In Which I Take a First Stab at Explaining Cultural Relativity

Cultural relativity is a heinously difficult concept to fully comprehend. I want to say: “Look, there are some cultures where they do certain things that ‘we’ find abhorrent. But that’s the way their world works.” Yet in the same breath, I have to say, “Yes, it’s probably not desirable in the long run, but it’s still just the way some people live.” The two are parallel, in the purely geometric sense of the word—they run alongside each other, ‘and never the twain shall meet’. When they do, we inevitably find conflict. 

The inspiration for this post came from an NPR story, by Quil Lawrence and Ahmad Shafi, about an Afghan girl sentenced to death for possessing a mobile phone, and allegedly using it talking to a (presumably non-related) boy. To ‘Western’ sensibilities, such a sentence seems repugnant. But in a culture where strict delineation of the sexes is observed throughout all spheres of life, it is at least comprehensible.

What is interesting about this report to me, in terms of my Ph.D. research, is the predicament in which places the American soldiers. The girl came to a US army base seeking refuge. It was duly provided. But the soldiers in the base—trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local population—will be making no friends by sheltering this girl from the punishment which her culture has deemed appropriate.

It’s a deadly Catch-22. If they let the girl return to her family, she will most likely be killed. If she stays on the base, what little local support the Americans in the area have gathered in the years they have been there. The point that Quil and Shafi raise is, in a counterinsurgency environment:

When she came to an American military base pleading for help, U.S. officials had to figure out how to save her life without enraging the local community.

This is an extremely difficult question to answer. Part of my purpose with the dissertation is to develop metaphors to help us understand these cultural differences, and to accommodate as many of them as possible. It is not my intention here, or anywhere else, to ‘draw lines’ around what is acceptable and what is not. But I will write more on the ways in which these different cultures might not see eye to eye.

As an example of why the cultural differences are so important, consider the following observation from the historian and anthropologist, Thomas Barfield. We must consider the ‘perceptions’ of the girl’s presence on the base. As a matter of honour for her family, this could legitimately be considered a grave undermining of her male relatives’ authority. As Barfield points out: “Because honor itself [is] judged in the theoretical realm, perception [is] more important than reality.”1 The majority of Afghans, whether or not they are Pashtun by descent, follow the precepts of pashtunwali: “a code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation.”2 In Afghan culture, it is vital to the integrity of the family that these principles be upheld.

The necessity to uphold honour is so important that, as Quil and Shafi point out:

This is where the story in Afghanistan often ends: The woman is sent home, and later killed by her family to cleanse the dishonor.

In this case the story ended more happily. From the point of view of this post, however, the comments of the girl’s Marine caretaker is more telling:

There are so many women who have this issue. It would be nice if there was something we could do that was tangible, but I don’t know what that thing is.

I’m going to keep searching for something. But it will be a long and difficult struggle to find a way to reconcile to very different cultures. And these cultural differences don’t make the delicate matters of counterinsurgency any easier.


1. Barfield, Afghanistan, 185.

2. Barfield, Afghanistan, 59.

Organizational Structures (M-Form and U-Form)

This Yesterday morning (still working on being actually efficient) I read about organizational structures in the context of insurgencies. (Hat tip to Sam for providing me with some papers on the subject.) I first got wind of scholarship on the interaction between organizational theory and insurgency from Seth Jones’ book, In the Graveyard of Empires. In the book, Jones describes al-Qaeda as a ‘complex adaptive network’ (Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires, 224-227). Such networks are flexible and ‘adaptive’. This flexibility gives that group, and others based on similar setups, a great deal of robustness. It is able to cope effectively with seemingly ‘catastrophic’ losses.

Patrick Johnston’s 2008 paper, “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone,” discusses two main organizational principles for insurgencies: U-form and M-form. (U-form designates groups with ‘U’nitary leadership; M-form applies to groups with ‘M’ultidivisional leadership.)

Considering insurgent groups from an organizational theory point of view is helpful, because it allows us to differentiate between types of insurgent groups, and—more importantly—to be more specific when discussing the aims and objectives, activities and operations of different groups, and how they change over time (See Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies”). In 1997, Kristian Berg Harpviken published a similar study of some of the main groups operating in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s, called “Trascending Traditionalism”. Three groups come under scrutiny: the Pashtuns, the Hazaras and the Taliban. He suggests that the Pashtun tribes were slow to react to the Soviet invasion: “The Islamist activists who triggered early uproar elsewhere were lacking in the tribal areas.” (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism,” 276)

