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Tribal politics: Why we must understand the human terrain

The Afghan conflict that the United States, Canada and other NATO countries find themselves embroiled in will not be won through military kinetics (or by pulling the trigger). Enemy body counts are not only ultimately irrelevant, they can also be counterproductive in a conflict involving an honour-based, revenge-driven Pashtun population.

When we kill a Pashtun foot soldier (usually an illiterate 18-22 year old probably raised in a Pakistani refugee camp) all of his male kinfolk immediate become our enemies. Indeed, the Pashtun tribal mores – Pashtunwali – would demand that all male relatives take up arms to revenge their fallen brother/son/father. The Pashtun, who make up the Taliban, have a saying: “Kill one enemy, make ten.” The death in battle of a Pashtun invokes an obligation of revenge among all his male relatives, making the killing of a Taliban guerrilla an act of insurgent multiplication, not subtraction. The Soviets learned this lesson during their misadventures in Afghanistan during the 1980s when they killed over a million Pashtuns but only increased the number of Pashtun guerrillas they faced by the end of the war.

The paradox of the Afghan conflict is that it is a war in which the more people you kill the faster you lose. This also has important implications for collateral damage. Although few if any insurgencies have ever been won by killing insurgents, this remains the primary strategy. Kinetics in Afghanistan are not the answer.

Rather, reconstruction is absolutely critical and needs to take centre stage in our Afghan strategy. In many respects the central problem of Afghanistan is the differential between Pashtun expectations, which were quite high when the U.S. initially invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, and the present reality. Quite frankly, south of the Helmand River – the heart of the traditional Pashtun homeland where people live in extreme poverty – there has been very little meaningful reconstruction. In part, this is because of an intimidation campaign the Taliban have waged to keep “reconstructors” out. But it is also because of a lack of security as well as resources. There is a symbiotic relationship between security and reconstruction.

Ultimately, the centre of gravity of this conflict, which again relates to reconstruction in a very large sense, is the trust and confidence of the Afghan people – trust and confidence in the coalition as well as in the regime in Kabul. Neither we nor Kabul will ever gain their trust when in parts of the Pashtun hinterland one in three children die by the age of five, potable water is the exception rather than the rule, illiteracy is near universal, and life expectancies are in the mid-40s.

Just as social conditions have not improved in many parts of Afghanistan, neither has the military situation: suicide attacks have risen from 21 in 2005 to 136 in 2006 and 145 in 2007; IED attacks have increased from 783 in 2005 to 2292 last year; direct fire attacks have jumped from 1558 in 2005 to 6300 in 2007; attacks on schools have increased from 91 in 2005 to 190 in 2006, and there were 44 in the first six months of 2007; and school closings have increased exponentially over the past three years, from 149 to 350 to 590. Moreover, as the recent Karzai assassination attempt in Kabul suggests, the Taliban operations are everywhere, not just confined to the south and east of the country.

I expect these trends to continue. What is so damning is that the situation is similar to what existed in 1994 when the Taliban first arose out of decades of war, civil war and Soviet occupation. Afghans then were as they are now: extremely war-weary. If we don’t offer them security, they will turn elsewhere. That is what allowed the Taliban to come to power in 1996 – they offered a balm of stability in an environment of basic anarchy before people recognized what they actually represented.

A recent controversial map by the Senlis Council suggests that 54 percent of the country now has a permanent Taliban presence. Though there is disagreement with some of the figures, it suggests that only eight percent of the country has no Taliban presence at all. By any metric, that is an extremely troubling map.

I believe that Afghanistan has become the perfect insurgent storm.

At least 40 percent of the economy is directly related to opium production and trafficking – and it could be as high as 60 percent, according to the UN. The Afghan National Police are an extremely inept and corrupt organization. In December 2005, DEA agents from the U.S. in Kabul suggested that 90 percent of the district police chiefs were explicitly or implicitly involved in opium trade. Afghanistan has the lowest tax revenues in the world. While there has been an increase in GDP, the actual tax revenue is somewhere between US$7 and $9 per person. Afghanistan is a state dependent on foreign donations and aid. Natural resources are slim. It ranks 195 out of 197 countries in terms of poverty. And on the misery index, a statistic maintained by the UN, it is dead last. Warlords, which have not been dealt with very well, still control major aspects of the country. And the insurgency, I believe, is gaining momentum. 2006 and 2007 were good years for the Taliban, and they are emboldened. I do not expect them to back down in 2008.

Tribal dynamics
The old Arab proverb, an enemy of an enemy is a friend, is most certainly in play in Afghanistan. We have to understand and exploit the fissures between the different insurgency groups. The insurgency is greater than the Taliban and involve other rebel groups such as Afghan Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (HIG) Party, the jihadi network of Maulawi Jalaluddin Haqqani (known as the Haqqani Faction), the Tora Bora Front, fighhters from Hizb-i-Islami Khalis (HIK), and the growing Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan under Baitullah Mahsud.

