What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

NATO in the crossfire between structure and agency

Radio Free Europe reports on what's going down in southern Afghanistan, and the verdict by their correspondent Ahto Lobjakas is that NATO's strategy is not sophisticated enough. One of the main arguments from the report:
"NATO officials like to portray insurgents in Afghanistan -- grouped under the name of the Taliban -- as a straightforward hierarchy in which Islamist zealots preside over opportunistic foot soldiers that they recruit using money, intimidation, or other means. The "Tier One" zealots -- as they are known in NATO terminology -- provide the plan, the "Tier Two" foot soldiers carry it out.
(...) But there is evidence that the "Taliban" insurgency is a more complex phenomenon that needs a more nuanced approach. Its backbone appears to be a "Tier Three" type of fighter -- a local Pashtun with local grievances, ignorant of ISAF's true purpose. He has a two-way relationship with the higher ranks of the insurgents, who provide the money, equipment, and weapons, allowing the fighter to take out the resentment caused by an invasive and misunderstood Western military presence."
Of course I don't know which NATO officials Lobjakas is talking about, not to mention that he ignored the very basic fact that an organisation like NATO may need to communicate using a simplified message at times, and therefore one should always look at the target audience group of any given message, and not rush to conclusions regarding what the people behind the press releases think, based on those very press releases that they are putting together.
In fact NATO planners have never viewed the conflict in Southern Afghanistan the way Lobjakas is suggesting, so his assertion that NATO is preoccupied with using "brute force" (like even looking for the chance to use it, presumably) is just very wide of the mark. When the NATO-led ISAF-coalition (so not really just NATO, you see) took over the southern provinces, key countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, or Canada, have through various channels of communication made it clear they wouldn't like to get involved in any way, if possible, in poppy eradication for example. That is because a significant part of the so-called OMF (Opposing Military Forces - yes, that term is often used instead of the Taliban label, exactly to reflect the complexity of the situation), and potentially an even larger part of it, is/could be made up of such foot soldiers who join/would potentially join the fight at least partly for economic reasons (no well-paying employment between poppy harvest and poppy planting in an insurgency-hit area; poppy fields threatened by eradication, and potentially defended by the Taliban; relatively good pay for foot soldiers etc.). Viewing foot soldiers in that way is actually already quite complex a perspective, and does complicate things "sufficiently." Reflect on this picture and my somewhat weird-sounding thoughts coming up to see what I mean:
Picture: This Agent is capable of "trans-printing" itself even
You may remember from the movie 'Matrix' that Agents have a nasty habit of imprinting themselves onto the representations of people in the virtual world of the matrix. Whenever those people are shot then, Agents just move on and imprint themselves onto someone else, and only the poor person's original representation is left behind, dead - meanwhile the real person, attached in the physical world to the vast human battery fields of Machine City, also dies an instant death. So Neo et al. are in a rather uncomfortable position shooting at Agents in the matrix. If they manage to hit an Agent they are just killing someone they don't know, basically. Now, the point I'm making is that shooting foot soldiers of the Taliban is very similar to that. It's about shooting people who didn't really have that much of a choice. Largely structural factors imprinted the quality of being an insurgent onto them. They don't lack agency as much as the human batteries of the matrix do (completely), but they are certainly not "catastrophically superempowered" as such.
What I'm not arguing for, though, is that therefore ISAF's venture is automatically flawed in a conceptual sense. In wars between states fought over supposedly noble reasons, ordinary people in uniform shot ordinary people in uniform countless times throughout history. It's no novelty that war introduces such structural restrictions on people's choices that they end up in situations very different from what they minimally hoped for. Since abandoning ISAF's objectives is not considerable, given that at this point it would lead to consequences unacceptable in more than one sense, the war still has to be fought somehow.
Beside trying to stay away from supporting poppy eradication, another way in which key countries behind ISAF attempted to reach out to people who might be just fighting over local grievances, to thus diminish the potential for a fatal clash of interests, was a tendency to replace provincial officials, who were viewed by some as corrupt and too uneven-handed in favour of their own tribes, in the south. E.g. the former governor of Uruzgan, Jan Mohammed Khan (Populzai), was replaced by outsider Abdul Hakim Munib from Paktia at Dutch initiative, and with U.S. backing; for similar reasons, and in a similar way, Mullah Shir Mohammed (Alizai) was replaced earlier, in Helmand province, at the end of 2005, by "Engineer" Mohammed Daud, at the UK's initiative (way before ISAF's Stage 3 expansion). Unfortunately that may not have been a really good idea in either of those cases, as relatively strong governors, with good connections to Karzai's circles in Kabul (Shir Mohammed was even appointed a senator later on by Karzai), very much tend to play a spoiler role after they are abruptly deprived of position, while even without that their main constituencies of support in their home provinces would tend to become alienated of the newly imposed provincial leadership. (That's why Daud has already been removed from the post of governor since then, at the end of 2006, after one year in office.) But even if this all didn't turn out to be that wise, the trying itself might show that there was always much more complexity in the strategy of choice than what Lobjakas is suggesting.
So saying that NATO just went in with brute force to do some killing is brutally false. In fact, their mission, which I have discussed on this site before, is rather about securing ink blot areas for development, in order to have something else, not just counter-terrorism-related counter-insurgency, going on in the south. That, since the Taliban sees itself as not interested in letting that easily happen, will come with some fighting. So the problem is rather that current troop levels may mean that that fighting just doesn't lead us anywhere in the sense of letting ink blots expand.
But all that may still leave us discussing the more interesting paragraph by Lobjakas on what he calls "Tier Three" fighters. The fact that many of the Taliban are local will be no news in places like Uruzgan, from where a major part of the Taliban movement originates actually.
As a former POLAD (political advisor) to the at-the-time U.S.-led Tarin Kowt PRT, Dan Green, writes: "I was able to act as an intermediary between tribal and district leaders and the SF and PRT on a range of issues.
One of the key benefits of engaging with the provincial shura, working with its members from various tribes, and bolstering it as a representative institution was the positive effect it had on our security operations. Whenever the SF detained an Afghan, for example, shura members would typically ask me to intervene on his behalf, often telling me the background of the person and why he was a community member of good standing. That said, given a chance, the Afghans will use the SF against personal rivals and against rival clan interests, and so I had to be circumspect. I was extremely careful not to come across as trying to tell the SF why they should release someone; instead, I merely gave them the added information to provide some local perspective on why a person might have been detained for reasons other than their being a member of the Taliban."
(So, is that an unsophisticated approach really?)
I could also point then to how Australian RTF Security Task Group soldiers currently serving in Uruzgan apparently handle it as the norm that they have to go "outside the wire" if need be to collect the bodies of Talib soldiers shot dead in an encounter, to hand them over for burial to tribal leaders, but perhaps one doesn't really need to go on after all this. So yes, it's a complex situation indeed, but Lobjakas doesn't really tell readers what should be done instead of that what is being done even while Lobjakas is saying it is not being done.


