The Afghanistan debate raging in the United States has become hijacked by an obsession with American troop numbers. But this discussion misunderstands the subtle nuances of fighting a war in areas inhabited by fiercely independent Pashtun tribes, whose culture and traditions are under severe threat from the Taliban.
The current strategy rightly focuses on protecting the Afghan population. The U.S. counterinsurgency manual suggests that a force of roughly 20 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 inhabitants is necessary to secure an area. But it is a misunderstanding of counterinsurgency doctrine to assume that these numbers must be international forces or even Afghan national security forces. What's more, it reflects a troubling failure to understand Afghanistan.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is mostly confined to Pashtun areas of the country, which are dominated by tribes, sub-tribes, and clans that have historically rejected an intrusive Afghan government and permanent international presence. Khushhal Khan Khatak, a seventeenth century Pashtun poet and warrior, aptly noted that "the very name Pashtun spells honor and glory. Lacking that honor, what is the Afghan story?"
Pashtuns are predominantly conservative Sunni Muslims and are the largest ethnic group in the country. They are scattered across southern, eastern, western, and even pockets of northern Afghanistan. For most Pashtuns, tribal lineage and their code of conduct, or Pashtunwali, takes precedence over Islamic law for legal matters. Tribal leaders have historically adjudicated disputes at the local level, and mullahs have tended to play a background and subordinate role.
But the Taliban is trying to undermine Pashtun tribal norms and establish a top-down ideology based on a radical interpretation of Deobandism, elevating the role of mullahs. In most Afghan provinces, the Taliban has appointed "shadow" governors to provide law and order in areas they control or influence. Most are religious leaders, such as Mullah Aminullah in Kandahar Province and Mullah Naim Barech in Helmand Province.
In addition, the Taliban has welcomed the role of foreign jihadists and religious zealots to establish an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In northern Afghanistan, they have linked up with Tajik and Uzbek religious militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In such provinces as Helmand, they have supported small numbers of al-Qaeda and other Arab jihadists to manufacture bombs and engage in propaganda. And the Taliban has coordinated with al-Qaeda on some spectacular suicide attacks, including in Kabul City in September 2009.
The Taliban's emphasis on a top-down ideology in a region where power has emanated from the bottom up poses a notable opportunity for the United States. A few more American brigades may be helpful in clearing Taliban-infiltrated territory in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But it won't win the war by itself.
An effective strategy needs to facilitate a Pashtun revolt against the Taliban. There are a range of opportunities to exploit tribal grievances against the Taliban by supporting Noorzai, Alizai, Alikozai, and other tribes in southern and western Afghanistan, as well as Kharoti, Shinwari, and others in eastern Afghanistan.
The objective should be to do what Afghanistan's most effective historical governments have done: help Pashtun tribes, sub-tribes, and clans provide security and justice in their areas and manage the process. When tribes rebel against the government or fight each other, government security forces can move in to crush the uprising and mediate the disputes. Pashtuns have generally eschewed an intrusive central government in their areas, but most have supported a government that serves as a mediator.
If the United States can facilitate this development, it could potentially turn the war in Afghanistan. But it requires U.S. policymakers to better appreciate the nuances of Afghan society and support a rebellion against Taliban leaders trying to destroy Pashtun traditions and culture.
In the debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, author Seth G. Jones believes the path to success lies in facilitating a Pashtun revolt against the Taliban. Jones, a Rand political scientist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, is author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, published by W.W. Norton in July.
This commentary originally appeared on Washington Post online on October 2, 2009.