“The Taliban is a caravan”

Among other things, Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist, wrote about the importance of knowing one’s enemy. In his words: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Following this man of wisdom’s advice, we spent last night’s session discussing the complexity of the Afghan insurgency. Surely, it will help us as we start to assess the coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy next week.

According to Seth Jones, an insurgency is “a political-military campaign by non-state actors who seek to overthrow the government or secede from a country through the use of unconventional – and sometimes conventional – military strategies.” In Western media (and simplistic discourses), the logic of the Afghan insurgency is too often reduced to the simple expression of the struggle between a corrupt government and a radical Islamist movement. Unfortunately, the reality is much more complex than that.

First, Al Qaeda is not tantamount to the Taliban. Conceived in the aftermath of 09/11, the Bush doctrine made “no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them.” We all understand the foreign policy rationale behind it (whether we agree with it or not). However, failing to acknowledge that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two very different movements can only lead to a misrepresentation of the situation, and hence to misinformed and misguided policies. Understanding the local dimensions of the war on terror is essential.

Second, local insurgents are not necessarily Taliban. Western media too often fail to distinguish between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, the Haqqani network and the Taliban (not to mention a variety of smaller groups). These movements, or networks, have different international connections, objectives and chains of command.

Finally, the Taliban movement itself is not a monolith. It is a composed of a myriad of fighters and commanders who enjoy different degrees of autonomy vis a vis the Taliban supreme leadership (the Quetta Shurah). Their local legitimacy also varies tremendously and depends on numerous factors (the area in which they operate, the strength of their tribal links, their behavior towards the population, their relationships with village elders, etc.). In Glatzer’s words, the “Taliban is a caravan to which different people attached themselves for various reasons.”

If Afghanistan taught us anything about international intervention, it is that understanding micro political dynamics is essential. They shape the insurgency and the international counterinsurgency effort in a variety of ways. That alone implies that a successful resolution of the conflict would require paying more attention to those local political processes, while putting more emphasis on human intelligence and less on strictly kinetic operations.

Advertisements

About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
This entry was posted in Class Discussions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “The Taliban is a caravan”

  1. Valkyrie says:

    “If Afghanistan taught us anything about international intervention, it is that understanding micro political dynamics is essential. They shape the insurgency and the international counterinsurgency effort in a variety of ways. That alone implies that a successful resolution of the conflict would require paying more attention to those local political processes, while putting more emphasis on human intelligence and less on strictly kinetic operations.”

    Perhaps that’s part of the problem, that military commanders often only take the gestalt approach so far (they are trained in the strategy needed to win conventional wars, mostly, not in the nation-building or peacekeeping operations that mark the end of wars), and I’m sure that non-conventional warfare is difficult enough to deal with, even for those skilled in “strictly kinetic operations.”

    Also, due to the complexity of the situation, errors in judgment on how to properly conduct operations are obviously going to be a given. Why should anyone be surprised that this was, indeed, the case? A lot of these military commanders are action-oriented types and not philosopher kings, and so despite high levels of intelligence needed to attain such a high post, nonetheless, they are not able to escape the fact that they are human and prone to errors in judgment.

    What is strikingly ridiculous, however, is the fact that it took so long to admit that the US made “tactical errors.” I believe Dr. Rice finally admitted that just as the former administration was packing in anticipation of leaving the White House.

    From a purely strategic standpoint, however, it did seem that going after the head of the Taliban was the proper way to destroy the entire apple cart. If you target the leader of an organization, the organization will feel the loss; how many knew that the “caravan” would just keep rolling along and picking up new converts along the way? Only if you comprehend that many of these people in that part of the world just really DO NOT LIKE Westerners does it appear obvious that they’re going to be able to pick up new converts as current leaders are captured or killed off.

  2. I just wanted to discuss the word “enemy” since I feel that Taliban are a unique kind of enemy to the US.

    During the cold war era, USSR was one kind of an enemy, more equal in strength, fighting for power and influence in the world, after the decline of the older powers in Europe. Cuba, Vietnam etc were considered minions of the USSR and thus were enemies by association.

    On the other hand, some of the friendly states of the US have been the Arab republics in the middle east.

