November 1, 2009  

The Taliban’s political program

At their core, insurgencies are about political power struggles, usually between a central government and those who reject its authority, where the objective of the conflict is the population itself and the political right to lead it.

Thus, the center of gravity in this type of warfare is not the enemy’s forces per se, but the population. The centrality of politics to this type of warfare means that counterinsurgent forces must craft a political strategy that is sensitive to the needs of the population, seeks to secure its loyalty to the government, mobilizes the community to identify, expel or fight the insurgent, and extends the authority and reach of the central government. To achieve these goals, a government must have a political strategy that separates the insurgents from popular support so they can be killed or imprisoned. If a political plan is implemented poorly, or not at all, insurgent forces will capitalize on the grievances and frustrated hopes of the community to entice it away from the government. The community may then assist the insurgent with a safe haven to rest, re-arm, re-equip, recuperate and redeploy to fight another day.

In the long run, because this conflict is not about how many casualties counter-insurgent forces impose on the insurgents but about the will to stay in the fight, foreign counterinsurgents tend to grow weary of the amount of blood and treasure they must expend. The insurgent could lose every military engagement, but still win the war if the government does not win the population over to its program, policies and plans.

While the Taliban’s strategic goals of uniting the Pashtuns, ejecting foreign military occupation and imposing Sharia law are well known, their tactical political program is less well understood and its popularity among many Pashtuns even more so. The Taliban have carefully crafted a political strategy that taps into Pashtunwali traditions, takes advantage of U.S., coalition and Afghan government mistakes, and capitalizes on the weaknesses of the Afghan state in the villages. Although substantial efforts have been expended by the U.S. to promote good governance in the provinces, our efforts have been unequal to the task — cumbersome, bureaucratic and sometimes counterproductive.

The Taliban’s positive political program has at least five aspects: Justice, micropolitics, reconciliation, laissez-faire and democracy. While the Taliban will impose their will on villagers if they have to, and they often do so violently, they also have a positive agenda that seeks to entice supporters to their banner.

In the face of corrupt and/or murderous government officials, a nonfunctioning judiciary, and the perversion or suspension of Pashtunwali traditions, the typical villager has a limited ability to seek justice for the things that bother him most: murder, theft, assault, rape, and land and water disputes. For the Taliban political agent, this vein of discontent is rich and can be mined by appealing to the structures of justice created by Sharia law. While the villager may not be inclined to support Sharia law in its totality, he is likely to do so in the absence of a viable alternative. Because the Taliban agent is sitting in the villager’s home, solicits his grievances and quickly seeks to remedy them, the villager is hard-pressed to support a government that is often distant and abuses its authority.

Along these same lines, the Taliban practice micropolitics to a remarkably high degree of sophistication. The Taliban political agent will find any problem that a village or individual may have and will make it his own. If a village is hoarding water from a stream, causing a down-stream village’s crops to fail, the Taliban will enlist with the aggrieved party. If a tribe has been abused by the Afghan government, the Taliban will join with them to seek justice. This political granularity stands in marked contrast to the sometimes inept, ineffective and insouciant efforts of the Afghan state and the sometimes counterproductive work of the coalition.

The Taliban’s political program is also furthered by their “do no harm” approach to the central drivers of local politics and economies. If a farmer wants to cultivate poppy, the Taliban allow it. If he once worked for or supported the Afghan government, he is allowed to reconcile with the Taliban. If a tribal leader wants his authority respected, they will do so if it furthers their agenda. Additionally, if villagers feel that “their” government does not represent them or has unfairly attacked their interests, then the Taliban preach inclusion, grievance and justice. Against this well-crafted, flexible, dynamic and pervasive program, U.S., coalition, and Afghan efforts lag significantly.

A New Approach

Before we can effectively confront the Taliban’s political program, we must review how we are now organized to provide a viable and positive political alternative and program that secures the loyalty of the people to their government.

The recent announcement that the Pentagon is considering lengthening the tours of up to 400 military personnel for service in Afghanistan to between three and five years, but on more frequent rotations to the same area, is a welcome sign that military leaders are serious about dealing with the long-standing problem of continuity of operations. If approved, this measure will provide added stability to security operations and training programs for the Afghan police and the Afghan National Army and will also help provincial reconstruction and good governance efforts. As much as this is sound policy for putting our military operations on a surer footing, the interagency is years away from adopting what appears, in comparison to the status quo, to be a radical idea. While security operations are central to creating the space for victory in the counterinsurgency, it is the capability of the Afghan state to provide a viable, dynamic and enduring political and governance solution to the problems of the Afghan people that will ensure victory. But much of the good governance efforts implemented by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) fall woefully short of the challenge of building the Afghan state in the countryside. We need to radically rethink our good governance efforts and concentrate our work on bringing positive government and administration to the villages and towns of rural Afghanistan.

