Thursday, January 21, 2010

Your Friendly Neighbhood Taliban

The Taliban organization has apparently been trying to improve its appeal to the Afghan people.  Mullah Omar put out a new code of conduct last spring focusing on minimizing civilian casualties, which in some ironic ways strongly parallels the Petraeus playbook.  This effort reflects both the strength and the weaknesses of the Taliban--that they have a greater presence throughout the country, but it is a presence of fear rather than support.

I just read a piece on of my students that focuses on the different ways militias can appeal to domestic and international audiences, with marketing juxtaposed with coercion.  Seems like the Taliban have realized that pure coercion has its limits, too.

So, how does the Taliban appeal to a people that they have been threatening and harming for more than a decade?  Ethnic appeals:

The latest refrain of Taliban commanders, their Internet magazine and from surrogates is that the insurgency represents Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, who are portrayed as persecuted by the Afghan government. “Pashtuns are suffering everywhere; if you go and check the prisons, you won’t find any prisoners except Pashtuns; when you hear about bombings, it is Pashtuns’ homes that have been bombed,” said a Taliban commander from Kandahar Province who goes by the name Sangar Yar.
While Pashtuns have been disproportionately affected by the Western military offensive, the insurgency is active predominantly in Pashtun areas where it is difficult to separate civilians and fighters.
This suggests some pretty strict limits on how far the Taliban can go, given that the Pashtuns are the largest group, but largely based in the south.  And it also suggests some weakness, as Karzai is Pashtun, and if he were to become a bit more effective, then these ethnic appeals might not go that far.  Indeed, so far, the Pashtuns are far less coherent as an ethnic group than our theories usually postulate.  Tribal divisions within the Pashtuns, plus the tendency for folks to have short-term loyalties to broader affiliations (Afghanistan as a pick up basketball game [coined by Dexter Filkins]) undercut appeals to Pashtuns, although that identity does facilitate the cross-border support from Pashtuns in Pakistan.

So, where do we stand now?

At the moment, the dueling propaganda wars seem to have reached a stalemate.
“People have no choices; they are in a dilemma,” said Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder and businessman in Kandahar. “In places where the Taliban are active, the people are compelled to support them, they are afraid of the Taliban. And, in those places where government has a presence, the people are supporting the government."

Sounds like Stathis Kalyvas has found a new place for his approach to apply since his theory focuses not on organizations or ideologies but how the folks on the ground react simply to who is controlling the area or is it hotly contested.

And this means that the surge might actually work, if everything else comes together.  If the government and ISAF can be present where the population largely resides--population-centric warfare--and be seen as relatively effective and relatively restrained (do no harm), then the Afghan people will lean to the government.  But the big if's are about what the government does, once it has a presence in a spot--does it steal and abuse the people?  Or does it make a bit of a difference in a positive direction?  There is only so much the guys with guns (the ISAF military effort) can do.

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