Precedent suggests Afghanistan Taliban could win: report
A new study says the Afghanistan Taliban enjoy a slew of advantages that historically correlate with insurgent success, such as Pakistani sanctuary and a weak government in Kabul.
While current US counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan broadly conforms with historical best practices, the Taliban enjoy a slew of advantages that historically correlate with insurgent success, according to a new study of 89 past and ongoing insurgencies worldwide.Skip to next paragraph
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Factors that favor the Taliban include receiving sanctuary and support in another country, learning to be more discriminating in targeting their attacks, and fighting a government that's both weak and reliant on direct external support.
The historical trends suggest that the Achilles heel for the Taliban would be the loss of their Pakistani sanctuary, while the principal American vulnerability lies in Hamid Karzai's anocracy, or weak, pseudodemocracy. The study, says the author, cannot be predictive, but can help the US address or exploit these vulnerabilities.
"A lot of the things being done in the current [US military] plan are along the lines of successful things we've seen in the study," says Ben Connable, lead author of "How Insurgencies End," published by RAND Corp. in Washington. "The key is if the US recognizes it is working with an anocracy and recognizes the limits of that kind of government, you can work on solutions to that problem."
Anocracies rarely win
Solutions to the problem of this type of weak central government, he says, involve focusing on local governance and setting up local civil defense forces that are carefully tied down to one location. To some degree, the US is already doing this. In rural Helmand, the Marines are focused on building local government from scratch. And international forces have dabbled with setting up arbakai, a traditional militia tied to a local council.
Still, anocracies have won only about 15 percent of their conflicts with insurgents. "Democratizing an anocracy in the midst of an insurgency is an unappealing but not necessarily impossible venture," the report reads.
Another lesson: Indiscriminate terror attacks on civilians tends to backfire on insurgents. The report mentions the Taliban have learned to discriminate, though UN data challenge that. Most civilian deaths in 2009 were caused by insurgents. Their killing of civilians increased by 41 percent over 2008 levels, while pro-government forces reduced civilian killings by 28 percent.
However, there's little indication that these Taliban indiscretions have backfired on the movement so far.
There may be limitations to applying international templates to a country like Afghanistan, a tendency among US military planners that has caused unease among Afghanistan-specific experts. The brain trust reportedly involved in Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan relied heavily on counterinsurgency – not regional – experts.
"Afghanistan may well share similarities with other countries and societies, but these elements need to be documented rather than assumed," anthropologist Thomas Barfield writes in his new book, "Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History."