Mapping the Afghan Conflict

by Joshua Foust on 10/28/2008 · 2 comments

Toaf, a Brit expat living in Nairobi, has attempted to “map” the Ethiopian Somali conflict.

Somalia Conflict Map

This is basic social network analysis, though obviously a few levels of analysis higher than individuals. It is one of those tools in the Counterinsurgency manual that can help soldiers (and social scientists!) gain a better understanding of the social currents underpinning conflict. Examined in isolation, they don’t explain much, but in conjunction with, say, an intensely individualistic analysis of political organization, they can be incredibly informative about how societies function.

Would such a construct work in Afghanistan? The military certainly thinks so—it’s how they try to unravel insurgent cells. We know Afghans—especially Pashtuns, but really everyone there—have vast social networks, and will often leverage these to get jobs, concessions, handouts, and bribes. Me, I’m not so sure—from an anthropological perspective, I can see there being useful analysis, but my understanding of social linkages in Afghanistan leads me to think it’s not a very helpful tool from a policy perspective. But that’s just my own bias talking.

On an organizational level, it might work. Abdulkader Sinno has certainly argued persuasively that organizationally, war in Afghanistan can actually be mapped and theorized (I’m just starting his book, though the chapter he wrote for Crews and Tarzi discussed the same thesis).

In order to map the organizations that are competing for power and influence in Afghanistan, we would need to structure our data properly. I would avoid classifying them as friendly, enemy, or neutral, because I suspect the “actual” orientation of some groups (as mapped in relation to each other) would surprise us—from both sides. We might even be able to arrange these organizations into blocs. Here’s an initial stab at simply listing them in vaguely-defined blocs, with the understanding that almost all definitions are assumed and can be quibbled with if you want to be a jerk:

States Afghanistan USA/OEF India Pakistan Iran China
IGOs UN/UNAMA ISAF/NATO OEF PRTs?
NGOs Medical groups Islamic Charities Christian Charities Academics
Armed Groups ANA/ANP HiG Quetta Shura Haqqani Network
Misc. Media* Domestic Politics Student organizations

This is a start, and it’s just stuff I could come up with off the top of my head. I realize “media” encompasses an enormous range of groups with an enormous variation in ideology, intent, and trustworthiness. Domestic politics applies both to Afghanistan (the new Asia Foundation survey is out, and I need to read it) and to the western countries putting their soldiers on the line. I don’t think we can yet discount student organizations—they played a huge role in Afghanistan’s past before, and student-organized protests have been effective in the past at bringing about some changes. And I don’t know where we’d fit PRTs, or if we’d need to break those out by country.

There are almost certainly others. Can anyone else add to this? Maybe map out some of the relationships? A sample would be: ISI::USA (friendly), ISI::Quetta Shura (friendly). Obviously, this works best in a spreadsheet of some sort, and even better if you have some sort of SNA tool available, like Analyst Notebook or UCInet. But looking at Afghanistan from a relational perspective should probably turn up something interesting. Should I ever get some more free time, I’ll try to give this a try as well—and of course, beg for feedback from all of you.


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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 Registan.net. 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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{ 2 comments }

david October 31, 2008 at 5:29 am

Not to be too pedantic, but isn’t that a map of the conflict in Somalia? mind you, given that the US doesn’t seem to mind taking its wars over any inconvenient international borders these days, maybe its an appropriate slip.

Joshua Foust October 31, 2008 at 6:31 am

Sigh. That’s not being pedantic, that’s being sharp-eyed and catching me writing one thing while thinking another. Even if it also happens to make a neat joke (i.e. our involvement in the Horn shows about as much respect for and understanding of borders). I’m changing it now.

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