Reconsidering Afghanistan's Center of Gravity: The Taliban, Pashtunwali, and Tribal Social Systems
The Taliban is presently the center of gravity in Afghanistan. This is not due to the fact the group is the perceived adversary, but it is because the Taliban wields power. The insurgency in Afghanistan, predominantly composed of ethnic Pashtuns, is a physical agent performing actions that accumulate in strategic outcomes that do not favor the central government. Equally important, the insurgency is emboldened by intangible socio-cultural variables like Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, Salafi jihadism, and Pashtunwali. These intangible variables influence relevant actors and give the Taliban insurgency the capability to obtain their political objectives. After almost two decades of misidentifying and attacking centers of gravity (COGs), another insurgency strategy needs to be considered or reconsidered for the limited defeat of the Taliban hybrid threat.
This article conducts an updated version of COG analysis, first on the Pashtun social system, and then on the Taliban sub-system, using revised definitions and nonlinear dynamical systems analysis. These analyses together identify vulnerabilities, and provide recommendations to change the COG, which––I argue––repairs key vulnerabilities and stabilizes the interconnected socio-political systems of Afghanistan. Ultimately, the following analysis argues for a jointly federally administered region between Afghanistan and Pakistan that maximizes native resources, accommodates cultural norms while promoting economic development, and encourages peace through semi-autonomous governance along tribal lines.
The Eikmeier Method of COG Analysis
Considering the Taliban as the primary COG in the war in Afghanistan utilizes the new COG definition that both clarifies and modernizes the COG concept, which is a crucial approach as operational environments and population dynamics change over time. The insurgency, also called “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” exists in the physical environment and has the capability to attain their objectives. As of May 2017, the Taliban controlled or contested 40 percent of Afghan districts and subsequently heavily influences international security policy. In order to elucidate the insurgency’s mechanisms of control and influence, this article employs the Eikmeier method of COG analysis that includes revised definitions, precision, and testability. It also draws from nonlinear science and warfare concepts, which include systems, chaos, and complexity theories.
Additionally, critical factors are the framework for COG analysis and the integration of systems theory exhibited in Clausewitz’s Schwerpunkt concept. These factors include the fundamental capabilities (abilities to accomplish an objective), requirements (conditions, resources and means), and vulnerabilities of the COG. Once evaluated, these factors not only become targets for attack, but also for both direct and indirect engagement using lethal and nonlethal means. By exploiting critical vulnerabilities (requirements or subsets), actors can deny or enable a critical requirement necessary to perform a critical capability. Capabilities are directly linked to the COG’s objective.
The Complexity of the Pashtun Social System
The Taliban movement and subsequent insurgency exhibits complex behavior. There are an estimated 30,000 full time fighters. The human system and social ecosystem primarily involves ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan. At 42% of the total population, Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the Punjabi ethnic group accounts for 44.68% of the population followed by 15.42% Pashtun. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), currently referred to as “Khyber-Pakhtuhkhwa,” are a semi-autonomous––primarily Pashtun––region in northwestern Pakistan and along the southeast border of Afghanistan. The FATA has been strategically important since the political and diplomatic confrontations between Britain and Russia in the 19th century. The original Taliban or “students” trace their history to the FATA where they received hardline Islamic teachings there in madrassas. The roughly 27,000 square kilometer region is included in the Constitution of Pakistan and administered by the federal government through special regulations. In recent times, these areas have been designated as adversary sanctuaries and targeted by U.S drone strikes with mixed results.
The Taliban are a hub in the largest tribal network in the world, from which they draw power and resources.
The Pashtun social ecosystem is the most resilient in the region based on thousands of years of co-evolution with a changing environment. Pashtuns are also the largest tribal society in the modern world with 50 million members bound by tribal structures and networks. The system is resilient because it copes with disturbances that are also viewed as chronic stresses and shocks. This resilience developed from nearly four decades of internal civil war and external interventions in the 20th century. Examples of internal stresses are competition among the four Pashtun super tribal confederacies, one of which includes the Haqqani’s Zadran tribe, and conflict with other ethnic groups including Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks. Pashtun tribes have ancient rivalries, but these are mitigated or coped with through traditional assemblies called jirgas. System disturbances are viewed by Pashtuns as assaults on their land, culture, and way of life. They behave, and resolve system disturbances, in a manner consistent with tribal customs, resistance and aversion to unrepresentative government, and diversionary foreign interventions.
