No Real “Conventional Threat?” Since When?

by Joshua Foust on 1/23/2007

I must have missed that one time when the conflict in Afghanistan was a traditional conflict between two uniformed armies using conventional military tactics. Because ISAF sure feels things have changed, now that they’re facing an insurgency and all. ORLY? Look, I know it can sometimes be tough to get good PR officers in forgotten deployments, but this is ridiculous. I think this actually hints at one of the big problems NATO has faced so far: it has treated the insurgents as a monolithic force, under command from somewhere, and with some sort of structure they can eventually degrade.

Much like al-Qaeda, in the past few years the Afghani insurgency has split off into many groups—warlords, Taliban, drug runners. They sometimes collaborate on things, like working security on convoys, but each group has distinct goals and even distinct methods. The drug runners usually aren’t interested in the religious element and though they will fight if attacked, then not to be very expansionist. The warlords have a similarly more limited scope—Ismail Khan, for instance, probably doesn’t care if he controls more than Herat, and would be perfectly happy to have reign of his domain.

The dire, and immediate security threat is the Taliban, which uses its sanctuaries in western Pakistan as a staging ground to launch hit-and-run attacks on coalition forces. Similarly, it is much easier for the Taliban to erode government control of an area, as they can blend into the population and don’t require large numbers to terrorize an entire village into complacency. Then there is the religious element, which, despite our best wishes to the contrary, still hold a lot of appeal to tradition and piety-minded Afghanis.

Tying all this into a neat little thorn in NATO’s side is the racial element: a Pashtun group ostensibly fighting for Pashtun interests is going to have a big leg on up a bunch of white people from thousands of miles away, no matter their intentions.

I do like, however, that now that NATO is looking at this as an unconventional war (what, after only five years?), it is also looking at unconventional tactics.

Marsh said ISAF commanders think that committed Taliban fighters make up only a small portion of the insurgency and that the rest are mostly “hired hands.” He said ISAF wanted to target the two groups with different measures.

“What we actually want to do is to break what we call the ‘Tier-1 Taliban’ away from the ‘Tier-2 [Taliban]’ — and ‘Tier 1,’ we define those as being committed as being cause, and the ‘Tier 2’ are the hired help,” Marsh said. “So [Tier 2] can be the local people, they can be people brought in from outside; we tend to find that they are people usually with some debts that need paying, and the Taliban pay quite well.”

Marsh said ISAF hoped that, deprived of their leaders, Tier-2 fighters would return to their farms and jobs.

NATO officials at Kandahar told RFE/RL that the Taliban enjoyed a major wage advantage over the Afghan Army and other Afghan security forces. It can afford to pay insurgents $8-$10 a day, amounting to about $150 a month. The Afghan Army and police can manage just $60, and their payments are often late and subject to arbitrary deductions by commanders.

Combining organizational decapitation along with the promise of legit income holds promise (and corruption! Corruption always jacks up well-meaning policy in very poor places). It is also nice to hear that they’re opening a joint-intelligence center so there is an established place Afghani, Pakistani, and ISAF intelligence officers can collaborate on things. Except that the ISI is responsible for a big part of the insurgency. Imagine teaming up with the KGB to stop the Sandinistas.

Alas, though NATO shows some promise by starting to look outside the box, it seems hopelessly mired in its old paradigms. Explicitly trying to fit the Colombia model, which doesn’t even work in Colombia (among many other problems, like the huge ideological differences between FARC and the Taliban), into Afghanistan is a sure-fire loser. Thinking the ISI will help stem the Taliban and help a U.S.-friendly government is similarly doomed to failure. It’s just way too little policy change, way too late in the game. I remain pessimistic.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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