The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan
I met Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, twice in 2009 and was quickly drawn to his unassuming demeanor and erudition. His jet-black beard and round spectacles gave him the aura of a soft-spoken professor, not a battle-hardened guerrilla fighter who had first tasted war at the age of 15. Zaeef told me about his childhood in southern Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, his life with the Taliban, and the three years he spent in prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. What was particularly striking was his contempt for the United States and what he regarded as its myopic understanding of Afghanistan. "How long has America been in Afghanistan?" Zaeef asked rhetorically. "And how much do Americans know about Afghanistan and its people? Do they understand its culture, its tribes, and its population? I am afraid they know very little."
Zaeef is largely correct. In fact, U.S. Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, echoed this point in early 2010: "Eight years into the war in Afghanistan," Flynn wrote in a poignant unclassified paper, "the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade."
Three new books provide important insights into that environment. The first is Zaeef's own My Life With the Taliban, which serves as a counternarrative to much of what has been written about Afghanistan since 1979. It offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban leader who remains sympathetic to the movement. "I pray to almighty Allah," he writes, "that I will be buried beside my heroes, brothers and friends in the Taliban cemetery."
The other two books are edited and written, respectively, by Antonio Giustozzi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics who has spent several decades working in Afghanistan. In Decoding the New Taliban: Insights From the Afghan Field, Giustozzi compiles essays from journalists, former government officials, aid workers, and academics to examine the nature of the insurgency. Some chapters offer refreshing new insights, especially those that deal with Helmand Province, in the country's south; Uruzgan, in the center; and the problems of eastern Afghanistan. Others, such as the chapter on Kandahar, contribute little to what has already been published. In Empires of Mud, Giustozzi assesses the dynamics of warlordism. The book focuses on Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, Ismail Khan in the west, and Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley.
All three books provide a nuanced micro-level view of the country. More important, they offer a chilling prognosis for those who believe that the solution to stabilizing Afghanistan will come only from the top down—by building strong central government institutions. Although creating a strong centralized state, assuming it ever happens, may help ensure long-term stability, it is not sufficient in Afghanistan. The current top-down state-building and counterinsurgency efforts must take place alongside bottom-up programs, such as reaching out to legitimate local leaders to enlist them in providing security and services at the village and district levels. Otherwise, the Afghan government will lose the war.
Experts on state building and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan fall into two competing camps. The first believes that Afghanistan will never be stable and secure without a powerful central government capable of providing services to Afghans in all corners of the country. The other insists that Afghanistan is, and always has been, a quintessentially decentralized society, making it necessary to build local institutions to create security and stability.
Since the Bonn agreement of December 2001—which established an interim government and a commission to draft a new constitution—international efforts in Afghanistan have unfortunately focused on initiatives directed by the central government to establish security and stability. On the political front, the focus has been supporting the government of Hamid Karzai and strengthening institutions in Kabul. On the security front, the international community has built up the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army as bulwarks against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Yet this effort has been unsuccessful: there are too few national security forces to protect the population, the police are legendary for their corruption and incompetence, and many rural communities do not want a strong central government presence. On the development front, the focus has been improving the central government's ability to deliver services to the population, including through such institutions as the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. These top-down strategies reflect the conventional wisdom among many policymakers and academics, but this consensus view is misinformed.
Current international efforts to establish security and stability from the center are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Afghanistan's culture and social structure. After all, few non-Afghan civilians ever spend time in the violent areas of eastern, southern, and western Afghanistan. And security concerns prevent far too many U.S. and NATO officials from traveling outside their bases or urban areas. Likewise, most academics cannot access rural areas central to the insurgency because these areas are deadly for Westerners. Yet the insurgency is primarily a rural one. The growing size of the international bases in Bagram, Kabul, Kandahar, and other areas is a testament to this risk aversion, which prevents foreigners from understanding rural Afghanistan and its inhabitants. This is harmful, because state building and counterinsurgency tend to be context-specific; history, culture, and social structure matter.
As Giustozzi convincingly argues, the well-intentioned proponents of the top-down model have survived for too long solely on an idealist's diet of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. "My purpose with this book," he writes in Empires of Mud, "is to inject a fair dose of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Ibn Khaldun in the mix"—the latter a reference to the fourteenth-century North African historian and social commentator who developed theories of tribalism and social conflict.
