Counter-Radicalisation in the War to Come
I spent my spring and summer in southern Helmand conducting research. The population’s prescience was unnerving.
Right or wrong, unfounded or founded, the locals overwhelmingly saw the war with the Taliban as yet to come. The tired and sometimes clumsy argument in London and Washington that the Taliban will pour over the Afghan borders upon NATO withdrawal is alive and well around the town centers, wells, and mosques of Marjah and Garmsir. The locals truly believe that Pakistani Taliban—madrassa students and patient trainees ready to die—will storm across NATO-built highways in civilian trucks wave after wave, undaunted by death.
The locals are understandably afraid. They endured at least three Taliban tidal waves in the 1990s. One call in 1997 by Mullah Omar to the Northwest Frontier Province Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqani—the Yale of Deobandi extremism excellence—led the school’s administrator to close down courses with an order for all students to run across the border to directly link up with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Earlier headmasters of 12 other radical Deobandi madrassas in the Northwest Frontier Province shut down to send around 8,000 students to join Taliban ranks. And Jamiat-ul-Uloomi Islamiyyah—the Harvard of Deobandi extremism—in a Karachi suburb gave up 600 precious students.
And then the Taliban returned again in 2005 turning the fields to poppies and markets to wide-open morphine/opium/heroin emporiums. The Taliban slapped around Afghans with out-of-regulation beards and publicly beheaded tax dodgers. Those in southern Helmand, not currently heavily involved in Taliban support, fear Pakistan, Pakistanis, the Pakistani Taliban, and a war yet to come.
Southern Helmandis seem to understand the spirit of the six-part counterinsurgency strategy: shape, clear, hold, build, expand, and transition. They understand because they have witnessed NATO struggle through the steps inelegantly. And they also understand because they have witnessed the Taliban rolling through the steps brutally in the past. If NATO is in the hold and build stage currently, the Taliban are in the earliest of the early stages of “shape.” Without hope of ever defeating a NATO unit or of completely upturning Afghan security and popular morale, insurgents appear mainly to be testing and observing Afghan security and NATO disposition, composition, and strength—like a reconnaissance mission for a forthcoming war once NATO is gone.
Why do locals seem so sure? What are their sources of information? Are they paranoid? Are they misinformed?
It does not really matter.
What matters is that the Taliban will likely attempt some type of resurgence in poppy-ready Pashtun areas when and where it is possible. Perhaps that means the formal (but unlikely to be complete) “pull-out” 2014, 20 January 2013, or sooner if NATO troops reshuffle out of the now relatively quiet south Helmand.
What matters is that many arbakai (militias), local police, and Afghan National Police believe the Taliban will come back and immediately want to be prepared to defend themselves and their families against it.
This is when counter-insurgency demands a new focus on counter-radicalisation—from more focus on Village Stability Operations for local defense militias, efforts to inoculate the young from joining future Taliban ranks, and demobilisation and reintegration of every possible criminal and stripe of Taliban along with strategies to reduce recidivism.
While military and aid missions attempt semblances of stability; while civil affairs teams push temporary poppy alternatives; while academics ruminate over what level of corruption is acceptable in Afghan government; while intelligence analysts strive to understand the myriad of overlapping types of Taliban and criminals; while local politicians attempt Taliban reconciliation with relatively unthreatening and sidelined Taliban; and while strategists look to Iranian and Chinese long-term interests in Afghanistan, NATO should focus precious assets on countering-radicalisation to stave off the effects of impending Taliban expansion. Empower indigenous resiliencies. The ideological Taliban will probably return again strongly. Afghans at every level of society—not just in the security services—must be ready.