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02 October 2008


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The social net in Afghanistan seems to be more complicate than within the Anwar tribes.

Like any complex society, the Afghans divide and order themselves along a multitude of different social categories that may contradict one other and often apply simultaneously depending on the circumstances. An important structuring principle is the tribal system that covers about two thirds of the population. Although the tribal principle is clear and unambiguous, it by no means forms ”real” social groups. Instead it is one of the recruiting principles of corporate and of conflicting groups, though never the only one. --- Bernt Glatzer (2001). “War and Boundaries in Afghanistan: Significance and Relativity of Local and Social Boundaries.” Weld Des Islams, 41, 3, pp. 379-399. as quoted at Registan

The concept is known as Qawm

A qawm is the term used to describe any segment of society bound by solidarity ties, whether it be an extended family, clan, occupational group or village. Qawm is based on kinship and patron-client relationships; before being an ethnic of tribal group, it is a solidarity group, which protects its members from the encroachments of the state and other qawm, but it is also the scene of internal competition between contenders for local supremacy (Pierre Centlivres, Olivier Roy, and Whitney Azoy quoted in Roy 1989: 71).
Within those structures 'scial enngineering' by outsiders will never work.

McKiernam is right in that. He should have the balls to say that the 'west' can never win in Afghanistan.

He is calling for more troops knowing well that no more troops are available. That's just covering his ass.

Patrick Lang


"'social enngineering' by outsiders will never work"

Oh, please! How naive you sound!

My argument was for the opposite thing. pl


Afghanistan is not an Al-Qa'eda problem I would think. Even if the foreigners were gone, we have decided we cannot deal with native Taliban. But once in a while, you hear a murmur that there is no military sol'n, matters must be solved politically.

the conventional wisdom is now that the Abizaid-Casey doctrine for the employment of US forces in Irak followed the principle that they were an antibody to that society and they needed to be isolated on large bases and used kinetically. Antibody in the sense that their mere sight attracted Al-Qa'eda and stirred resentment. Of course when they left those bases to their points of insertion they became susceptible to IED's.

On the other hand the population centered COIN strategy which includes multiple facets but which now in shorthand is called the "surge" eschews the antibody large bases and inserts the troops fulltime where they need to be applied. It reduces the danger of IED's due to the better intelligence gained by actually living in the neighborhood but subjects them to greater mortar threats. I guess the ethnic cleansing that had taken place in the preceding pre-surge year plus, the Mahdi Army stand down & the Sunni awakening reduced the IED and mortar threat. And we must not forget the the Walls.

Let's see what Petraeus and his dream team of consultants (Kilcullen et al) come up for Afghanistan.

I would think the problem is in southern Afghanistan. The North is Uzbek and Tajik. The East is Persian allied? The South is Pushtu- a continuation of northern Pakistan, (an arbitrary border drawn by Englishmen and Russians?)

My brother in law a Major in the British Army just got back from Khandhar. Thank goodness, the Brits only deploy for five months at a time. !!!


We seem to have missed a lot of "lessons" these past 7 years or so. Not announcing anything...just muttering it to myself, sorta.

Duncan Kinder

One thing we could do - if we were to legalize drugs - would be to purchase all the opium that is currently funding the Taliban.


"Success in Afghanistan" - what´s your definition of that? And would there still be troops in Afghanistan seven years later, if the definition of success acted upon by decision makers was not one of those PoliSci-notions you don´t seem to have much use for? Just asking - I am really not sure I understand what your expectations regarding Afghanistan are.


Col. sir.

Neither of us have anything like the understanding we would need to go in and tinker with the Afghan tribal structure to produce something either of us could approve of, want, or regard as "satisfactory".

What should we do about the Hazara? For example? A people that the Taliban slaughtered and today most Afghans despise?

Once you start backing this "tribe" against that "Tribe"... ( Which is what America did by by throwing their weight behind an Iranian backed Shiite party in Iraq)

You have a civil War on your hands.

Once you forment active killing on tribal grounds you have no hope of contolling or guiding the result to a "satisfactory conclusion, because you don't know the language, don't know the history, don't know the politics and don't know the culture.

Instead you'll start putting out 25,000 dollar "rewards" on naming and locating the "bad guys".

So every local in the area with a grudge names his opponent... watches as that guy's home and family is destroyed by an American launched missile... then goes and picks up his 25,000.

