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Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Franchisees

Over the last year or so I have heard about the potential for an Al Anbar style strategy of forming Tribal Lashkars in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. The same strategy is often talked about for Pakistan’s tribal areas. So, what is the potential for success if this strategy is followed? I’ll go back a few decades to find some historical parallels.

In the 1980s, during the Soviet-Afghan war, a seemingly strange pattern emerged. Well, strange at least to outsiders. Jihadi groups that were ostensibly at each others’ throats in Peshawar (where the leadership was located) found that they could not always control the actions of their field commanders, who were often to be found on local shuras, or councils, having tea and cooperating. While Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were ordering attacks on each other's groups, some of their affiliates were coordinating operations.

“Party hopping” was also a problem for the leadership of the seven main Mujahideen parties. Some commanders on the ground would switch loyalties based on levels of patronage. Indeed, some of the Mujahideen parties were structured on patronage and had miserable command and control structures. But even the more centralized parties such as Hekmatyar’s Hizb and Massoud/Rabbani’s Jamiat had problems with their field commanders’ loyalties. And most importantly, individual commanders and their followers did not just switch from mujahideen party to mujahideen party, they even switched to Communist militias.

Can one take a paycheck from an Islamist or Royalist party in Peshawar one week and the next week collect a paycheck from Moscow via Parcham? Apparently the answer is yes, just as some in Iraq went from being supported by Al Qaeda to being supported by the Pentagon. This is not to say that money and patronage is the only factor. Switching from Massoud’s group to Dostum’s Communist militia was quite feasible in western Faryab province, but would have been suicidal in Panjshir where Massoud was based. Local politics also played into the decisions of these commanders. They were occasionally found to be joining the opposite party/militia to that of their local power rivals, regardless of whether that faction was Royalist, Islamist or Communist.

So what relevance does this have today? In my opinion, those who are operating from Pakistan are not overly concerned with local politics (although they do exploit them) nor with worrying about from whence will their material and financial support come. These are not the pragmatic locals but thoroughly indoctrinated and well-supported fighters. But for those fighters who are based locally, who are not a product of some camp run by Haqqani or the ISI, patronage could possibly be an important factor along with local power considerations. These are the people who approach the Taliban, Hekmatyar’s Hizb or the Haqqani group for external material support.

How about cross-insurgent group cooperation? I do hear occasional anecdotes of Hekmatyar’s Hizb and the Taliban (as well as other groups) carrying out joint operations in the East. Although it’s not quite clear if the cooperation is at all levels (a few years back the Taliban rebuffed Hekmatyar’s offer of his assistance). These fighters all share one goal and a very strong enemy at the moment. I expect their inter-insurgency cooperation to continue for as long as that strong enemy exists (not that this rules out rival field commanders occasionally “informing” on each other to the Americans). [Ed's Note: See this previous CTlab discussion on a related theoretical issue.]

Can the Afghan government, with foreign dollars, move in as a replacement patron? There is, however, not enough patronage to go around.  It was also clear, from the immediate post-2001 era of self-serving “warlords” cashing American paychecks, that patronage does not equal control. Patronage is, of course, a short term strategy that will eventually fall apart: “You can rent an Afghan but you can’t buy him” goes the oft stolen and unoriginal quote (sometimes read in reverse).

So how about that proposal/idea that’s occasionally floated for those American-supported Tribal Lashkars in Afghanistan? [Lashkar = local tribal “defense” militia] Can the American-dominated counterinsurgency effort and the insurgents whose grievances are mostly non-ideological come to an Al Anbar-style agreement (usually cited as an idea for Eastern Afghanistan)?

Unfortunately, it would need an intense level of micro-managing and an excellent knowledge of local politics that just doesn’t exist. It would also require some co-optable local authority figures whose influence extends past their own valleys. Furthermore, the exact percentage of those insurgents who would fall into the economic-and-local-power-politics-grievances category is not known with any certainty. There are other factors too that make Eastern Afghanistan not as conducive to this strategy as Al Anbar was in Iraq. For many in Eastern Afghanistan an American paycheck would be as good as a death certificate. For those locals who aren’t too xenophopic, the security dilemmas (especially for many in the East) are just too great for most to consider joining any sort of American supported “Awakening”.

The strategy required to defeat the Taliban is not going to be found in some “silver bullet” but rather in a comprehensive overhaul of how this campaign is run. This is not a very original assertion. But this won’t stop the continuing appearance of often independently sourced quick-fix proposals that have been given fuel by the ostensible (short-term) success of the Al Anbar strategy.

Suggested further reading:

Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop by Antonio Giustozzi

Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan and Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War by Olivier Roy

Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond by Abdulkader Sinno

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Reader Comments (1)

On the issue of cross-insurgency co-operation I can recommend an unpublished RAND report from 2005, in which the authors discuss 'federated insurgency complexes'. This potentiality was presumably deemed so intractable and concerning that the report was never made public.

Rick Brennan, Adam Grisson, Sara Daly, Peter Chalk, William Rosenau, Kalev Sepp & Steve Dalzell (2005), Future Insurgency Threats, Februrary 2005, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Sep 14, 2008 at 19:10 | Registered CommenterTim Stevens

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