Western officials seeking to stabilize Afghanistan would do well to heed his advice. They must begin by accepting that there is no optimal form of state organization and that there are not always clear-cut "best practices" for solving public-administration problems. Although some tasks, such as central banking reform, are suited to technocratic tinkering by outsiders, others, such as legal reform, can be more difficult. The challenge for Washington, then, is to combine its knowledge of administrative practices with a deeper understanding of local conditions.
Many Western countries are characterized by strong state institutions, in which power emanates from a central authority. But in a range of countries—including many in South Asia and Africa—the central government has historically been weak. Top-down reconstruction strategies may have been appropriate for countries such as Japan after World War II and Iraq after 2003, both of which had historically been characterized by strong centralized state institutions. But they do not work as well in countries such as Afghanistan, where power is diffuse.
David Kilcullen, who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq, notes in Decoding the New Taliban that the social structure in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan is based on what anthropologists call a "segmentary kinship system": people are divided into tribes, subtribes, clans, and other subsections based on their lineage from common male ancestors. As Zaeef argues, the identity of Afghans "lies with their tribe, their clan, their family, and their relatives." It is a patently local sense of identification. Tom Coghlan, a correspondent for The Times in London and The Economist, repeats this theme in his chapter of Giustozzi's book, noting that the structure of social relations in Helmand Province is premised on the qawm—a form of kinship-based solidarity that can distinguish almost any social group, from a large tribe to a small isolated village, and is used to differentiate between "us" and "them."
A tribe or subtribe in one area may be very different in its structure and political inclinations than the same tribe or subtribe in another area. In working with leaders of the Noorzai tribe in 2009 to establish local security and basic services, for example, I found significant differences in the social and cultural practices between communities in western Herat and those in southern Kandahar Province. Despite these regional variations, power tends to remain local in Pashtun areas, which is where the insurgency is largely being fought. Pashtuns may identify with their tribe, subtribe, clan, qawm, family, or village based on where they are at the time, who they are interacting with, and the specific event. Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of behavior, shapes daily life through obligations of honor, hospitality, revenge, and providing sanctuary. Jirgas and shuras—which are decision-making councils—remain instrumental at the local level, where state legal institutions are virtually nonexistent.
Martine van Bijlert, who served as a political adviser to the European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, writes that among the Pashtuns in Uruzgan, the subtribe—which can vary in size from a few hundred to thousands of people—"remains the main solidarity group, defining patterns of loyalty, conflict and obligations of patronage." She goes on to argue that subtribal affiliations have become more important since 2001 due to the absence of central government institutions. Opinion polls conducted by the Asia Foundation indicate that Afghans continue to turn to community leaders—not officials in Kabul—to solve their problems.
In the absence of strong government institutions, groups formed based on descent from a common ancestor help the Pashtuns organize economic production, preserve political order, and defend themselves against outside threats. These bonds tend to be weaker in urban areas, where central government control is stronger and where individuals may identify themselves with their city rather than their tribe. This phenomenon is clearly illustrated by the growing number of people who identify themselves as "Kabulis" because they live in Afghanistan's heterogeneous capital. (And unlike among the Pashtuns, tribal identity tends to be weaker or nonexistent among many other Afghan ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Hazaras.)
In Pashtun areas where tribal and subtribal relationships remain strong, they are not the only force governing local politics. Additional social structures have evolved over the past several decades because of war, drought, migration, sedentarization, and other factors. As a result, a range of other identities can transcend tribal structures, such as identities based on reputations earned during the anti-Soviet jihad, land ownership, or wealth acquired through licit or illicit activity (such as road taxes or the drug trade). In such an environment, outsiders—especially foreign soldiers—have a limited ability to shape local politics.
The insurgency takes advantage of this situation. It is composed of a loose amalgam of groups, such as the Taliban, allied tribes and subtribes, drug traffickers and other criminals, local powerbrokers, and state sponsors such as Iran and Pakistan. How these groups come together varies considerably from village to village. In parts of Khost Province, for example, the insurgency includes members of the Haqqani network, Zadran subtribes, timber traders, and al Qaeda operatives. In some areas of Helmand, the insurgency includes Taliban fighters, Ishaqzai tribal leaders, and poppy traffickers. A failure to understand these nuances can be fatal to counterinsurgency efforts, especially because the Taliban and other insurgent groups have developed their own local strategies for co-opting or coercing existing tribal and other local networks.
