Know Your Enemy: From Iraq to Afghanistan


(Washington Times)

by Benjamin Bahney and Renny McPherson

November 9, 2008

As debate continues about how to fight a resurgent Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border, leaders in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad seem lost about what to do next.

They are losing time. More U.S. service members have been killed or injured over the last two months in Afghanistan than in Iraq. And most experts agree that an Al Qaeda-orchestrated attack on the U.S. homeland would likely be plotted from their sanctuary in these border areas. The threat is real, and it's getting worse.

Which is why, in our conflict against these terrorist and insurgent movements, we should step back and consider what we have learned from our recent successes in Iraq.

The U.S. military has nearly decimated Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and forced the group underground. How we have broken AQI can shed light on the nature of the Al Qaeda threat and offer critical insight that can be used in operations against our enemies in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border areas.

Lesson One: Military personnel in Iraq understood that money is a weapon, for both Al Qaeda and allied forces. As confiscated AQI internal documents show, AQI was extremely well-organized and bureaucratic. West Point's Combating Terrorism Center has published AQI documents dating back to 2005 showing how AQI directed money, supplies and resources to its fighters and supporters, primarily those Sunni Iraqis who lost jobs and prestige following the disbandment of the Iraqi Army and de-Baathification.

This knowledge helped prompt the U.S. approach in mid-2006 to support, with money and weapons, local leaders outside of the formal Iraqi Security Forces – first in Anbar and then in other provinces. In 2007, elements from these movements formed the Sons of Iraq group that provided intelligence against AQI and added to local security efforts.

This approach can be applied in Afghanistan, where we need a sharper focus on the Taliban's strategy of protecting poppy farming and narco-trafficking. In doing so, the Taliban gains the active (and passive) support of people in key rural areas while simultaneously bolstering the group's largesse and perceived legitimacy. Understanding the Taliban's financial strategy will help us employ economic incentives like we did in Iraq, and help commanders in Afghanistan understand how and where engagement with local lashkar tribal militias will be successful.

Lesson Two: Allied forces in Iraq targeted AQI by uncovering, layer by layer, how the group functioned. Engaged with AQI day after day for years, the military began to see how AQI saw itself: not as self-organizing, loosely connected small groups, but as a formal organization, with a chain of command, that develops and seeks to implement strategic goals.

For the first three years of the insurgency the allied forces could not discern that AQI was decentralized, yet organized. We now know the group was highly organized, and the military has exploited this knowledge.

In Afghanistan now, military commanders and intelligence officials need to devote more effort to understanding the AQ, Taliban and other local insurgent organizations. This is the kind of knowledge that will help reveal the most effective strategies: tribal engagement, an increase in U.S. troop presence, small targeted counter-terror missions, or some combination of the three.

Lesson Three: While recent terrorism research has centered on personal ties and informal networks of terrorist individuals, future study should increasingly consider organizational theory and the role played by types of organizational structures in insurgency and terrorism. The thousands of researchers who make a living by analyzing terrorist and insurgent groups need to study organizational principles of successful terrorist and insurgent groups as closely as they study individual radicalization. Furthermore, research on illicit economies, crime and corruption can enable the U.S. military to better negotiate the hostile environments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While the U.S. military continues to dismantle Al Qaeda in Iraq, the gravest threat to American national security comes from Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. As General Petraeus assumes command of U.S. forces across the Middle East, we hope that crucial lessons from Iraq are applied to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Benjamin Bahney and Renny McPherson, who have spent months conducting research in Iraq, are research analysts at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on November 9, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.