Local Government in Afghanistan

One of the central challenges of Afghanistan has been building a viable government at the provincial, district and village levels that can compete with the Taliban’s political program. While security conditions have long been a limiting factor to the establishment of an effective government in many parts of the country, Afghanistan’s history of a decentralized or nonexistent state has also complicated the task. Good governance efforts have been further hindered by Afghanistan’s high illiteracy rates, formidable terrain and lack of trained civil servants.

While the state is quite weak in many areas, it is too strong in others where the central government has so much authority that local initiative is often stymied because provincial officials must secure the central government’s approval for actions that should fall within the discretion of community leaders. Because provincial governors are appointed by the central government and often lack direct budget authority and the ability to hire and fire local officials, they are ever mindful of maintaining political connections in Kabul and do not have to be overly concerned with local sentiment. Because the people are unable to hold corrupt or ineffective provincial officials accountable, they often turn to the Taliban to address injustices. Furthermore, this system of government encourages corruption because accountability and responsibility are disconnected, and lacking a viable judiciary and political party system, local residents have no realistic way of addressing complaints.

The Role of PRTs and the embassy

To address the challenge of building the Afghan state in the countryside, the U.S. government formed the first Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Gardez province in 2002 and subsequently expanded the civil-military teams throughout the country. Charged with facilitating good governance, reconstruction and development, PRTs set out to coach, teach and mentor provincial, district and village leaders, all the while attempting to increase the central government’s ties to local state institutions and building governance capacity. While their mandate was substantial, the PRTs’ resources were not up to the task because a typical PRT would have one representative from the State Department and USAID for an entire province. While the efforts of these officials would be supplemented by the PRT commander and a civil-affairs team, the governance challenge of creating the Afghan state in the countryside was too robust. Although the decision to increase civilian representation at PRTs will address some of these shortcomings, our efforts to promote good governance in the countryside by advocating with the president’s office, parliament and the ministries in Kabul are not well organized to facilitate these goals.

There is a natural limit to the extent to which a U.S. embassy can interfere in internal host-country issues because of sovereignty concerns, and it is often the case that because embassy officials’ access to government contacts is central to their reporting duties, they are often reluctant to challenge government officials. In Kabul, these natural tendencies are further complicated due to high-level interest in Afghanistan so that an already overworked embassy political section constantly has to attend to the latest visiting congressional delegation or dignitary. The typical tour at the embassy is one year, broken up with at least three out-of-country breaks, and it is not uncommon to have fairly junior members working in the political section. Additionally, the PRT section, which is charged with maintaining embassy contact with the PRT’s political officers, is usually a two- to four-man operation and is principally charged with facilitating PRT reporting cables and pushing requests for information down to the tactical level. While substantial resources are being pledged to the embassy to help it cope with the challenges it faces, it is still not well-suited to build the crucial links between the Afghan central government and provincial-, district- and village-level government institutions through the PRTs. While the embassy is finely tuned at advocating U.S. interests and discerning the sentiments of government officials, it is not well-suited to the nation-building tasks that are so crucial to Afghanistan and it lacks an “action” arm focused on addressing the more mundane but collectively more important tasks of building the government in the countryside.

Creating an Afghan Political Service

Although the interagency has gone through enormous changes since Sept. 11 to adapt to the unique challenges of counterinsurgency warfare, many of its structures are still geared to the exigencies of the Cold War. State Department employees who serve in Afghanistan are usually assigned to one-year tours either at the embassy or at a PRT. The tours are unaccompanied and usually lead to a posting in a more desirable country. These relatively brief tours at the PRT and at the embassy prevent a State employee from gaining detailed knowledge of the human terrain, inhibit his ability to share in-country knowledge with follow-on elements and tend to limit his ability to focus on projects taking more than a year to complete. Additionally, with at least three rest-and-recuperation breaks, the substantive work of their tour is less than a year. To address these challenges, the U.S. government should consider dramatically revising its current state-building efforts by first extending the tours of key interagency personnel.