    Actually if we think of it, the Taliban actually itself chose to be an enemy to the most powerful nation in the world. It is as if they are either really optimistic or have a bizarre desire for self-annihilation.

    Clearly, the state of the war today was not a foregone conclusion that they could have banked on. The fact that the Taliban are resurgent today, stronger and in a position to wait the US out, could as easily have not happened. If the US would have acted like the powerful military nation they were, with strong allies, excellent intelligence and the best counter-offensive planners in the world, they could have easily overpowered the regime and actually delivered what they had gone in to do. The fact that there were multiple bad decisions, including going to Iraq before finishing the work in Afghanistan, delegating the all important task of building the ANP to Germany and then blindly expecting them to deliver (when it was really not their war, since they were not the ones that had been attacked) and a host of other issues that we have discussed in class already.

    I guess my point is that they are a rather new kind of enemy, one that the US has not really encountered before. Or any one else for that matter because I would argue that terrorism in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Palestine, at least ostensibly has the objective of freeing the “homeland” from the “oppressor,” but when the Taliban-AlQaida team attacked the WTC, they were really making an ideological point.

    What do you all think of the kind of enemy Taliban/AQ is how the US could have really known their enemy like Sun Tzu recommends?

    • Valkyrie says:

      “Actually if we think of it, the Taliban actually itself chose to be an enemy to the most powerful nation in the world. It is as if they are either really optimistic or have a bizarre desire for self-annihilation.”

      Or they’re mostly just nuts?

      “What do you all think of the kind of enemy Taliban/AQ is how the US could have really known their enemy like Sun Tzu recommends?”

      Obviously, you can understand why some joined the caravan (as was pointed out in class, many were conscripts; threat of being killed is a strong motivator, I’m sure), but in terms of the hardcore fundamentalist ideologues, the rotten core? They’re freaking nuts.

      They subscribe to a very extreme religious view that NO ONE can reason with, and I’m quite sure that this is beyond political and philosophical, but in same cases, downright pathological. Who does not know one’s limitations when it comes to matters of the existence of a Higher Power?

      Self-disclosure: Do not practice an organized religion. Believe in God. Do not purport to have all the answers.

      Fundamentalists, however, not only think they KNOW everything, but that it is entirely OK to violently attack others for not going along. This is normal??? This is nuts!

      It seems to be the case that as religious movements grow more mature, they tend to mellow out and become more tolerant, possibly in tandem with greater levels of education among the adherents, perhaps. But extremism is puzzling. I do not understand how educated people could join on (I do understand how uneducated rural populations might become fodder for manipulation, though).

      In short, NO. I do not think it is entirely possible to “know your enemy” completely in some cases. Unless you just assume they’re basically nuts.

  3. zenpundit says:

    “Perhaps that’s part of the problem, that military commanders often only take the gestalt approach so far (they are trained in the strategy needed to win conventional wars, mostly, not in the nation-building or peacekeeping operations that mark the end of wars)”

    Actually, American officers are predominantly trained in tactics, not strategy, because the opportunities for field command for most during their career will be junior grade to lower field grade and because professional military education ( and its civ equivalents for State/USAID/CIA) does not emphasize strategic thinking, at least to the degree that critics like Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, Charles Hill etc. think it should.

    Some officers, a few who spend part of their career as war planners, wargamers, USAF targeteers on combatant command (CENTCOM, PACOM etc) staff will go beyond tactics to what is called “operational art”, when they in turn rise to senior levels of command:

    http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army-usawc/modern_operations.pdf

    Operational art though, really isn’t strategy. It is substituted for strategy because formulation of strategy, as Clausewitz noted, flows directly from policy.

    Under the US system of civilian control over the military, policy is the preserve of the senior official of the DoD and the White House. National strategy should be a collaboration between civilians ( ends and means) who give orders and the military (ways) who will execute them. When civilian leaders punt on policy guidance, military officers cannot step up and fill that breach without being at risk of accusations of MacArthur-like hubris

    • Valkyrie says:

      Thanks for the insights.

      For those of us who have never studied warfare in depth, prior to taking this class, the enlightenment from others is very helpful.

      And nice pic of the Emperor, too, btw.

      “I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.”

      Yeah, we need to build one of those to protect the US, huh?

