Posted by: Christian | March 5, 2009

Population-centric Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

“We” just have to figure out what the “population” is all about. I just read this article (h/t Charlie at AM):

Julian D. Alford and Scott A. Cuomo, ‘Operational Design for ISAF in Afghanistan: A Primer’, Joint Forces Quarterly, 2nd quarter 2009. Download PDF.

…and I have a few thoughts about it, particularly with the issue of cultural understanding.

I do agree with much of what is written in there, for example this passage:

To orient to the challenges in our AO [area of operations], we must first work to understand not only our enemy, but also the history, culture, traditions, and languages of the Afghan people. Simply studying enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures will leave us with a limited understanding of our AOs. We must also understand the family, clan, tribe, or community organization, and must know who now wields and who has historically wielded power in these groupings if we are to maximize the decisionmaking processes.

….but I won’t go into that obvious sort of stuff that is generally agreed upon. I’ll get right into what I have a problem with. For starters, this:

Afghanistan has a signed national constitution that is the primary source for the rule of law. However, there are also more traditional rules of law, such as tribal or village jirgas. While not officially sanctioned by the national government, jirgas have long served as an accepted rule of law in specific areas.

Many, many jirgas have ended in failure. And jirgas can create losers who then turn from “traditional” mechanisms like the jirga to the AK-47. But are jirgas accepted by the Afghan people? The Asia Foundation survey (pdf) shows that people like the idea of the jirga and the shura (69% confidence rating versus 46% for the “government justice system), which is unsurprising given the wretched state of the justice sector in Afghanistan. But has the jirga as an institution been an “accepted rule of law” consistently throughout Afghan history, even if only in the periphery and for the occasional ad hoc issue? I’ll go straight to the most negative viewpoint first:

“…in essence, the Loya Jerga is a colonial and neocolonial construct imposed on the people of Afghanistan by rulers who were and continue to be undisputed puppets of outsiders.”

The source for that denunciation is: M. Jamil Hanifi (2004). ‘Editing The Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the “Loya Jerga” in Afghanistan’, Iranian Studies, Volume 37, Number 2, June 2004.

Also, this assessment from the historian Christine Noelle-Karimi (her work is rock-solid):

“Historically, the loya jirga has shown itself to be a useful tool in the hands of well-established rulers, no more, no less” (p. 48).

Quote from: Noelle-Karimi, Christine (2002). “The Loya Jirga – An Effective Political Tool? A Historical Overview.” In: Noelle-Karimi, Christine, Conrad Schetter and Reinhard Schlangenweit (eds.), Afghanistan – A Country Without a State?(pp. 37-52). Frankfurt: IKO-Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation.

The above two sources are focusing mostly on the history of the loya jirga. How about more recent applications? Benjamin Buchholz [Buchholz, Benjamin (2007). “Thoughts on Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga: A Myth?” In Asien, No. 104. July 2007. Download pdf.] balances the constructivist (it is a recent invention) with the primordialist (it has and always has been) views and makes this assessment:

As a political institution, the loya jirga clearly has some weaknesses and the loya jirgas of the past could be criticised with respect to their composition or decisionmaking processes. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the loya jirga is a common thread which runs through the entire modern history of Afghanistan, be it in written or oral records. Therefore, neither the institution itself nor its actual embodiments really matter. In fact, it is its myth or rather the label “loya jirga” which makes it a meaningful instrument of Afghan politics. The prevalent belief in its deep-rootedness in Afghan culture and history as well as the mutability of the myth give power to the instrument and to those who adopt it. Where modern institutions may be rejected, the loya jirga has the advantage of not just being assessed in terms of the decisions it makes, but also of being backed by a general faith in the institution itself.

Why such an extended discussion on what was a small point in the article? I did so because so many seem to believe that since the jirga is “traditional,” and the people seem to like it, then it can work both for the locals, the Afghans government and the NATO/ISAF efforts. The jirga has often failed for the locals and for the Afghan government, and it can fail for you as well. I wrote an extended version of this issue here, if you want to further explore the issue.

