The Times reports today on the ‘Taliban payoff row’ surrounding the plans set out yesterday during the London Afghanistan conference to coax factions that are fighting under the Taliban umbrella into switching sides. It may be difficult, particularly for those who have lost family members in the conflict, to agree to pay people to stop killing our troops, but it might just be the only way to win this war.
In September last year, I attended an event hosted by the Policy Exchange think-tank at which the head of CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, hinted that such a strategy may be the only way forward in Afghanistan:
For the strategy to work, moreover, it’s also necessary to find ways to identify reconcilable members of insurgent elements and to transform them from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution. That is not only important from a security standpoint in the local area, it’s also important in generating the kind of momentum that can result in a spread of thinking that is time to reject resistance and embrace political participation.
The goal, of course, is to mobilise local opinion in opposition to violent ideologies, and on this point I might note that it was British deputy in Iraq, Lieutenant General Graeme Lamb, also a former 22 SAS, armed with lessons he’d learned in Northern Ireland, who was one of those who was in the development of the concepts of reconciliation that enabled us to capitalise on the so-called Anbar Awakening, and to help transform it into a broader Sunni Awakening in Iraq in 2007. I might note that Lieutenant General (retired) Sir Graeme Lamb is now in Kabul by the way, helping General Stan McChrystal develop concepts to guide the reintegration of reconcilables in Afghanistan.
What the General is suggesting here, and what was discussed during yesterday’s conference, is a similar strategy to that which was so successful in Iraq: the ‘Awakening’ movement. In Iraq, US and Iraqi forces were able to drive a wedge between the Al-Qaeda ideological hardcore (irreconcilables) and the local Sunni tribal militias (reconcilables). They were able to convince the non-ideological elements of the Iraqi insurgency to turn against the Islamist ideological hardcore through a combination of cash incentives and the locals’ own revulsion at the true nature of the Al-Qaeda jihad. Sunni militias had originally allied with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in order to repel what they regarded as a hostile occupation of their land, but of course AQI had different ideas and were intent upon creating an expansionist Islamic state. David Kilcullen, one of the architects of the Awakening, explains in his book ‘The Accidental Guerrilla’ that:
…neo-Salafi “jihadists” – a small, elusive minority in any society – are often implacable fanatics, the local guerrillas they exploit frequently fight because they perceive western presence and the globalised culture Westerners carry with us, as a deadly corrosive to local identity…the local fighter is therefore often an accidental guerrilla – fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours.
After thousands of Iraqis were killed by constant AQI suicide missions and strict sharia law began to be enforced, these ‘accidental guerrillas’ realised that they had allied with the wrong people and in some cases, like in Ameriya in 2007, local tribes even sought out American assistance to remove AQI elements from their towns and villages.
Many American families who had lost their sons and daughters to Iraqi militias were also unhappy that money was used to placate their killers, but it worked, and it prevented the deaths of countless more troops. There is no guarantee that this will work in Afghanistan, and there are some fundamental differences between the two conflicts. The Taliban have, for example, issued a field guide, ‘Rules for the Mujahideen’, which stresses that fighters must avoid the wholesale murder of civilians, demonstrating that they realise how much this tactic harmed AQI.
One of the similarities, however, is that the majority of the Afghan insurgency is also made up of reconcilable elements. US Special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holdbrooke, told The Times yesterday that up to 70% of the Afghan insurgency was non-ideological and if CENTCOM and NATO/ISAF strategists think the majority of them can be flipped, it is certainly worth a try.