Elrod at The Moderate Voice, writing in response to criticisms of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy for setting a withdrawal date, argues:  (h/t Matt Duss at WonkRoom):

Quite simply, the Taliban does not have the luxury of “waiting us out” for 18 months. If they survive that long then it is because we failed in our ground-level counterinsurgency policy, not because we telegraphed our intention not to stay indefinitely. And if they do try and lay low and wait us out, the Afghan army and government will have had that much more time to establish its legitimate control over the entirety of southern Afghanistan.

Duss adds:

If killing the enemy were the main goal, then their decision to hunker down and wait for the U.S. to begin leaving might be a problem. But as the main goal of the new COIN strategy in Afghanistan is to secure the population, build trust with local communities through effective delivery of services, all the while increasing Afghan capacity to continue doing those things when we leave, it’s really not. The Taliban “waiting us out” would just give the U.S. more time and space to make Afghanistan a more inhospitable place for the Taliban.

While I agree with both Elrod and Matt that the criticisms of a timeline for withdrawal are often misguided, their comeback has its own set of problems.

It’s true that while the COIN strategy is population-centric rather than enemy-centric, this strategy is still too focused on a nation-state as a self-contained territory.  The assumption being that if you get villagers on your side with better services and then train an army & police force to guard the country as we begin to leave, the Taliban will not find any willing hosts.

Of course, the Afghan Taliban themselves have a head start and have been perfecting their own form of population-centric (i.e. tribal or village-centric) insurgency these past few years.

To counter that trend, the US wants to initiate its own form of population-centric warfare.  This would entail a village by village strategy, but what is the relationship between the village-centric counter-insurgency and training a national army and police force?  Taking a population-centric strategy would lead to empowering local leaders to form tribal-based security outfits, but this will undoubtedly come at the expense of the national government’s influence, which to begin with doesn’t have much effective control outside of Kabul.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing as I’ve never been a fan of the state-building mission in Afghanistan, but there’s a zero-sum trade off between local militias and the country’s national government.

Max Weber defined the nation-state as having a monopoly on the means of legitimate force within its boundaries. At least in Afghanistan, population-centric counter-insurgency undermines that reality.   This is where (I think) Elrod’s response breaks down. The lack of centralized control undermines his last argument about the government (presumably via a national army) establishing “legitimate” sovereign control over the south of the country.  Of course, legitimate sovereign control assumes the modern Weberian nation-state as the prime locus of the country’s political identity. 

This assumption is not in line Afghanistan’s history.  Even at the height of its power, Afghanistan’s central government was always a very weak one.  And that was before the Soviet invasion, a Civil War, Taliban (mis)rule, and now the US/NATO occupation and subsequent insurgency.

If we empower local leaders, then you have to keep paying them off–perhaps you can bribe them into pledging nominal loyalty to a central state in Kabul, but I doubt this would be very effective.

Matt Duss talks about the need for more effective delivery of services, especially after the US leaves.  If you deal at the local level, then the payments will go directly to local actors.  What exactly is to prevent the central government, after an initial US withdrawal, to take whatever funds are earmarked for continued payments for these tribal leaders?  Alternatively, how long do these payoffs last if the central government never comes together?

The Taliban have infiltrated and in some cases taken over the tribal village structure of  “Afghanistan”.  Afghanistan is in quotes here because the reality from the ground-level is that identity in that part of the world is tribal and village-based, not nationalistic.  Constantly referring to Afghanistan reinforces our Western view of nationhood, which leads to the failed assumption that the way forward is to build up a national state apparatus.

If this tribal-centric policy is implemented then some Taliban are inevitably going to be brought in and paid off.  Standard population-centric COIN theory accounts for this dilemma through its notion of reconcilable and irreconcilable factions.  Afghanistan’s tribal structure, however, makes that clear-cut distinction quite ambiguous.  According to standard COIN theory, reconcilable and irreconcilable groups are determined by certain factions’ willingness to lay down arms against the occupying army (and at least formally) recognize the legitimacy of the central government.