If you don't understand the history, the society, or the language of a people who have damaged\destroyed two world empires ( British and the USSR)..but insist on involving yourselves intimately into their lives, their politics, their futures... expect to lose.

Do not pump in money, guns and mercenaries,

Afghanistan has seen all of that before.

We need a different mix of money plus other stuff... suggestions Anyone?

Because in the long run.... Afghanistan will prove more significant to our futures the Iraq.


Patrick Lang


I am not interested in benefiting the
Afghans or "tinkering with their tribal structure." I am interested in extricating the US with as little further damage to US forces as possible. pl

Dan M

Than isn't the answer for us to withdraw as quickly as is practical, while offering Karzai a laurel and hearty handshake?

I keep saying this to folks and they tell me we can't.

Why not? "We just can't."

No, really: Why not? "Bad things will happen."

I mean worse than having to repeatedly drop 100 ton bombs on illiterate poppy farmers, whose surviving sons are then driven into Taliban-controlled refugee camps?

I'm sure our withdrawl would prove transformative for Afghan society. I'm not particularly concerned with which transformation they choose.

Afghanistan is just one more distraction from what should be our ongoing conversations with Iran and Pakistan (not neccessarily in that order). .



Two things of note. NPR had a nugget about this that the WAPO did not mention. In the NPR story, McKiernan also gave the reason for a surge not working was that, in his opinion, the tribal structure in Afghanistan was too badly damaged/non existent after 30 years of conflict to achieve the same gains as we saw in Anbar. Perhaps between that assessment and Afghanistan's role as an economy of force mission for seven years has led McKiernan to think that trying engagement now would simply be another tar baby to get the US stuck on.

The idea that we can treat Afghanistan like Iraq in terms of TTPs is something that has sunk down to the lowest ranks. Late last year while I was still an O/C, we were putting a Brigade through it's paces for Afghanistan. The senior BN O/C, an Infantry LTC who had commanded in Iraq, huddled the senior O/Cs to discuss the best way to coach and teach the BN through the tactical problem in front of them. This LTC was not a dumb guy, he normally got things pretty quick. His view though, along with the manuever O/Cs were of the opinion that we could take many of the things that worked in Iraq and apply them to this problem. I disagreed and we went round and round for about an hour or two before they understood the problem set was different due to culture and the enemy we were portraying and how issues that we as the US viewed as part of the problem were really accepted parts of the culture and we had to work it so that their cultural norms could be modified to become legal to us without a lot of change that they would notice, ie, rather than shutting down the shake down points of traffic coming across the boundary, work with the local government to give the shake points a badge and make it a tax point so that the village could profit from it. Did the rose still smell the same, yeah, but now it smelled alot better to us and the locals still got a cut of the local traffic in a good way. In the end, we still have a long way for us to go before we really understand this problem at all levels. We really need to get past the silver bullet mentality about counter insurgency and get back to the age old lesson that cultural plays a bigger role than we sometimes realize.



What would be repercussion if we just left?


Look at it from 30,000 feet:
If we leave Afghanistan, does that mean a highly probable repeat of 9/11?
NO means...get out ASAP.
YES means we can't leave.
If YES, then what is the plan for preventing another 9/11 without becoming another worn-down Soviet occupation force and destroying our Army?

And that's the problem.
Just declaring the "NO" is simple and easy until Afghanistan slips into a terrorist state and provides the ground for another 9/11.

I don't have much confidence in Homeland Security and TSA to keep the bad guys out.

stanley Henning

We should also re-look the British experience in Afghanistan and Kipling's contemporary Ballad of East and West. Good luck! And, by the way, I think we are also still "helping" the Philippines cope with the Moro issue, for which we designed the .45 automatic pistol about 100 years ago.

Patrick Lang

Graywolf et al

Nothing there we really need, but it is desirable to keep the place from becoming a takfiri jihadi base area for international action. My BR Stan Henning understands this situation exactly. This will be a long ride even if you do it right.

To that end, I favor a minimal program for Afghanistan, one in wnich infrastructure building(both institutional and physical) is combined with a readiness to foster a diplomatic settlement between an acceptable central g0vernment and a weakened taliban. To achieve that weakened state a campaign should be fought that seeks to use tribal forces against the taliban and takfiri forces. This campaign should used UW methods and SF troops assisted by the HTS program. In other words use Afghans to fight Afghans. This effort must be backed up by enough conventional ground and air power to tip the balance in our direction in tactical engagements. Training the Afghan Army, sure--- yawn. pl


Along with the players and regional forces others have mentioned...

