Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Afghanistan: protracted war, but not Protracted War

In a post yesterday about a Dave Kilcullen talk on Afghanistan, I mentioned that he said that this conflict was not a Maoist Protracted War in the doctrinal sense. A comment which has received some interest for follow up (MikeF to name one in the comments section, and some others through email).

The second part of his statement on the matter was that it wasn't Maoist, it was Focoist. I didn't get that in the first cut yesterday because I had to write and run and didn't get everything down. But I think it's an interesting statement. Although one I can't say I fully agree with.

Now, I'm no expert on Focoism. But for those of you who know even less than I do, the model was set in Cuba in which the violence foments popular uprising as opposed to the other way around in Maoism. That's it in super-distilled nutshell.

So Kilcullen is saying that it's not Protracted War (not Maoist) and is Focoist instead. He was not saying it was not a protracted war (long). But I think what he was saying was incomplete. He's probably right in some parts of the country. But like a lot of things in Afghanistan, Focoism doesn't describe other areas (such as northern provinces with new-found insurgencies). The problem with Afghanistan is the disparities across cultural boundaries that do not permit overarching statements like "Afghanistan does not follow a Maoist template" to fly. I think it over-simplifies the issue.

I could probably talk about this specific topic for a while, but I'm interested in our readers' thoughts on it. Especially those of you who reacted to my original post with a "whhaaa?"


  1. I'd say his fundamental misconception about this, still, is that he misses huge chunk of why the Taliban exist the way they do. The Taliban in the 1990s was possibly a Focoist movement, considering their origins in Kandahar and the use of a revolt against the corrupt violent warlords as a sort of rallying cry.

    The thing is, that intial, maybe Focoist movement worked: the Taliban won the country. They then instituted a rather classic Maoist Cultural Revolution over the next several years and lost their popular mandate, which made the formerly despised warlords seem marginally preferable.

    The Neo-Taliban are another matter entirely. Starting with their emergence in undefended rural areas and their inexorable encroachment into more and more populated zones -- along with the growing establishment of safe havens within Afghanistan itself -- they sure do resemble a classic Maoist insurgency. I think it's also worth noting the regional presence of Prachanda and Naxal movements could be influencing this, especially when we ponder if and how Focoist ideas could have percolated into the area (it's unlikely they're a holdover from the 1980s).

    All of this is still pretty unformed in my head, but I think Kilcullen is doing exactly what he did in his book: cherry picking evidence to appear clever, not examining the facts on their own merits.

  2. I have to agree with Joshua on this one. It sounds more like a causal debate that academics will go back and forth on forever. I can make a strong case that Castro and Guevera conducted a Mao protracted war.

    For the military folks, I'll translate. It's like us arguing whether we should breach an obstacle or bypass it after we've already gotten past the obstacle.

    In the case of A'stan, it doesn't matter if they breached or bypass. They've establishing/are continuing to establish safe-havens, garnering popular support, and increasing people, guns, and money.

    What I would suggest is more important right now is the fact that the Taliban seem to be very good at governing on the local levels with Sharia law- settling disputes, defining property rights, etc. That's worrisome regardless how they got there.

  3. I second Mike's comment in regard to academics. I'm not sure why this matters. Does it significantly impact how we need to act now? I know it could, but does it?

    "It's like us arguing whether we should breach an obstacle or bypass it after we've already gotten past the obstacle."

    Been there. Done that. We had to redo a BN lane at NTC because we bypassed an obstacle. Someone wanted us to recock and attack again in order to verify that we were proficient in breaching. The griping from E-4's and below after that decision was hilarious.

  4. I have to push back a tiny bit on MikeF and Schmedlap here: you're describing the how. How they operate matters, but if that's all you take into consideration then you're treating the symptoms and not the disease. The reason I get so annoyed with Kilcullen is he offers the military and State Department an easy and stereotypical view of the why questions, but doesn't actually answer them. Getting the why wrong means you're going to make the wrong policy choices... and I think that what we're seeing and have seen the last few years.

  5. Josh, I'm assuming that the why you're refering to is "why is the Taliban effective?" If not, correct me. I thought I addressed that in my final part- they are good at governing on the micro-level in the absence of gov't. Dan Green addressed this issue in "The Taliban's Political Program" for Armed Forces Journal and SWJ.

    I tend to pay close attention to Dr. K b/c he is sharp, but I think he publishes his thoughts a bit prematurely. Plus, anthropologists are the most notorious for causal debates. It keeps them in business :).

  6. The idea of the foco, according to Guevara - one of the pioneers of the idea - is that a small vanguard of guerrillas (30-50 men) are sufficient to create the conditions conducive for revolt on their own. It is an attempt to spark mass revolt by the ACTIONS of a few. It places action above popular mobilization. Everything is subordinated to the military element of insurgency, rather than to political considerdations. This turns Maoist theory upside down. Guevara's (and Debray's) foco was a rural foco. Marighella later adopted it to an urban setting.