Duss talks about the Afghan Taliban as if they were a unified group, intent on waiting out the US surge.  But in reality, the Taliban are in many cases already embedded in Afghanistan’s tribal fabric.  Taliban fighters in many locales are running a mafia-like enterprise over the drug trade (complete with protection rackets, bride prices and all the rest).

Additionally, a tribal-centric policy will inevitably get the US involved in inter and intra-tribal politics.  Everybody who American Tribal Ally X has a grudge against (and who wants some of their money/arms) is going to be designated as “Taliban.”   The Americans will then encounter the same conundrum faced by British:  do you post army/police who are from the same tribe as the locals and thereby risk conflicted loyalties? Or do you station guys from different tribes in different areas (in which case they might not benefit from local intelligence and may even provoke a backlash)?

Population-centric COIN is envisioned as a so-called inkblot (you see this in Duss’s quotation).  Clear a place of insurgents, hold it, deliver services (build), and create the initial inkblot which eventually will bleed over to neighboring areas.  The country is assumed to be like a napkin–continuous, uniform, and of a distinct size and shape.

The trajectory of this mindset is non-reversible (as in the inkblot).

But what about an age of globalized black markets, which allows an insurgency to self-fund?  (For some background on this point, click here.)

The reality is that insurgents simply do not have to lose to win.  By losing, I mean that the insurgents must simply avoid getting totally wiped out.

Elrod and Duss are right that the problem is not that Obama announced a deadline, but they neglect the fact that the insurgency (insurgencies, really) in Afghanistan has a sanctuary in Pakistan and the US is working with a limited amount of time, political will, troops, money, and influence.   Moreover, the Taliban and other anti-Western insurgents can fund themselves through the opium trade (and other black/gray markets) outside the parameters of whatever state the US tries to build in Afghanistan–inkblots or no inkblots.

Ending the insurgency (insurgencies) in Afghanistan would require the following steps:  buying off many fighters, training/equipping/setting-up local tribal security forces, setting a national army/police force, and finally withdrawing Western forces from kinetic fighting, leaving them in the role of advisers and instructors.

However, I fear that ending the insurgency will not resolve the political end-game of Afghanistan.  The current population-centric COIN theory glosses over this problem by assuming the state will fill whatever “space” is created by the surge, a robust national army and police force, and civilian development projects.

It’s certainly true that if the US withdrew now, the Taliban would multiply along the tribal lines throughout much of the country.  This new US strategy may deprive the Taliban of some of that territory, but it does not mean a viable state will arise to take their place.

The current strategy simply moves some pieces around the board and puts some new players into the game, leaving the question of the political status/organizing paradigm of the country wide open.

In my darker moments, I sometimes fear that ending the insurgency in Afghanistan will only shift the country back to a renewed civil war.

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2 thoughts on “Population-centric=Tribal-centric

  1. Opium, opium opium. As I’m reading your (very good) musings on Afghanistan Chris I notice how the O word keeps popping up. It would be laughable how our idiotic war on drugs is so heavily undermining our (slightly less idiotic) war on terror. Well it would be if it wasn’t so sad.

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  2. This is an extremely important point that everyone invloved really should take fully to heart. The only problem with it that I have is I find it almost impossible to believe that those who have devised the strategy from the ground — McChrystal et al — aren’t fully cognizant of it. But I don’t know that they are. I just heard McChrystal say in the hearings that the central factor in whether we can stop the spread of Taliban quasi-legitimacy to new areas is whether there is sufficient quote-unquote “governance” in those areas. So the key question, then, is whether his concept of “governance’ is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the realities you describe, and then, whether such adjusted forms of governance are themselves sufficient for the purposes McChrystal believes necessary for effective counterinsurgency. Excellent — I now have a workable construct to keep me interested in these hearings.

    By the by, this post (http://washingtonindependent.com/69987/the-afghanistan-escalation-is-popular) from Dave Weigel is worth noting given the reviews of Obama speech last week. I didn’t have such a negative reaction to it — though there were some clunkers in it — but then I was not among those the speech was most intended to influence. It seems more Americans saw the speech in a context closer to the one given by Hendrick Hertzberg here – http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2009/12/14/091214taco_talk_hertzberg than by Joe Klein, pining for the Gipper, here – http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1945232,00.html.

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