Pakistan's ISI. Recruited Talib in refugee camps. Funded their movement, etc. They still obviously consider them a resource. Afghanistan won't know real peace until Pakistan does.

Any bets on when that happens?


as i've said before, our problems did not start with afghani or wazir stans but with pali stan. (palestine)

doesn't the narrative quoted below from the friday lunch club (NPR) sound like a CONCERT OF THE MIDDLE EAST of which Col. Lang had advocated once or twice.

"Bob Baer: "...The Iranians would like is to become an equal partner of the US in the Middle East ..."
Baer interviewed on NPR, here, via WarinContext
"...Terry Gross: An equal partner in what?
Baer: In the Middle East.
They would like to sit down with the United States and Israel and actually come to a solution for the Palestinians.
They would like to support and give power to the Shia in Lebanon, because the Shia are approaching a majority in Lebanon.
They would like to co-administer Mecca with the Saudis.
They feel that their sect has been repressed since 680AD — since the murder of the Prophet’s grandson. They believe that this is the Shia millenium...."

Rather far fetched goals- eh

Recently Olmeret said the unspeakable_ Israel must contemplate giving up East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Golan. Who knows?

David W.

Michael Yon has moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, and just posted this informative entry on his blog:


Isolated from other habitations, a lone compound makes an inviting target for an airstrike when enemy are believed present. We greatly depend on airstrikes due to lack of ISAF and Afghan soldiers. Yet civilian casualties are turning the locals against us. The men from the village where the French soldiers were killed, told me that airstrikes had accidentally killed about 200 animals, including 27 cows, and they were never compensated. I do not know if the numbers are accurate, but I sensed the men were being truthful that animals were killed. They said four people from a nearby village were killed from an airstrike during the fighting, and they gave specifics which made me think they were likely telling the truth. The men also said they liked the French and the Americans before the fighting, but they hate us now.


Isn't this looking like Vietnam redux? Pakistan playing Cambodia, etc. I think the real problem is institutional, where lip service may be paid to common sense ideas, such as the Col Lang's, but in the end, the old adage remains: "There is nothing so powerful as a bad idea who's time has come." In this case, to me, this means the Institutional US 'Eye of Sauron solution' of large bases and troop deployments, air power, 'smart' bombs (ask Ollie North how smart they are), and USAID strings-attached aid. I hope I'm wrong, but then, I'd be going against history, and the institutional inertia of the US MIC.

Teh Surge won't work in Afghanistan for many reasons, but primarily because the piggy bank is broke.


i should revise my remark re the abizaid-casey Irak strategy. It was more than to garrison the troops on large bases and to send them on kinetic missions. In fact their core mission was to train and build an Iraki Army from scratch. An Army that had been disbanded by ProConsul Bremer.

And as that Army was built up, then the American Army would withdraw.

The Col. on at least one post noted that the Iraki Army had no tail. No logistical support, intelligence, etc.

Woodard in his book notes that Casey took exception to Condi Rice describing his operation as a clear and hold which would have been a COIN population centered strategy. Casey saw his mission as a training strategy. Bush was focused on the "kill" numbers, on the scoreboard, b/c that would tell him who was "winning." It was important to him not to leave in defeat.

It could be argued that if we had followed the Casey strategy, we would have been out of there by now, and the inevitable showdown would have already ocurred.

Now the question about Afghanistan?

Is it now a training mission of the Afghani Army and we get out on meeting certain strength benchmarks OR is it going to be a COIN (clear and hold) population centered strategy?

Note bene (Latin for well). Palin actually used the term COIN (counter insurgency) in the debate tonight. That clears up one point. Maybe McCain understands that the "Surge" was much more than a troop surge.


Sorry for messing up the html/typing in the first comment.

Pat says:

To achieve that weakened state a campaign should be fought that seeks to use tribal forces against the taliban and takfiri forces.

The point of the two academic sources I quoted is that the tribal structure in Afghanistan is not the premier social structure and thereby unreliable.

Whatever existed of such structure has also been damaged by 30 years of war.

You may find a warlord and his clan/clients that can be bribed to do your thing today. But they may well fight you tomorrow.

McKiernan in his NPR interview acknowledges that:

"What I find in Afghanistan is a degree of complexity in the tribal system which is much greater than what I found in Iraq years ago," McKiernan says. "And I also find that of the over 400 major tribal networks inside of Afghanistan, a lot of that traditional tribal structure has broken down."

