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)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

How the West was won

Some consider the Native Americans of the Great Plains to have been among the most effective guerrilla fighters in history... and yet they were eventually beaten.

While this episode of history was not one which western civilisation can regard with much pride, there may be some interesting lessons here which could perhaps be applied in a modern counter-insurgency campaign, such as Afghanistan.

These musings are intended to precede a more in-depth - and perhaps more scientific - look at the much-vaunted reconciliation and reintegration efforts currently underway in Afghanistan. I'll write more on that early next week but for now I wanted to look at one historical episode which provides food-for-thought - and not direct parallels - on this particular issue.

Obviously some of the factors in the defeat of the Plains nations cannot be transplanted to Afghanistan: there are no buffalo herds to eradicate and its more than a little unlikely that white settlers will drive into Helmand province in horse-drawn wagons in the pursuit of manifest destiny. These factors were probably more important than the military campaign as they undermined the entire way of life of the nomadic Plains nations.

A further factor must be acknowledged: whereas in Afghanistan one civilian casualty is one too many (although unfortunately it doesn't always work out that way), the US Army had no such restraints when fighting the nations of the Plains, as illustrated most infamously by Custer's massacre of a Cheyenne village at the Washita river in 1868.

Those three factors are (very obviously) entirely irrelevant to the situation in Afghanistan. However, there were two factors in the defeat of the Lakota specifically that might be integrated into a counter-insurgency strategy.

Drown them in baby milk

The fighting strength of the Lakota was sapped by the numbers of young men who, with their families, eschewed the old way of life and instead lived on hand-outs from soldiers living in what we would now call Forward Operating Bases, such as Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail. These people were dubbed the 'Laramie Loafers' and they posed a major problem for the Lakota as i/ they reduced what was already a small pool of young men who could take up arms and ii/ they sapped the morale of those who chose to follow the old way of life.

Drowning insurgents in baby milk (ie. throwing money and material goods at them in order to undermine their motivation to fight) is hardly a new suggestion. I believe this particular metaphor first appeared in Vietnam but the method is as old as time. The example of the Laramie Loafers shows that such an approach can have a big impact.

The modern 'equivalent' in Afghanistan would be to simply provide jobs for people in Afghanistan. It is often said that many Taliban foot-soldiers only joined the insurgency because they would make more money there than elsewhere. Therefore, in simple terms the theory is that by creating licit sources of income (ie. anything other than joining the Taliban and/or growing poppies), many of the rank-and-file would drop their weapons and return home peacefully.

I can see the sense in such a theory and it may well have some impact in its implementation. The question is to what extent and will this be enough to irreversibly weaken the insurgency? That remains to be seen and I would have some questions (and doubts) here, notably concerning the received wisdom that most Taliban fighters are simply in it for the money.

Certain well-respected observers - I'm thinking of Ahmed Rashid and Robert Fisk - have highlighted the origins of the Taliban in the poverty-stricken refugee camps to which Afghans fled in great numbers (3.5m in Pakistan, 1m in Iran) during the Soviet occupation. Fisk argues that the extreme austerity of the Taliban regime stemmed from the fact that, in the refugee camps and madrasas, poverty was all they knew. In similar vein, Rashid describes the Taliban in these terms:

"These boys were a world apart from the Mujaheddin I had got to know during the 1980s - men who could recount their tribal and clan lineages, remembered their abandoned farms and valleys with nostalgia and recounted legends and stories from Afghan history... They were literally the orphans of the war, the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived with little self-knowledge. They admired war because it was the only occupation they could possibly adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their lives some meaning."
I will look at this in greater detail next week. Suffice to say for now that it might not be a foregone conclusion to drown people in baby milk if their basic worldview rejects wealth and material possessions.

Divide and conquer

Another factor in sapping both the fighting strength and the morale of the Lakota was the lack of unity within their ranks. Factions did not so much emerge along tribal lines (the Lakota nation was composed of several sub-groups) as around individuals. Most notably, the personal antipathy of the Oglala leader Red Cloud and the Brulé leader Spotted Tail towards the famous warrior Crazy Horse was a factor which prevented young warriors from rallying behind him and mounting a concerted and organised resistance campaign.

These differences were skilfully exploited by the US Army, or more accurately by their civilian agents, who rewarded the older chiefs with material goods and political recognition (Red Cloud was received at the White House several times by President Ulysses Grant). Red Cloud did not take part in the escalating guerrilla campaign led by Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa medicine man Sitting Bull. Red Cloud's weight among the people split the fighting strength of the Lakota, in terms of numbers, logistic support and morale.

In this vein, Anne Stenersen argues that, instead of negotiating directly with the Taliban leadership, it would be more realistic to weaken the Taliban's coherence by negotiating with - and offering incentives to - low-level commanders and tribal leaders in Afghanistan (see report posted here by Frederik on 27 April). The wide variety of actors that make up the 'opposing militant forces' (the official ISAF term) is a strength that could be turned into a weakness "if properly and systematically exploited."

I can understand the thinking behind this and hopefully I've shown, using one specific historical example, that such an approach can serve a purpose when fighting an insurgency. However, next week I'll raise some questions (and doubts) about the practical implementation of reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan.

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