Berg points out that different organizational structures ‘defined’ different groups. This led to them pursuing and achieving different ends, employing different means. They were unable to work together. They were divergent. (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism.”) Sanín and Guistozzi argue that, leaders of rebel groups “have to decide which organizational techniques they will utilize” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 849). However, these choices are not conscious; Mullah Omar did not sit down and decide to create an ‘M-form’ movement. By a process of co-evolution, based on rules of thumb and responses to outside pressures, the Taliban movement developed into an ‘M-form’ institution, with its own benefits and drawbacks. Despite this caveat, Sanín and Guistozzi also argue that “organizational trajectories strongly ‘trap’ and ‘enable’ actors that operate within them” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 850). This suggestion implies that, once an organization makes the ‘choice’ to be either M-form or U-form, certain fundamental emergent principles of those forms ‘guide’ and ‘constrain’ those actors.

(At the risk of over-extension, we might also posit this as a reason why democracies function in the way they do. A strongly ‘U-form’ structure, coupled with—in most cases—decent government ‘penetration’, endears democratic states to certain courses of action.)

Another weakness of M-form organizations is that they are prone to opportunism. Their dispersed nature—in which information is necessarily atomized and not available to all members of the group (importantly the leaders) at all time—creates “[a]gents who enjoy greater autonomy from leadership and are [thus] able to pursue private objectives, often diverting the organization’s resources from their intended uses for their own.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 114, emphasis added) Problems also arise in terms of cooperation with ‘bandits’ and groups which, if the leadership had more direct control, would not be permitted to access the Movement. Because the Taliban is an M-form organization, local commanders (who may not have the same standards as the main leadership) are charged with recruitment, and thus, “there has been some contamination of the Taliban by bandit groups.” (Guistozzi and Gutiérrez Sanín, “Networks and Armies,” 847)

Johnston closes his paper with the notion that “[n]egotiations involving M-form organizations [are] likely to fail because the nature of M-form hierarchy makes it very difficult for top-level commanders to affect compliance from mid- and low-level subordinates.” (Johnston, “Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 136) This has serious implications for the recent peace talks in which ‘the Taliban’ has been engaged. The sheer chaos of Afghanistan makes it unamenable to that sort of organization. As Johnston points out of Liberia under the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the early 1990s, Liberians living under Charles Taylor’s regime complained of “decrepit infrastructure and communications technology” that allowed Taylor’s “mid-level commanders to operate relatively autonomously from those in the Gbarnga capital.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 122)

Johnston posits the hypothesis that “insurgent groups that are ethnically homogeneous will be more effective.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 118) This was a key strength of the Taliban in their early days. Their ability to mobilize the Pashtuns is what set them apart from other, better equipped, better organized, more coherent resistance groups in the early 1990s.* A big-picture view of Johnston’s thesis presents more evidence that (modern) insurgent groups are rarely homogeneous. Often divisions fall along ethnic or tribal lines.

In terms of notes for the future, I’m now looking into the Taliban’s organizational structure and how it has changed over time. I also need to start looking for information about how the drug trafficking groups are organized. I think I’ll re-read Seeds of Terror (although I’ll be a little more skeptical this time round).



* See Sinno, “The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews and Tarzi (eds), The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, 59-89; also Harpviken, “Transcending Traditionalism,” Journal of Peace Research, 34 (1997): 271-287.

Works Cited

Harpviken, Kristian Berg. “Trascending Traditionalism: The Emergence of Non-State Military Formations in Afghanistan.” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 34 (1997): 271-287.

Sanín, Francisco Gutiérrez, and Antonio Guistozzi. “Networks and Armies: Structuring Rebellipn in Colombia and Afghanistan.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol. 33, No. 9 (2010): 836-853.

Johnston, Patrick. “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone.” Security Studies. Vol. 17, No. 1 (2008): 107-137.

Jones, Seth G. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. np: Norton, 2009.

Sinno, Abdulkader. “Explaining The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews, Robert D. and Amin Tarzi (eds). The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2008. 59-89.

Petraeus is the New King of CIA

I’m loathe to make predictions about the future, but one that I might stick my neck out for is to suggest that the CIA might change quite significantly with General Petraeus at the helm. Stephen Walt might not think so, but where are we if we can’t disagree once in a while.

My thinking is that, throughout its history, the CIA has ignored significant wrongs in order to advance a specific short term goal. This has led to (sometimes unintended) longer term (negative) consequences.

They have word for it. They call it “blowback”. It nicely euphemizes the situations they create.

