Violence and Insurgency in Afghanistan: A Somali Perspective, by William Reno (Northwestern University)

This is a guest post that offers a different approach. Will Reno and I are working on a project that looks at armed groups in comparative perspective. His extensive knowledge and experience in Sub-Saharan Africa provide a different basis for analysis of Afghan politics.    

Afghanistan is new to me. Warfare in Somalia is my regular focus. Since 2006 I have paid numerous visits to study the organization of armed groups there and their relations with society around them.


Sudan – South Sudan is also on my beat. Back in the 1990s I grew too familiar with West Africa’s wars. These conflicts all feature symmetrical irregular warfare, i.e., very fragmented armed groups, including national armies that rarely fight long pitched battles. They control territory and communities, but do not put a great deal of emphasis on administration or ideological education. Institutions of states in these places, where they exist (note the Somali exception) are weak and disorganized. Writing from Kabul, my observations on the politics of violence and insurgency here in Afghanistan reflect this Sub-Saharan experience.

Your regular blogger and I arrived here to find a rather strong state, at least in the capital city. Police and army discipline here are a dream in some African countries. Of course they don’t have ISAF. In any event, warfare here is asymmetrical. The insurgents use guerrilla tactics and employ Che Guevara’s focquismo violence to good effect in targeted assassinations of officials and in urban displays of violence to rattle minds of observers. It is like Afghanistan is living in the 1960s, when the likes of Amilcar Cabral and Eduardo Mondlane and others fought Portuguese colonial rule. Theirs was a Socialist International idea to dress up national struggles. Here is an Islamic International to dress up the current nationalist struggle. At least these are aspirations, the narrative of struggle, regardless of the realities of conflict. Ideas are important; paramount even, since in Afghanistan violence involves the battle for the space between the ears as much as for turf.

The fight here is territorial too. This happens in Africa, but these insurgents exercise more administrative domination in their zones of control. Among African insurgents today those belonging to the Islamist International think in administrative terms, usually grafting existing religious-bad justice systems onto their ‘liberated zone’ administrations, contrasting their efforts to where the state’s performance sucks the most.

There are other bits of Africa. Insurgents fight one another. Faction preoccupies their leaders. This can be said of all insurgents. Pakistan uses insurgents as proxies to hedge their bets, just as some states in Africa do too.

Even with these parallels, the first impression is that warfare in Afghanistan is a blast from the past. This is also reflected in the US military’s public doctrine and statements about counterinsurgency. But… And here is the big but: The more I get to know this place, the more it reveals African, or more properly, global shifts in warfare. Here are two reasons why I think that is so. First is the prominence of neo-tribes. The second is the non-bureaucratic character of the state; the networks and personal relationships in which the real political power here resides.

In the first, one finds people, urban and rural, who decry what they call tribalism, yet are relentless in counting who is from which ‘tribe’ when they think about politics. In my view, this is a function of more than three decades of conflict. One might not like or want this social category. But if the future is uncertain, who will protect you? Plenty of enterprising politicians find the opportunity to set up their own patronage networks based on protection. This country’s electoral system probably fuels this development. There is a big recent literature from Africa on how electoral competition can fuel polarization in recent conflict situations and how this leads to greater violence. None of that thinking here, at least at official levels.

Pic King's palace

The development of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) as a cornerstone of counterinsurgency here probably builds on this social fragmenting trend. Here as in my field sites, people seem to most readily join militias when they have a local axe to grind. Someone grabbed their land, the local judge is corrupt, someone killed a family member and there is a vendetta to pursue. The US Special Forces probably stumbled into this earlier in recruiting local allies. But now they may discover that what in Africa is called a ‘strategy of tension’ can be useful in counterinsurgency.  In its own context, it’s symmetrical irregular warfare too.

The second parallel concerns the nature of the state. Journalists and national politicians talk to us about timetables, statutes and elections. Others talk to us about who fought together in Jihad, who is a Sayed, what groups are brothers, who went to school together and so forth. One suspects that this dimension of the state is a lot stronger than the institutional one that the international community most often engages. Does the president talk to the insurgent commanders that his government fights? Do local militia leaders have the cell phone numbers of their insurgent counterparts? Side deals and side switching happen a lot here too. I can only guess that there is a blurring of illicit business and politics along some of these networks as well, just like in Africa.

Similarities that I observe push me to think about contradictions in current counterinsurgency strategy. The strategy of tension in local areas is great for denying insurgents the capacity to rule these communities. But this also makes it hard for state institutions to rule. It creates ongoing and open- ended local conflict, a kind of political and social ghetto in which it’s very hard to build widely legitimate authority structures. That just builds on the formation of neo- tribes over the past decades. The irony is that in the clear, hold, build conceptual narrative, building becomes terribly difficult, at least in the long term. That is going to be an Afghan problem. ISAF will be a distant memory.

The second contradiction in counterinsurgency involves the nature of state authority here. If the ALP doesn’t necessarily contribute to a stronger state in the process of defeating the insurgents, why not build up central state power?  But this seems to scare some that we meet. Their state hasn’t treated them very well in the past. It was worst for many when conventional institutions were strongest, and thus most coercive. They might not like the insurgents or any other option. They do, however, harbor a healthy skepticism about the reliability of a strong state. Is building that state the best policy? Are all of those parallel networks just about corruption and deceit? Many surely are, but do some offer other ways to build while remaining state power?

There is more that is African here than first met my eye. But Africa, so often at the vanguard of global developments, is seen here as hopelessly behind, a place with nothing to teach about Afghanistan. Even though that might be a prevailing attitude (to the extent that such a bizarre proposition even comes up), the clever analyst would do well to take a comparative look west and south.

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.
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