Insurgents…With a Cause

  • Share
  • Read Later

A Taliban commander takes a tentative step toward reconciliation with the Afghan government.

As the U.S. military pulls its combat forces out of Afghanistan by 2015, what drives the Taliban insurgency become increasingly important in trying to determine just how the country will fare without massive U.S. military assistance.

Over at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Andrew Garfield and Alicia Boyd oversaw what they say were 78 detailed interviews with Afghan rebels to determine what makes them tick. Ethnic Pashtuns conducted the discussions.

“The in-depth interview method was chosen because it is designed to explore topics in considerable depth in a semi-structured discussion, enabling sensitive and thoughtful responses,” the authors write. “However it is not intended to produce results that are statistically representative. Thus, the general conclusions and findings of this report cannot be guaranteed to carry over to the wider district, provincial, or national populations.”

Thank God.

Nonetheless, the following lowlights from their report may prove illuminating, in foresight as well as in hindsight:

— They are average ordinary men, similar in almost every respect to the majority of Pashtun Afghans.  They are not exceptional men by any measure but they are highly motivated and committed to the cause and seem likely to have the endurance needed to fight for years and even decades.   They are not a small cadre of indoctrinated fanatics whose elimination will undermine the fighting ability of the Taliban.   Rather, they are ordinary men motivated to fight against those who they feel are destroying their way of life and attacking their values, community and faith.

— Perhaps the most significant finding of this project is simply the fact that not one of the Taliban fighters interviewed voiced any concerns, fears or objections about participating in this project. All 78 interviewees agreed to participate in a lengthy and intensive in-depth interview, with an Afghan interviewer from outside of their group, extended family and even district.  They freely admitted that they were active members of an illegal insurgent group.

— The ability of these fighters to travel to and from Pakistan for both insurgent and personal reasons is also telling.  Clearly, Pakistan is not simply a safe haven to which the Taliban retreat at the end of the summer “fighting season.”  Indeed, almost all interviewees have no need to do so, given that they can winter much closer to home.  Rather, Pakistan is far more important as a location for key insurgent activities to be conducted in relative safety.  This includes such vital activities as resupply, training and to plan future operations.  These findings reinforce our understanding of the critical importance of the Pakistan as a safe haven for the Taliban and why it must therefore be denied to the Taliban if they are to be defeated or at a minimum forced to reconcile with the Afghan Government.

— Implacable opposition to Western presence, values, and influence over the Afghan government, as well as the perceived severe shortcomings of the Afghan Government itself, are clearly the primary factors that motivate the fighters interviewed for this project.  While they may have been motivated by diverse factors to join their group, they continue to engage in the insurgency on the side of the Taliban or the Hizb-i-Islami for broadly the same reasons. They are committed to remove foreign forces and influence and to restore a more traditional and strictly Islamic form of governance in Afghanistan.  Most interviewees believe that the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan (almost universally identified as Americans) results in the type of political and social ills they do not want.

— Most interviewees espouse a very traditional and conservative set of values.  In part their values are based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and Sharia Law and a very strong desire for piety in their own lives and in Afghanistan.  However, Pashtu society in particular and to a lesser extent Afghan society overall remains very conservative.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interviewees’ attitudes toward women.  Not only do these interviewees wish to preserve the subservient place of women in Afghan society, as it existed under the previous Taliban regime, they also see the more secular nature of Afghan society since 2001 and the limited emancipation of women to be a source of great offense and a key motivator for opposing the Afghan government.

— While efforts to focus on kill-or-capture operations are most likely having an immediate negative impact on Taliban operational effectiveness, these tactics will not lead to their defeat. In fact, these efforts may not result in the kind of fatigue that encourages willingness to compromise in peace discussions.     The opportunity for periods of rest and recuperation, combined with solid ideological underpinnings and a desire to retain and enhance one’s own honor, appears to provide these fighters with a resilience that may well enable them to continue to endure even more effective and destructive kill-or-capture operations.

— Support for continuing the fight against the Afghan government after the withdrawal of NATO forces is almost universal.  Very few interviewees say they will cease fighting after U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan.  In other words, the removal of what interviewees consider to be the primary source of Afghanistan’s problem (the presence of foreigners) would still not stop them from engaging in violent operations against the government. In fact, all interviewees, as well as a growing percentage of the population, consider the government illegitimate, corrupt, un-Islamic and ineffective.

— While it is obviously dangerous to extrapolate the findings from 78 interviews to the rest of the Taliban, the evidence collected from these interviews and from the dozens of other research projects…in Afghanistan over the last four years does suggest that the future of Afghanistan is grim.

Full report here.