Gangs and Counter-Gangs, Gen Sir Frank Kitson. Published 1960, currently out of print.

Bunch of Five, Gen Sir Frank Kitson. Published 1988, currently out of print.

Low Intensity Operations, Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping. Gen Sir Frank Kitson. Currently out of print.

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