Anonymous said...

as the author of the RFE/RL piece I'm flattered by the attention.

i must point out two things however.

firstly, the piece was written for radio. attempts at academic dissection are a category error.

secondly, the key point of the piece still stands. this is no ordinary war. the pashtuns are a tribal, clan-based society and an ill-understood, under-explained Western presence provokes resistance in this context in a very specific manner which no amount of armchair conceptualisation of socio-economic factors and suchlike can accommodate or explain. ("I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, I and my cousins against the rest of the world" is a proverb that deserves more than passing contemplation.)

personally, I think that, ceteris paribus (assuming a continued existence of Pakistan, for example), NATO/ISAF can at best stem the tide. if they were given enough time (say a generation) things might change and one could conceivably end up with a more vegetarian combination of Pashtunwail & Sharyia law. inshallah.

in any case, best regards

ahto lobjakas

Péter MARTON said...

The point I'm making by pondering the conclusions in your article so much is that I'm taking them seriously, and I don't feel like they can be simply ignored or swept aside by some brief, sarcastic remark. And normally I don't like to respect boundaries regarding in what form conclusions are coming - conclusions are conclusions anyways, it's just that some of mine were different on the basis of what I believe to know.
Regarding your comment: the point about Pakistan is certainly true, and I never doubted the complexity of the situation in the Pashtun areas.
As to your point about a more vegetarian combination of Pashtunwali and Sharia: I absolutely love that, so I may cite it in the future (with proper attribution of course) :-)
Thanks for writing in, I'm also flattered by the attention.

Anonymous said...

many thanks for posting the reply.

pleased to be part of a discussion & have made your acquaintance.

best regards