Nuristan, a small 300,000 people province on the boarder to Pakistan, has fifteen tribes with lots of subgroups with five different languages and even more dialects. Some of these groups fight each other for ages.

So which tribe of those does one hire and arm to do what?

On infrastructure building NPR has this:

Reconstruction programs in many parts of the country have ground to a halt for lack of security. There is much talk of increasing the amount of aid and beefing up the reconstruction effort, but Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, says it is rather late to start talking about that, seven years after the invasion.

"The fact is our aid that is given is extraordinarily ineffective for many years, and they've done nothing about it," Rubin says. "So now they're talking about it, but there's nothing they can accomplish in the last days of the administration."

The somewhat funny thing is that infrastructure (roads) in Afghanistan was attempted to build by contracting it out.

Those were/are mostly Chinese and Indian workers who are doing these projects (the ringroad). Instead of hiring local youth and getting them off the warrior path, the occupation imported more foreign elements into the country.

There is one thing one could immediately do to help in Afghanistan.

Get the Indians out.

Pakistan is fearing (correctly in my view) to suddenly find an Indian ally to its west. This threatens a double fronted war to them.

India is doing its best to get Karzai on its side (he was educated at an Indian university). It has lots of diplomats and paramilitary troops (some of the roadbuilders are Indian paramilitary army engineers) in the country.

Pakistan says, quite believable, that the Taliban it now fights within its boarders (today's NYT) are financed by India. That is at least plausible.

Get India out of Afghanistan and remove the reason for Pakistan to incite the Pashtun against the occupation.

That will help much more than trying to use those poor tribal structures that might still exist.

The way out of Afghanistan is well known. One can fly, drive or walk out. As longer one waits as more expensive it will be. The results will change little independent of how long one stays.


IMHO, we should listen to former 48D's, State department/CIA officials and even Russians who have a clue and experience about what is going on in Afghanistan.

Last time we sided with several Afghan tribes, things did not turn out the way we wanted them to.

Patrick Lang


Well, I am a former 48D and G so I guess you have to listen to me.

You have your facts wrong. Like most people you seem to think that we created the Taliban. That is not the case. The mujahideen factions that we backed against the Soviets were neither Taliban nor Al-Qa'ida. They accomplished what we wanted. They defeated the Soviets.


I really am not intersted in the opinions of academics on what is possible or not possible in Afghansitan or anywhere else.

The tribes might turn on you later? It is childish to think that any policy will have permanent effect. pl

William R. Cumming

Have we really fully and accurately assessed the "Human Terrain" in Afghanistan? A country with no real census ever, no really good maps, no really good roads, no really good economy, and a history of foreign tampering since the British Raj in India! Did Alexander and the Mongols make a real dent in their culture and history? Perhaps! I think ignorance still pervades most of what the US does in Afghanistan! But of course could be wrong.

Patrick Lang


I would say that the process of understanding the Human Terrain is ongoing and should be. pl

John Howley

What of the opium trade?

The NYT headline below begs the question: what of traffickers allied with Karzai or (gulp) ourselves? Do they get a pass?

"Good" tribal leaders can sell all the opium they want..."bad" tribal leaders cannot. What am I missing?

(At least they seem to have given up on attacking farmers and their crops.)

NATO Aims at Afghans Whose Drugs Aid Militants
“I think there’s a need for increased involvement in I.S.A.F. in assisting the Afghan government in counternarcotics efforts,” said General McKiernan, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or I.S.A.F. “Where we can make a clear intelligence linkage between a narcotics dealer or a facility and the insurgency, I consider that a force protection issue, and we can deal with that in a military way.”


In other words use Afghans to fight Afghans.

I'm not a military guy, but if I recall correctly, wasn't that Bush's initial strategy to take down the Taiban in Afghanistan, pre Iraq invasion? Wasn't it more or less successful pre-Iraq?

Am I further mistaken, or didn't Bush shift his Taliban fighting Afghan strategery to installing a strong central gov't with our own guy at its head and building an Afghan Army to fight the Taliban (while actively working to disarm the very ethnic groups responsible for our initial successes!!!)?

Both our presidential candidates are on board with Bush's central gov't/Afghan Army vs Taliban strategery. Or can an Afghan strategy include both militias and a central gov't/Afghan Army to take on the Taliban be cobbled together?

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