I recently returned from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune where I helped to instruct U.S. Marine Corps and Army units on current counterinsurgency and counter radicalisation best practices before they deploy to Afghanistan. I learned much from the trainees—from privates to team leads to battalion commanders to a three-star general—who collectively had hundreds of years worth of experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Civilian and military leadership are now coining the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as “stability operations.” Patraeus is requiring civilian and military outfits to take stability operations training—today called the “District Stability Framework”—prior to deployments. And most Marine units are already applying the methodology.
The theory of stability operations is that by mitigating sources of instability—not necessarily addressing all of a populace’s need or grievances , which would fall under the rubric of short-term emergency humanitarian or long-term development assistance—the population will not errantly support the Taliban and “£10/day insurgent” IED-layers will have a peaceful alternative. An ideal stability operations activity, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Marine Corps, would increase support for governance (traditional or official), decrease support for malign actors (such as the Taliban), and increase societal capacity so that Afghans are empowered to continue the stability operations torch long after NATO departs.
At its essence, stability operations aims to tear the population from the insurgents (the goal of any counterinsurgency mission).
The process involves collecting information—with an emphasis on local perceptions and key grievances—analysing this information with other sources of intelligence to identify sources of instability, design operations to mitigate instability, and then measure success.
During the analysis phase, staff are supposed to take open source and classified information from the operating and cultural environment along with local perspectives to identify what the drives of instability are. Examples of sources of instability could be a lack of water, lack of security, or a corrupt militia attached to a contracting agency.
During the next phase, operations officers develop courses of action to mitigate the identified sources of instability. For an operation to be viable it must increase support for the government, decrease support for spoilers, and increase societal and institutional capacity. It also must fall in line with the best practices of development assistance to include sustainability, local ownership, cultural acceptability, and flexibility .
Finally, pre-determined indicators measure operators’ output, impact, and overall stability in the appropriate region.
The information operations, when applying the “District Stability Framework,” is theoretically supposed to be simple—just an accurate reflection of the framework at work. The information operations’ message would just be a narrative of what a unit did. For example, such a narrative could be that U.S. Marines came to an area, determined that X was a source of instability, gave the locals training and money to build Y, and then Y mitigates X and made the area more stable.
While stability operations aims at the Taliban’s main source of strength—the population—the framework may ignore directly confronting the Taliban itself. Aiming at the Taliban is important because even if the Taliban loses support of more of the population, it can still disrupt governance and maintain shadow governments. David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Praeger Security International, Westport, Connecticut, 1964) states that insurgency will try to create disorder to undermine the efficacy of the government. Specifically, an insurgent attempts to dissociate the populace from the government: “Promoting disorder is a legitimate objective for the insurgent…disorder—the normal state of nature—is cheap to create and very costly to prevent.” Furthermore, “…the less sophisticated the counterinsurgent forces, the better they are.” In short, even a few hardcore Taliban can cause ruckus enough to destabilise Afghanistan and the region.
And, unfortunately, kinetics do not do the trick. Breaking up insurgent networks, killing individual fighters, and drone strikes are akin to mowing a lawn—the grass/insurgents relentlessly grow back. To say that the corps of hardcore ideological Taliban are regenerative is an understatement.
In post-Soviet Afghanistan, the Taliban faced massacres in the thousands from opponents and seemingly seamlessly rekindled its numbers in matters of days. When the Taliban captured Kandahar in 1994, 20,000 Afghan and Pakistani madrassa students joined the movement. When the Taliban faced one of its most formidable enemies Ismael Khan’s army in 1995, the Taliban generated 25,000 troops—many from Pakistani schools. When in 1997 the Taliban suffered 3,000 casualties and 3,600 taken prisoner in a spell of fighting, Pakistan’s madrassas shut down just to encourage 5,000 students to refill the ranks. This was just one of several episodes when schools closed down for the sole purpose of pushing youngsters to join the Taliban when numbers were low. In short, the Taliban in the 1990s never had a problem resurrecting its strength. And likewise, in 2011 the Taliban appear to be even more deadly than its late-October-2001 version.
Before writing further, I must explain what I mean by the term “Taliban.” The term “Taliban” is in 2011 all but meaningless—referring to disparate groups, tribes, and individuals in Pakistan and Afghanistan who seem to only agree on violent opposition the current Afghan and Pakistani governments and NATO presence. To date, not one U.S. Army or Marine commander, intelligence officer, or staff has been able to describe the Taliban without referring to an umbrella of many different and sometimes competing outlooks and ideologies. Some members appear only to join the “Taliban” for money, power, or marriage of convenience in opposing the Pakistani and Afghan regimes. Some members appear to only focus locally, others on particular provinces, others nationally, and others regionally. And finally, there are adherents who openly display al-Qa`ida’s transnational visions and ideology. It is this final group—who do not adhere to Mullah Omar’s once regional vision—who comprise the violent extremist irreconcilable Taliban in Afghanistan about which I refer.
Since stability operations will only starve Taliban of wider popular support, killing insurgents accomplishes nothing, and even reintegration of non-ideological Taliban (not the core Taliban who have been able to regenerate so easily) what can be done?
This is a question that may bridge counterinsurgency and counter radicalisation. An answer to this question may put a stop of the war in Afghanistan and make Afghanistan an impermissible environment for both Taliban and al-Qa`ida influence and ideology.
One method may be even more emphasis for the Village Stability Operations (also known as the Local Defence Initiative, Afghan Local Police, Community Defence Initiative, Afghanistan Public Protection Program, Interim Security Critical Infrastructure, or another innocuous title depending on what week it is). Some of these programs—modelled after Special Forces’ Vietnam-era Civilian Irregular Defense Group and U.S. Marine Corps’ Combined Action Platoon program—appear to be temporary minute-men neighbourhood watches while government police are still building presence and competency in outlying areas. Other programs, however, appear to be indigenous campaigns, spurred by multiple drivers and narratives, which NATO only later comes to identify and offer support in the form of arms, cash, projects, and training. It is this second class of Village Stability Operations, which may be the counter-radicalisation key to staunching ideological Taliban’s ability to regenerate.
These revolts have a counter radicalisation angle because they:
1) may help to prevent some Afghans from joining Taliban elements through coercion, inspiration, or simple peer pressure;
2) inspire, through actions and narratives, Afghans outside the control of an uprising;
3) and use an elder or mullah to propagate messages to inspire, grow, and retain militia to fight and die for a cause—essentially radicalising these troops against violent extremists and violent extremism.
Furthermore, counter-Taliban uprisings may signal long-term success. In David Kilcullen’s unclassified 2009 report “Measuring Progress in Afghanistan,” he emphasises anti-insurgent lashkar formation as a measurable metric of success because such events may lead to popular inoculation to Taliban ideology—meeting the strategic goal of making Afghanistan a permanent impermissible environment to al-Qa`ida and Taliban activity and influence.
And it is this support for uprisings—very often brokered through Green Beret and U.S. Marine Corps non-commissioned officers—that may bring to bear a new form of counter radicalisation that will undercut the very centre of the enemy in Afghanistan.