Our methods for dealing with the spread of the Taliban in Afghanistan continue to come back to bite us:
Arms and ordnance collected from dead insurgents hint at one possible reason: Of 30 rifle magazines recently taken from insurgents’ corpses, at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces, according to an examination of ammunition markings by The New York Times and interviews with American officers and arms dealers.
Keep in mind, the U.S. ousted McKiernan because he was not sufficiently enthusiastic about arming locals. The fact that weapons supplied to the Afghan government keep falling into the hands of the U.S.’s opponents in Afghanistan should temper any enthusiasm for handing out guns to locals as a way of reducing violence in Afghanistan. But those plans will presumably proceed under the command of General McChrystal, along with the meat-grinder airstrikes that have caused more than 2/3rds of the coalition-caused civilian casualties.
Guns that end up being used to kill U.S. soldiers (and other Afghans), rage-inducing airstrikes, a flat refusal to stop such airstrikes despite demands from the Afghan government (which undermines the local population’s faith that their government can protect them)…all supposedly in service of a counterinsurgency strategy supposedly predicated on convincing the local population to stop supporting opponents of the local government. If the U.S. government is serious about stability and reducing violence in Afghanistan, officials must adopt means that do not contradict the desired ends.
The Resource Problem
Adopting a violent paradigm for what constitutes “fighting the spread of the Taliban” severely restricts the number of participants who can be trained for the struggle. Cultural norms will often restrict the pool of recruits to the male population; physical demands of violent struggle will likely exclude the old, the sick, and the very young. Relying primarily on armed conflict further reduces the recruiting pool to match the number of available weapons, and it restricts the length of time fighters can participate in the conflict to periods where ammunition is available. Afghanistan’s rugged geography will constrict the ability to transport ammunition to the fighters. So, by relying on armed groups of young men, the U.S. strategy excludes large numbers of potential defenders of a non-Taliban-dominated society and sets limits on defenders’ time frame of activity. A better strategy would allow the entire population a maximized, meaningful opportunity to resist the encroachment of the Taliban.
Sowing the Seeds of Future Conflict
Beyond imposition of recruiting and activity restrictions, the U.S. strategy also virtually ensures continued conflict and instability in the area. As we’ve seen, the weapons we’re supplying to our allies are finding their way into enemy hands. Further, by flooding the Afghan security forces with resources while providing insufficient attention to civil society and good governance, we deform Afghan society into one in which the military forces are the most resourced and powerful arm of government, a situation conducive to future coup attempts by would-be military dictators. A better strategy would support the growth of civil society while resisting the encroachment of the Taliban on Afghan life.
A Better Solution: A Non-Military Anti-Insurgency Strategy
What follows is an outline for a non-military anti-insurgency strategy which draws heavily from a recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report and Gene Sharp’s “The Anti-Coup.” [Sharp’s work deals with defending against coups d’etat and “putschists,” so were appropriate I’ve replaced these terms with “insurgency” and “insurgents” in applicable passages.] It aims to enlist as many people as possible in the resistance against the spread of the Taliban and to maximize their ability to participate. Concurrently, it will lay the groundwork for civil society in Afghanistan and de-emphasize political violence as a method of participating in conflict. This strategy will cost far less and lead to far fewer casualties–both civilian and military–than the current military approach.
Step One: Sharply Reduce Military Confrontations
Recent experience shows that we will not cease our most counterproductive activities so long as COIN remains our paradigm, which ensures that we will not win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. Airstrikes and night raids will continue. We will continue to attempt to seal the Afghan border to trap insurgents and prevent the use of safe havens, which will drive us to continue a dangerous escalation of the “covert” war in Pakistan (and we are at war in Pakistan, make no mistake, regardless of whether the bombs are falling from drones or manned aircraft). These activities induce the outrage driving Pashtuns into the arms of the Taliban. In addition, this military violence on behalf of the United States creates a false unity among various factions, galvanizing them against both coalition forces and the Afghan national government on whose behalf we fight. In other words, our participation in the ongoing political violence in Afghanistan provides the contradictions in our counterinsurgency rationale that will ultimately doom the strategy.