And this there is this rather problematic statement:

One of ISAF and the international community’s main challenges in the future is to assist Afghans in integrating national laws with provincial, district, and in some cases village and tribal laws.

“Challenge” is an understatement. “Integrating” national laws with local versions may be an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. [I quickly thought of an example where the locals had a use for the national government, but that was an arbiter. Other uses, as my brain started to recall anecdotes, were as a tool to push aside local rivals.] Modernization theorists always said that the expansion of the state is the death-knell of local authority systems (a problematic statement indeed, read this). How to bring the central state into people lives without it being a threat? That is the main concern here.

But I don’t think the main question is whether the people will accept national level legal authority (they would gladly do so if it was actually in the spirit of the law and brought benefits to them), the question is “will local elites accept it?” The state is a threat to them, unless of course they are, as noted in the quote, “integrated” into its structures [and they do have an extended local entourage that needs to be “accommodated”] or provided other such generous benefits. But then they would need to be monitored closely so they don’t destroy the rule of law, as many local authority figures have as they were integrated into the state and then used the state to enrich themselves and put a more familiar local face to the oppression of local people.

And then there is the issue of the militarization of humanitarian aid and development:

ISAF units should leverage the experience of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), along with the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have operated in Afghanistan pre- and post-2001, to help with all aspects of the building stage. We must appreciate that we might have to serve as a supporting effort to UNAMA, and even to NGOs, when it comes to tasks such as enabling elections and major infrastructure projects.

Uh-oh. NGO workers are mostly against having anything to do with the military or with the military having anything to do with humanitarian aid, and some are quite angry about the issue, as I have written here.

Miltarization of humanitarian aid

Miltarization of humanitarian aid

One of the sources I cited expresses the displeasure of the NGO/humanitarian aid community:

In the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the military’s dispensing of aid made it hard to tell the difference between military and nonmilitary aid workers, and the latter had to temporarily withdraw in the face of violence. And in recent months, as Afghanistan descends further into full-scale civil war, aid workers have lamented what they call the “securitization” of US development and reconstruction assistance, according to which most US aid has been channeled to some of the principal areas of military conflict in the south where it has little effect, rather than to more stable areas that have capacity for development.

So don’t expect open arms. But what I really mean is don’t expect that publicly. In the article I wrote that some NGOs are cooperating with the Taliban, so the NATO/ISAF forces could surely find some NGOs to work with them. Just expect a backlash from the aid community.

This, in my opinion was the most problematic part of the article:

One possible approach to securing these regions is to increase ISAF and ANSF presence in a way that embraces the Pashtunwali code. Approximately 45 percent of Afghan society follows a conservative Islamic ideology and adheres to a strict code known as Pashtunwali.

OK, the ladu has really hit the fan. As for Pashtunwali and the alleged adherence of Pashtuns to this code, I’m not saying that the “Emperor has no clothes,” but I am saying what people are calling a gloriously regal robe is actually far more modest, and probably closer to an old frayed item of clothing. If you lay out the code of Pashtunwali and think it can be used, not maybe as much as a predictive tool, but as an instrument that outside forces can manipulate, you are gravely mistaken. I believe that Pashtunwali is like all codes, commands, laws, sacred texts, customs, etc.. throughout the world; there is what is written down (or expressed orally) and then there is what people actually do. The most extreme example of this is badal, or revenge, one of the tenets of Pashtunwali. I believe it to be mostly bunk. You can read my full argument here. Pashtunwali really needs a full assessment to show how parts of it are contradictory and how some border on near-fantasy.

What weight should one put into the above “code”? Certainly not this much.

Now don’t think I’m a radical contructivist who is yelling “reification!” from the university spires, nor am I saying we should hand all social assessments to the economic behavioralists, evolutionary psychologists, sociologists and rational choice crowd (that will just fail in a different way), but I am asking you to not swallow this idea whole and maintain a healthy skepticism (and for God’s sake, don’t put much weight to this God-awful wikipedia article on Pashtunwali.)

