Afghan Warfare: No Fixed Method


by Rob Johnson

Afghanistan is a land of paradox. The investment that has been poured into the country by the West in the last decade will be the largest in Afghanistan’s history, and yet a portion of its people are engaged in a protracted insurgency that squanders this golden opportunity. Despite the gloom which prevails about the future of Afghanistan in the media, it is striking that more Afghans have embraced Western support and participate in its security forces, its development and its governance, than fight against the so-called ‘occupation’.

Of course, many Westerners are eager to assert that history is repeating itself: it is often argued Britain was twice driven from Afghan soil while the Soviet Union was broken by its own Afghan War, and so the conclusion must be that all attempts to impose foreign rule there end in ignominious failure. Despite this assertion, the Afghans remain something of an enigma in the Western world. They are portrayed as intractable and stubborn, endemically corrupt and intrinsically violent. Descriptions of suicide attacks exemplify a common fear of the fanatic. The mystery of the Afghan fighter suits the prevailing narrative about the war in Afghanistan, namely that the irrational choices of the Afghans make the West’s efforts at development, enhanced security and democracy futile.

Indeed, the portrayal of the Afghan at war entwines perfectly with a story of dysfunctionality within the Western war effort, with all its incompetence, waste and apparent pointlessness. The problem with this narrative is that is does injustice to the Afghans and does not reflect the reality of what is going on in Afghanistan any more than the glossed and confident assertions of some of the governments and their armies currently engaged in the conflict.

There has been an outpouring of new scholarship on Afghanistan since 2001, a welcome development for a country too long neglected. Several works have appeared on the Afghan wars of the past, particularly the British and Soviet periods, and one of the best in English about the Soviet experience is Sir Rodric Braithwaite’s Afantsy. Understandably the greatest interest has been on recent events, including Frank Ledwidge’s brutally honest Losing Small Wars. There are plenty of individuals willing to offer their opinion on the reasons for failure, and indeed the inevitability of failure. Much of the web-based and media generated material lacks depth or reflection. At a recent event on Afghanistan’s history with reflections on the present, a member of the audience interrupted the speaker, a specialist on the country, with the trenchant statement: ‘But there’s no point to this, we have already lost!’ The speaker replied, quietly, that the real losers of this war, like the ones in the past, were in fact the Afghans themselves.

The public purpose of intellectuals is not merely to consider their specialist subjects, to press opinions, nor to necessary give policy advice, but to educate. Assisting others to understand, with greater depth of empirical research and critical questioning, is an aspiration which may not always be achieved in practice, but one that can be attempted. It was dissatisfaction with the great volume of opinion, and the absence of much on the Afghan side, that prompted my work on the The Afghan Way of War. What emerged was that Afghans did not have a fixed method of fighting, a way of war, that is unchanging through time. Scoured by the strategic shocks of the past, the Afghans were pragmatic and adaptive. In short, it is change, not continuity, that characterizes warfare in Afghanistan. Such a finding renders so much of the historical ‘lessons’ that people have been apt to draw as irrelevant. Tactically, there were no drones, IEDs and suicide bombers in Afghanistan in the past, and the strategic context was different for each conflict. Civil war was far more common than invasion or foreign occupation, but those civil wars were not always constituted along ethnic lines. The most common inducement to violence at the national level was dynastic power. At the local level, it was the prosaic concerns of land, honour, wealth and threat.

To find continuities in the Afghan way of war risks reducing the past to stereotype or generalisation. There are common features about why communities resort to violence, and global studies by scholars such as Azar Gat, in War in Human Civilisation, attempt to probe these phenomena. The Afghans were often reactive, designing solutions to specific problems as they arose. For peoples living precariously in such marginal environments, subject to the hostility of neighbours and rivals, this form of adaptation was normative. Faced with the overwhelming military power of the British Empire, or the Soviets, Afghan regular forces were defeated and dispersed, and the only form of resistance left possible was a protracted people’s war or a popular revolt. Yet survival instincts led to rapid transfers of loyalty. Colonel Callwell, the nineteenth century British officer who wrote a handbook on ‘Small Wars’ in the 1890s, noted:

In the Afghan Wars, these sudden gatherings and prompts dispersions have been a feature of the enemy’s mode of levying war; after conflicts Afghans and hill-men hide their arms at home and then come out and welcome troops who are pursuing them.

