Converting the Taliban

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Marines on patrol in Helmand province with their Afghan National Army comrades.

Air Force Major Matthew Brown served in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as part of the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands counter-insurgency program during the final eight months of 2011. A one-time B-1 pilot, his main mission was to turn Taliban fighters into law-abiding Afghan citizens.

In this recently-posted July interview, he told the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that the challenges associated with that process – one wrapped around tribes, guns and anarchy – are fairly daunting. Excerpts:

I was assigned a specialty of working with the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, trying to reintegrate the Taliban into productive society…I volunteered for it. It was a very high priority fill from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the program was initiated. I did it as an alternative to a staff job…

I ended up getting sent to Helmand, which is in, at that time, Regional Command Southwest (RC-Southwest), which was unfortunate because I’d gone to Farsi language training for four- and-a-half-months and I got sent to a Pashto-speaking area…

We flew into the main operating base in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah after visiting with the guys at the RC at a place called Bastion, which is also called Camp Leatherneck. Confusing: one place with two names. There’s the Bastion Airfield side and Camp Leatherneck which is headquarters of the RC and also headquarters for the Marine task force. RC-Southwest was sort of made up out of thin air a few years before I got there by, I think, General [Stan] McChrystal.

It was a Marine-led area of operations (AO) with two task forces. There was Task Force Helmand and Task Force Leatherneck. It took me a while to realize what was what because it wasn’t terribly aptly named. Task Force Helmand was really Task Force Central Helmand and Task Force Leatherneck was basically everything else. Task Force Helmand was British. They had Brits working for Marines working for the Army…

We had a team of Afghans who were working for the reintegration program which was being run out of Kabul. They had something called the Joint Secretariat, which was a functioning body underneath the High Peace Council. It had its own funding lines and we tried to mentor that group of people while monitoring them; watching how they spend their money; watching how they were going about their integration; judging the effectiveness and trying to prod them when necessary to go out and do stuff.

Helmand is known for being [points to map] — Helmand River and the Kajakai Dam. It is very Pashtun ethnically. It is dirty, filthy, and hot and it produces on the order of 85 to 90 percent off the heroin in all of Afghanistan which in turn produces 85 to 90 percent of the heroin in the world.

The strangest thing I ever saw was that I looked over on my shelf — offices in Afghanistan are kind of a conglomeration of things that have been brought even over the last couple of years and just never left. I saw a bottle of codeine which, I believe is a synthetic opiate. Someone decided that there wasn’t enough opiates in Helmand so they made some opiate out of fake stuff and sent it from a British factory somewhere, all the way around the world, and back to Helmand. I could have just walked out and gotten the real stuff which is ironic; that anyone would send fake opium to Helmand, Afghanistan…

Afghanistan is amazing. When someone says Afghanistan doesn’t have the capacity to do something I usually respond with, “Well, they’ve got the capacity to provide the entire world’s worth of opium.” It’s not a matter of could they do it, it’s a matter of directing them to do something different…

Q: What were you doing on a day-to-day basis?

I was trying to get to the point where I would work down on the government’s compound every day with a team of Afghans. The security posture would not allow that. It was very kinetic down there. When you work at the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] you fall underneath the PRT duty of care and the PRT, at that time last year, was relying on G4S private security.

Any time I went off the compound I was driving with a full complement of private security, which was pretty high profile. Even though my program sort of had built into it the ability to be exempted from some of the more onerous personal security requirements, it was not really possible because the international nature of that was something. Plus the fact that there was a little bit of judgment required in terms of, “Yeah, you might be able to exempt yourself from some of these things if you were a guy who was used to working on the ground in that environment.”

If I were a SF [Special Forces] guy I would be much more aggressive in terms of exempting myself but I saw a lot of guys making the mistake that just because they went to four-and-a-half months of training they were SF guys.

Q: What was the goal of the team and what you were trying to do?

The goal was to incentivize and create a legal framework where Taliban can renounce the past and say, “I’m on the winning team. I’m with the government of Afghanistan.” They could basically get an ID card so based on this date if we found something that would link them to the insurgency, they could say, “No, I’ve renounced all that activity.”

Q: Was this pipeline to legitimacy in place or were you creating it?

Sort of creating it. It’s basically a theory. Looking at previous insurgencies, the countries primarily in Africa, and to some degree — a lot of people forget this — the British have a very long history of insurgency with Northern Ireland. They come at this with a very sober attitude and a very realistic attitude in terms of time frames. They’re like, “You can make all the noise you want but it’s not going to change the reality in the next year-and-a-half, the next three years, or the next five years.”

