The Role of Ideology in the Afghan Strategy


Reproduced below is an extended version of a blog I wrote last week on the the crucial role that ideology will play in a strategy to defeat the Taliban. This was published on Monday by Hudson New York.

One of the main talking points during last Thursday’s Afghanistan Conference in London was a plan to create a $500 million fund for President Hamid Karzai to use in order to ‘buy off’ certain elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan. Although paying people to stop killing NATO troops may be difficult for many to stomach, it could be very effective if it follows some of the core principles of the Sunni ‘Awakening’ in Iraq.

As with the Awakening, this aspect of the Afghan strategy will come down to two issues: money and ideology. US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holdbrooke, told the London Times on Thursday that:

The overwhelming majority of these people are not ideological supporters of Mullah Omar [the fugitive Taleban leader] and al-Qaeda. Based on interviews with prisoners, returnees, experts, there must be at least 70 per cent of these people who are not fighting for anything to do with those causes.

This is a crucial point, and the success of Iraq’s Anbar Awakening was due, in part, to the fact that US and Iraqi forces were able to successfully drive a wedge between the die-hard ideologues of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the local Sunni tribesmen.

Although the AQI hardcore were determined to create an Islamic state in Iraq, this was never the aim of the Sunni Iraqi tribes who had allied with them against the Americans after the fall of Saddam. In 2006 it had become clear to many non-Islamist Iraqi insurgents that they had joined forces with a group that wanted something more than freedom from perceived occupation. By September 2006, 25 of the roughly 31 tribal groups in Iraq’s Anbar province joined forces to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, partly due to the cash incentives offered by the Americans and also in revolt against the strict Islamic code imposed by AQI. These tribes were previously allied with AQI in their fight to remove what they saw as occupying forces, and had become what David Kilcullen (one of the architects of the Awakening) refers to as “accidental guerrillas”: they had local, non-ideological interests in removing the allies from Iraq, and AQI exploited this by provided them with the most immediate way to achieve their aims. Kilcullen explains 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.

In addition, as was recently explained to me by a member of the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction team, the largely foreign ideological hardcore brought with them radical values and practices that sat uneasily with the very society they sought to mobilise. In time, the Sunni tribesmen grew “tired of the foreign Jihadist movements [that] threatened the traditional tribal system as well as the secular Baathists”.

In Baghdad, the first backlash against AQI’s religious code occurred in the Ameriya district in late 2007, by which time the jihadist practice of takfir [excommunication] had led to the death of many locals. After the siege of Fallujah in 2004, many AQI members fled to Ameriya and received shelter as well as allying themselves with tribal insurgents. However, as AQI gained influence they began to enforce their ideology and, as recounted in Linda Robinson’s excellent account of this period, the Ameriyans “had not bargained for the harsh measures Al-Qaeda extremists began to impose on the local population, or the degree to which they were willing to target Iraqi civilians to enforce them.” AQI also began a sectarian campaign against local Shiites, murdering them in their hundreds. Sunnis, however, were not exempt and as well as throwing acid into the faces of uncovered women, they began to force young Sunni men into becoming suicide bombers, in one instance handcuffing a man to the steering wheel of a suicide vehicle laden with explosives. The willingness to work with AQI was steadily eroding and in May 2007, US forces operating in Ameriya received a message from one of the local Ameriyan Imams who informed them that locals had decided to rise up against AQI. The next day, when the fighting intensified, the Sheikh requested American military assistance. This group of anti-AQI Ameriyans became known as the ‘Knights of Ameriya’ and now work alongside US troops in operations against AQI.

Although these Iraqis became anti-al-Qaeda, they did not immediately shift to a pro American stance. Kilcullen explains that “the [tribal] rebellion against AQI was motivated…by a backlash against al-Qa’ida’s exclusive emphasis on religion and disregard of custom.” The insurgency was thus split into ‘reconcilable’ (non Islamist) and the ideologically driven ‘irreconcilable’ elements. In London in September 2009, CENTCOM head General Petraeus had already suggested that a similar approach will be pursued 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 reconcilable in Afghanistan.”

In ‘Flipping the Taliban’, written for Foreign Affairs last year, Fotini Christia and Michael Semple explain how this reconcilable element does indeed exist in Afghanistan:

The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun and conservative, but the movement also contains legions of men who fight for reasons that have nothing to do with Islamic zealotry. For many, insurgency is a way of life. The fighters are affiliated with particular commanders and receive comradeship and protection within their group.

Although the core principles of the Iraqi approach may work in Afghanistan, there are of course many differences between the two conflicts. For example, AQI lost much of its support because its suicide operations targeted and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. The Taliban have learned from this mistake and in May 2009 they produced the ‘Rules for the Mujahideen’, a field manual which, among other things, stresses the importance of the battle for hearts and minds, telling fighters to avoid killing civilians. It is also worth noting that, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan shares a border with a region in Pakistan where jihadists are sheltered by sympathetic elements of the Inter Services Intelligence and other groups. From there, they could allow negotiations and deals to take place, and return after NATO/ISAF let their guard down.

There is little to be gained in negotiating with the irreconcilable elements referred to by General Petraeus. The Pakistani government learned this the hard way last year when they signed the Malakand Accord with the Pakistani Taliban in Swat, only the for the hardcore to break the deal within weeks, catching the Army off guard and launching an expansionist campaign into nearby Buner. If NATO/ISAF can successfully appeal to the non-ideological elements in Afghanistan, who make up the majority of the insurgency, the war could yet be won. However, incidents like the killing of 5 British troops by an Afghan policeman in Shin Kalay last November demonstrate that finding the right partners will not be easy.

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