“No Sign until the Burst of Fire”

This brilliant article from International Security, subtitled “Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier”, is one of the best things I have read about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and astride the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The main point of the article is that our problems in the region boil down to one troublesome community:

The Taliban and the other Islamic extremist insurgent elements operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are almost exclusively Pashtuns, with a sprinkling of radicals from nonborder ethnicities. The implications of this salient fact—that most of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s violent religious extremism, and with it much of the United States’ counterterrorism challenge, are centered within a single ethnolinguistic group—have not been fully grasped by a governmental policy community that has long downplayed cultural dynamics.

The British called these folks “Pathans”. The British were not notably successful in fighting them, though they did somewhat better recruiting them and bringing them into their employ.

One tribe within the larger Pashtun grouping are the Waziris.

Of all the Pashtun tribes, the Waziris of greater Waziristan … are reputed to be the most conservative and irascible. The Waziris pride themselves on never having paid taxes to any sovereign and never having their lands, which they consider veiled, or in purdah, conquered.

Waziristan was the setting for Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. Waziristan is categorically the uttermost end of the earth.

In a way I suppose the Pashtuns should be libertarian heroes. The Pashtuns “constitute the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state.” And, unlike some other communities, they don’t want one. They govern themselves according to a code called Pashtunwalli, or “the way of the Pashtuns”. They prize their personal independence above all things. A key point of honor for this group is the provision of hospitality, even at the cost of risk or hardship. This means, for one thing, that there was no way they were going to give up Osama bin Laden, either prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan, or now.

Tragically, the informal and consensual form of governance the Pashtuns have long lived by has been put under tremendous strain by the ceaseless, large scale conflict that began with the Soviet invasion of 1979. Following that, the Pakistanis, funded by the Saudis, began a process of radicalization of the Pashtuns, supporting fundamentalist madrassas. When the Soviets withdrew, the Pakistani ISI continued the radicalization of the area, which they perceived to be in Pakistan’s interest. This caused further disintegration of the traditional order among the Pashtuns.

the monster created in this ill-conceived experiment is virtually out of control. Apart from short-term tactical military successes, the political momentum of radicalization in the north appears to have gone beyond the power of the Pakistani state to contain it, let alone suppress it, which suggests that the odds of the radical fundamentalist genie being put back into the bottle are slim.

Even worse, the authors assert that US policy in the area is counterproductive:

For the United States, the short-term solution for bringing the Pashtun lands back from the radical brink is to strengthen and rebuild the tribal structures from the inside while reducing the pressures on them from the outside, rather than the current policy of doing the opposite.
… rather than applying external pressure by seeking to extend the reach of the anathematic central government, an action that historically has fomented insurrection among the proto-insurgent Pashtun, the United States and the international community should be doing everything in their means to empower the tribal elders and restore the traditional balance to the system. One way to start in Afghanistan would be to amend the constitution to elect provincial governors and deputy governors directly, rather than the current method of having outsiders imposed upon the Pashtun provinces by ªat from Kabul.

This cuts against the idea that the USA should try to centralized authority on Afghanistan, a task no one has ever succeeded at. Rather, we should be making concrete improvements in the lives of the people there, so that they can reestablish their own way of life.

The next step is to bring rapid improvements in everyday people’s lives in the Pashtun belt, where in many places one child in three still dies before her fifth birthday. These improvements must begin to be felt quickly across a broad sweep of the Pashtun lands, before spreading Talibanization can further consolidate its position among the people and make their denial a self-fulfilling prophecy. The level of nonsecurity-related (i.e., police and army) aid actually reaching the Pashtun people in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion has been shockingly low, less than $5 per Pashtun per year, an astonishingly miserly effort considering the critical strategic nature of the region. As suggested elsewhere, military tactics, too, such as the preeminence of intrusive sweep operations, the emphasis on the so-called kill/capture mission, and the indiscriminate use of airpower in inhabited areas have been extremely damaging to counterinsurgency efforts among a revenge-oriented people with a zero tolerance for insult and “collateral damage.”

