The rising violence and the near certainty of a Taliban spring offensive have triggered calls for an increase in U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. But a military strategy is not likely to succeed. Counterinsurgencies are almost always won by establishing a viable and legitimate government at the local level that can win popular support.
In Afghanistan, all politics is local. The country's history is littered with empires that failed to understand this reality, from Alexander the Great more than 2,000 ago to the British and Soviet empires more recently.
The Taliban and its allies certainly understand the importance of local politics. They have successfully re-emerged by co-opting or threatening local villagers, and promising better governance and security than the current Afghan government. On my most recent trip to southern Afghanistan in January, I saw that the message of the Taliban clearly resonated with a growing number of locals in southern and eastern parts of the country.
Afghans are frustrated by the lack of development over the past five years, and unhappy with widespread government corruption. This makes the Taliban's threat real and significant. The Taliban and its allies have a strong presence in local villages throughout such provinces as Kandahar and Helmand, and are preparing sustained operations.
It is telling that the Taliban's primary target is not U.S. or NATO forces, but local Afghans. This reflects the understanding that the local population represents the center of gravity, as Mao Zedong famously wrote.
The lesson for the United States and NATO is stark. They will win or lose Afghanistan in the rural villages and districts of the country, not in the capital city of Kabul. And if they are to win, they must begin by understanding the local nature of the insurgency.
The insurgency can be divided into two main tiers. The top tier is made up of the Taliban leadership structure and key commanders, including former Afghan leader Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and several hundred other military and political commanders. These men are motivated by radical Islam, and see the insurgency as a fight with Western infidels, and the West's "puppet government" in Kabul.
The bottom tier includes thousands of local fighters and their support network. These are primarily young men from rural villages who are paid to set up roadside bombs, launch rockets and mortars at NATO and Afghan forces, or pick up a gun for a few days. Most are not ideologically committed to jihad. Rather, they are motivated because they are unemployed, disenchanted with the lack of change since 2001, or angry because a local villager was killed or wounded by Afghan, U.S. or NATO forces.
A successful counterinsurgency strategy must separate these two tiers.
Dealing with the top tier requires a Machiavellian approach. Members of this group cannot be converted. They must be captured or killed because of their ideological commitment to jihad. Doing this entails a difficult political and diplomatic feat: convincing the government of Pakistan to undermine the Taliban sanctuary on its soil.
Washington has been unwilling to confront Pakistan over the fact that most of the top-tier Taliban leaders live in Pakistan. There is virtual unanimity among UN and NATO officials that Omar is based Quetta, Pakistan. Omar sits atop a shura, or leadership council, that holds strategic command of the Taliban.
The bottom tier is equally critical. Separating the bottom from the top tier will require fighting for the hearts and souls of local villagers in the south and east by addressing their key concerns.
A series of public opinion polls conducted by the Asia Foundation, the BBC and ABC News show that unemployment is a significant concern for most Afghans. As a result, many of the bottom-tier fighters can be co-opted by giving them jobs. This has already begun to happen in such provinces as Kandahar, where Canadian forces are trying to employ local fighters in road construction projects and Afghanistan's new auxiliary police force.
Reconstruction and development need to reach rural areas threatened by the Taliban to capture the allegiance of the bottom tier. This has not happened. Despite NATO and Afghan government efforts to establish development zones in the south and east, I was shocked to find how little has actually occurred because of security concerns. The irony is that areas most at risk to the Taliban receive no development assistance. In addition, U.S. and NATO forces need to minimize the use of lethal force. Killing one innocent Afghan civilian can turn a village against the Afghan government and coalition.
Separating the insurgency's two tiers is possible. But it requires an understanding of the primacy of local politics. And it means convincing villagers in the south and east that the local and national governments have more to offer than the Taliban. The key question is whether the United States and NATO, unlike past great powers, will understand this before it is too late.
Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on January 31, 2007.