For example:

Take the current on-going war in Afghanistan. The country has been in a state of conflict, more or less, since 1979, when the Soviets invaded and proceeded to occupy, and hurriedly install a weak, fragile puppet state that collapsed on their leaving (notice a pattern?).

During that conflict, the CIA (tacitly) condoned the mujahideen‘s growing of opium. This was on the understanding that the Afghans would use the profits from the opium trade to fight the Soviets, stemming the red tide. They subverted a long term goal of limiting and controlling the flow of illicit drugs for a short term goal of defeating Stalin.

Ultimately, the Soviets decided Afghanistan was not really a fun place to hang out. (The locals have never taken kindly to being told what to do. Especially not by Outsiders—to wit: the Anglo-Afghan wars.)

This reliance on opium, developed during the 1980s, has led Afghanistan to become addicted to opium ever since. It’s not as simple as just saying that opium is a high-value crop, or any of that. (There are other, more wholesome, more valuable, and more easily cultivated alternatives.)

Long story short: the CIA is in a small way responsible for the opium situation in Afghanistan at present. (There, of course, many other factors, not least the weather!)

Enter David Petraeus

So what difference will Petraeus make?

I think that he has a more realistic view. In redrafting the American counterinsurgency rule book, he drew heavily on classical ideas that worked. While there is little evidence to demonstrate the success of the Field Manual, especially in Afghanistan*, Petraeus is someone who is not afraid of shaking up ideas.

The Field Manual was a radical departure from previous American thinking on counterinsurgency and counter-revolutionary war (that phrase was quashed by the CIA in the 1970s when they were supporting revolutionaries in South and Central America). It advocates a population-centric approach to matters.

Some have said that this is perhaps too focused on talking to locals. Spencer Ackerman half-joked recently that said that “the man who drinks the most tea with the most villagers will earn the most goodwill.” However, it is right, especially in Afghanistan*, that a more population-centric approach is necessary.

What’s vital about Petraeus is that he appears to be far more focused on the long-term, and the bigger picture.

That can only be a good thing.

Of course, it remains to be seen.

*This is as a result of (among other things) the field manual being too heavily predicated on evidence from Iraq.

Star Wars and COIN

No, not Reagan’s map-cap scheme. The excellent George Lucas trilogy. I just finished watching the original Star Wars trilogy with my wife, and was struck by two things about the final scene of Return of the Jedi. First, how effective unconventional tactics are against a technologically advanced enemy. And second, how Star Wars lied to us about the outcomes of these sorts of protracted conflicts.

The Empire and the Rebel Alliance have been at war for some time, we are given to believe. In the first two films, the battles are straight up fights, more or less. (Excepting some cosmetic deficiencies.) In the final battle scene of the series, on the forest moon of Endor, the Ewoks mount a commendable insurgency against the massively technologically superior Imperial forces.

Ewoks to the Wescue

Their use of unconventional tactics—stealing the speeder, commandeering the AT-AT walker, tripping walkers with ropes, rolling logs down a mountain-side; you know the drill—is simply second-to-none.

Also, as Katy pointed out, “they definitely know the terrain.” It gave them a huge advantage, even though they were possibly outnumbered, and definitely out-gunned.

Those Damn Lies

Star Wars lied to us about insurgencies. It teaches us that insurgencies have a simple end: The Emperor is dead. Darth Vader is dead. The Death Star is destroyed, along with the Imperial fleet and its command. Everything is happy across the galaxy.

In Star Wars, the end-game, the exit strategy is defined and simple. In real life, “we have no idea what we’re working toward, so we end up working toward nothing.”

It’s not all George Lucas’ fault, but maybe it has something to do with it. What do you think?


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Stephen Walt on Afghanistan

Stephen Walt has a fantastic piece at Foreign Policy, discussing the current American ‘strategy’ in Afghanistan.

His argument is that there seems to be little connection between the strategy, as laid out in FM 3-24, and what is happening on the ground. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything he has to say.

My biggest issue with the current strategy, as I see it, in Afghanistan, is that there is too much emphasis on the protection of NATO forces, not enough on the protection of the locals. The indigenous population is the central focus of counterinsurgency. (It’s also the central focus of fourth generation warfare. See Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century) However, as recent operations have shown (see Joshua Foust’s indictment of the destruction of the village at Tarok Kolache—and, crucially, the American reaction to it), there seems to be little, if any, respect from the American soldiers for the livelihoods of ordinary Afghans—the very people they are there to protect, reassure and nuture.

As Josh points out in his piece, “war is hell. … But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable.” Personally, I was concerned when I learned that the US were taking over operations in Southern Afghanistan last January. Their penchant for “high tempo, kinetic operations” (read: shoot now, ask questions later) smacks of an inability to comprehend the fundamentals of counterinsurgency.