Insurgencies, if you look at them through history, are long, grinding conflicts. They’re more on the scale of 20 to 40 years, they’re not five years. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend, it doesn’t matter how little you sleep every night, you’re not going to substantively change the environment you’re operating in in the short term.

It’s like society will push back against you the harder you push. It’s not a matter of how much force I can apply in concentration, it’s about relentless pressure in the long term. That’s what they learned in Northern Ireland and that’s what they’ve seen in Africa. The other thing they’ve seen is that once there’s a political settlement between two warring parties there needs to be a way for those guys on the side that lost to come back into society so they’re not outcasts forever.

Q: Well, we sort of learned that lesson the hard way in Iraq by disenfranchising all of the Ba’athists after deposing Saddam.

That is true. That was more akin to starting the insurgency than finishing it…If you do any studying of insurgency theory there are knowns in insurgency. There are knowns in terms of timeframe. There are knowns in terms of it requirements a political settlement, reintegration framework; it requires a number of things.

A lot of people feel we tried to skip to the end to the political settlement step and go directly to integration thinking, “Who needs all that political stuff anyway?” Then we were surprised when the integration maybe didn’t happen with as much gusto as we were hoping…

I was trying to help interpret and guide policy that was coming down from Kabul. One of the big issues was whether or not — Afghanistan has a hard time deciding what it wants to do about armed groups because of their history of fighting each other within armed groups.

Armed groups sometimes band together to take over the government so they’re kind of wary of armed groups. At the same time, when you live out here in the middle of nowhere it’s kind of anarchy. People are not willing to give up their weapons. This isn’t — plenty of people in America aren’t willing to give up their weapons and we don’t have to deal with what these guys are dealing with.

Everyone has an AK-47. Everyone has access, I would say, or knows of a way to get a hold of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) if they need to. The wars — this stuff is everywhere; it’s all over the place. He with the biggest gun gets to write the rules a lot of the time. If you have a gun that’s bigger than mine then I need find three friends. So it goes.

There’s a lot of sort of disarmament theory in reintegration for whatever reason. I don’t know if that’s coming from an international perspective, probably a lot of European states are very big on disarmament. There’s a program called Disarmament of Illegally Armed Groups, which is precursor to reintegration; the formal predecessor to reintegration was the program which was called the Disarmament of Illegally Armed Groups which means militias which means — they have a lot of different words in English.

They only have one word in Persian and it’s basically militia. That’s the best translation. So we had a lot of interpretation questions about whether these guys were going to need to turn in their weapons and if not, how do you prove you’re a Taliban or militia or fighter.

If you don’t have a weapon, or you’re not willing to show us your weapon, how do you prove you’re a guerilla and not just a guy with no job wanting to get paid? How do we keep track of you after the fact? These are all questions and they need to work in different ways in different parts of Afghanistan because Afghanistan is very, very local and very, very non-homogenous…

The government of Kabul wants to have the monopoly of power both armed and unarmed or armed and economic. There’s the idea that there are places in Afghanistan as we draw it on the map that are not going to be governed in the short term and probably not in the medium term, so what happens there and who controls it?

In a vacuum of power if it’s not the government then it’s going to be the guys who have the economic desire to do so. It’s going to be smugglers or drug dealers; whoever has the most skin in the game. These guys have a have a history of smuggling and growing drugs that’s second to none. They’re really, really good at it…

I wasn’t in charge of the group of Afghans. They had their own Afghan chain of command. A lot of what I did was to sort of manage expectations on the Coalition side. You can say, “You can get up and yell at these guys all you want. I understand you’re a general,” a brigadier in the case of the British. “You want things done on your watch and you want to get it done now but it’s not going to matter. You can set an expectation of what you want to happen and then just pound the table when it doesn’t and that’s a good goal to have but you also need to understand what’s more likely and more realistic. Understand that these guys aren’t going home in six months or a year. They’re going to live here. When its Sunday and they’re not coming to work because they want to go to a wedding or have a day off or this whole month of Ramadan when nothing is going to happen, you can let that make you angry or just accept it but either way nothing’s going to happen.”

Q: What were you able to accomplish during your deployment?

We got some guys to come into the program. It’s debatable how much of an impact that had in terms of whether or not these guys were the real deal or if they were sort of sent in just to test the system or if it was a negotiation.

There’s so many power brokers in Afghanistan that it could be as simple as the governor saying, “Hey, I’m getting a lot of heat from the Coalition. I need you to cough up six bodies.” Some guy’s like, “Alright. If I do that will you do this for me?” The guy’s like, “Yes. Please just get these guys off my back for a month.” Miraculously six bodies get coughed up and it’s a huge win for reintegration in Helmand…

In my personal opinion we have a serious disconnect. In the west we assume and our tradition is that people make decisions for themselves based on their self interests. I don’t know if that assumption carries; I don’t know if we’re conscious that we’re making that assumption.