  4. Afghanopoly says:

    Interesting New York Times article on how to take advantage of the divisions between the various strands of the insurgency:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/27/opinion/27atran.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&sq=taliban&st=cse&scp=2

  5. Kredox says:

    What do you all think of the kind of enemy Taliban/AQ is how the US could have really known their enemy like Sun Tzu recommends?

    Answering above question. First of all Taliban did not appear overnight before 9/11. Since 1994 Taliban was growing and getting more powerful. US knew about it as well as the rest of the world. Saddam Hussein had his dictatorship regime and was President of Iraq from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003, but until 9/11 happened we did not care much about neither Taliban nor Hussein. Of course Bush First had his differences with Hussein but he did not go to the great lengths to overthrow him. Of course there is an explanation of why we did not go to war in Afghanistan or Iraq before 9/11, American public would not support it. Until we are hit at home and a lot of American dies we are just talking about helping people outside, of course we might send money and humanitarian organizations but if we are sending troops we need big reason for that.
    So we did not know the enemy because we could care less about Afghanistan until 9/11. It took us almost 9 years to finally figure out what tactics to use in Afghanistan. It could of taken much less time if we would set Afghanistan as number 1 priority and not jump to Iraq with unfinished war.

    • I do agree with what you say. Going to Iraq was probably the single biggest reason for lack of success in Afghanistan.

    • Durkheim says:

      “It took us almost 9 years to finally figure out what tactics to use in Afghanistan. It could of taken much less time if we would set Afghanistan as number 1 priority and not jump to Iraq with unfinished war.”
      I completely agree. However, we should have made Afghanistan a priority long before 9-11. We could have prevented the 9-11 attacks had we assisted in bringing stability to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Obviously, this does not entail a war. Rather, the U.S. should have committed to help rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan for a few years post-Soviet withdrawal, particularly during the Clinton Administration after the collapse of the Soviet puppet government. The U.S. could have intervened at this time and assisted in peacekeeping efforts and in implementing a more stable regime. As we all know, after the civil war between warlords, the Taliban filled this vacuum that the U.S. created due to its inaction. Furthermore, U.S. indifference provoked antagonistic Afghan sentiment toward the foreign “ally.” Understandably, they felt abandoned by the U.S. This undermined future American efforts in Afghanistan post 9-11. In the end, U.S. neglect created a state of anomie in Afghanistan (more than once).

      • Karl Hewlett says:

        Imagine if US people had made Afghanistan a priority in 1979. Then maybe they could have stopped Brezenzski’s plan to start a war there. If the US had not stoked a war by supplying weapons to the insurgents prior to the USSR invasion then it is very likley that there would not have been 30 years of the Afgan war that the US has been involved in. And then would not have had troops on the ground in the recent part.

        But he who lives by the sword dies by the sword and the US is involved in a 30 year war. And like 2 previous empires (UK and Russia) they have found that their soldiers do not have the same motivation as the insurgents.

        If you are from the US, ask yourself a simple question; If George Washington asked you to help fight the British would you have? Or would you allow them to continue ruling you? The difference between the US war of independence and the Afgan one is twofold; there was no cultural gulf between the ex-British colonists and the British. ANd the narcacent US did not have a generation in which to normalise war.

  6. Durkheim says:

    “Taliban is a caravan to which different people attached themselves for various reasons.”

    This is precisely why it is so important to not look the the Taliban as one (inter) national cleavage but a number of local cleavages, with people joining for a variety of personal motivations. Some latched on to the group because the way the U.S. has handled itself during the occupation drove them to do so, perhaps for economic reasons or anger-there are multitude of different explanations. It is only the top leadership structure in which religious ideology motivates them to act. This makes up only a fraction of Taliban members and has increased slightly compared to the thousands of new local fighters assuming lower-ranking positions, driven to join by a range of personal motivations in addition to coercion. When looking at the Taliban on the micro-level, not all Taliban members are created equal and many should not be deemed an enemy if exogenous circumstances forced them into a crappy situation.

  7. bahar says:

    The cause of Taliban has more external factors rather than eternal. If the international community wants to defeat the Talibans, it should stop terrorising innocent afghan villagers but instead focus more on the other side of Durrand Line where all the training camps are and supported by ISI of Pakistan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s