One of the most significant contributions of all three books is their insights into the modus operandi of the insurgency. Zaeef offers a particularly interesting discussion of the Taliban's origins and the group's effectiveness in working with locals. In 1994, state authority had collapsed, and governance was fractured among a range of warlords and local commanders. A network of mullahs in southern Afghanistan decided to take action. "The founding meeting of what became known as 'the Taliban,'" Zaeef writes, "was held in the late autumn of 1994." Zaeef was present with a number of religious leaders and local commanders, including Mullah Muhammad Omar, who became the Taliban's leader. "Each man swore on the Qur'an to stand by [Mullah Omar], and to fight against corruption and the criminals."
The Taliban moved quickly, beginning in Kandahar Province. They co-opted some groups through bribery and promises of power sharing, such as Mullah Naqib's Alikozai tribe, which agreed to ally with the Taliban and hand over the city of Kandahar. When the Taliban failed to co-opt others, such as fighters loyal to Commander Saleh, who operates along the Kandahar-Kabul highway, Taliban forces defeated them on the battlefield. These negotiations and battlefield successes had a domino effect, and before long, a growing number of local groups had allied themselves with the Taliban. After establishing control in an area, Taliban leaders would set up sharia courts in which their handpicked judges adjudicated local disputes.
As Giustozzi explains in Empires of Mud, the Taliban continued to use this bottom-up strategy when they expanded beyond the south beginning in 1995. In western Afghanistan, for instance, the Taliban allied with the warlord Dostum in order to defeat Ismail Khan's militia in Herat Province. In eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban co-opted a range of local Pashtun tribes, subtribes, and powerbrokers. The large Suleiman Khel tribe in Paktika asked the Taliban to take over the province's capital, Sharan, after hearing they had conquered nearby Ghazni.
Today, Taliban leaders have adopted a similar approach in fighting the Karzai government and U.S. and NATO forces. As in the 1990s, they aim to co-opt or coerce local leaders and their networks by capitalizing on grievances against the government or international forces, offering money, and conducting targeted assassinations of those they regard as anti-Taliban collaborators. To more effectively reach out to the population, the Taliban often appoint commanders who come from local subtribes or clans. They frequently reach out to tribes and other local communities that have been marginalized by those favored by the government, such as the Popalzais and the Barakzais.
Decoding the New Taliban describes this micro-level strategy in detail. Coghlan argues that in Helmand Province, Taliban officials secured the loyalty of a range of Ishaqzai leaders marginalized by Kabul, as well as that of some Kakars and Hotaks. The government's appointment of Alizai leaders to many of the district governor positions, Noorzais to police chief posts, and Alikozais and others to key intelligence positions appears to have angered their Ishaqzai rivals, exacerbated the tribal fissures in the area, and facilitated the co-optation of marginalized tribes by the Taliban.
The Taliban is not the only insurgent group that effectively uses local networks to its advantage. One of the most significant is the Haqqani network, which was established by the legendary mujahideen commander and former CIA ally Jalaluddin Haqqani and now operates in eastern Afghanistan. As Thomas Ruttig explains in Decoding the New Taliban, one of the Haqqani network's strongest support bases is the Mezi subtribe of the Zadrans, who live along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The Haqqani network also co-opted a range of Kuchis, who are nomadic herdsmen, in Paktia and Khost and developed a close relationship with Ahmadzai subtribes across the border in Pakistan.
There is a common thread in many of these accounts: the Taliban and other insurgent groups have recognized the local nature of politics in Afghanistan and have developed a local strategy—combining ruthlessness with cunning diplomacy. The Afghan government and U.S. and NATO forces, meanwhile, have largely been missing at the local level.
There is an urgent need to refine the international community's state-building and counterinsurgency efforts in response to the Taliban's bottom-up strategy.
One key area is security. During Afghanistan's most recent stable period, that of the Musahiban dynasty (1929–78), the Afghan rulers Nadir Shah, Zahir Shah, and Daoud Khan—who established a republic in 1973—used a combination of centralized and decentralized strategies that are worth emulating today. National forces established security in urban areas and along key roads, and local communities established security in rural areas with Kabul's blessing and aid. In Pashtun areas, locals used traditional police forces, such as arbakai, and other small village-level police forces under the control of recognized local institutions, such as jirgas or shuras.
These were not militias, in the sense of large offensive forces under the command of warlords, which tend to be used today in the Tajik and Uzbek areas of northern and western Afghanistan. "In the King's time it was an honor to be a member of an arbakai," a tribal leader in eastern Afghanistan proudly told Ruttig. Then, the central government did not establish a permanent security presence in many rural areas, especially Pashtun ones, nor did locals generally want the government to play that role. While traveling through rural Pashtun areas over the past year, I discovered that many of these traditional policing institutions still exist, although some have been co-opted by the Taliban. If leveraged by the Afghan government, they could help trigger a revolt against the Taliban in rural areas. This would require identifying those local communities already resisting the Taliban; providing training, monitoring, and equipment to facilitate their resistance; and then trying to turn others against the Taliban.