The U.S. should allow State and USAID employees to remain in country from three to five years, rotating between PRT tours, embassy tours, nearby countries or state-side tours. Allow them to bring their families to Afghanistan, if based in Kabul, or to a nearby country such as the United Arab Emirates. A typical political officer could do a two-year tour at a PRT, go back to the states to train and write, return for two years at the embassy, and rotate to his or her next assignment. This will significantly improve knowledge and coordination between the field and the capital.

Civilian and military efforts at promoting good governance need to be better integrated in Kabul and positioned to be a primary effort and not a collateral duty. If a request from a PRT comes in or a provincial official visits Kabul, this civil-military team would be charged with solving the problem, liaising with provincial, district and village officials, and generally serving as the governance, development and reconstruction action arm of PRTs.

The team should be nested within the embassy and be led by a high-ranking State employee. It would be preferable that this person has had military experience and a tour at a PRT. This office would answer to the commanding general of Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador and have civil-affairs, USAID, State Department, NATO and other entities co-located to work on good governance, reconstruction, and development issues.

The rating system for State employees should be adjusted to capture work done in the furtherance of counter-insurgency tasks. Instead of evaluating a reporting officer based upon the number of reports he has written, he should be evaluated on how conditions in his province, district and village have improved during his tenure. How has he built governance capacity, brokered peace between tribal sections, removed corrupt officials, built representative bodies?


If we expect State and USAID employees to stay for the long haul, we must not only better align incentives but also provide sufficient promotion and recognition opportunities. If employees were to stay in this deployment cycle of between three to five years, they will likely be at a disadvantage for promotion because they may be out of cycle with their year groups. While pay will obviously remain at a high level and follow-on assignments will still need to be attractive, it is also important that personal decorations tied to the special demands of counter-insurgency work be created as well. A person who does this sort of tour does not do it solely for the pay, but also for honor, recognition and service. One idea is to create a State Department Expeditionary Medal for officers who work at PRTs and as political advisers at military commands, reflecting both excellence in work and the dangers they face. They should also receive a State Department Purple Heart if they are injured. Another inducement would be for members of the Afghan Political Service to secure fellowships at such places as the Council on Foreign Relations, in other parts of the executive branch, at universities and key military commands such as Central Command, or, if they are inclined to do so, return to Washington to work at the State Department in a leadership role. Ideally, members of the service would stay in the Central Asian region for a career, building up expertise and contacts that would allow them to holistically know the terrain, the people and the challenges while better enabling us to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Because work of this nature is always complicated when a sovereign state and a foreign military power are coexisting, it is useful to consider the possibility of having select individuals work directly for the Afghan state. In the 1920s, for example, a number of British military officers stayed in the Middle East after World War I working on behalf of the nascent governments of that region. Many of them, such as Alec Kirkbride and John Bagot Glubb, became employees of these governments; Kirkbride for Jordan and Glubb for Iraq and Jordan.

While these structural adjustments will significantly improve our ability to sustain and operationalize a determined state-building effort in Afghanistan, we must also seek to bolster our efforts in the provinces. Without the right tools in the field, increased tours and better organization won’t be sufficient. We must seek to make government a viable, democratic, and dynamic force in the countryside, harnessing the hopes of the people and denying the Taliban a source of support.

Making Justice a Reality

To rob the Taliban of their ability to dispense on-the-spot justice, it is imperative that we make the justice sector a viable and dynamic part of the provincial government. We must become advocates for those who suffer from injustice even if it is at the hands of our erstwhile government allies. Along these lines, we should consider mobilizing substantial numbers of military lawyers who will coach, teach and mentor local judicial officials; serve as advocates for the dispossessed; and facilitate traveling judges to make on-the-spot justice a reality for the people. The higher the official who is prosecuted, the more likely the central government will be to intervene on his behalf. These rural justice efforts will inevitably confront official corruption and so their efforts must be closely tied to a Kabul-based interagency cell that can fend off efforts to prevent anti-corruption efforts through political interference. It is best to start off with low-level corruption such as the police and to learn from these experiences before moving to higher levels of the government.

