General saw police forces play counterinsurgency roleBy Sean D. Naylor – firstname.lastname@example.orgAugust 04, 2008
An adviser to incoming U.S. Central Command boss Gen. David Petraeus predicts that the general will seek to re-create his Iraqi success in Afghanistan, using many of the same methods that appear to have turned the tide in Iraq over the last 18 months.
“It can be safely assumed that he will apply many of the lessons learned from Iraq to what has until recently been a forgotten war” in Afghanistan, retired Lt. Col. John Nagl told a packed audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on July 22.
Nagl, who retired this year to become a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was speaking as part of a panel on “Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare,” held to promote a book of the same name edited by two other panelists, Daniel Marston, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University, and Carter Malkasian, director of the Center for Naval Analyses’ Stability and Development Program.
Nagl, who was due to leave for Iraq on July 25 to advise Petraeus, and who co-authored the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual produced under the guidance of Petraeus when the latter commanded the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., highlighted one lesson in particular from Iraq: “Foreign powers cannot win counterinsurgency campaigns, but they can enable and empower host nation governments to do so, and one of the most important tools they have to accomplish this task is the use of combat advisers.” With that in mind, he said, “perhaps the single most pressing need is for a larger Afghan National Army and police force, and additional American and allied advisers to help them fight our common enemies.”
Malkasian also focused on the important role played by “police and other community self-defense forces” in quelling the violence in Iraq, particularly in the Sunni areas.
“The thing that made them more effective than anything else … was their ability to collect intelligence,” he said. By late 2006 police and community self-defense forces in Sunni areas “were capturing and killing twice as many insurgents per policeman as their counterpart was in the Iraqi army,” he added.
Afghans, however, are still waiting for a similar model to be implemented in their country, according to Malkasian.
“The lessons of Iraq have not fully been transferred over to Afghanistan to learn how to do this the right way,” he said.
“The [Afghan National Police] … have potential, a potential that has not been exploited,” he continued, noting that the Afghan and coalition governments had capped ANP strength at 82,000 police.
“Even combined with the [Afghan National Army], which is projected to be 86,000 people, that is not enough to protect a population of 33 million. Amir Abdurahman in 1890 had roughly the same number of men to protect a population of only 5 million. Afghanistan is a dangerous, difficult country. We’re probably going to need more police to maintain stability there.”
Two speakers — Marston and David Kilcullen, who moderated the panel and is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s special adviser for counterinsurgency — were sharply critical of the British military’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that the British had failed to back up their boasts of superiority in counterinsurgency and in fact had fallen behind the U.S. military.
“The British Army has the reputation of being good at counterinsurgency, and in 2003 and 2004 there was lots of fairly snide criticism of the United States by British commanders saying that Americans didn’t understand counterinsurgency [and] were taking too kinetic an approach,” said Kilcullen, who described the British attitude as, “‘Look at us, we’re on the street in our soft caps and everyone loves us.’”
Marston, who was until recently a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst — the British Army’s rough equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. — said that “as an American working in the British system for the last five years” in 2003, he watched the British “act as if they were the best in [counterinsurgency] in the world.”
But the British performance on Iraqi and Afghan battlefields since then has not backed up such strident talk, according to Kilcullen and Marston.
“It would be fair to say that in 2006 the British Army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq,” Kilcullen said, adding that there were numerous “incidents” in Afghanistan that further undercut the British claims of superiority in counterinsurgency.
“They’ve been embarrassed by their performance in southern Iraq,” Marston said. Meanwhile, the Taliban “almost destroyed” the British Army’s 16th Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan. In some places, he said, “they just held on.”
The British military was simply unprepared for the challenges it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Marston, who stressed he was not speaking in his official capacity as an employee of the British Ministry of Defence.
“There have been major problems with their pre-deployment training,” he said. “There were a lot of problems with their education. … The staff college had one day for counterinsurgency for majors. The RMA Sandhurst lieutenants course was a bit of a joke, bit of a video here and there.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman was not able to provide a response by press time.
Chastened British officers have gained new respect for their American counterparts, according to Marston.
“There’s a lot of envy in the U.K., looking at the processes that the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps have gone through in the last few years to get to where they are,” he said. “The British are open to that.”
Indeed, the British Army’s performance has improved recently, but only because it has embarked on a similar learning process to that which the U.S. military had already undergone, Marston said.
“We changed it from within, bottom-up, because we had platoon commanders who knew more than the generals on the ground,” he said, referring to his recent work with the British. “They are catching up. I’m not saying they’re going to lead anytime soon, but they are definitely catching up.”
Kilcullen and Marston each referred to a controversial article by British Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster that the U.S. Army’s professional journal, Military Review, published in late 2005. In the article, which ruffled many American feathers, Aylwin-Foster criticized the U.S. Army’s approach to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.
“Many senior British officers feel that an American needs to write an article to embarrass the Brits in some ways,” Marston said.
The bi-monthly International Affairs journal published by Chatham House always includes a featured article which is made available to non-members. In the recently released July-August issue, the featured article is an excellent piece by Thomas Hegghammer, entitled ‘Islamist Violence and Regime Stability in Saudi Arabia‘. In his paper, Hegghammer provides a well-informed analysis of the underlying dynamics that explain one of the more puzzling conundrums in contemporary jihadi studies: the sudden and somewhat belated rise of AQAP in 2003, and its equally sudden collapse as an operational force by late 2004 / early 2005.