U.S. and NATO forces must do a better job of capitalizing on popular grievances against the Taliban, who are much weaker than is generally recognized: most Afghans do not subscribe to their religious zealotry. Although Taliban leaders are influenced by the Deobandi movement—an Islamic school of thought that originated in India in 1866—their brand of Islam would not be recognizable to the Deobandi movement's founders. And despite popular misconceptions, Taliban commanders tend to be even more corrupt than Afghan government officials. As the former ABC News reporter Gretchen Peters describes in a chapter of Decoding the New Taliban, a significant portion of the Taliban's funding comes from taxes collected from poppy farmers, levies imposed on drug shipments, and kidnapping ransoms. Public opinion polls continue to show low levels of support for the Taliban, even compared to the Afghan government. In a January 2010 poll conducted by ABC News and other organizations, 90 percent of the Afghans polled said they supported the government, whereas only six percent claimed to support the Taliban.
The growing number of local tribes and communities resisting the insurgency is evidence of the Taliban's waning popularity. They range from the Noorzais, the Achakzais, and the Alikozais in the west and south to the Shinwaris, the Kharotis, and the Zadrans in the east. Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces have taken advantage of some of these opportunities through the Local Defense Initiative, a new program that supports village-level community police by providing training, radios, and uniforms.
U.S. forces have opted not to pay these local police, based on the belief that individuals should be motivated to work for their communities and not outsiders. Instead, the Afghan government and international organizations have provided development projects to participating communities. They have also established a quick-reaction force to assist local communities that come under attack from the Taliban and other insurgents. In southern Afghanistan, the program has been particularly successful in helping local leaders protect their populations and draw them away from the Taliban.
These local efforts can also have a positive impact on the defection of mid- and lower-level insurgents, which is more commonly called "reintegration." As Coghlan explains, most insurgents are not ideologically committed. Rather, they are motivated by tribal or subtribal friction, grievances against the Afghan government or U.S. and NATO forces, money, or coercion by insurgent leaders. Battlefield successes against the insurgency, sustainable development, and effective cooperation with local communities can significantly improve the chances of defection. As van Bijlert points out in Decoding the New Taliban, the local nature of power in Afghanistan makes the Taliban highly vulnerable to defection and double-dealing. I witnessed this firsthand in southern and western Afghanistan in 2009: villages that decided to resist the Taliban gave insurgent sympathizers in their communities a stark choice—leave the area or give up. In a country where loyalty and group solidarity are fundamental to daily life, community pressure can be a powerful weapon.
When I last spoke with Zaeef, he remained bewildered by the international community's lack of understanding of rural Afghanistan. Kabul, with its restaurants that cater to Western guests and its modern indoor shopping mall equipped with escalators and glass elevators, is vastly different from the rural areas where the insurgency is being waged. He politely reminded me that a better understanding of Afghanistan would help establish peace. Rural communities have been protecting their villages for centuries and can do it better than the Afghan government or international forces.
In his conclusion to Empires of Mud, Giustozzi writes that a durable peace will likely require a careful combination of top-down institutionalization and bottom-up co-optation of local leaders. Focusing only on the former has failed to help the Afghan population, which continues to feel deeply insecure because of insurgent and criminal activity. Moreover, there has been—and will likely continue to be—an insufficient number of U.S., NATO, and Afghan national forces to protect the local population in rural areas. But that is all right, since many rural Afghans do not want a permanent central government presence in their villages; they want to police their own communities.
Some worry that empowering local leaders may help the Afghan government and the international community achieve short-term goals but will undermine stability in the long run by fragmenting authority. This is an academic debate. Afghan social and cultural realities make it impossible to neglect local leaders, since they hold much of the power today.
The old monarchy's model is useful for today's Afghanistan. It combined top-down efforts from the central government in urban areas with bottom-up efforts to engage tribes and other communities in rural areas. The central government has an important role to play. National army and police forces can be critical in crushing revolts, conducting offensive actions against militants, and helping adjudicate tribal disputes when they occur. But the local nature of power in the country makes it virtually impossible to build a strong central government capable of establishing security and delivering services in much of rural Afghanistan—at least over the next several decades. Afghans have successfully adopted this model in the past, and they can do so again today.