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    South Asia
     May 13, 2009
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Afghanistan defies the US battle plan
By Brian M Downing

The United States is entering a new phase in the war in Afghanistan. This approach to fighting the Taliban is based on counter-insurgency thinking: building indigenous police and military forces, providing services to villagers, and winning support from fence-sitters and insurgent sympathizers. It is hoped that in this way, years of neglect can be made up for.

Prior to the Vietnam War, counter-insurgency thinking became a new and even adventurous way of defeating wars of national liberation. After the war it was seen as the path not taken that accounted for the United States defeat there, but the Pentagon


avoided making it part of its doctrine.

Since the remarkable turn of events in Iraq, where a counter-insurgency program is said to have won over many Sunni fighters, the doctrine has recovered some of its talismanic qualities in the public and has become a new creed in parts of the US military. Although new thinking is needed in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency will face organizational problems there.

A successful counter-insurgency depends on a complex set of assumptions, observations and expectations, based more on a feel for the locale than on a set of rules in a manual. When rendered into a creed and put into practice, subtleties are lost and innovation suffers. An early counter-insurgency hand saw this in the early and mid-1960s, during operations in Vietnam and Laos:
[A] tendency developed to formularize into simple and rather simple-minded rules a most complex group of concepts. This was perhaps an inevitable result of the headlong attempt to indoctrinate a large number of soldiers and civilians who approached the subject with little preparation or background ...
Whatever program is assembled at CENTCOM headquarters or in Kabul might bear only some resemblance to what is implemented in Helmand or Ghazni.

Furthermore, counter-insurgency requires harmonious cooperation among numerous and often antagonistic organizations. Military units must rid an area of guerrillas then provide security to prevent their return. National police must establish a presence and build intelligence networks.

Officials must also reassert judicial control over the counter-judiciary established by insurgents. Development programs must determine local sensitivities before building roads, irrigation ditches, and the like. Medical and veterinary resources must be allocated and delivered. Finally, appropriate ties between local and central governments must be carefully negotiated. These sundry tasks are to be undertaken by numerous and conflicting bureaus.

The US Department of Defense might appear as a unified entity, but it has important differences in outlook, expertise and priorities. Perhaps the most important of differences is the tension between regular army units, which stress numbers and firepower, and special forces units, which stress small teams and stealth. This tension may be weaker today than it was during the Vietnam War as counter-insurgency has apparently proved useful in Iraq and its chief proponent, General David Petraeus, has gained influence in the Pentagon and assumed command of the Central Asian theater.

Even deeper organizational difficulties lie with the military's relationship with other parts of the effort. The State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Health and Human Services, the Treasury Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Agriculture, and other bureaus will take part in the effort and will do so without leaving their institutional preferences and parochialism at Dulles airport.

The program will be an international effort. Britain, France, Canada and the Netherlands provide infantry; German and Russian forces train the police; and India and Iran play important parts as well, doubtless with their own national security interests in mind. The breadth of experiences and approaches provide the opportunity for an intricate plan, but aggregating various ideas into a coherent strategy and specific programs is a daunting organizational challenge.

Placing each agency and bureau onto a large, integrated organizational chart with clearly drawn lines of authority and cooperation, atop which stands an ambassador or general, will do little to blend disparate views and conflicting personalities. It would more likely be a source of institutional delusion. It might be likened to assembling a number of musicians, each of whom may be highly talented, but in different genres. Even a gifted maestro will be hard-pressed to produce a mellifluous outcome.

Douglas Blaufarb's experiences caused him, on the first page of his study, to state:
[Advocates of counter-insurgency] were dismayed, as time went on, to find that it had degenerated into a vague slogan behind which various policy interests contended for their own goals, not all of which were in fact consistent with the intentions of the originators of the ideas and policies involved.
The number of bureaus has only increased in the decades since Vietnam and it is doubtful that their capacity to cooperate on a complex and remote problem has increased.

The various insurgent groups in Afghanistan and across the frontier in Pakistan face organizational problems as well, though not of the same extent as their opponents. The insurgency benefits from financial support flowing from Pashtun businessmen mainly in Peshawar and Karachi, and from various Sunni Arabs, mainly in the Gulf Region. The opium trade is another revenue source. The Russian mafia gained control of considerable portions of the trade during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and continues to handle supplies through Central Asia.

Madrassas (seminaries) in Pakistan supply fervent recruits as they have since the war with the Soviet Union when the schools were funded by the US and Saudi Arabia. Arms are not hard to come by and open markets exist in Pakistan. According to one source, "In Darra Adam Khel alone - the most famous of the North-West Frontier Province's gun-producing towns - there are believed to be 3,500 gunsmiths working in 900 factories, with 150 gun shops. The local gunsmiths can produce everything from imitation Kalashnikovs ... to antiaircraft guns."

The Taliban, the largest part of the insurgency, have two principal councils directing the war, one in Quetta, the second in Peshawar. Though the former council is associated with the Durrani confederation of Pashtun tribes and the latter with Ghilzai confederation of Pashtun tribes, this does not seem to present sources of conflict.