In Thomas Barnett’s phrasing, we need more SysAdmin and less Leviathan, if we want long-term success in the region. We should be trying to restore order so that Pashtunwali can reassert itself. (It is interesting that this failure is precisely the same thing that was condemned at the end of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.) It would be relatively cheap to provide some material help to these people, especially compared to the downstream cost of further failure in Afghanistan.

And the cost of failure in Afghanistan could be very high:

Most alarmingly, in late 2004 the Talibanization of the north began to assume aspects of a more global character. Tactics used widely by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaida fighters in Iraq started to appear in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area and have since spread widely. Intelligence analysts believe this is evidence of an al-Qaida-affiliated information network linking jihadist movements in multiple theaters of operation with loose operational coordination on a global scale and of a capability to move at least small numbers of personnel from one operational theater to another. … The entire border area has been wracked by a sharp increase in suicide attacks, roadside bombings with the use of improved and more deadly IEDs, and the executions of “spies.”61 In 2006 Afghanistan suffered an algebraic increase in violence, including 139 suicide attacks—a fourfold increase over 2005—and approximately 1,600 incidents of IEDs—triple the numbers for 2005.62 The year 2007 continued the steady, unbroken upward trend of insurgent violence in Afghanistan since 2002.
More significant than the novelty of some of these technologies and tactics is the fact that they are foreign to traditional Afghan mores and contradict Pashtun tribal and religious values. This worrisome development suggests a growing linkage between elements of the global jihad and the emergence of a transnational jihadi culture. An analysis of Taliban shabnamah (night letters), which forms a major tactical component of the Taliban’s information and psychological operations campaigns, suggests that “the Afghan insurgency might very well be morphing into a campaign with more transnational concerns.”

Yet, these authors suggest that there is little grasp of the Pashtun culture on the part of the US and NATO militaries operating in Afghanistan, and from time to time across the border in Pakistan.

This country spends hundreds of millions of dollars on one fighter plane. Yet, the authors can still say, after we have been in Afghanistan for more than five years: “Most U.S. soldiers deploying to Afghanistan still receive little or no cultural or language training.” How many F-35s would we have to give up to pay for adequate linguistic and cultural training for troops who are fighting a counter-insurgency that is ultimately political in nature?

The priorities in the Military-Industrial Iron Triangle remain wildly out of line with reality. Our spending priorities are not focused on the actual requirements of the conflicts we are actually engaged in. This costs American lives, today, now. And it risks worse problems in the future.

I strongly recommend you read the entire article.

Also, it would be good to hear from anyone with knowledge of the subject who disagrees in whole or in part with this article, or can confirm it in whole or in part. Particularly, it would be good to hear from anyone has been in Afghanistan who may have some response to the article.

11 thoughts on ““No Sign until the Burst of Fire””

  1. Excellent post! A few thoughts:

    The authors were right to focus on both the preeminence of the Pushtunwali as well as the erosion of tribal mechanisms under the pressure of violent Islamist extremism that cuts across clan, sub-tribe and tribal groupings. The complexity of the region is underlined by the little known fact ( in America at least) that Hamid Karzai and his influential “royal” clan originally supported the Taliban, turning on them when a Taliban commander murdered Karzai’s father.

    The crux of the issue is this:

    1)That Pashtuns, pro or anti- Taliban, see themselves and not the Hazaras, Uzbeks or Tajiks or other minorities as “the Afghans” and the entirety of their tribal region and much of Afghanistan proper as “theirs”. Everyone else from ourselves to the Pakistanis and Uzbeks are outsiders.

    2)The Pakistani Army regards Afghanistan as it’s defense in depth, a redoubt, against an invasion by India and the Karzai regime as hostile to Pakistani interests because it is not dependent upon Pakistan.