    The foco theory is largely seen as a failed theory. Focoists believed the Cuban revolution proved the theory but that ignored the conditions of Cuba at the time - a crumbling Batista regime with little political will, rapidly declining international support and an army with very very low morale. In reality it wasn't the foco strategy that worked, rather the regime defeated itself. Castro was in the right place at the right time.

    Could this happen in Afghanistan? Maybe, if ISAF countries lose political will and a few other things happen. But it has nothing to do with foco.

    When applied elsewhere, it failed every time - Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, and elsewhere. Germany's Red Army Faction was heavily influenced by foco theory too. And some have argued AQ is heavily influenced by foco.

    But not the Taliban. The Taliban insurgency is clearly along more classical Maoist lines in that it relies on mobilization of the (largely Pashtun) population for support, recruits, supplies, intel, etc. Action is subordinated to political concerns, not the other way around. The strength of the Maoist model is how adaptable and felxible its three stages and principles are.

    If Kilcullen did in fact say the Taliban was a foco insurgency, it is sad to see him get something this basic so wrong.

  7. And, by the way, this stuff really matters. Not just a concern of academics. Identifying the strategy of the enemy (whether or not their priority is to mobilize the population, for example) obviously will have a major impact on your counter strategy. First principles. Definitions matter. Etc

  8. It's not focoist, although in the earliest stages we thought it was.


  9. Ryan, good points and thanks for the further explanation of Focoism. Your post was much more insightful than what I found on wikipedia. You are correct- this stuff matters. It's actually step one- defining the situtation. If we don't understand the hows and whys, or we get them wrong, then our strategy will be off.

    If y'all are interested, I started a thread on SWJ about a new book NPS DA department is publishing in January on how the three phases of war intersect.


    My personal opinion is that Mao (when interpreted broadly) can serve as a baseline for all insurgencies, gangs, and social movements to help a commander understand what his opponent is doing and counter it.

  10. Thanks Mike. I am glad you found it useful. One thing I wish I emphasized is that the effect this has is that a focoist insurgency will immediately engage in violent acts before a Maoist Phase 1 of careful preparation, organization, indoctrination, mobilization, etc.

  11. or RATHER than a Maoist phase 1. Sorry.

  12. Just to clarify my comment, the Foco v Mao debate seems to be a discussion of what happened in the past and seems to have little relevance today, as the Taliban of today appear to be neither. I agree that your opponent's strategy is important because it impact your response, but their current strategy seems to be neither foco nor mao. It appears to be one of intimidating the people more effectively than we can earn their cooperation. Am I way off base here? That is why I view it as academic. It seems like debating whether Ho Chi Minh was a Focoist or Maoist, while Saigon is falling down around us.

  13. Sorry, I disagree. Taliban insurgency is still well within the category of a Maoist insurgency - a modern application/evolution of the Maoist model.

    They coerce the population, but also take on their grievances and provide them with services (effective judiciary being the best-known example). That is well within the bounds of a Maoist insurgency. The key is it mobilizes the support of the people - whether that is gained through terror and coercion or good will does not determine whether or not it is Maoist (see Vietnam for example, or even Mao himself).

    And Saigon, er I mean Kabul, is not falling down around us yet. If that happens we are in stage 3 of Mao's model, where the enemy has organized conventionally and it is a civil war. The more of us understand what the priorities of the enemy are in stages one and two (granted the divisions are fuzzy)...maybe thats less likely to happen. It is always worth understanding what strategy the enemy is using - especially if that strategy has a rich pedegree that we can study (Maoist insurgency).

    If you go to Marxists.org, you can find Mao's 'On Protracted Warfare'

    Others: Modern Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies by Beckett; and Bard O'Neill's Insurgency and Terrorism

  14. Schmedlap, you're not too far off base- "It appears to be one of intimidating the people more effectively than we can earn their cooperation." That is Mao. Ryan nailed it in his last post. Applied operationally, it's “clandestine organization, psychological preparation of the people, expansion of control, and consolidation of power." I observed it intuitively in Iraq, but I didn't understand it until grad school. (The Break Point: AQIZ establishes the ISI in Zaganiyah was the product of that study).

    The causal point is moot. It's working. Now, we can define the problem (High Phase II or Phase III) and develop a counter-strategy specific to the area.

    In Iraq, that counter-strategy was population control measures, increased kinetics targeting leaders, facilitators, and bomb-makers, denial of safe-havens, and turning reconciliables.

    In Afghanistan, it may be as simple as tribal engagement and increased micro-politics.

  15. Well, that shows how up-to-speed I am on my tyrant-isms. But, yeah, your second paragraph is basically what I was shooting for.

    In regard to tribal engagement - and maybe this deserves a thread of its own - Christian over at Ghosts of Alexander had a good insight on this. The gist of it is: tribal leadership is significantly different than in Iraq. The takeaway, in my opinion, is that tribal engagement may require a degree of sophistication and some translation abilities that we simply do not have and probably will not acquire without a very lengthy learning period. So that COA may not be feasible.

    Side note: Ink Spots is the only blog I know of that has a tag category for "Focoism"