We’re coming at this program based on the individual fighter. I don’t think people in Afghanistan make decisions visually. I think that the patriarch makes decisions for his family and then the leader of that tribe makes decisions for them and that leader of that super set or tribe or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s very top, down. You see that in their government and in their history.

When things are top, down driven you see a lot of hedging type of behavior: “I’ll send six of my young men this way in case this side wins and I’ll send another six that way in case that side wins.” We congratulate the six that came our way thinking they had a moment of inspiration and did some soul searching and found we were the right ones. We never get the other side of the story. We think those bad guys are just bad guys and we need to kill them but it may be more complicated than that.

Those were the guys that whatever authority they recognized sent them to hedge the position of the group that’s going to stay there for another thousand years and they can’t afford to make enemies with their neighbors. It makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like a picnic…

Q: It sounds like what you’re saying is that in many cases we’re approaching this from the western perspective and we’re also looking at it in a very narrow minded way. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam on anybody but we don’t have the perspective to understand all the factors in Afghanistan.

Yeah. It’s kind of a mountain hillbilly culture which doesn’t want a lot of government and the government doesn’t want to go down and deal with those people because they know what the story is. Unfortunately, when you have that culture nothing great is going to happen.

Afghanistan isn’t going to put anybody on the moon because they’re too busy fighting over little things. They’re not going to do great things. You just need to make it so they can function and not be a threat to anybody else.

Q: That actually gets to the question, why is it important?

Yeah. I don’t know that geographically they’re terribly strategic, personally. There are a lot of arguments to be made that they’re in the middle of everything. I just don’t see that. The fact that they’re land-locked makes them sort of ancillary to the overall scheme of things. Some of this area is not even habitable [points to map].

No one lives here; not year round. I used to fly up here and at 25,000 feet I would get radar altimeter ringing which meant that I was less than 5,000 feet over the ground. Literally I was concerned that if I lost an engine for whatever freak reason, the first thing I would have to do before I started worrying about the engine is turn south so that I wasn’t up over the top of these mountains…

The way I explain it to people, and this is my theory only, it doesn’t matter how — those crazy people on the other side of the track aren’t a big bother to you as long as they’re on the other side of the tracks, but when they’re in your back bedroom it’s much more of an issue.

Afghanistan could have been as crazy as it wanted to be 100 years ago. “Man, look at this. It’s like looking back in time. Those guys are nuts!”

They could just do their own thing and we’d just get along and agree to disagree. As the world shrinks, that particular form of instability casts more of ashadow on everyone else. People can come out on the losing end of whatever happens in Afghanistan and start moving into other places…

All the successful people in Afghanistan have the same goal and that’s to get out of Afghanistan, which is not a ringing endorsement for the future of the place…

Any talent; anyone who can speak English, the first thing they’ll ask you is, “How do I get out of Afghanistan?”

Q: These are Afghans saying that?

Oh, yeah. All the Americans know how to get out; they wait out the clock. Yeah, any talent, anyone who has taken it upon themselves to learn another language or a skill will ask you directly or through translation, “How do I get out of here?” They recognize there’s a problem, they just can’t see the solution. The problem is so deeply baked into the fabric of their society that if they can’t see the solution…

Q: They can’t see their way out of it.

Yeah, the idea that we can just swoop in and say, “Oh, well here’s the solution, guys.”

Q: They don’t recognize that.

There’s another aspect of it. Let’s say we were able to swoop in and say, “Oh, I see what the problem is.” The chances of them believing in the solution and buying into it are zero or very low anyway.

Even if we could figure out the solution, the odds of us figuring out the solution are very low. These guys are so beat down and have such a history of failing. I don’t know if you’ve done any reading about the Russian history in Afghanistan and how frustrated the Russians were about the level of incompetence they saw in Afghanistan.

They messed up going communist. The Russians were like, “You shouldn’t do that.” And they’re like, “Don’t talk to me about being communist.” Wow!

…Time frame is everything. If the entire world wanted to focus on nothing but Afghanistan for 30 or 40 years, sure, we could fix it. When every story you read is another Afghan who turns and shoots somebody who’s supposed to be their friend and they rip off the Royal Bank for like 200 billion dollars or something and no one gets arrested.

They’re like, “What? 200 billion dollars. I lost it. Give me some more money.” People get tired and say, “What are we doing?” There seems to be very little reciprocity in their relationship.