The Taliban have five regional commanders and personal rivalries have been in evidence. One of the fiercest was between Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Osmani, which was likely based on factions advocating retaking the entire country then pursuing an internationalist agenda and other factions favoring a limited program of governing the southern provinces. The matter was put to rest when each was killed in separate US air strikes.

The Taliban adopt local structures. They begin operations in a district with a group comprising members of several tribes so as to minimize inter-tribal rivalries, help with inter-tribal settlements, and appear as harbingers of a Pashtun nation. The Taliban then deal with local tribal authorities, help settle disputes through the authority of Islamic law, and either through threats or parley establish cooperation and control.

They are more successful in districts where tribal authority was badly damaged during the Soviet war as the landed elite fled, villages relocated, and casualties mounted. In such areas, the Taliban lay claim to being restorers of order and of the supportive networks that tribes had once provided. The Taliban can call for levies of local fighters, mostly part-timers designated by elders, who provide expertise on the district's trails and caves and government officials.

Insurgents can also win the allegiance of the local qawms (solidarity groups based on family, kinship, or occupation), which offer recruitment networks as well as cohesion in fighting units.

Notable here is the Taliban's relative lack of organizational structure, from their revenue sources to the part-timers that make up a good part of their fighting units - far less than there was in the Vietcong or the FLN in Algeria. While this limits internal conflict and allows for adaptability, it can present problems as well. The independence of tribal councils and the qawm afford an opportunity for negotiations and settlements with other powers, and dealing with those independent entities will be key parts of a counter-insurgency program.

Regional commanders enjoy considerable autonomy and use their judgment of local conditions to build the insurgency. Many locals are tied to the movement only through parley or threat and do not rely on the Taliban for money or resources to any meaningful extent. The immediacy of the war presents urgency and unity, and Mullah Omar's authority is not presently in doubt.

Tensions would be more problematic in the event of victory or the perception that victory were on the horizon. The insurgency today comprises the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hizb-i-Islami, and to some extent the Pakistani Taliban - disparate groups led by ambitious men and unified chiefly by an ongoing war. Fissures between those with limited goals and those with internationalist visions could come to the fore.

Further, the Taliban leadership is mainly from the southern province of Kandahar and was loath to share military and political power with outsiders when they held Kabul (1996-2001). Many insurgent commanders know or at least suspect that a Taliban victory would lead to their marginalization.

The US military
The American military has only intermittently been keen on counter-insurgency doctrines and indeed has long been institutionally unsuited for it. Since at least the Civil War, the military has developed a "way of war". It applies superior amounts of resources - personnel and equipment - and wears down the enemy: the Confederacy, the Central Powers, Axis Powers, or People's Liberation Army. The approach served the country well in conventional wars.

In the early 1960s, however, following Fidel Castro's seizure of power in Cuba with only a small band of guerrillas, counter-insurgency ideas were developed at high levels, with assistant secretary of state Roger Hilsman, a veteran of guerrilla operations in Burma (Myanmar) during World War II, working with generals and intelligence officers. But the generals did not recognize counter-insurgency as a new form of warfare, rather it was something that a well-trained infantryman could readily switch to if need be.

The reliance of parley over firepower, and economic resources over military ones, was not grasped by the generals and counter-insurgency was seriously pursued only by special forces and intelligence operations. A marine program of placing a platoon in a village to provide security and separate villagers from insurgents showed promise. Locals provided intelligence and turned in some Vietcong. But the program was dropped by higher authority as a waste of personnel and the marines were sent back into conventional operations.

Most operations in Vietnam were large, conventional campaigns that relied greatly on artillery and air power. Though such ops would occasionally trap and maul a communist unit, the effect of large operations and massive firepower was less to wear down the enemy than to alienate the population. Civilians angered by excessive firepower were less likely to help against the insurgency and indeed were more likely to support it - a routinely encountered phenomenon that David Kilcullen calls the "accidental guerrilla".

The military opposed counter-insurgency warfare because it was deemed incompatible with proper discipline. Advisors and counter-insurgency officers were off in the field, outside ordinary command structures, relying far more on their own judgment than on directives from above. Such officers served with Vietnamese forces, lived in villages, and found the lessons learned out in the boonies far more insightful than the ones taught back at Fort Benning.

The chasm between the field and headquarters is conveyed in Lawrence of Arabia when a general asks on what authority a strategically important and successful attack was ordered:

T E Lawrence: Shouldn't officers use their initiative at all times?

General Murray: Not really. It's awfully dangerous.

Soldiers involved in the counter-insurgency in Vietnam were often deemed unruly mavericks and potential embarrassments. Promotion beyond full colonel came only slowly and grudgingly, if at all. 

Continued 1 2  

Al-Qaeda seizes on Taliban's problem
(May 8,'09)

What Obama could learn from Karzai
(May 6,'09)

Behind the Afghan propaganda
(May 2,'09)

Taliban on the run in Swat

2. Sri Lanka's Tamils watch in silence

3. Surviving North Korea's house of the dead

4. Balochistan is the ultimate prize

5. Truth is too hard to handle

6. The czar and the pirates

7. Colombo sticks to its guns

8. Sun's dippers raise riddle storms

9. UN suffers disarmament depression

10. China stirs a pot of gold

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, May 11, 2009)


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