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William Lind on the Taliban’s Operational Art

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Adam Elkus directed my attention today on Twitter to a new piece by William S. Lind, “the Father of 4th Generation Warfare” at The American Conservative:

Unfriendly Fire 

….The Soviet army focused its best talent on operational art. But in Afghanistan, it failed, just as we have failed. Like the Soviets, we can take and hold any piece of Afghan ground. And doing so brings us, like the Soviets, not one step closer to strategic victory. The Taliban, by contrast, have found an elegant way to connect strategy and tactics in decentralized modern warfare.

What passes for NATO’s strategy is to train sufficient Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban once we pull out. The Taliban’s response has been to have men in Afghan uniform— many of whom actually are Afghan government soldiers or police—turn their guns on their NATO advisers. That is a fatal blow against our strategy because it makes the training mission impossible. Behold operational art in Fourth Generation war.

According to a May 16 article by Matthew Rosenberg in the New York Times, 22 NATO soldiers have been killed so far this year by men in Afghan uniforms, compared to 35 in all of last year. The report went on to describe one incident in detail—detail NATO is anxious to suppress. There were three Afghan attackers, two of whom were Afghan army soldiers. Two Americans were killed. The battle—and it was a battle, not just a drive-by shooting—lasted almost an hour.

What is operationally meaningful was less the incident than its aftermath. The trust that existed between American soldiers and the Afghans they were supposed to train was shattered. Immediately after the episode, the Times reported, the Americans instituted new security procedures that alienated their native allies, and while some of these measure were later withdrawn,

Afghan soldiers still complain of being kept at a distance by the Americans, figuratively and literally. The Americans, for instance, have put up towering concrete barriers to separate their small, plywood command center from the outpost’s Afghan encampment.

Also still in place is a rule imposed by the Afghan Army after the attack requiring most of its soldiers to lock up their weapons when on base. The Afghan commanding officer keeps the keys….

Lind has lost none of his skill for zeroing in on which buttons to push that would most annoy the political generals among the brass.

However, I think Lind errs in ascribing too much credit to the Taliban here. A much simpler explanation is that the usually illiterate ANA soldier is a product of the same xenophobic cultural and religious environment that created the Taliban, the Haqqanis, vicious Islamist goons like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or the Afghan tribesmen who slaughtered the retreating garrison of Lord Elphinstone in 1841.

While the Taliban have infiltrators, it remains that many of the “Green on Blue” killings are just as easily explained by personal grievances, zealous religious bigotry, indiscipline, mistreatment by American advisers or Afghan superiors and sudden jihad syndrome. While it is impolitic to emphasize it, Afghan betrayal and murder of foreign allies (generally seen as “occupiers”) is something of a longstanding historical pattern. The Taliban capitalize on it politically but they are not responsible for all of it.

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A footnote to a benchmark in boundless cyberspace

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- Taliban use of social media with side ramble on the cognition of similars, parallels and opposites ]
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It’s not like it’s a big deal or anything, it’s just a footnote, a detail — but God is in the details, the devil is in the details. And it looks as though a certain Twitter account does belong to the Taliban after all.

Some back-story:

A while back, on my way to make other points, I posted this:

I wasn’t the first or last to make the connection between A Balkhi and the Taliban, nor to note the Twitter-exchanges between Balkhi and the ISAF press office — but I happened to have this habit of juxtaposing similars and opposites, and had developed the “Specs” format used here, with the little binoculars inset, to suggest the idea of seeing parallel or opposite things in parallel or opposition — a sort of mental equivalent of stereoscopic vision or stereophonic sound — in the hope that something about the comparison and contrast would add a depth dimension to understanding.

As a footnote to a footnote to a footnote, I think the Necker Cube can add an interesting aspect to this business of stereoscopic thinking:

When two things are so much the same and so utterly different that, as with a Necker Cube (or the positive and negative of a photo rapidly alternating) the mind flashes rapidly from one view to its exact and opposite other, a metacognitive insight arises about what I can only term the two in one in twoness experienced.

File that under number theory, koans.

But that’s about metacognition, let’s get back to the Taliban on Twitter.

Towards the end of last year, Alex Strick van Linschoten posted his doubts about A Balkhi:

No. Just no. The account @abalkhi appears to have nothing to do with the Taliban (see below). I’d also be interested to see the evidence for the statement that ‘Taliban spokesmen also frequently spar with Nato press officers’. I have not seen a single instance of this. Every other story on these accounts repeats this claim. And it’s presumably quite an important distinction: an official spokesman (we might assume it is a man) engaged in verbal attacks on the official ISAF account is a different thing from some fanboy in his bedroom doing the same thing.

Today, Alex (I hope that’s the appropriate way to name him) reversed himself with the tweet featured at the top of this post.

The pool of people to whom it matters whether A Balkhi is an official Talibvan site or a fan site is probably quite small, and by now they will all surely have either read the Wall Street Journal, seen Alex’s tweet, or arrived at whatever conclusion in the matter their own intelligence sources have suggested to them.

In the enormity of cyberspace, then, this whole post of mine is just a footnote to a footnote.

Alex’s piece from which I quoted above, on the other hand, is a true footnote: it provides us with a decent summary of Twitter-feeds associated with the Taliban, helpfully annotated.

Let’s call it a benchmark – and while this business about A Balkhi may be just a detail, benchmarks are go-tos, and I hope Alex will update his.

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A nation subdivided into religions — or a religion subdivided into nations?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- ISAF apologizes to Afghans, Taliban thinks the Ummah is offended, and an insight from Bernard Lewis ]
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Responding to the burning of “religious materials, to include Qurans” by coalition forces in an incinerator at Bagram, Gen. John R. Allen, commander of ISAF, is quoted in an ISAF release as saying:

On behalf of the entire International Security Assistance Force, I extend my sincerest apologies to the people of Afghanistan.

Commenting on the same incident, an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan / Taliban statement said:

Last night, the American invaders, in accordance with their barbaric characteristics once again burnt copies of the sacred book of the Muslims (Holy Quran) with the purpose of desecration and with this perverted action, aroused the sensitivities of one billion Muslims worldwide including the Afghans.

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As is often the case, the devil is in the details.

Note that the ISAF addresses its apology to “the people of Afghanistan” while the Islamic Emirate describes those offended by such actions as “one billion Muslims worldwide including the Afghans”.

I am reminded of Bernard Lewis‘ observation:

For a long time now it has been our practice in the modern Western world to define ourselves primarily by nationality, and to see other identities and allegiances—religious, political, and the like—as subdivisions of the larger and more important whole. The events of September 11 and after have made us aware of another perception—of a religion subdivided into nations rather than a nation subdivided into religions…

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The converse of this is that those in Afghanistan and elsewhere who identify more readily with the Ummah than with an individual nationality will also more easily think of a war seemingly fought against the Ummah as being the work of Christendom aka “the Crusaders” — an idea that fits well with a centuries-long sense of history — rather than by a UN-mandated coalition that includes troops from Jordan, Turkey, and the Emirates…

Not that the 2,000-odd ISAF troops from those particular countries are likely to be the ones who burn Qur’ans.

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