Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back to you, Bernard

I recently had an exchange with Bernard Finel in the comments section of his blog about the purported effectiveness of the Taliban as an insurgent group, and by extension, the ineffectiveness of the ANSF. He responded in a separate post to some questions that I posed, and I keep promising to get back to him. Now that I've waited so long as to let his post fall off the front page, I figure I'll deal with his responses here. Check out the whole post on Bernard's blog, though, as I haven't reproduced the entire exchange here. (My questions in bold, and his responses set off as quotations.)

1) What do you mean when you say that “the Taliban and associates are so effective”? Why are you certain that this is true?

I’d say that results suggest the Taliban is more effective. With less money and fewer men that ISAF/ANA they have steadily expanding their reach in the country. While Joshua Foust is probably correct that the ICSD report that the Taliban has a permanent presence in 80% of the country is likely an overstatement, I don’t think anyone doubts that the Taliban has widening its operational area. The insurgent forces seem to act with a high degree of self-sufficiency. They are continuing to function even in areas that are ostensibly under coalition control. And remember, the Taliban presence in the country was rebuilt after the shattering defeats of 2001-2002. In short, while we seem to be having an inordinate amount of trouble building reliable Afghan forces capable of accomplishing their assigned missions, the Taliban and associated networks have been able to build a force capable of acting in most of Afghanistan in a disciplined fashion to implement what seems to be a coherent strategy.

I admit this is a subjective assessment. And I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but on the whole the insurgents seem to more effective that the Afghan security forces.

I'm not really that familiar with the data on this, so I don't know if "the Taliban [is] widening its operational area" or not -- it's all anecdotal. Acting "with a high degree of self-sufficiency" and "continuing to function even in areas that are ostensibly under coalition control" seem to me to be hallmarks of an extant insurgency, not signs that it is growing in power or reach.

Yes, it's clearly true that we're having difficulty building effective enough ANSF quickly enough to combat the insurgency. Building security forces from whole cloth is an expensive and time-intensive process, particularly when that newly established military must be tailored to confront threats very different from the ones our military has trained, equipped, organized, and educated itself to do. Insurgent groups don't face the same sort of obstacles for the simple reason that they don't require institutions, at least not at this stage of the insurgency. The Taliban need only figure out what's effective in combat and replicate it, adapting as necessary.

In summary, I don't think it's at all clear that Taliban forces are objectively more capable than ANSF, only that their circumstances confer certain advantages that allow for tactical (even if geographically broad) success.

2) If we do accept your assertion that the insurgents are more effective than the ANSF: isn’t it fair to say that what is required for insurgents to be considered “effective” is considerably less difficult to achieve than what we’d need to see to assign such a label to the ANSF?

I agree, and I have indeed argued that “Insurgencies, once established, run downhill. Counter-insurgencies, always, run uphill.” But there two caveats. First, “once established” is a significant qualifier as our good friend Che might have acknowledged. There was nothing inevitable about the Taliban resurgence. Having ruled brutally before being been chased from power after having provoked a foreign intervention, it would seem the Taliban would have an uphill battle to become again a significant force. They are not receiving significant foreign support. When the history of the Taliban is written far in the future, when passions have cooled, and the issue is studied purely as a matter of military history I suspect people are going to recognize in the recovery of the Taliban an instance of a movement/insurgency that is rare for its resilience. The point is, that yes, insurgencies have some structural advantages, but nonetheless, I think we have to acknowledge that thus far the Taliban is proving itself to be more effective than most historic insurgencies.

Second, saying that it is easier to be an insurgent does not mean it is easy. I admit, I don’t wholly understand why the Taliban — and affiliates — is able to operate outside of Pashtun areas. But I think some observers subscribe to a caricature that portrays the Taliban as just a bunch of thugs and killers. They are that, certainly. But from what I can tell — and I happy to be corrected on this score if I am wrong — they seem to using a relatively sophisticated operational concept. They are blowing stuff up, yes. And threatening “collaborators.” But they are also, somehow positioning themselves as an anti-corruption and nationalist movement. They represent more than just a coercive force. So while being an insurgent is potentially easier, just as we hope to “live among the people” and build institutions, I think Taliban fighters are also similarly required to balance military and political action. Indeed, it is this ability that, I think, explains part of what make them such a challenge, unlike, say, AQI which was just a source of insecurity. Anyway, long story short. Creating insecurity is easy. But generating a successful insurgency requires more than that… and I suspect that if we captured Mullah Omar’s IN guidance, it would at least mirror some of McChrystal’s COIN guidance.

I agree, there was nothing inevitable about the Taliban's return to prominence. But let's also be clear about the fact that they are not close to returning to power as a government, even in the limited geographical range where they held power in 2001. And let's also be clear about the fact that roughly seven years of relative coalition inattention has permitted a resurgence in certain limited areas.

As you know, and as you allude to in this post, parties to a civil war that can be seen to have success find it much easier to gain control and support, so it's perfectly reasonable that the insurgents' success in some under-resourced areas to which we've paid little attention would snowball regionally or nationally. This isn't due to a failure of the ANSF as a tactical force, but rather to a failure of strategic and operational planning. The prior administration actively resisted the stand-up of capable ANSF for several years, and there weren't sufficient numbers of coalition troops to pacify the countryside unilaterally. This, really, is an answer to the broader question (if we do accept that the Taliban are more capable, which I don't, exactly): the Taliban have had a few years' head start.

I still don't accept the assertion that any progress made by the Taliban is directly attributable to any unique capabilities or appeal, but rather believe that they've successfully made use of both structural advantages and specific geographic ones: insurgencies thrive in mountainous areas and other difficult terrain, in places where population density is sparse and villages and towns isolated from one another, and in areas that lack modern transportation infrastructure. These realities obtain in basically all of the places that the insurgency has met with significant success.

It is absolutely true that the Taliban "represent more than just a coercive force." It's widely understood that the Taliban's provision of law courts and consistent justice is something that aids their standing among many Afghans, particularly when contrasted with the corruption and ineffectiveness of Afghan government. They absolutely do -- at least on limited occasions -- "balance military and political action." But isn't it clear that the bar is much lower on this, seeing as they're not the legitimate government? If the Taliban were so effective at doing this, then why the popular discontent during the period where they were actually in power?

Right now, the Taliban have a "successful insurgency" simply because they haven't lost. They have manipulated circumstances such that it looks even less likely that they will lose in the future, so I suppose that could be considered progress. But when you write that "creating insecurity is easy... but generating a successful insurgency requires more than that," I'm curious what the "more than that" is. I don't think I necessarily agree with you. Creating a successful revolution, or providing a governing alternative, those are things that require more. But generating a successful insurgency only requires the creation of insecurity and momentum... the appearance and reality of some limited success. Then others will jump on board, whether or not they share the political ideology or specific grievance of the insurgency's core.

I'm not going to specifically address questions three and four because I think that the former is somewhat irrelevant (though I apologize if I misrepresented you) and that the latter is covered above. Thanks for the opportunity to explain myself, though, and for making me consider these questions more deeply.

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