In Focus and Exit, Carnegie’s Gilles Dorronsoro argues:
The key idea is to lower the level of conflict (i.e., to reverse the current trend of ever-increasing violence). The only way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations…The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban. Combat troop reduction should not be a consequence of an elusive “stabilization”; rather, it should constitute an essential part of a political-military strategy. The withdrawal must be conducted on U.S. terms only, not through negotiations, because negotiations with the armed opposition would weaken the Afghan government. Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban cannot bring positive results until the Taliban recognize that the government in Kabul is going to survive after the withdrawal.
The first step, then, in reversing the growth of Taliban power in Afghanistan is to begin a sharp, unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from combat zones into what Dorronsoro calls “strategic zones,” where they will prepare for a final withdrawal from the theater. Information operations specialists in the U.S. civilian and military services, in coordination with the host nation government, should vigorously publicize this move as a concession by the U.S. to the government in Kabul, which will immediately reap a boon of political capital across the country. This should be accompanied by an immediate halt to drone attacks in Pakistan, also publicized as concessions to the Pakistani civilian government.
These counter-intuitive moves will have a bewildering effect on the Taliban leadership. Their claim to be the “home team” will be seriously challenged by the ability of the Afghan and Pakistani governments to extract meaningful concessions from the coalition forces. Without the pressure of military confrontation, extremist groups will be robbed of their overriding justification for recruitment, conscription and consumption of community resources. Caught unprepared to add anything of value to the community, groups will suddenly find themselves in a “sea” of locals less willing to cede power to them now that the military emergency has passed. Coalitions of extremist groups artificially unified by U.S. military pressure will fracture as they attempt to consolidate control of their territories and make power plays against one another.
In short, at a moment when insurgent groups will assume they have won militarily, they will face a moment of maximum political danger, which will be exploited by the second plank of the strategy: civilian anti-insurgency.
Civilian defense against Taliban control
The goal of an insurgency is to topple and replace a government. While important differences exist, this goal imposes on the insurgent group(s) the same prerequisites for success as a coup d’etat. This means that successful methods of popular resistance to a coup attempt can be instructive when dealing with an insurgency. Writing on the topic of anti-coup defense, Gene Sharp said:
Defense can be waged by the attacked society itself.
…[A] defense policy against coups d’etat is possible. The essence of such a defense policy is two-fold: (1) that those who attack the constitutional system and intend to replace the elected government by a regime of their own choosing must be denied all legitimacy–they have no moral or political right to become the government, and (2) they must be denied all cooperation–no one in the government or in the population should assist or obey them in any way.
To secure legitimacy, insurgents will seek to compel endorsements by “persons and institutions in whom moral and legitimate political authority resides, whether they are elected officials, unofficial moral leaders,” etc. In addition, to attain control, they “require that a multitude of people who operate the political system, the society’s institutions, and the economy will passively submit and carry out their usual functions as modified by the [insurgents] orders and policies.”
With this in mind, the coalition and the Afghan government should undertake a concerted effort to educate the population about the possibility of resisting a Taliban takeover through denial of legitimacy and cooperation. Beginning in areas not currently under Taliban control and gradually expanding to areas where insurgents operate, these efforts should seek to familiarize the population with various methods that can be used to block insurgents’ ability to establish themselves as the de facto government in a given area. At the same time, the government and the coalition should begin working within the societal structures in these areas to prepare them to take on organizational roles in confronting and resisting an insurgent infiltration. By innoculating local communities against insurgent infiltration and providing resisters in insurgent-controlled territories tools needed to resist, the coalition and government can help resource a stout anti-insurgency movement at a moment when the Taliban struggles to adjust to the new strategic landscape.
