Posted by: Christian | December 2, 2008

Fence-Sitting in Afghanistan

A snippet of my latest article at the CTlab:

Occasionally pundits and western operators on the ground express frustration with the habit of ‘fence-sitting’ in Afghanistan. A few characterize it as some form of exotic behavior by people who care little about ideals and refuse to risk their security for the common good. Others, while clearly frustrated, acknowledge the rationale behind the behavior. An America Embedded Tactical Trainer (ETT) in Afghanistan remarks:

Most people in Afghanistan operate in the gray area, the fringe of being one side or the other. They’re hedging their bets. [….] There’s a saying that the Afghans have, you can’t buy an Afghan’s loyalty but you can rent it. Often times its dependent upon who’s there at the moment, us or the Taliban. The locals will wait on the sideline and see who’s winning. [my emphasis]

In the article I borrow liberally from Stathis Kalyvas’s well-grounded argument that fence-sitting is quite common in war, from Afghanistan to Colombia to Ukraine to Missouri and England.

Read the whole article here.


  1. Afghanistan is a area that knows Empires, not nation states. Empires come and go, as the many different Afghan nationalities and languages imply, but a nation state that has clear borders is not something that is in the Afghan memory.

    The U.S is fighting like they are in Afghanistan and in part the FATA when in fact they are in Pashtunastan.

    And more to the point, working within these local tribal systems will be indispensable in finding our way out of this mess.

  2. I really love the banner photo. It captures so much.

  3. Good analysis here, thanks. When choosing either side creates great danger, many will take the neutral position. We’ve got to be the least dangerous choice for a protracted period of time to get them off the fence permanently (anyone can rent allegiance for period, but you can’t buy hearts and minds.) Persistence wins the heart, consistency wins the mind. (what a stupid maxim I’ve coined here thinking on what it will really take.)

  4. My experience is in rural Afghanistan but I don’t see them so much as fence sitters as humans trying to survive. Except when someone is trying to kill them, they have no interest in the fight – it has no bearing on there day-to-day lives. Today they fight to survive in a inhospitable portion of the earth. Tomorrow they may have a road or a well but they still live struggle to survive. Their fight is not with the new government or with the Taliban, it is with the land they live it. They will “align” themselves with whomever provides them a temporary advantage, but in the end they are out for themselves and I for one don’t blame them in the least.

  5. Fence Sitting or operating in the grey zone for survival is such a universal concept, and thank you for delving further into this topic. This will be a theme I will continue to remember, every time I discuss the war(s) on my blog. Cheers.


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