Understanding, identifying, and helping to amplify narratives that drive counter-Taliban tribes may be the key to an Afghanistan that repels violent extremism and al-Qaeda for generations to come.
Foremost, one must understand the centrality of Afghan tribes, finally being accepted widely in NATO ranks.
Afghanistan’s history overflows with occupiers attempting and failing to subjugate, sideline, or dismember tribes that have existed well before Islam. Tribal revolts defined the resistances against Alexander the Great in 330BC, the Arab empire in 667 AD, the Mongols in 1220, three Anglo-Afghan wars from 1839 to 1919, the Soviets in the 1980s, and the Pakistani-trained and funded Taliban in the 1990s. Tribes are arguably the most stable and resilient social spine in Afghanistan even today—even after the Taliban has killed hundreds of top tribal leaders and NATO has misguidedly attempted to circumvent clan elders to create and support a non-traditional monopoly of power in Kabul.
In the past year, possibly cautiously re-treading the footsteps that led to the 2006 Anbar Awakening in Iraq, regular and special forces have launched initiatives to support local militias and tribes to fight violent Taliban elements. These NATO efforts reportedly attempt to build local defence initiatives and bridge these neighborhood watch-like movements with “official” national government police and army commands.
Even more importantly, some tribes have initiated anti-violent extremist insurrections themselves. It is these grassroots movements, begun alone but requiring NATO backing eventually, that may have the greatest chance at posing an enduring threat to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Such campaigns do not necessarily fit into David Kilcullen’s counterinsurgency best practice paradigm. The efforts may be against foreign occupiers and the Afghan central government in addition to foreign Taliban elements and ideologies. The movement, furthermore, may lead to longer term warlordism that had plagued Afghanistan in the period between the Soviets and Taliban. Finally, the movement may steal some of the violent extremists away from the rest of the deeply fractured Taliban. In short, tribal uprisings against the Taliban may serve to make Afghanistan impermissible to internationally focused violent extremism but spur some local societal instability.
The Guardian reported on 3 January 2011 that both Afghan and NATO commanders are “hoping” for a tribal uprising to root out the violent foreign elements of the Taliban from the Sangin district. The area has been a hotbed of violence between NATO, drug traffickers, and the Taliban since 2006. But some tribal elders along with some insurgents have reportedly—on their own initiative—agreed with NATO to ward off non-indigenous violent extremist Taliban members. Helmand governor Gulab Mangal’s spokesman 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.
The elders were from the Alikozai tribe—the largest in Sangin. The Alikozai last rose up against the Taliban in 2007 but were viciously defeated without support from the Afghan government or NATO. The current commander in charge of the area U.S. Marine Corps Major General Richard Mills appears cautiously confident that this uprising will be both effective and enduring. Caution derives from numerous past failed anti-Taliban tribal insurrections. In addition to Alikozai’s 2007 failure, tens of thousands of the Shinwari tribe in eastern Afghanistan failed to effectively combat the Taliban despite inter-tribal agreements and a written proclamation to repel violent extremists and poppy growers.
Although it is impossible to compare the Anbar Awakening with any of the failed or so-far fledgling tribal uprisings in Afghanistan, there are ideological, visceral, and self-interested drivers that may be common to both theaters of war—defined against an enemy that shares similar tactics, laws, and ends (those of al-Qa`ida in Iraq and violent al-Qa`ida-leaning members of the Taliban).
These drivers become narratives to grow ranks and keep fighters fighting. The narratives are not window dressing on an active revolt but the soul, purpose, and identity of the anti-extremist insurrection. They are the main effort. As Michael Vlahos’ “The Long War: A Self Defeating Prophecy” (Asia Times, 9 September 2006) describes:
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.
The personal narratives of a tribal leader will likely differ from the messages intended to recruit and will likely differ over time according to changing circumstances. In Iraq, numerous and sometimes competing narratives helped the Anbar Awakening turn into an almost nationwide movement. The narratives centered around the following pillars, all echoed today in Afghanistan:
- Defence of tribal identity—al-Qaeda killed tribal leaders who may have posed any type of threat, and al-Qaeda openly announced their intent to destroy the tribal system which was counterproductive to its vision of an Islamic state in which Muslims are only subjugated to a caliph
- Personal power plays—young tribal leaders whose fathers hid in Syria because of earlier collusion with Saddam Hussein hurried to jockey for favor, territory, and governmental positions to earn money, jobs, stability, and respect
- Visceral disgust over innocent deaths—the deaths of children from one particular tribe became a rallying cry to unify tribal militias
- Xenophobic repulsion of foreigners—although al-Qaeda comprised mostly nationals, many of the suicide bombers and most violent offenders were foreigners creating a deep “us versus them” fissure
- Revolt against foreign ideology—like Pashtunwali, Iraq’s tribal structure and way of life (trading, for example) were threatened by a religious ideology that did not jibe with local customs to include forbidding music and smoking and not letting women sit in chairs
NATO has three choices regarding narratives. First, it can ignore messaging entirely and ignore the fact that narratives have been the main battle space for the Taliban and al-Qaeda since their inceptions. Second, NATO can cautiously send in social scientists to conduct deeply flawed warzone surveys and anthropologists to draw generalized conclusions to recommend a carefully targeted information operations campaign that may take another decade to execute. Third, NATO can learn from the Taliban and al-Qaeda and become risk-acceptant—forcefully amplifying narratives from what data is currently available not worrying about discrepancies, cross-messaging, and contradictory narratives. Al-Qaeda is just short of reckless in its broad messaging. NATO, likewise, should aggressively provide tribes the technical means to broadcast their narratives to make as much of Afghanistan as possible an impermissible environment to violent extremist militants, influence, and ideology.