Learning from Analogy?

by Joshua Foust on 11/25/2008 · 1 comment

The military loves its analogies. You could argue that most of the way they have built a counterinsurgency doctrine is via analogy—to Malaya, to Algeria, and any number of others—and that analogy is a guaranteed way to prick up ears in a military audience.

But what kind of analogy works in Afghanistan? It isn’t Algeria or British Malaya throwing off a colonial administration, nor is it Somalia toiling in a state of anarchy. It isn’t Columbia or Peru, nor is it East Timor or Lebanon. Afghanistan is certainly not Iraq, even though, despite some guys’ best efforts, that analogy still desperately clings to life in some military circles.

But all of these specific insurgencies make poor analogies. I read something recently that has stuck in my brain and blossomed. The Taliban are not like other Islamist insurgencies. The Taliban are more like Maoists.

Understanding that this isn’t fully formed yet in my head, we can draw the Taliban’s rise to power and subsequent rule against Mao’s quest to rule China. Granted, the timescales involved are vastly different, but the circumstances are remarkably similar: an ineffective, brutal government that doesn’t really control its own territory; a crusader rampaging through the countryside effective a gut-churningly harsh justice; and later, rule through constant cultural revolution and the violent suppression of non-conformity.

It is a fuzzy analogy, to be sure, but there are modern parallels. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal recently forced the dissolution of Kathmandu’s corrupt monarchy and enacted a parliamentary system—the very definition of former insurgents being coopted into government, which is a major pillar of counterinsurgency. And look at what is happening:

The party will not split,” a vulnerable Prachanda was quoted as saying last week, after his paper on the future strategy of his party faced serious opposition from a large number of central committee members led by Maoist purist Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’. Ironically, the Maoist chairman is facing the greatest threat to his leadership at a time when his party has gained the strongest position ever. According to conventional narrative, Prachanda faction wishes to institutionalize the federal democratic republic line (by continuing the peace process, drafting the new constitution, and engaging in multi-party democracy) whereas the Kiran faction wishes to take immediate steps towards one-party dictatorship of the proletariat.

The clear distinction made between the two strategies is, however, misleading. The Kiran faction claims that the democratic republic line was useful in getting rid of monarchy but has now outlived its purpose. This is at odds with the official Prachanda line. The essence of this strategy, adopted at the Chumbang plenum in 2005, was to ally with the parliamentary parties and India against monarchy. The opposing view then held within the party was that Maoists should instead work with the King against mainstream parties and India. But after the abolition of monarchy, the Maoists have already unofficially moved towards adopting elements of the line that was defeated at Chumbang.

I think this might foreshadow some of the problems Afghanistan will face as President Karzai attempts to bravely reconcile desperately pander to his shrinking base in calling for negotiations with the Taliban (or even more limply, Rory Stewart, call for a U.S. withdrawal). In my mind, there is little doubt that elements of the insurgency might, in the future when the government’s hand is stronger, be persuaded into parliament. But there is also little doubt in my mind that should that happen, they would face divisions so deep they would erupt into violence.

Again. Let’s not forget what happened the last time all these warring factions tried to institutionalize themselves. It was called the early 1990s.


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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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{ 1 comment }

Richard November 26, 2008 at 8:27 pm

So, in your opinion, what is to be done?

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