However, a recent piece from the British army’s PR machine “Helmand Blog” (which I briefly mentioned here) tells the story of a village painstakingly de-mined. The result, a much happier populace, returning to their homes. Josh Foust’s response suggests that this is a model of “how you demonstrate good faith, good intentions, and a desire to delegitimize the Taliban (as opposed to merely destroying whomever you can identify).”

Granted, the American army, at the end of the Cold War, developed into a terrifically unwieldy beast, by the nature of its vast size, and training for Cold War-style, World War Two-style, set piece battles. It’s having trouble ‘training down’ to fight counterinsurgency effectively.


On a side note, has anyone else noticed a similarity between the fighting in Afghanistan (as represented by the documentaries Battle for Marjah and Restrepo) and the Spanish Civil War (as represented by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)?

Doing It The “Right” Way

I’ve not been following the activities of British forces in Helmand, but in light of Joshua Foust’s piece on Barok Taloche, a couple of months ago, this story from UK Media Ops’ Helmand Blog is very much reassuring.

It concerns the actions of 2 Para and an 80-strong counter-IED team in the Afghan village of Char Coucha. The only information about the action is from the blog. The team dismantled nine devices and recovered a large cache of other weapons and component parts for IEDs.

IEDs are a valuable tool for the insurgents in Afghanistan. They slow down (and necessitate) clearing operations. They are crippling for the all-important ‘momentum’ that NATO forces are trying to maintain.

The painstaking work undertaken here meant that the villagers were able to return to their village. This is perhaps a more appropriate way for counterinsurgency operations to go about securing ‘hearts and minds’.

Counterinsurgency Is Not About Total Annihilation

There seems to be a focus in much reporting on the situation in Afghanistan, along with the debates in Washington and other NATO countries, at least up until serious peace talks were considered, that the Taliban and al Qaeda must be “destroyed” for success to be achieved.

The fact of the matter is, and the majority of counterinsurgency doctrine teaches, and indeed experience demonstrates, that successful counterinsurgency, after a time begins to resemble a civilian policing effort. The threat from the insurgents has diminished to a stage where it is comparable to the collective threat that common criminals pose to the state as a whole.

I emphasize to the state as a whole here in anticipation of a response along the lines of: “common criminals still pose a threat to such and such a community.” But, on the whole, murderers, rapists, bank robbers, and the like are not a threat to national security or stability, so long as there is a functioning police force.

The very purpose of an insurgency is to destabilize the nation state, to keep the government “off balance” is a commonly used phrase. Robert Taber’s metaphor for guerrilla warfare The War Of The Flea is great because it perfectly encapsulates the purpose of an insurgency. That is, to be an annoyance no matter how small they might get. Therefore, in an insurgency situation, it is important not to match one’s capabilities to the enemy, as you would in conventional war (World War II), but to establish and develop one’s capabilities as a reflection of the enemy’s ability to threaten the population.

The notion of destroying the Taliban or al Qaeda is a two-fold notion, in itself, for, while the former funds the latter, they differ in their overall goals and their raisons d’être. The Taliban seeks, from its widely acknowledged new base in Pakistan, to destabilize the Afghan state and reinstate the dominance it assumed there in 1994. It was defeated in 2001 by a vastly superiorly-equipped enemy, and responded in the only reasonable way, by resorting to insurgency tactics of ambushes and raiding.

The Taliban’s insurgency is local. Al Qaeda however, have their focus on a global Islamic caliphate, their intension is to spread Islam across the entire world. This makes theirs a global insurgency. While it is based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, al Qaeda is also active in other nations, Yemen and Iraq for example.

So completely destroying al Qaeda, whose intensions are wholly unreasonable, and whose methods are questionable—although perhaps consistent with their overall endgame—is probably a necessary aim. This however is not, indeed cannot be, a job for the military. It is a far more subtle task than that, requiring infiltration of networks, something that can only be done with troops on the ground. Even America’s massive firepower is not capable of destroying al Qaeda, which is essentially an idea. And as V For Vendetta teaches “Ideas, Mr McCready, are bulletproof.”

Ideas are not however, “ideaproof.” Whatever the US military/civilian hierarchy’s refusal to learn from commanders and soldiers on the ground might suggest contrary to this view, it is possible to achieve some degree of compromise in most situations, were individuals’, or groups’, ideas are at stake.

This is the reason that al Qaeda cannot be defeated militarily. It is also the reason, I think, why al Qaeda is not invincible. I will remain an optimist about this.

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