To mobilise the population, Islam was used selectively by Afghans to justify and legitimize a variety of actions in war. Islam often provided the only unifying element between Afghans of such diverse and embittered backgrounds. It is not surprising that Taliban leaders, eager to overcome clan and qawm divisions that threaten their cohesion, not only stress Islamic justifications for waging war but often claim to be mullahs in order to advance their own legitimacy and credentials with their fighters. Nevertheless, the Taliban are no doubt acutely aware that Afghanistan is surrounded by more or less hostile, ostensibly Muslim states. Most Afghans agree that Pakistan is their nemesis in this regard and any alliance with Islamabad is temporary.

Islam is much more recognizable as a motivating feature of war, but hard cash has been just as influential. In periods of civil war, internal divisions, specifically the ethnic, qawm, sectarian and clan fissures of Afghan society, were deepened and became more embittered. Foreigners and Afghan leaders would try to exploit these divisions. Money and power continue to affect the course of the current conflict in Afghanistan. The insurgents play a critical role in Afghan economic relations as a guarantor of secure trading routes, essential in an economy that imports far more than it exports. Insurgents or opportunists operating ion armed gangs offer financial incentives effectively for many rural Afghans, particularly in guaranteeing an outlet and income for opium production. The more ideological Taliban embodies a modern transformation and reconciliation of traditional and modern forms of legitimacy, creating an identity that is a potent nexus between pan-Pashtun identity, the traditional role of neutral Islamic mediators, and an apparent champion of independent Afghan sovereignty, but it does so on the basis of guarantees about the moral and material future of Afghans.

The Taliban also has an effective strategy of building local capacity through social networks, creating what could best be characterized as a robust network state grounded in local relationships and a sense of security. However, this sense of material or physical security is contested by the Afghan government and ISAF forces. The offer of development aid, alternative livelihoods and work creation schemes that absorb unemployment; the creation of physical security at village level, the control of routes, access and the opportunity for economic improvement, with the evolution of improved communications through mobile phone technology, all point to the possible withering of the appeal of the insurgents. Material gain, moral security and evident military power will, ultimately, determine the loyalty of the majority of Afghans. Moreover, Afghan insurgents of the 201os are still plagued by the problems they have always faced: the shortage of skilled advisors and facilitators, disloyalty and disunity, fear of betrayal, logistical weaknesses and heavy casualties amongst commanders and comrades.

The Afghan Way of War avoids offering solutions, but it does point to some essential and important ideas. In the nineteenth century, the British fought two wars which had their share of military victories, including those at Ghazni in 1839, at Kabul in 1842 and in 1879, and Kandahar in 1880, and they were even the first power ever to fight their way successfully up through the Khyber Pass. They also had their military setbacks at Kabul in 1841-2 and Maiwand in 1880, but they used these as a springboard to reassert their occupation. Nevertheless, crucially what the British did was to rationalise their position in Afghanistan strategically. They realized that the costs of occupation were high and did not suit their objective, which was, in essence, to deny the territorial space to their enemies. By finding a suitable surrogate leader, ensuring a financial and military package to sustain that leader in power, and controlling Afghanistan’s foreign relations, the British ensured they did not need to continue their occupation.

In 1919, the British were faced with an unexpected Afghan attack on their territory in India. After a sudden and decisive British counter-attack against forces on three fronts, at the Khyber, at Spin Boldak and near Khost, the Afghans were compelled to sue for peace. But the strategic value of this response was that it retained the credibility of a strike capability which overmatched that of the Afghans. The Afghans were never cordial towards the British, but they respected their military power and ensured they avoided antagonizing them. Crucially they abandoned their attempts to mobilize Jihadist opinion inside British India, in the area that is now Pakistan.

The Soviets also understood this need to convert tactical success into strategic effect. By 1986, they realized that the United Nations provided the legitimacy they needed to withdraw, and, in the transition to Afghan control three years later, like the British they ensured they had the leader, the right political formula (which included the creation of a governing National Party without a socialist agenda), and the means, financial and military, to sustain their influence. Only after these means were deprived, by the fall of the Soviet Union, was the Afghan government overwhelmed, and even then, for almost a decade, factionalised resistance groups failed to combine long enough to establish a functioning government.

The future is unclear. Hegel noted that, the Owl of Minerva, knowledge, only spreads her wings at the gathering of the dusk: it is easy to be wise after the event. The Afghan Way of War does not lay down prescriptions for the future policy of Afghanistan, nor solutions to the insurgency, but it offers reflections on Afghan perspectives and Afghan history too often neglected in the opinion pages of present.

About the Author:

Dr. Rob Johnson is Deputy Director of the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University and the author of The Afghan Way of War (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2011).