    If the Taliban leadership and Al Qaida in northwest Pakistan are tro be captured or killed, it will only be done by American troops raiding or bombing against Pakistan’s wishes or if we have the incredible good fortune of al Qaida provoking a powerful Pushtun sub-tribe into hostlities the way AQI irritated the Sunni Arab tribes of Anbar province.

  2. The best bet would be to send Afghanies across the border to do onto those on the Pak side of the border what they’ve been doing on the Afghanistan side of the border. Establish a proper transit corridor to inhibit backwash by the Taliban et al. Blood feuding has a long history in that part of the world. Make it feature not a bug. When the NW tribal territories are up to the armpits in chaos they’ll be too busy to remember causing problems on the Afghan side of the border was their objective.

  3. They prize their personal independence above all things. A key point of honor for this group is the provision of hospitality, even at the cost of risk or hardship.

    Pashtuns are hillbillies. We see this same culture pattern reassert itself \ repeatedly in the world’s mountainous regions. The physical isolation creates an independent nature and the dependence on easy to steal livestock leads to a feuding culture.

    I am frankly dubious that there is practical solution to the problem. Every similar conflict has come with a plethora of advice about how to deal with the problem based on indigenous culture and most of the recommendations by people with great experience in the area contradict each other.

    Sensitivity to culture never hurts. For example, we seldom think to offer enemies or fence sitters monetary incentives to do what we want because (beyond the danegeld problem) in our culture it is an insult to suggest that one will fight for matters that could be settled with money. In other cultures, however, giving money or gifts is a sign of respect.

  4. It took months of reading and posting but at long last I seem to agree with Shannon. A nation that has so much of its country controlled by warlords, nearly independent of a national control and military, is not going to function very well. We see these separate militias too in Iraq. The US is not going to be “allowed” into Pakistan; Pakistan is not going to change the way these warlords operate.

  5. Fred Lapides,

    I think you misunderstood what I wrote. I was merely addressing the problem of trying to solve the problem by engaging the local culture. While in theory a good idea, in reality it is very hard to do so.

    It requires a finely balanced carrot and stick approach. You need to curry favor with the general population with material benefits but you also need to make it clear that you’re not doing so out of fear of the hostile elements. Otherwise, the hostiles can claim that they are ultimately responsible for the benefits. Instead, you have to create an environment in which the hostiles are seen as preventing further material progress. At that point, the population will turn on them.

    That is the threshold we have passed in succession in the Sunni and Shia areas of Iraq. Most of the population now views the anti-democratic forces as impediments to their well being.

    The problem we face in Pakistan is analogous to what we would’ve faced in Iraq if we allied with the Sunni against the traditionally oppressed Shia. We would have trouble convincing the Shia that we meant them well while we were allied with their historic oppressors. Pashtuns are the hicks in the sticks in Pakistan and have long suffered discrimination at the hands of the low land ethnic groups.

  6. The Taliban need to be viewed primarily as an ethnic movement with a religious aspect. In Afghanistan the insurgency is mainly ethnic in origin, and has its roots in the Pashtun vs. Non-Pashtun rivalries in pre-OEF times.

    The Pashtun brand of Islam, although extremely conservative, actually has little in common with the Islam of al Qaeda, and is an expression of the mountain culture of Afghanistan. Until the Taliban came to power in the 90s, seeing women without Burqa or Hijab-type headgear was not uncommon. Suicide bombing–a fixture of Arab jihadism since at least the early 1980s, was actively discouraged by the Taliban through at least 2004.

    If we can better-understand the Pashtunwali it may be possible to ostracise the Taliban–who are currently using some remarkably non-Pashtun methods–from their fellow Pashtuns. This may be easier than you think. American military units esteem honor nearly as much as Pashtuns, and personal interaction between American military men (they must be men in this case!) and Pashtun may allow some openings which will allow the seperation of Taliban Pashtun from other Ethnic Pashtuns. This is a grand-tactical approach that may allow for tactical victory over the Taliban fighting units.***

    This grand tactical approach would require a strategy of making peace with the Pashtuns as the rightful rulers of Afghanistan–at the expense of the Taliban. We are currently not operating with this strategy. In fact, I’m at a loss as to WHAT our strategy and end-state really are in Afghanistan.

