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The Big Picture in Afghanistan

There's one question that's on everyone's mind when the come into my office.  What do you think is going to happen with Afghanistan?  I haven't heard another theory or narrative that I'm completely satisfied with actually, so I've gone rogue and developed my own.

Stalemate followed by eventual collapse of the insurgency.  Right now both the Western Coalition and the various anti-government elements known collectively as the Taliban have difference strengths and weakness that match them fairly well in their contest over Afghanistan.  Both groups have now reached watersheds in their ability to control and influence the situation and what happens from here on out will shatter the traditional discourse of insurgency that both sides now buy into.  The "Taliban" do not own the morality discourse and are fast running out of demonstrable strategic gains.  The result is that they will increasingly discredit themselves by trying to win over people who are not sympathetic to their message and possibly also playing the role of spoiler.  The situation for ordinary Afghans and aid workers will not improve for a few years, but security will eventually improve as it becomes apparent that the opposition doesn't have a viable option and that the government of Afghanistan is the least bad option.

There is no Taliban.  There are a number of groups, at least forty, using the Taliban as their brand identity.  They have different goals and motivations both at the level of individual and group.  Some groups operate in a valley or district, others provincially, and others still operate both nationally and internationally with a combination of cells, linkages, and co-operation with other networks.  Some groups exist independently of any government, others are funded and given logistical support directly by members of the Pakistani state.  A bombing carried out by the Haqqani network was planned in an office in Islamabad, materials were sourced by legal, illegal, and semi-legal means through a network of actors with Haqqani providing key logistical support for one major bottleneck in the plan's execution.  Further down the road, the combined governmental-Haqqani apparatus worked with yet more diverse elements to facilitate, obscure, and obfuscate the plan until its fruition.  This description of one incident is representative in the diversity of possibilities and groups involved in carrying out an operation, not its sepcific details.  Along with not reflect facts, lumping insurgent activity under the heading of Taliban also helps validate their narrative.  Most analysts realise there is no coherent Taliban movement, but is too often used as a crutch in describing the situation.

This insurgency is different that the one against the Soviets.  If you travel to Badakhshan, the far northeastern province of Afghanistan never to have been ruled by the Taliban, it's amazing how much anti-Soviet grafitti there is in a place which has almost no organised insurgency today.  What's the difference?  It's who's fighting.  The primary distinction between the 1980s and the 2000s is that in the former everyone fought while now insurgent activity is limited almost exclusively to Pashtuns.  Now most Pashtuns are law-abiding and upstanding citizens and this statement should not be taken as a group indictment of them.  Rather it is an acknowledgement of the fact that anti-government activity occurs within networks strongly correlated to the Pashtun ethno-linguistic sphere.  Futhermore, Persian- and Turkish speakers (Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras, Tajiks, Aimaqs) are if anything probably more conservative than their Pashto-speaking brethren.  The ability of Pashtuns to organise and agitate either individually or collectively stems precisely from their greater contact with modernity resulting from interconnectedness with South Asian culture and global ideological trends.  The ethno-linguistic dynamics which have appeared since the 2001 invasion are key way in which the current insurgency differs from that conducted against the Soviets.

So where to now?  In 2008 the anti-government insurgence made remarkable strides in both number of incidents and areas of expansion.  Any security-risk map of Afghanistan has changed since 2003 from red/orange splotches in the south to a line which runs down the backbone of the Hindu Kush mountains, effectly dividing the country in two.  Both geographically and politically, two of the most important gains for insurgents last year were the collapse of security in southern Herat province and eastern Badghis.

Now here's a question?  Why did eastern Badghis fall apart while Herat city remained fairly stable (the insurgent influence spreading far northeast to an almost un-contiguous patch)?  Because of the limitations of the insurgency.  Until 2008, the expansion of the insurgency has occurred in areas where a potentially sympathetic population had not yet been swayed.  Invariably this has meant Pashtun communities like those in the south of Herat and in the eastern districts of Badghis.  (This rule is not absolute; in southern Shindand, when a group used the violence as an excuse to call in an American air strike which killed almost 100 civilians, residents' enthusiasm for the insurgency was somewhat diminished)  An unconventional military force cannot take Herat (nor Qandahar, nor Kabul), and on the whole anti-government elements have not tried.  Also, Herat is strategically useful to various insurgent factions in that it serves as a sort of free trade zone where weapons can be bought and money can be made.  Instead of Herat, various groups focused their energies on the valley of Bala Murghab and Ghormach in eastern Badghis where there were both dense pockets of Pashtun settlement and the major strategic objective of delaying the completion of the last stretch of the ring road.  Eastern Badghis has since seen major clashes and even some of the furthest-north airstrikes since 2001.