Under an anti-[insurgency] policy, the resisters will aim to:
- Repudiate the [insurgents] as illegitimate with no rightful claim to become the government;
- Make the attacked society unrulable by the attackers;
- Block the imposition of viable government by the [insurgents];
- Maintain control and self-direction of their own society;
- Make the institutions of the society into omnipresent resistance organizations against [the insurgency];
- Deny to the [insurgents] any additional objectives;
- Make the costs of the attack and attempted domination unacceptable;
- Subvert the reliability and loyalty of the [insurgents’] troops and functionaries and induce them to desert [the insurgency];
- Encourage dissension and opposition among the [insurgents’] supporters;
- Stimulate international opposition to the [insurgency] by diplomatic, economic, and public opinion pressures against the attackers; and
- Achieve international support in communications, finances, food, diplomacy and other resources.
Resistance in an area facing insurgent encroachment would come in two forms: general resistance and organized resistance.
General resistance refers to a “grassroots” form of anti-insurgency defense. The population would be trained to watch for trigger actions on the part of the insurgents, which, once taken, signal that it is time to resist. This allows the population to resist in a coherent way even if they cannot communicate with resistance leaders, or if the leaders have been killed or captured. Sharp suggests that
“These points might include, for example, efforts to promote the [insurgents’] regime as legitimate, attempts to remake or abolish the elected legislature, measures to remake the courts or impose a new constitution, abridgments of freedom of speech and religion, and efforts to control the society’s independent institutions.”
In the specific case of Afghanistan, these triggers might be more localized, such as the attempted imposition of the Taliban’s version of sharia law, attempts to meddle with the leadership structure of a locality, the attempt to ban music or beard-cutting, etc. (I readily admit that I do not know which of these might already be part of a given cultural norm in Afghanistan; these triggers should be decided upon by those most familiar with the localities’ norms, not outsiders.)
Sharp identifies the following as possible guidelines for general resistance:
- Keep all resistance strictly nonviolent…to make the anti-[insurgency] defense the most effective possible.
- Repudiate the [insurgency] and denounce its leader as illegitimate.
- Regard all decrees and orders from the [insurgents] contradicting established law as illegal and refuse to obey them.
- Refuse and disobey all attempts by the [insurgents] to establish and extend controls over the government apparatus and society.
- Noncooperate with the [insurgents] in all ways. This applies to everyone at every level of society.
- Persist in maintaining the normal operations of the society in accordance with the pre-attack constitution, laws, and policies of the legitimate government and the society’s independent institutions.
- Preserve the functioning of legitimate political and social organizations.
- Refuse to supply the [insurgents] with needed supplies and equipment, hiding these when appropriate.
- Engage in friendly “creative communication” with the functionaries and troops serving the [insurgents] while continuing resistance. Explain to them the reasons for the defense struggle, affirm the absence of any intended violence against them, seek to undermine their reliability, and try to induce them to be helpful to the defenders.
- Refuse to assist the [insurgents] in disseminating their propaganda.
- Document…the [insurgents’] activities and repression. Preserve and distribute it to the defenders, internationally and to the [insurgents’] supporters.
Organized resistance refers to a “grass tops” anti-insurgency effort. These efforts would be guided by recognized, legitimate community leaders and respond to strategic calls to action. Leaders would analyze and respond to moment-by-moment events and opportunities and work to seize the initiative in the struggle. According to Sharp,
“Such resistance may take the form of specific acts of symbolic protests or resistance, of which there are dozens of possible types.”
In fact, Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution has identified 198 forms of resistance that might be suitable for this kind of resistance.
As early as possible when encroachment begins, the resisters should communicate to the insurgents their hostility to the insurgency’s goals and that they will face resistance and noncooperation. The population should in the strongest (nonviolent) means possible urge the insurgents to leave. Should this fail to dissuade the insurgents from their encroachment, the population should repeatedly communicate that they lack “violent intent or threat toward the individual soldiers, accompanied by clear resistance.” According to Sharp, this may cause or worsen morale problems among the insurgents.
Sharp also warns, however, that there is no guarantee that nonviolent discipline will affect the troops, and extreme brutality may ensue. Resisters are warned that the attackers may use repression to attempt to terrorize the population into passivity. However, if the resisters persist in their noncooperation and resistance, the repression can fail, as has happened in successful anti-coup resistances.
