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Afghan Counter-Extremism Revolutions


As you read this blog post, some tribes, villages, or militias are rebelling against Taliban and al-Qa`ida influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is important for policy makers and operators to understand narratives that drive counter-violent extremism insurrections in warzones and possibly how to support such indigenous and independent movements. (Whether supporting armed movements unlinked to the Kabul or Pakistani government is helpful or detrimental to stability or NATO goals is outside the scope of this article.)

But, first, before I give my brief description of grassroots counter-radical narratives, it is important to note why I am housing these movements under the counter-radicalisation rubric vice purely counterinsurgency. These movements are more than just paid armed militias killing violent extremists. These revolts:

1) prevent the young from joining the “other side” through intimidation, force, inspiration, and/or peer pressure;

2) disarm, reintegrate, or recruit former salaried non-ideological Taliban;

3) inspire, through actions and words, locals outside village centers to join up;

4) and employ an elder, tribal leader, talking head, or religious “leader” to generate narratives to inspire, grow, and retain fighters to fight and die for a cause—basically radicalizing these troops against al-Qaeda and some Taliban elements.

Second, it is essential to understand the importance of narrative to countering radicalisation. And for this I will invoke a definition I have used before in my blogs (from Michael Vlahos’ “The Long War: A Self Defeating Prophecy,” Asia Times, 9 September 2006):

In war, narrative is much more than just a story. “Narrative” may sound like a fancy literary word, but it is actually the foundation of all strategy, upon which all else—policy, rhetoric and action—is built. War narratives need to be identified and critically examined on their own terms, for they can illuminate the inner nature of the war itself. War narrative does three essential things. First, it is the organizing framework for policy. Policy cannot exist without an interlocking foundation of “truths” that people easily accept because they appear to be self-evident and undeniable. Second, this “story” works as a framework precisely because it represents just such an existential vision. The “truths” that it asserts are culturally impossible to disassemble or even criticize. Third, having presented a war logic that is beyond dispute, the narrative then serves practically as the anointed rhetorical handbook for how the war is to be argued and described.

And a counter-narrative does not necessarily have to be the inverse of violent-extremist narratives which (in the case of Afghanistan) stretch from “worldwide Islam is under attack” to “Karzai is corrupt” to “Afghans must win back their freedom from the U.S. invaders.” Likewise, a counter-narrative does not necessarily have to offer a solution such as “empowered tribalism will lead to stability” or “working with NATO is better than working with the Taliban—a lesser of two evils.” Especially NATO-led solution narratives reek of imperialistic hubris and are likely to backfire. A narrative could appear like a negative U.S. political campaign slogan: “the opposition is bad.” In short, by definition, an effective counter-radicalisation narrative simply slows, stops, or reverses radicalisation. (Radicalisation, in this case, is the process which leads to a person being willing to die or kill in the name of an ideological goal.)

***I must caveat the following descriptions by admitting that I have never lived amongst these militias. I have not gained the trust of and interviewed the leaders, the fighters, and the dissenters with fixed surveys over a significant period of time. And such polls are absolutely necessary to understand the actual motivations and inspirational myths such revolts use. I am, instead, relying on observations from colleagues in the field as well as local and international media. That is to say, I am as blind as a Louisiana Creole Cajun figuring out the tube system on her first day in London. But, perhaps such scattered secondhand sources are a starting point. And if you’re reading this and have a grant to donate, please help me as I go to live and work alongside these movements.***


Revenge and disgust over kidnapping: Hajji Malik Osman—head of 400,000 members of his Shinwari tribe—reportedly agreed to unite his tribe against the Taliban in February 2010. His tribal elders even produced a written document pledging to keep the Taliban from six districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The turning point in 2009 may have been when the Taliban demanded that the Shinwari elders hand over a son of a tribal leader—after which the area was reportedly “free” of Taliban.

Distrust of outsiders: Shinwari elders to news agencies expressed their distrust and even hatred of both the coalition and Taliban. But it appeared that the coalition and Afghan government were the lesser of evils.

Distrust of the coalition and allied Afghan government may derive from xenophobia, U.S. house raids in the past, a 2007 incident when U.S. special forces killed 19 with small arms when driving through the district, and the arrest of Shinwari district security chief Ghalib Hassan in 2003 to GITMO without charge.[1][2]

The Shinwaris have had a history of successfully repelling outsiders to include a ten-year fight and victory over Abdur Rahman Khan in the 1880s. Outsiders have often tried to invade because the Shinwaris own key terrain with smuggling routes through and around the Khyber Pass.

