Complexity in the Afghan-Pakistan theater and the Role of the War Model in the War on Terrorism

Complexity in the Afghan-Pakistan theater and the Role of the War Model in the War on Terrorism

We’ve not said as much as we might about the role of the “war” model in the war on terrorism.  And so, before we move on to more specific topics tomorrow, I’d like to share a few final thoughts inspired by an article by Bruce Hoffman and Seth Jones that appears in the most recent issue of the National Interest.

Discussion of the war in Afghanistan all too often assumes a relatively simplistic model in which the Afghan government, the U.S., and their allies are engaged in conflict with a single enemy force: the resurgent Taliban, with perhaps some degree of support from al Qaeda remnants in Pakistan.  Hoffman and Jones’ article–Cellphones in the Hindu Kush [subscriber access only, alas]–provides a useful corrective to that view, emphasizing the true complexity of the situation.  They report as follows:

A concatenation of at least fourteen different terrorist and insurgent groups based in Pakistan regularly traverse the border to target Afghan security forces and the American and NATO military units stationed there.  These militants include a range of Taliban groups, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other radical Afghan religious zealots such as Gulbuddein Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami and their Pakistani jihadi counterparts such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.

It gets more complicated.  Hoffman and Jones quote the commander of a Provincial Reconstruction Team as saying that

“Al-Qaeda has been effective as a force multiplier by improving the capacity of the insurgent groups.”  This includes helping indigenous insurgents make more-sophisticated improvised explosive devices, instructing them in fund-raising techniques to create an income stream from the international jihadi philanthropic community, and conducting more-effective information operations . . . .

[Hoffman and Jones add that the] Taliban has also forged close ties with a number of Afghan Pushtun tribes . . . .  These relationships provide the Taliban with critical logistical support and additional fighters . . . .

And it gets more complicated still.  Summarizing this state of affairs, Hoffman and Jones emphasize the interconnectedness of these entities:

They operate as part of both ad hoc and more-formalrelationships, and outside any common, unified command structure.  They cooperate with each other and with local tribes and criminal groups to carry out attacks, share tactics and techniques, exchange intelligence and engage in joint training.

On one hand, this account is useful in that it reminds us that al Qaeda is by no means coextensive with the broader global jihad movement (though al Qaeda’s leadership most certainly sought to position itself as the vanguard of that movement).  On the other hand, it also reminds us that (i) the US as a practical matter is engaged in armed conflict with more entities than simply the Taliban or al Qaeda, at least in the Afghan/Pakistan and Iraqi theaters (one can construct a similarly complex account of the battlespace and array of enemy forces in Iraq, of course), and (ii) that it may be artificial, or at least awfully difficult, to distinguish among those entities.

So what does this tell us about the role of the “war model” in the war on terrorism?  At a minimum, it reminds us that IHL concepts certainly matter at least in these zones of ongoing combat operations (though of coure it does not tell us how to resolve uncertainty about the scope and application of those concepts).  It also draws attention to the difficulties that arise when attempting to use political borders or other geographic concepts to cabin the relevance of those IHL concepts (Hoffman and Jones write that “[t]he problem, as one military intelligence officer candidly told us, is obvious: ‘We recognize the border.  They don’t.”  A nice illustration of what Philip Bobbitt would describe as the market-state characteristics of the jihadist movement.).  By the same token, it suggests the difficulty that may arise when attempting to use associational/membership status as an alternative means to cabine the relevance of those IHL concepts.  All of which is, I think, worth bearing in mind tomorrow as we turn to our discussion of detention policy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Books, General
Notify of
Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Please no more improvisation in the detention of human beings.

Joshua Foust

I’d be careful taking this report at face value. There is a great tendency in the military to discount local reasons for either joining or resisting the insurgency in Afghanistan — it is far easier to blame it all on Pakistan, which is outside their control and therefore not “their” fault. In reality, the majority of the militants who launch attacks on U.S. and Afghan (and NATO) targets are from their local provinces, even if they use Pakistan as a staging area.

This implies one hugely important thing about the insurgency that receives scant attention, at least in the counterinsurgency literature: our own actions carry very real consequences. If there was not a corrupt, ineffective government in Kabul, if local officials were not little more than Warlords, and if the Coalition weren’t sloppy and lazy in its operations, then the Taliban, extremist, and al-Qaeda groups would not have the ready recruiting pool they do today.