30 April 2010

Understanding & Reintegrating the Neo-Taliban

On Wednesday, April 21, 2010, Marine Corps University concluded their Emerald Express Strategic Symposium - "Afghanistan: The Way Ahead" - with a Panel Discussion on “Defining, Dealing and Defeating the Neo-Taliban and Their Message.”

The panel was moderated by Dr. Amin Tarzi, Director, Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University, with two key speakers: Lieutenant General (Ret) Sir Graeme C.M. Lamb, UK Advisor To General McChrystal For Reintegration, ISAF Headquarters, Kabul and Michael Semple, Research Fellow, Carr Center For Human Rights, Harvard University and author of “Talking to the Taliban” and “Reconciliation in Afghanistan,”

Dr. Tarzi opened the panel with the question of how to define – and what to call – the adversary in Afghanistan. Locally, they are sometimes referred to as “enemies of peace and security.” Tarzi refers to them as “Neo-Taliban” elements.

LTGEN Lamb opened with an 1897 quote from Sir Winston Churchill on the Afghan adversary:

“Their system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices, has produced a code of honor so strange, so inconsistent, that it is incomprehensible to a logical mind. I have been told that if a white man could grasp it fully and were to understand their mental impulses, if he knew when it was their honor to stand by him and when it was their honor to betray him, when they were bound to protect and when to kill him, he might – he might – by judging his times and opportunities, pass safely from one end of the mountains to the other.” The challenge that Winston presents us is, can we?

When Lamb landed on the ground in Afghanistan, he assessed the terrain as concluded that the people there were in the grips of widespread intimidation. In describing the current “Neo-Taliban,” Lamb suggests:

Well, they’re not a simple, monolithic entity, as many imagine, but a collective of principally Afghans and a number of foreign fighters operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its leadership displaced and somewhat distant, in Pakistan. A diverse and independent, albeit eclectic group of experienced combatant leaders inside Afghanistan – facilitators, messengers, quartermasters, paymasters – their foot soldiers drawn from the numerous tribes and villages and their supporters ranging from aggrieved communities to staunch Taliban heartlands.

Regarding the question of what feeds and sustains this movement with a continuing flow of fighters, Lamb observes that some are “committed forever to global jihad, others to the removal of foreigners from their country, (but) most (are) drawn to fight on a manifesto manipulated by a few, on the (mythical) promise of some new Afghan age.”

The bulk of these fighters – young men who ISAF have previously and still occasionally categorize on a broad canvas of an enemy – the Afghans see as sad and upset brothers. Now, you might suggest they’re pretty upset. But that’s how they see them, many of them – sad and upset brothers. The term upset brother captures, rather nicely, the majority of those we need to convince that the cause for which they fight is a poor one by addressing their complaints head on. And understanding and situational awareness is not good enough.

Semple also commented on some the Taliban’s evolving characteristics – and how the Neo-Taliban might differ from the “Old School” Taliban. One of the key areas of contrast

“is this whole issue of the structural relationship between the Taliban movement and Pakistan. Although when the Taliban movement emerged in ’94, it was rooted inside Afghan politics, its sweeping across Afghanistan was, of course, rooted to the intervention of Pakistan in Afghanistan. So there was this symbiosis. …. {Today}, he says, “just about every single commander network which is fighting the insurgency today has a real presence inside Pakistan. And this is something much bigger than just being Pakistan (or ISI) proxies. …This is something about – the people who are organizing the insurgency have found access to cultural and economic resources, which have got long historical roots, which transcend the border.”

What is the way forward to counter this Neo-Taliban movement? Lamb believes we can either “elect to fight them to an unpredictable and costly finish, or we can take the opportunity of a new course of action.. by opening a dialogue with them and their leaders in order to develop a better and broader understanding between ourselves.” He suggests that the foundation of a successful reintegration process lies in understanding (though not surrendering or capitulating to) the adversary’s view, their interests, and their grievances.

“By understanding this anger better than we have presents us with the opportunity to see individuals and groups seeking a way out of the annual cycle of violence. The challenge is to identify and then put your finger on why would they want to reintegrate and when and where to reintegrate to…. We need to convince them through an active and attractive program, including deradicalization, demobilization, skills, training, education and employment, to move from fighter to free man, with a real choice and opportunity.”

You can read the full transcript of this and other symposium panels or listen to audio files HERE