While rural justice efforts will significantly improve the government’s standing with the local population, addressing government corruption must also be a pillar of our rural strategy. If we enlist the eyes and ears of the population in our anti-corruption efforts, we will go a long way toward denying the Taliban a source of grievance they capitalize on. One possible way of doing this would be to create an anonymous reporting system whereby people could regularly inform on tribal and government officials who abuse their authority. For example, in the 1950s, President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines inaugurated a system of postcards that allowed people to report abuses of authority directly to him as his government battled the Huk insurgency. He would then investigate the claims and take prompt action, thus putting all government officials on watch. For the postcard system to work in Afghanistan, they would have to be distributed throughout the area at the bazaars, mosques, government buildings, etc., and, when completed, anonymously dropped off at boxes erected at area mosques or directly given to a coalition forces member. Because the population is mostly illiterate, each postcard could have a series of symbols indicating various abuses of authority or corruption, such as a picture of a hand with money in it for bribery and colors for each checkpoint where a local could indicate where an abuse had taken place. Additionally, this type of reporting system could be used to get suggestions from the population on what we and the local government should be doing better.

Building Rural Government

While creating an Afghan Political Service will address a number of problems with training, continuity and the efficacy of U.S. government officials, we must also significantly increase resources at the local level. Too much of our approach has been Kabul-centric and we should consider developing local civil-service academies that will not only focus on training Afghans in the rudiments of government but will also foster literacy and inculcate cultural habits that facilitate the development of a modern state. The training needs to take place in each province because regional training facilities always entail time away from families and require traveling to insecure areas.

The Human Terrain

As we improve our organization, it is also crucial that we have a more coherent system of collecting information about the human terrain and making it useful to commanders. Much of the information on the human terrain of Afghanistan is either not systematically collected or is maintained at a local level and exists as long as the unit that collected it is in theater. All too frequently, this information becomes classified and stays within the originating unit’s reporting chains and doesn’t become a useful tool to inform decision-makers. What is needed is a fusion cell that centralizes these disparate information sources while archiving them, and puts the data in a usable format that is not only timely and comprehensive but is focused on facilitating non-kinetic tasks.

One possible approach to solving this challenge is the creation of five regional and one national Economic, Political and Intelligence Cells (EPICs) modeled after a successful program the Marine Expeditionary Force maintained in Fallujah, Iraq. The key to EPICs’ success was that their members had complete access to all databases and reporting from units in Anbar Province and they maintained records going back to at least 2004. In addition to centralizing non-kinetic reporting, the cell also prepared deeper analytical products on such topics as the structure and leadership of a particular tribe, local government personalities and studies on infrastructure, among other subjects. Besides using the usual reports that units generated, such as situation reports, information came into the EPIC cell through a dedicated reporting chain focused on interactions with key leaders. To overcome any reluctance to share information, the daily EPIC report was widely shared within classified channels and became a must-read for all U.S. military and government personnel principally involved in working with the local community. Additionally, because the cell was nested in the Intelligence shop and so was part of the military chain of command, it served as a ready source of information for military leaders and could be tasked with information requests while having access to classified reports to better inform its products.

Senior leaders should consider the creation of dedicated EPICs for Kandahar, Bagram, Forward Operating Base Salerno, Herat and Kabul. The cell would have access to reporting and have representatives from human-terrain, civil-affairs and tactical psychological operations teams; USAID; the State Department; special operations forces; embedded training teams for the police and the army; NATO countries and other government agencies. It would be tasked with generating a daily report fusing these reporting chains and providing timely, relevant and comprehensive reports on non-kinetic subjects. Each report should also be posted on a secure Web site, similar to what was done in Fallujah, and widely disseminated through e-mail.

We should also have a program of engaging former PRT, maneuver, special forces, and civil affairs commanders; State and USAID personnel; and other government personnel who have served in different provinces to collect information they may have on the human terrain and development projects. More information from these people exists on thumb drives and hard drives in the United States than probably exists in all of Afghanistan.

We are involved in a struggle between a short-term culture of survival that has grown up in the last three decades and has strengthened those without education as opposed to the needs of long-term stability and empowering the educated to harness the forces of the people. Building the Afghan state in the countryside is not necessarily a function of throwing more money at the problem but rather of better organization on our part and recruiting the right people to implement it. What is required is a cadre of dedicated public officials in the service of the Afghan people and their government, slowly but confidently building the Afghan state, its representative institutions and its judiciary, and enlisting the Afghan people in this cause over a number of years. We should rethink how we are now organized to build the Afghan government and consider creating the career paths that will ensure that the best of our country are helping those most in need.

Dan Green is a visiting fellow at the Terrorism Research Center. He worked in Afghanistan as the State Department political adviser to the Tarin Kowt Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan Province in 2005-2006. He deployed in 2007 as a mobilized reservist to Iraq, where he worked as a tribal and leadership engagement officer in Fallujah.