With the collapse of government authority in major chunks of the west in 2008, the Afghan war has now reached a stalemate.  Anti-government forces can't gain any more support in new areas of the country and will need to show successes.  Reporting often reveals a bias whereby insurgents always seem on the verge of winning precisely because their modus operandi is spectacular, media-grabbing incidents, whose likely outcome is the result of response to media coverage.  Coalition, or any anti-insurgency forces, have an in-built problem of perception in that few of their successes will grab headlines.  A village not having been overrun by insurgents will not make the front page.  By this same logic however, anti-government forces also need to achieve spectacular strikes to keep up attention and validate their narrative.  The Qandahar prison break and the Serena attack caught headlines but now insurgents need to have more of that in other areas of the country, specifically the stable north otherwise an insurgency which claims to be national but is in reality not will run into serious legitimacy problems.

Tipping the other half of Afghanistan.  Anti-government threats to the north have followed two trends since 2007.  Various anti-government groups have intended to incite such sentiment amongst potentially sympathetic groups in at least four major areas throughout the north.  This involves a combination of propaganda, support, and matériel.  The other major stratagem is the pursuit of a spectacular attack in the north to validate the national reach of the insurgency and make believable the idea that the north too is now ungovernable.

Two pockets in the north which are more receptive to anti-government sentiment are western Balkh province and Kunduz province.  Both areas have relatively high amounts of Pashtun settlement, though in Kunduz such settlement is both denser and in higher concentrations.  The northern Pashtun populations are the result of both natural population movements within an ethnically diverse state but also of government-sponsored resettlement campaigns from the late nineteenth century.  In the end, these Pashtun communities never fully integrated into their surroundings and also remained tied to wider trends within Pashtun society.  A large number of Pashtuns have intermarried and effectively Persianised but still many cluster together in separate villages or on the edges of existing settlements where they may not be properly incorporated into consultative processes such as shuras and needs assessments.  Adding fuel to this lack of social integration was the Taliban occupation of the area from 1997 to 2001.  The Taliban regime attempted to turn the tables an favour local Pashtuns to be in charge of its administration in the area, leading to more than a little vindictive justice and further embittering communities.  The Taliban's favouring of the Pashtuns at the expense of local Turks and Persians played a large role in permanently delegitimising any movement by the name of the Taliban in their eyes.  Some anti-government factions seem to be aware of this and bifurcate their strategy, targeting Pashtuns with the message of a revived Taliban and Turks with propaganda hailing from "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan" (IMU).  In any event the result is that anti-government activity happens to a much greater extent in areas that are already sympathetic to the Taliban cause.

In western Balkh a lot of this process has been an attempt to build in-group sentiment and solidify group solidarity by means of night letters posted in public places.  A recent example (and representative of past incidents) was a graphic showing the Afghan nation as a puppet with the strings being tugged by various actors from the government of Afghanistan, to foreign countries, to the NGO community.  It was written in Pashto and clearly had the purpose of explaining, justifying, and proselytising for the movement rather than threatening dire consequences due to its already overwhelming might and support.  Furthermore, the notice was fairly professional and reproduced by photocopy and distributed by motor vehicle, both requiring a significant amount of capital and indicative of top-down organisation.  Insurgent activity, when it does happens in this area is fairly low-level and consists predominantly of threats and murders, with the occasional small arms fire attack or poorly constructed IED.

