The Language of Insurgency in Afghanistan

What the United States should be doing in Afghanistan is the result of two calculations. The first is the political situation and how we feel it needs changing. As noted in earlier postings, there is disagreement about that question: is the United States primarily interested in destroying Al Qaeda, or is it mostly interested in helping bring about a free and democratic Afghanistan? These objectives form the basis of the “two wars in Afghanistan” discussed in the most recent entries. The gist is that they are very different and to some extent independent, even contradictory goals.

The second question, and the one to which this entry is addressed, is how we should go about accomplishing whatever it is we wish to do. Seven years of half-hearted effort have not yielded decisively positive results that would allow the winning of either war, so the answer is apparently either not obvious or beyond our resources or will.

That having been said, both political campaigns have promised to increase the American effort in Afghanistan. But how? The current fighting, largely in Pashtun regions in Afghanistan (but with relevant activity across the border in Pakistan), is somehow aimed at “pacifying” these “insurgent” areas. A “60 Minutes” segment on October 19, which followed an American unit on patrol in the forbidding landscape of eastern Afghanistan, emphasized this mission. The American purpose, one soldier told the CBS reporter, was to combat the insurgents in the area and hopefully bring the local residents into accepting the government in Kabul, which they appear to oppose. The military threat, in other words, is an insurgency, and the method to deal with it is through counterinsurgency (COIN). The problem is that there are not enough troops available to create the sense of security in the villages of the region and thus to turn them against the insurgents. With General David Petreaus, a copy of his FM 3-24 on COIN stuck in his back pocket, in command of Central Command (CENTCOM), this image and view of the war will undoubtedly be reinforced.

But is the language and logic of insurgency appropriate for the problem here? The majority of the country that needs to be “pacified” reflects the tribal areas of the Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line (the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan that almost all Afghans–notably the Pashtuns–reject). These inhabitants of the region have through history shown a fierce determination–almost always successful–to defend their tribal areas, which the United States and its allies are now contesting. The Pashtuns who are doing this defending certainly do not consider themselves insurgents, but instead defenders of their tribal villages and family members. Killing them does not subvert their desire to continue their resistance, it simply redoubles it. The idea that American forces can “liberate” villages by killing the family members who have been defending those villages from the Americans is ludicrous, to say the least. There is no battle for the hearts and minds of men for the American cointerinsurgents to win here; that is simply not the nature of the situation. We are fighting an insurgency; they are repelling an invasion. Since it is their war in their land, their model is probably more appropriate to understanding and manipulating the situation than ours. For COIN to be the appropriate model, there must be an insurgency to counter.

If this analysis is at all accurate, the plans to ramp up the action in Afghanistan represent an exercise in futility. Part of the basis for thinking about this in insurgency terms is that many of the Pashtuns, and particularly those who are Taliban, do indeed oppose the government in Kabul. There is, in Afghan history, nothing unusual about a rural movement in opposition to a central government in Kabul, especially when that government is heavily populated by non-Pashtuns (which the Pashtuns argue is the case now). Hamid Karai is a Pashtun, but many of his fellow tribesmen believe he has simply sold out by surrounding himself by Tajik and other advisors rather than fellow Pashtuns. Can the United States do something about this with armed forces? Do we really want to?

The language of insurgency is equally inapplicable if the objective is to root out Al Qaeda. There is disagreement about whether Al Qaeda has not outlived its welcome among the Pashtuns under whose hospitality they have continued to exist, but the Pashtun code of hospitality means they will not throw them under the bus by standfing idly by while the U.S. army swoops down and decimates them, nor is American COIN-inspired civic action going to convert Pashtun villagers so they will “rat out” Al Qaeda. Even with a $50 million bounty for bin Laden and his closest associates, they haven’t done that over the past seven years . Why should we think they will start now?

Either president Obama or McCain are going to inherit Afghanistan as a policy albatross and have to figure out something to do about it. General Petraeus will be waiting to advise them (it’s his duty as CENTCOM commander), and he is likely to offer advice based on the insurgency-COIN model. Let’s hope the new Commander-in-Chief says, “Not so fast, General.”


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