As Hegghammer explains:
Apart from isolated incidents, such as the 1979 Mecca mosque siege, the 1995 Riyadh bombing and the 1996 Khobar bombing, the Kingdom had largely been spared the Islamist violence which had ravaged Egypt and Algeria in previous decades. What, then, caused the sudden outbreak of violence? Even more interestingly: why did it happen in 2003 and not before? The near-absence of violence before 2003 is, after all, quite paradoxical in the light of the fact that Saudi militants were so active abroad in the 1990s, either as guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, or as members of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization. These questions highlight a deeper problem, namely that we do not really understand what determines the comings and goings of Islamist violence in Saudi Arabia. This is hardly a purely academic issue—it directly concerns our ability to assess the stability of the world’s leading oil producer and a pillar of US strategy in the Middle East.
Hegghammer discounts a number of popular theories, including ideology-based explanations ‘which see the violence as a product of the religiosity of Saudi society or the inherent extremism of the Wahhabi religious tradition’; and structural approaches that blame strains ‘of a political (e.g. regime oppression), economic (e.g. unemployment) or social (e.g. westernization) kind.’
Drawing upon his analysis of Saudi jihadist texts and videos, and on extensive field work in the Kingdom, Hegghammer argues instead that:
…Saudi Arabia experienced relatively low levels of Sunni Islamist violence in the 1980s and 1990s because, unlike the Arab republics, Saudi Arabia has never been home to a strong socio-revolutionary Islamist community. Saudi jihadism has been driven primarily not by regime discontent but by extreme pan-Islamism, and has thus been geared towards fighting non-Muslims. I further argue that the violence in 2003 was the result not of structural political or economic strain inside the Kingdom, but rather of a momentary conjunction between high operational capability on the part of the local Al-Qaeda network, boosted in numbers and skills by post-2001 returnees from Afghanistan, and a weak Saudi security apparatus. That gap in capability has now closed, and the QAP campaign has petered out.
Read the paper here.
The International Crisis Group has released a report entitled Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?. The report examines the way in which the Taliban exploits various forms of media to further its campaign, and focuses on what may be learned about the movement from studying its use of the media – both in terms of what the movement says in its communications, and what it does not say.
The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement. Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.
Analysing the Taliban’s public statements has limits, since the insurgent group seeks to underscore successes – or imagined successes – and present itself as having the purest of aims, while disguising weaknesses and underplaying its brutality. However, the method still offers a window into what the movement considers effective in terms of recruitment and bolstering its legitimacy among both supporters and potential sympathisers.
The movement reveals itself in its communications as:
- the product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed but not representative of indigenous strands of religious thought or traditional pre-conflict power structures;
- a largely ethno-nationalist phenomenon, without popular grassroots appeal beyond its core of support in sections of the Pashtun community;
- still reliant on sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though local support has grown;
- linked with transnational extremist groups for mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally;
- seeking to exploit local tribal disputes for recruitment and mainly appealing to the disgruntled and disenfranchised in specific locations, but lacking a wider tribal agenda; and
- a difficult negotiating partner because it lacks a coherent agenda, includes allies with divergent agendas and has a leadership that refuses to talk before the withdrawal of foreign forces and without the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).
Out of power and lacking control over territory, the Taliban has proved adept at projecting itself as stronger than it is in terms of numbers and resources. Despite the increasing sophistication of some of its propaganda, however, it still puts out contradictory messages that indicate internal rifts and the diffuse nature of the insurgency. These reveal a cross-border leadership and support apparatus striving to present a unified front and assert control even as various groups maintain their own communications networks. Maintaining relations with transnational jihadist networks, which have a more global agenda, is a potential problem for the Taliban, which has always been a largely nationalistic movement.
A website in the name of the former regime – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – is used as an international distribution centre for leadership statements and inflated tales of battlefield exploits. While fairly rudimentary, this is not a small effort; updates appear several times a day in five languages. Magazines put out by the movement or its supporters provide a further source of information on leadership structures and issues considered to be of importance. But for the largely rural and illiterate population, great efforts are also put into conveying preaching and battle reports via DVDs, audio cassettes, shabnamah (night letters – pamphlets or leaflets usually containing threats) and traditional nationalist songs and poems. The Taliban also increasingly uses mobile phones to spread its message.
The vast majority of the material is in Pashtu, and a shortage of language skills in the international community means much of this either passes unnoticed or is misunderstood. English-language statements are relatively crude, but the Taliban is able to put out its story rapidly. More effort is devoted to Arabic language output, aimed at soliciting the support of transnational networks and funders. The overriding strategic narrative is a quest for legitimacy and the projection of strength. Use of tactics such as suicide bombings – previously unknown in Afghanistan – and roadside bombs, as well as such audacious actions in 2008 as a prison break in Kandahar city, an attack on a military parade attended by President Hamid Karzai and an assault on a five-star hotel demonstrate that grabbing attention lies at the core of operations.
Within Afghanistan the Taliban is adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement and disillusionment. The Kabul administration needs to ensure it is seen as one worth fighting for, not least by ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability of its members. The international community must provide the necessary support and pressure for improved performance, while also examining its own actions. Whatever the military benefits of arbitrary detentions, they are far outweighed by the alienation they cause. The effectiveness of aerial bombardment, even if strictly exercised within the bounds of international law, must be considered against the damage to popular support. Greater efforts are needed in Western capitals to explain to their own populations the necessity of staying for the long haul rather than yielding to the pressure of quick fixes that give only the appearance of action.
The Taliban is not going to be defeated militarily and is impervious to outside criticism. Rather, the legitimacy of its ideas and actions must be challenged more forcefully by the Afghan government and citizens. Its killings of civilians and targeting of community leaders need to be highlighted, including a public accounting for actions by the militants through open trials – something that has not yet happened. Strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government and ensuring that its actions – and those of its international backers – are similarly bound by the rule of law should be an important complement. Ultimately, winning popular support is not about telling local communities that they are better off today. It is about proving it.
Read the full report here.