And this is problematic in the extreme:

The Afghan government, with support from ISAF, should use this code to recruit young Afghans, through traditional village ties, into ANSF units. ISAF should launch an intense recruiting campaign that promotes honor and service to oneself, family, and tribe by belonging to a legitimate local police force, ABP, or ANA. Closely tied to this initiative, ISAF and the ANSF should also work closely with and protect district, village, and tribal leaders and mullahs to gain support in using the Pashtunwali code of honor to bring young Pashtun men into the ANSF.

Well, the Communists failed with their use of jirgas, so I suppose ISAF and the ANSF could give Pashtunwali a (failing) go. But really, tools that work marginally or just acceptably for locals can be used in a way by outsiders that are a complete failure. ISAF using Pashtunwali would be somewhat like parents or teachers trying to use youth or ethnic slang to communicate. It can only really be exploited by a certain group, and it’s not “you.”

Pic by Jim Birt, it’s a tough job (and most definitely the radio guy wouldn’t join for Pashtunwali):

As suggested in the article elsewhere: pay higher wages for local security forces (and other things like allow realistic leave time, more access to family, better equipment, quit making fun of them in English because they get the gist of what you are saying, etc…). Oh, and that mullah (depending on his background) may really, really, really dislike what parts of  Pashtunwali is advertising. Which leads to this passage from the article:

ISAF must support and promote the tenets of Islam together with the Pashtunwali code to beat the Taliban to the punch for this support.

Much of Pashtunwali conlficts with the tenets of orthodox Islam, and most noticeably with reformist forms (i.e., Salfism, Wahhabism). Now it is true that Islam incorporates local customs and can be flexible in that regard. But much of that accommodation comes from selectively ignoring tenets of one side or the other. Can ISAF manage that?

So, back to an earlier quote from the article:

…we must first work to understand not only our enemy, but also the history culture, traditions, and languages of the Afghan people.

To this, I agree completely. But we need to go much deeper than current efforts.

And criticisms of my criticisms are most welcome, I wrote this rather hastily at the end of the day.


  1. Thank you! I’m glad I’m not alone in begging people to think more deeply about the people whose hearts and minds they claim to want to win.

    One quibble: “Much of Pashtunwali conflicts with the tenets of orthodox Islam,” is not really accurate. That is, depending on which version of Pashtunwali you choose to write down. Depending on the scholar, it can have three, seven. or ten major tenets.

    The really high level ones, like protecting women, maintaining honor, and seeking redress for grievances, are actually in good accord with Islam. The violent revenge, let’s form a lashkar and burn down your house thing really isn’t. So it depends quite heavily on what you mean by “Much.”

  2. As ususal, the point comes down to local powercenters. If I may be a bit hippie, it seems to me that Afghan rural communities in may ways form an example of a anarcho-syndicalist/tribalist social complex, no? Each individual having relations on several paralell, sometimes conflicting structures of economic and political interaction. Quwam, tribe, mosque, debt. So the main effort should possibly be in making a decent social analysis of the place, in my opinion. Is there any socio-political maps over Afghanistan?

    If I may try to sum up, does the Pashtunwali compare to the famous southern gentlemans code during the civil war? In existence, but subject to practical issues? (BTW, is there any written versiona t all? I thought it was mainly oral, a gentlemans code so to speak.. hoho)

  3. “we must first work to understand not only our enemy, but also the history, culture, traditions, and languages of the Afghan people.”

    This is like the first page–in the Bible–of COIN. Yes… Yes.. We all know. But lip service is so profoundly different than re-training our conventional killers for the cultural wonders of rural Afghanistan.

    Statecraft and getting to know these people is going to be key to protecting them. I just cant see it happening though.

    What we should do is listen to Rory Stewart, who is one of the few people who has non-wartime experience on the village level. He so often says that rural Afghans are so different, even in just twenty K’s apart. Remember, Afghanistan is a British word.

    So good luck buying rural Afghanistan a beer, al you COINinistas. This land is truly a place in between.


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