Tribal unity: Within weeks of the uprising, two sub tribes turned on one another over a land dispute leaving 13 dead and 35 injured. The counter-Taliban operations and patrols suddenly stopped. Militants had then begun to move through some Shinwari areas freely.[3]

Refocusing on a common enemy—the Taliban—may offer a chance to reunite and empower the highest level of tribal elders. Whether this will materialize is yet to be seen.

Money: The Shinwari tribe was reportedly promised $1.2 million USD in aid from the U.S. military—directly to the elders without NGO intermediaries. At this time elders bemoan to the media that only $200,000 has yet been dispensed. They are not shy in asking for money.


Reaction to oppression and intimidation: Gizab (100 miles north of Kandahar) has been a “rest-and-resupply” point for Taliban moving to, from, and between Helmand and Kandahar provinces as well as western Pakistan. Gizab is key terrain.

Taliban commanders apparently first arrived to Gizab in 2007, when residents (Pashtun, not like the surrounding Hazara-dominate areas) were apathetic, young persons gladly joined for money, and there was no police force.

But Gizab elders, in June 2010, rounded up around 300 fighters (from an initial modest lynch mob of 15) to repel the Taliban because of Taliban oppression and overall local resentment. U.S. military encouragement and the kidnapping of a local family, impelling the initial small lynch mob, may also have played roles.

Reportedly a small number of mid-level and low-ranking Taliban militants put their weapons down and have since reintegrated into the local society.

Money for the service of policing: The militia leaders went to Australian and U.S. special forces for help immediately when the revolt began. Australian then U.S. forces arrived to provide tactical support.

By the end of June 2010, residents of Gizab have become frustrated at the lack of Afghan government support claiming that the Afghan government-authorized 53-man police team with only a compensation of $60 USD per month per troop is far too little to retain an active militia and continue to stave off the Taliban.[4] [5] This movement does not appear ideological and may be holding out for the highest bidder.



Revenge: The Alikozai last rose up against the Taliban in 2007 but were defeated without support from the Afghan government or NATO.[6] As is common to tribes in this area, avenging the dead is a matter of honor—even if it takes generations.

Furthermore, like most Taliban-infected areas, insurgents target key leaders. The following is an incomplete list of Taliban retribution against the Alikozai:[7]

  • Haji Granai, deputy in Kandahar’s police force and Afghan Militia was assassinated.
  • Akram Khakrezwal, Kabul’s chief of police, was assassinated via a suicide bomber in a mosque in Kandahar in 2005.
  • Three of an elder’s brothers and fifty others were killed in an attack in Sangin’s bazaar in 2007.
  • On 6 January 2011 gunmen shot tribal leader Haji Sayed Badaar Agha on his way to morning prayer, leaving him in “critical condition.”[8]

Self-preservation: Helmand governor Gulab Mangal’s spokesman recently stated that local Taliban fighters will supposedly no longer attack government and NATO troops while keeping the upper Sangin Valley (specifically the contested Sarwan-Qala area) free of foreign Taliban. Attempts have been made to reintegrate local “hired” Taliban.

Now that the Alikozai have chosen a side, there may be no going back. In other words, the tribe has now sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s enemy. At this point, continuing the “attack” may be the tribe’s only option for survival.

Power and money: Because the Alikozai are openly colluding, or at least communicating with the Marines in the area, they are likely pragmatically filling their coffers and trying to increase relative independence and muscle.



Religious differences: According to the BBC, Turis’ antipathy may derive from the Taliban’s religious stance, which dismisses Shi’a as non-believers—non-Muslim treacherous detractors of “true religion.”

Desperate self-preservation: The Turi Pakistanis have been keeping Taliban from using the Kurram tribal district (56 miles from Kabul) to enter Afghanistan since they ridded their area of Taliban militants in a September 2008 battle.

In retaliation for the Turis keeping the Taliban from entering Afghanistan, the Taliban have blocked eastern points of exit and ambushed Turi commuters attempting to leave the area into Pakistan. Therefore, Turis then relied only on trading and conducting business in Afghan villages just over the border.