    *** Unlike Iraqi insurgents, the Taliban actually operate in platoon, company, and very occasionally battalion- or larger sized units that, if they can be identified, may be engaged and destroyed. Personal experience with these units says they know how to use cover and concealment with terrain better than perhaps any force the US has ever fought in battle. This will require something of a revolution in American ability to track light infantry units. Iraqi insurgents tend to operate using a cellular structure, not the triangular structure of traditional military units. The Taliban tend to be Triangular in organization, with cellular auxiliary troops (IEDs and suicide bomber cells, for example).

  7. SE, thanks for the insight.

    I hope some of what you suggest will happen.

    “In fact, I’m at a loss as to WHAT our strategy and end-state really are in Afghanistan.”

    I think it is a football between different parts of the government. Maybe Petraeus will impose unity of aims as well as superior methods.

  8. “The Pakistani Army regards Afghanistan as it’s defense in depth”

    Mark, this is the key to much of what has happened.

    Pakistan’s leadership lives in mortal terror of a final showdown with India that it cannot win. When a country is confronted with a strategic situation that is hopeless, there are various ways they can try to whistle past the graveyard. A realistic one is to say, “we will lose the first round, but we will take to the hills, we will never surrender.” The Swiss deterred the Germans with that strategy. Churchill more or less said this in 1940. We thought the Germans would do this in 1945, with a mythical Bavarian Redoubt. Similarly, the Pakistanis decided to do a conventional-defense-followed-by-guerilla-resistance model. As you note, Afghanistan with its inhospitable errain was to be the zone of guerilla resistance. A less realistic but typical response to substantive inferiority is to try to gain some kind of moral or spiritual advantage. Germans are Aryans, hence a match for any number of Judeao-Bolshevik untermenschen — so they told themselves — hence making Barbarossa look plausible. Sons of the Yamato race and knights of Bushido cannot be beaten by piddly things like steel mills and railroads and shipyards and finance and factories — making Pearl Harbor look plausible. The republican ardor of our troops, their elan vital, can overcome the mere numbers of Germans, making the defense of France in 1914, with no major land commitment from Britain, seem plausible. Similarly, the Pakistanis sought a spiritual foundation for their planned protracted popular struggle. They built their hoped-for moral superiority on fundamentalist Islam, taught in thousands of madrassas financed by Saudi money. This would radicalize both the Pashtuns as well as others. This religio-strategic policy was articulated in Brig. S.K. Malik’s The Quranic Concept of War.

    The situation is a nasty briar patch. I worry that the American leadership is wandering rather aimlessly there. I see no evidence to the contrary. I agree with Shannon that the Pashtuns are “hillbillies”, in the taxonomic and not pejorative sense. All the more reason to learn their language, both literally and more broadly, figure out how to cooperate with them and coopt them — solely for the purpose of defeating our enemies the Taliban, then ratchet back our involvement, build down our visible presence there, and allow the Pashtuns to run their own affairs as they have done since time out of mind. We should not stay in Afghanistan for 100 years, even in the purported government asks us to. No foreign power has had a happy experience staying for a long time in Afghanistan. Secure the destruction of our current enemies, make as many friends as possible, in case of a later need to investigate or otherwise work in the area, and scram.

  9. SE, a true peace treaty between India and Pakistan would be one of the best things that could happen in the world. I am currently reading (almost done with) Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. The division of India, and the ensuing conflict between India and Pakistan have been a colossal human tragedy.

    There are several major obstacles to a rapprochement, too many to go into here, though I think the government of Pakistan would have a terrible time justifying its own corruption and incompetence if it did not have a perpetual “war scare” with India to justify its existence.

    It is interesting that our supposed Allies in the “GWOT”, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are the two biggest sources of the problems we face? Again, a topic too big for this comment.

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