This article has left me confused and more than a little concerned. We’re in Afghanistan trying to quell an insurgency and establish a legitimate, trusted government. Dr. Ronald Holt, “a tenured Professor of Anthropology and Fulbright Scholar [and] the senior social scientist for Human Terrain Team AF-1 at FOB Salerno Afghanistan in 2008 [who] has done fieldwork in several Islamic countries and with Native American tribes,” is suggesting that NATO deploy “pseudo-ops” teams in Afghanistan, specifically the AfPak border. These groups would “interact with enemy sympathizers and even form their own networks amongst them.”
Sounds relatively sensible, right? The IRA was brought down by very similar methods, if my limited understanding of the end of those hostilities is correct.
Holt’s proposition even smacks favourably of the “Ferret Forces” successfully deployed by the British during the Malayan Emergency (see, Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 68-69).
However, some of his extrapolations are concerning to say the least. He suggests that “[o]nce the various Taliban factions become aware of the pseudo-operators we might see distrust, suspicion, red on red firefights, and chaos increase within the enemy.” The notion of premeditating “red on red firefights” is frankly disturbing. NATO is in Afghanistan partly with the purpose of ending the civil war there. And Holt is suggesting that we solve this problem, which is on-going, by starting another civil war?
Is this in the hope that they’ll bleed themselves dry? Didn’t the Soviets try something similar in the 80’s? Didn’t that fail miserably, and end with them leaving with their tails between their legs and Afghanistan in the state that it was before the Taliban rose to power?
“[W]e might see … chaos increase within the enemy.” Yes. We might. If the enemy were anything like organized to begin with. But several studies, Gretchen Peters’ Seeds of Terror and David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla to name just two (that I’ve read, at least), suggest that the Taliban are far from a unified force. Kilcullen suggests that the Taliban, and al Qaeda, often operate on the notion that they just have to run to the farthest corner of somewhere and raise a Taliban flag to see the Americans arrive in force.
In Peters’ words: The new Taliban—if it can still even be called the Taliban—is a fragmented, transnational force, devoid of many of the group’s prior characteristics and political aspirations. “These are not the old Taliban,” says a senior Afghan security official. “We don’t even know who they are anymore.” (page 104)
So the enemy is a chaotic entity, if that’s even the right word, but it has embraced that, and, to be frank again, it thrives on it. Sowing chaos in this enemy won’t really have the intended purpose, because it’s already there, and because it’s one of the enemy’s strongest suits. I know that Clausewitz gets bandied about in COIN debates, and most of the time I err on the “Clausewitz is largely irrelevant in modern wars” side, but in this case, Holt’s suggestion just straight goes against basic military strategy. Under no circumstances would one want to play up the enemy’s strengths.
But hey, this is America, we can do anything, right?
On the subject of distrust and suspicion, these seem to be rife on both sides in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan don’t necessarily trust the Taliban, nor do they trust the occupiers. It appears, from this from the Afghan Conflict Monitor, that the reverse is also true. “The UN has evacuated about a third of its permanent international workforce from Afghanistan amid fears that this weekend’s parliamentary elections will be marred by violence and fraud.” Way to have faith in the system you’re trying to implement, guys.
So, Dr Holt’s attempt to “stimulat[e] ‘out of the box’ ideas” instead strikes me as war-mongering and suggestive of damaging changes to a strategy which looks to finally have a chance of working in the long term.
The first comment on the Small Wars Journal blog sums up neatly the shortsightedness of Holt’s ideas:
“While the thought of being able to strike at insurgent sanctuaries is appealing, one has to wonder that once insurgents started shooting at each other in Balochistan, if the entire situation there would not destabilize.”