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.