“Such tragedies do not, however, mean the failure of the resistance. Instead, given continued, disciplined resistance, brutalities can weaken the [insurgents] and strengthen the defense struggle.”
“Nonviolent defiance often risks serious casualties, but it seems to produce far fewer casualties than when both sides use violence. At the same time, persistence in nonviolent struggle contributes to much greater chance [sic] for success than if the resisters had chosen to fight militarily prepared opponent with violence.”
Furthermore, repression can boomerang on the insurgents in a process called “political jiu-jitsu.” In these cases, repression against nonviolent resisters:
- Convinces more people to join the resistance;
- Galvanizes resisters;
- Damages morale of insurgents and their supporters;
- Greatly increase international pressure and rejection of insurgent claims to be the legitimate government.
(I’d note that this process seems to be happening right now in Afghanistan–to the United States–in reaction to our killing of civilians, night raids, etc.)
Sharp cautions that though this process is a boon when it occurs, it is not required for a victory. Instead, victory comes through persistent noncooperation and rejection of insurgents’ legitimacy.
Use of civilian anti-insurgency methods will mark a major shift, and will likely take the Taliban by surprise. AK-47s and contraband government armaments may make them competent opponents in a battlefield situation, but their battle prowess can be turned into a liability by a stout civilian resistance. Unprepared for the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces and faced with a kind of resistance against which their weapons are a liability, the Taliban will struggle to regain their bearings in the strategic landscape. They will either fall apart, or be forced to unmask themselves as the enemy of the population, in which case, they’ve already lost.
Advantages of this strategy over current U.S. strategy
- This strategy clearly links means to desired ends, and provides a clear plan for reducing violence in the short term, unlike the current military-focused strategy.
- This strategy would immediately strengthen the political position of the Afghan and Pakistani civilian governments within their own countries, as described above.
- This strategy would be much more likely to peel off large numbers of reconcilable Taliban than the current U.S. overtures. Instead of being limited only to blocs of fighters or militias with leaders than can be compromised by U.S. and Afghan-government enticements, this strategy allows for the process of political jiu-jitsu to ensue, which could peel off shards of even hardcore insurgent groups.
- This strategy maximizes the pool of potential recruits for an anti-insurgency strategy, and it allows for constant resistance independent of continuous flows of ammunition. The young, the old, men and women can participate, maximizing the amount of pressure that can be brought to bear to repel an insurgent encroachment.
- This strategy would have the effect of laying a solid foundation for a more participatory, more democratic society than the current U.S. strategy. Instead of relying on the Afghan security forces or foreign militaries, the Afghan people would be masters of their own destinies.
- Because it is an adapted form of civilian-based anti-coup defense, this strategy would provide the Afghan people with an effective tool to block future attempts by a well-resourced military to stage a coup against the young civilian government in Kabul.
- This strategy would likely involve far fewer U.S. and Afghan casualties and reduce violence almost immediately.
Responses to Potential Challenges
“This strategy assumes that the people of Afghanistan will defend the Karzai regime as the legitimate government, when that’s far from a given.” This is true. However, the counterinsurgency doctrine under which U.S. forces supposedly operate in Afghanistan also makes this assumption and has a legitimate host nation government as a prerequisite for its success. So, while it’s a legitimate objection, it’s not a variable among the two plans under consideration. The Kabul government is fraught with corruption, and many groups, especially women, have very serious and well-founded complaints with the regime. If any strategy is to have any hope, this regime must begin to address its own shortcomings. Otherwise, we’re just as well picking up stakes and leaving now rather than wasting another dime on any doomed strategy.
“We lack the capacity to train large numbers of Afghans in nonviolent methods.” At the moment, the U.S. likely lacks the communicative and training capacity to undertake this strategy. That, however, is beside the point: we also lack the capability to undertake a properly resourced military counterinsurgency. But, ratcheting up capacity to implement this strategy would be far less expensive than would be the case for a “pure” implementation of military COIN doctrine, and would be far less expensive to sustain in the long run. Thus, the current lack of resources could be resolved quickly and could be sustained longer than a continued military intervention.