The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

'You have the watches, we have the time. We are born here. We will die here. We aren't going anywhere.'

Turning to counterinsurgency, I would like to draw your attention to an essay by Lieutenant Colonel Ehsan Mehmood Khan, published in the Small Arms Journal. In this essay Khan compares the strategy of the Taliban to the theories of Von Clausewitz, Mao Tse-tung, T.E. Lawrence, David Galula and Querine Hanlon.

The key points:

  • "the tradition of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun Social Code, has been combined with Jihad thereby forming a formidable war ideology. This is serving as the nucleus around which everything else is knit and is thus the Centre of Gravity for Taliban Warfare. The constituents of operational environment may seek variants and may witness dip or rise in magnitude but till such time their ideology remains unbeaten, they may continue to fight."
  • "David Galula puts it that the counterinsurgent will not be able to rally the bulk of population so long as the population is convinced that the counterinsurgent the will, the means and the ability to win. This denotes that the population supports the one who will win.25 I think there are three more notions that the population may have to support a given side: who is ours; who will stay; and who is neither ours nor is to stay but supports rather than hurt our interest."
  • "What Mr. Henry Kissinger wrote at the end of the Vietnam War is relevant to the situation in Afghanistan today. He noted, “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla warfare: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The [North Vietnamese] used their armed forces the way a bull-fighter uses his cape – to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance.”
Khan also gives following facts:
"According to a new map of Taliban presence in Afghanistan (Figure-1) issued by the London-based International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) in October 2009, Taliban have now permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan, up from 72% in November 2008, According to ICOS, another 17% of Afghanistan is seeing ‘substantial’ Taliban activity.2 NATO’s unclassified briefing gives even clearer picture. Taliban have a shadow government in 33 out of 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Figure-2 shows the how Taliban Movement in Afghanistan moved from sway on 11 provinces in 2005 to 33 in 2009.3 In the words of Admiral Michael Mullen, Taliban [are] getting pretty effective at it [governance]. They have set up functional courts in some locations, assess and collect taxes, and even allow people to file formal complaints against local Talib leaders."


  1. I find this to be an extremely interesting concept and I will be sure to read Lt-Col Khan's report fully. More to the point, I would be interested to compare current US and NATO approaches to COIN - both in doctrine and in practice (ie. in Afghanistan) - with those of Clausewitz, Mao Zedong et al.

    In the meantime, the excerpt of Khan's report quoted above has set off some alarm bells, specifically by its reference to the ICOS report.

    The methodology used by ICOS is extremely dubious. In their own words, they define "a heavy Taliban presence" as provinces seeing one or more average attack (lethal or non-lethal) per week.

    By the same rationale, if there is at least one vehicle accident (lethal or non-lethal) per week in each of the 50 States that comprise the USA, are we supposed to conclude that America is populated entirely by bad drivers? Nope, didn’t think so.

    Yet on exactly that basis, they have simply shaded 80% of the Afghan map in dark red. Conclusion: the Taliban dominate almost the whole of Afghanistan.

    In reality, even a cursory examination of their methodology casts serious doubt on their conclusion.

    Firstly, an Afghan province can cover a rather large area so using provinces as a measuring gauge (instead of districts) leads to sweeping generalisations. For example, Taliban activity in Helmand province is heavily focused in the centre of the province in the districts of Nad Ali, Marjah, Sangin and Musa Qala. Yet by ICOS’ methods the whole of Helmand (even the uninhabited parts) is under Taliban domination. If their method looks dubious even in Helmand, where there is undoubtedly a heavy Taliban presence, then imagine how dubious it looks elsewhere. For example, in Badghis province insurgent activity is almost entirely in a pocket of one district – Bala Murghab – and yet we’re supposed to believe that the entire province is heavily dominated by the Taliban.

    The NATO figures are much more precise: 72% of kinetic activity takes place in 10% of the DISTRICTS with 6% of the population.

    In fact, NATO have moved away from using those figures for the simple reason that statistics can very easily become misleading. However, for the purpose of providing an alternative yardstick with which to measure Taliban activity, this seems far more credible to me.

    To illustrate this, simply take a look at the map of kinetic activity provided on Flynn’s slides. Do the red dots cover 80% of Afghanistan? Not even close.

    Secondly, the definition of an attack is very loose. “One lethal or non-lethal attack per week”. Again, in practice this could mean that a single shot fired per week would shade an entire province dark red. Of course, in reality an “average attack” consists of much more than a single shot but the fact remains that this methodology fails to take into account a myriad of crucial factors – scale and effectiveness of attacks, numbers of insurgents, logistics and supply networks etc etc. To me, those are the real criteria for establishing the extent of the Taliban presence in a given area.

    Finally, the report fails to distinguish between the Taliban and other insurgent and/or criminal groups. Even if the 80% figure were correct (and I hope I have conclusively shown that it is not), then it would still be inaccurate to say that one organisation dominates almost the whole country.

    Had thsi report been written in an academic context, I seriously doubt it would have seen the light of day as the methodology is not at all scientific. In short, the report is simply not credible.

    I'm more curious about Flynn and Mullen's comments but I’ll save my thoughts on those just for the time being while I read their comments/reports more thoroughly.


  2. Patrick; I would look for you comments on SWJ Blog.

  3. I beg to differ:
    The IOCS report speaks of 'permanent Taliban presence'. If one attack per week occurs it seems reasonable to assume that the attackers have indeed a permanent presence in that district and are not travelling back and forth from other districts.

    To stay in your analogy: At least one accident in each of the states would not indicate that bad drivers dominate the US or that the US is populated entirely by bad drivers but a permanent presence of bad drivers in the US.

    However, I agree that the report is a generalisation. It would be helpful to break it down to districts. It would also be helpful to indicate unpopulated and unimportant areas, such as the desert in Helmand, as areas uncontrolled by either side.

    Generally, we have to carefully differentiate between Taliban presence, insurgent activity and presence of shadow governments.

    Your NATO stats are interesting. Would you argue that ISAF dominates 80% of Afghanistan? As little as a weekly attack on ISAF forces prove the domination of the district by the insurgents, the absence of attacks prove the domination of ISAF over this district.

    Bearing in mind that insurgencies in general are not about territorial control, one could argue that the whole argument is not helpful, anyway...

  4. Frederik,

    What you say is true but you're referring specifically to the word 'permanent' whereas I'm referring to the figure of 80%. I don't see how you've disproved anything I said. In fact, your continuation of my analogy proves the point rather nicely. ICOS have shown that there are Taliban in Afghanistan. Nothing more. Personally, I don't consider that news.

    I would not argue that ISAF controls 80% of Afghanistan. Moreover, I do not believe that an absence of kinetic incidents shows that ISAF - or more importantly the government of Afghanistan - dominates a particular district. If bazaars are open, if children are going to school, if people can move freely on the roads, those are the real criteria.

    As for your last point, I agree completely.