The leadership of the Taliban represent a rural, Ghilzai Pashtun phenomenon. There has been conflict between the Ghilzhai Pashtun nation and the Durrani Pashtun (President Karzai’s tribe) nation since the early 18th century. There is a certain tribal component that we don’t understand very clearly and we continue to downplay the insurgencies’ tribal roots. We need to know our enemy!

The Taliban have proven themselves extremely good at adapting and changing strategies. They are much more sophisticated than when they first came to power in the mid-90s. Ultimately, an insurgency and a counterinsurgency is a war of information and they are conducting a psy-ops and information campaign that, quite frankly, puts ours to shame. They understand the messages that resonate with the people and they understand the requisite cultural dynamics. The information that we have put out just has not resonated with the people.

The Taliban also benefit greatly from the refuge they are granted in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as in Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province. In addition to serving as a sanctuary for the Taliban, there are 6000 madrassas in the FATA and NWFP alone, with an estimated 600,000 students. While not all of these madrassas are producing insurgents, the sheer number of recruits available to the Taliban makes kill ratios insignificant – the Taliban will put as many people in the field as they need to conduct their operations.

Victory in a counterinsurgency hinges on three main points: One, a reasonably competent government that has support of between 80 and 90 percent of the people. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is not very popular outside of Kabul, and even in Kabul there are questions concerning his popularity and control. There is little argument that his government is dysfunctional and ripe with corruption. When 40-60 percent of the economy is tied to opium, corruption will permeate every aspect of society and government. Though I’m suggesting the government is massively corrupt, I do not suggest that Hamid Karzai personally is.

Two, a reasonably competent security force. Successful past counterinsurgencies suggest a ratio of one security personnel – army, police or other – to a population of 10. In Afghanistan right now, the ratio is about 1:100. Although we have trained 30,000 Afghan National Army, at any single time 33 percent of them are AWOL. At best, there are between 13,000 and 18,000 ANA available. And, of course, the ANP offer the counterinsurgency very little. While the NATO coalition and the U.S. have some 52,000 men deployed, overall this Afghan counterinsurgency has the smallest footprint of any peacekeeping operation since WWII.

And three, the government must be seen improving peoples’ lives. That’s not the case here. There are two Afghanistans. In the north, life has become better. In the south and east, people are still living in conditions not that different than in biblical times. As General David Richards has said, if NATO cannot succeed in bringing substantial economic development to Afghanistan soon, some 70 percent of Afghans will shift their loyalty to the Taliban.

In one year of Operation Enduring Freedom, the entire coalition spends about $12 billion; in Iraq the U.S. spends about $15 billion in one month. In New Orleans, we spent about $10 billion to rebuild the levees; over the first five years, reconstruction aid in Afghanistan was about $5 billion. Further, a recent study by ActionAid International suggests that of every U.S. dollar, 87 cents does not make it into the local communities. The result of this is staggering. We are not going to succeed with this level of reconstruction.

Challenges ahead
Let me conclude with seven areas we must address if we hope to succeed.
· We must develop a strategic intelligence network. For example, consider the Kuchi nomadic and semi-nomadic Afghans who number 600,000 to 800,000 and know every stone and tree in the hinterlands in addition to all the goat trails leading across the border into Pakistan. On top of this, they don’t like the Taliban. Why we haven’t tried to get close to them for intelligence concerning the countryside is beyond me.
· Our information operations have been ridiculous. We don’t have messages that resonate. Meanwhile, the Taliban have played a very prominent role in producing a great information campaign.
· We have a missing link on the security side. We have followed four training paradigms since the creation of the Afghan National Police and they still remain a very corrupt and basically useless organization for the counterinsurgency.
· We must understand the human terrain. We have to turn every solider into an ethnic-linguistic warrior. Pulling the trigger is important, but knowing the culture, the cultural terrain and at least some language is critically important to success. Kicking in village doors, searching women and speeding down city streets is not the answer.
· Quick reaction forces do not exist. I spent last spring in a large forward operating base where the “quick reaction” force was basically a group of soldiers in a Humvee travelling over rutted roads at five miles an hour. We need to put the “Q” back into QRF.
· Provincial reconstruction teams are a wonderful idea; theoretically, it’s the way you win an insurgency. But they are a grain of sand on the beach. The U.S., for example, has 12 reconstruction teams for about 12 million Pashtuns. We need DRTs – district reconstruction teams in each one of the 154 or so districts where the Taliban are challenging the coalition. The question, of course, is do we have the funds and the resources to do that?

Finally, we need to take a very careful look at what we’ve done relative to this insurgency and learn from the past insurgencies. A colleague, Kalev Sepp, wrote an insightful article in 2005 on successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgencies. On the unsuccessful side, let me point out a few practices: the primacy of military direction of the counterinsurgency; the priority of “kill/capture” missions; battalion-size operations as a norm; military units constructed on large bases; building and training the indigenous army in the image of the US army; inadequate governance priority.

I’ll let you judge if what we’re doing in Afghanistan falls into the successful or the successful metrics.

Thomas H. Johnson is research professor and director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies in the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa.

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