In Kunduz the dynamic is similar but the higher population receptive to anti-government activity means that incidents are both more common and more disruptive.  It also helped that the Taliban regime chose Kunduz for their administrative centre in the north, which means the connections to more active networks in the south remain stronger.  Complex attacks involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) are more common, as well as well-construct and consequently deadlier IEDs and even suicide attacks.  Suicide attackers in Kunduz do not originate in the province but are brought in from further afield; still it is important that the community can sustain and conceal them long enough for them to execute an attack.  Still in Kunduz, there are areas where anti-government sentiment and activity is extremely high and areas where there is none at all.  Moreover, armed groups have had mixed success in convincing non-supportive groups of their cause.  In a few occasions insurgent patrolled have been publicly embarrassed or the recipients of local backlashes.  In short the dynamic in Kunduz reflects that of elsewhere in the north, activity exists where and because support already exists, and those not in the in-group have no interest in joining.  At the end of the day anti-government elements fail to win new hearts and minds and end up preaching to the choir.

In two other areas of the north, anti-government activity is either the result of political rivalries or influenced directly from the outside.  In the areas surrounding Aqcha in eastern Jawzjan local potentates routinely try to raise their profile by sponsoring violent activity.  The political benefits are that they can demonstrate their usefulness by appearing to stamp such activity out or they can be credited with it.  Incidents are consequently less numerous but more high-profile.  The same political forces in Jawzjan that make such campaigns desirable also combine to tamp down violent activity before it escalates too much (it is made apparent to the actor that he has crossed a line).  In Faryab armed groups from the volatile eastern districts of Badghis are likewise trying to destabilise the situation but have met with relatively little success thanks to willingness of locals to report on their movements.  Remarkably Faryab has had almost no increase in incidents from 2007 to 2008 which the few additional incidents being limited to a single district.

Spectacular attacks.  The strategy of significant attacks in the north of Afghanistan seems to have been a goal since at least November 2007, when a major suicide bombing captured headlines by killing 40 people in Baghlan, including members of parliament and a potential presidential hopeful, Mustafa Kazimi.  In addition to reports of plans for a high-profile kidnapping, anti-government elements succeeded in a major suicide bombing of the police headquarters in Puli Khumri (Baghlan's capital) which killed and severely injured several Afghans and international forces.  Baghlan is bears the brunt of such threats because it is strategically significant being located in the north and because it straddles the key north-south route between Mazar/Kunduz and Kabul.  Every additional kilometre into the north of Afghanistan posed great challenges for anti-government groups trying to carry out attacks.  It involves more security forces to be bribed and more chances to be ratted out.  However once cannot underestimate the desirability of such an attack for anti-government hopefuls looking to strike a major blow to the government's perceived stability and raise their street cred amongst fellow insurgents.  The 2007 bombing in Baghlan may well have been one of the few events in the north to have been covered in international media.  Similarly the attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul got far more coverage that similarly executed and more deadly attacks because of the symbolic value of the establishment and the fact that the deaths were foreigners.

The dynamics of the north argue against the southern, Pashtun-based insurgency ever getting a firm foothold there, but until that is apparent through a long process of trial and error, these groups' own internal ideologies and the need for the perception of manifest success will push them to try.  With insurgent control having reached both its maximum depth and breadth in approximately the southern half of the country, such groups will have little on their hand but to attempt to extend their influence in the north.  (Attacks on military forces and perceived collaborators in the south will of course continued unabated though)  The result of more attention, resources, and matériel being poured into the north will have a negative impact on regular people, NGOs, the international presence, and the government for probably the next one to three years.  The long-term news is good but the short-term will be trying.  Insurgents always like to say they have time on their side.  The oft-repeated phrase runs: "You have the watch, but we have the time."  This is defeatist and simply not constructive; in this case the Coalition has both the watch, the time, and more importantly acknowledges the existence of time, but it will take time.

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    The Big Picture in Afghanistan - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
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Reader Comments (2)

Quite informative. I know this is not fully related to your analysis, but I would like to know what you think about the Taliban given control over a province in Pakistan and how it will relate to stability in Afghanistan?

March 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterQuackster

It seems to me that the insurgency will lose it's position when faced with a consistent legitimate government and the general population sees the benefits of supporting that government outweigh the benefits of supporting the insurgency. This has both short term and long term views. In the short term, the government will be hampered by every mistake they make and so they must make few over the next several years. In the long term the resultant system has to support a legitimate democracy that keeps the corruption to a minimum. It seems like the government can handle the short term over the next couple of years given support from the US and NATO. My question is whether the resultant governmental system that emerges from this can really handle the long term legitimacy issues that make people trust their government and not want to later become insurgents over the next several decades. Do you see that developing?

March 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTall Pale Jason

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