But, in October 2010, the Pakistani military shut the Afghan borders—Terimangal, Spina Shaga, Khairlachi, Burki, and Shahidano. The Pakistani security forces claim that this embargo arises from security concerns over “sectarian clashes” which “miscreants from outside” can “exploit.”

Following the Pakistani security force blockade the Taliban and Haqqani network offered safe passage for Turis eastward into Pakistan in return for allowing the Taliban safe passage into Afghanistan. And for a fourth time, the Turis turned down such an agreement.[9] Perhaps the Turis realize such a deal would be temporary given the Taliban’s hatred of Shi’a and particular antipathy towards Turi stubbornness.



Visceral humanitarian disgust: In the district of Dir, in northern Pakistan, Taliban militants began building up since around 2005. The commander of these 200-400 violent extremists “Khitab” was, according to the Pakistani government, linked to al-Qaeda.

Only four of 25 villages offered shelter to the militants while village elders tried for months in 2009 to persuade—peacefully—the Taliban to abandon the area.

But then in June 2009, in an apparent attempt to intimidate and mollify the population, an insurgent suicide bomber detonated at a mosque prayer killing at least 30 innocents.

This attack, instead of pacifying the population, ignited locals to build an over 1000-strong militia to hunt down and kill Taliban and rid the area of militants and their influence.

The end result was the Taliban cornered and then encircled in the northwest area of a valley in Ghazigeh and three Taliban commanders dead.

Enemy of Islam: Said an area man providing medical aid to wounded militia members, “[t]his bomb blast proved the last straw. This made the people violent…We are not quitting the area until we destroy them. We know this is not Islam. These are criminals.” It is unknown if this religious bent is ubiquitous, but such a narrative appears to have the potential to inspire and recruit.

Distrust of government: The militants were, in 2009, split between how much government military intervention would be wise. Some felt that sloppy indiscriminant bombing would mean civilians dead and a population’s exodus. Others felt that strong Pakistani military might could be necessary to completely destroy Taliban remnants in the area—an all-out-war would be the only way to keep villagers safe.[10]

Both sides of the argument appear wary of government involvement and the side effects of clumsy military support.



NATO must understand the narratives of uprisings against violent extremism to foresee where the next uprising might be, what carrots can be offered to encourage an uprising’s continuity or growth, what messages information operations teams should use, and when to sit back and do nothing.

Grassroots uprisings may be the most promising phenomenon to make Afghanistan and western Pakistan impermissible environments for violent-extremism influence.

Now what is needed is an on-the-ground study of the narratives that drive, sustain, and grow indigenous insurrections against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.



[1] Starkey, Jerome, “Afghan Shinwari elders vow to support Hamid Karzai in exchange for US cash,” The Times,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7007102.ece, 29 January 2010.

[2] Al Jazeera, “Million dollar militia,”http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/peopleandpower/2010/09/201091142034452109.html, 8 September 2010.

[3] Motlagh, Jason, “A Sunni Awakening: Not So Easy in Afghanistan,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, http://pulitzercenter.org/articles/sunni-awakening-not-so-easy-afghanistan, 17 March 2010.

[4] Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “U.S. eager to replicate Afghan villagers’ successful revolt against Taliban,” The Washington Post,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/20/AR2010062003479.html, 21 June 2010.

[5] Australian Government Department of Defence, “Gunfire to Governance at Gizab,” Operation SLIPPER Afhganistan,http://www.defence.gov.au/media/departmentaltpl.cfm?CurrentId=10211, 29 April 2010.

[6] Blackburn, David, “Progress in Afghanistan?” The Spectator,http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6204968/progress-in-afghanistan.thtml, 13 August 2010.

[7] Tribal Analysis Center, “Alikozai Tribal Dynamics: A Very Unusual Durrani Tribe,” Tribal Analysis Center, LTD, http://www.tribalanalysiscenter.com/PDF-TAC/Alikozai%20Tribal%20Dynamics.pdf , April 2009.

[8] Abi-Habib, Maria, Habib Khan Totakhil, “Afghan Tribal Leader Attacked After Agreeing to Help Coalition,” The Wall Street Journal,http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703730704576065803612868740.html, 6 January 2011.

[9] BBC, “Pakistan army blockades anti-Taliban tribe in Kurram,”http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11625216, 26 October 2010.

[10] Tavernise, Sabrina, Irfan Ashraf, “Attacked, Pakistani Villagers Take on Taliban,” The New York Times,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/world/asia/10pstan.html, 10 June 2009.