The Taliban are an interconnected Pashtun subsystem driven by Sunni fundamentalist ideology and resistance, as well as revolutionary warfare that enables self-repairing, self-maintaining, and coherence of their organization. New order and coherence enables evolution and sustainability. The Taliban are sustained by both state and non-state actors, but have the inherent capability to survive absent external support. A variety of factors have enabled their survival, but a key social variable is ethnicity and originates in Pashtun nationalism. This accounts for continued support, identity driven behavior, and a receptive audience. The Taliban are a hub in the largest tribal network in the world, from which they draw power and resources.
The Taliban’s Critical Factors
Since the 2001 invasion, Taliban critical factors have been targets for direct and indirect attack. Examples include key leaders, military commanders, illicit trafficking of black market goods (opium and fertilizer), safe havens, narratives, and state support. Despite this, in 2017, the Taliban system is still not only resilient, but thriving. Thriving, whether physical or psychological, reflects decreased reactivity to stressors, faster recovery or consistently higher levels of functioning. Recent territorial gains, high profile attacks, and Islamic fundamentalist recruitment are examples of its continued success. Next, the “population” are routinely assessed as the COG in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and unconventional warfare operations. The population assessment does not fully account for Pashtun groups, who identify as “Taliban,” but do not support Salafi jihadism. Previous assessments have recommended co-opting various Afghan Taliban groups to increase security and governance in rural, predominantly Pashtun areas.
The insurgency is a large part of the population and has critical capabilities, requirements, and vulnerabilities. One of the assessed COG vulnerabilities is ineffective governance in areas with high concentrations of Pashtun ethnolinguistic groups. This is largely due to previous and ongoing wars in Afghanistan, resulting in high civilian casualties. The current central government, which has been assessed as a COG before, is not able to govern effectively. The Taliban shadow government, which consists of departments and directorates, is the only alternative in concentrated Pashtun areas based on ineffective foreign intervention and tenuous Afghan-led reconciliation efforts. The Taliban mainstream faction thrives on exploiting population grievances, human collateral damage, and foreign occupation as critical factors linked to messaging and objectives.
If You Change the COG, You Change the System
If you don’t like the COG, change it. Afghanistan as a federal system of government with autonomous areas is the premise of an article written by Major Bryan Carroll and Dr. David A. Anderson for Small Wars Journal in 2009. In Afghanistan, power resides with the tribes and is a principal case for autonomous regions with effective government penetration, whereby tribes facilitate security, infrastructure and economic capacities and are enabled by the federal government’s resources. An autonomous or semi-autonomous system of governance is required to maximize area resources while accommodating cultural norms and launching economic priorities. This system of government also employs Stathis Kalyvas’ “logic of violence”, which predicts when insurgents are in a sovereign area, insurgent violence decreases. In The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Kalyvas states the parity of control between the actors “is likely to produce no selective violence by the actors.” One of the associated factors of this approach is the degree in which Islamic law is exacted, which has implications for human rights and continued support the United States and others provide Afghanistan in the future.
Because the “Durand Line” is a principle source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the proposed region would have to be co-governed: a joint FATA with equal laws.
The current case for semi-autonomous areas is realized through continued United Nations brokered peace talks, High Peace Council (HPC) involvement, constitutional reform, and integration with on-going FATA reforms and mergers in Pakistan. Afghanistan needs to adopt a similar regulation to establish and administer semi-autonomous areas, whilst cooperating diplomatically, informationally, and economically with Pakistan as well as the international community. International support involves Russia, China, Iran and India. It also includes non-military means and enabling of sustained government penetration. There are still enduring requirements for security force assistance and counter-terrorism missions that will enable government penetration, but another multinational troop surge or enduring occupation is likely not a reasonably successful strategy––as it would provoke resistance warfare and set back any prior peace proceedings.
The current FATA reforms in Pakistan are scheduled to conclude in 2022. If Afghanistan pursues a similar reformation model, negotiation and implementation will also take time to develop. They will require positive Pakistani involvement, non-obstruction by Afghan officials, and decreased Pakistani support to the insurgency. The proposed AFPAK FATA is not limited to Pashtun areas and is meant to incentivize a negotiated settlement and broker ceasefires, reconciliation, reconstruction, and repatriation processes. Because the “Durand Line” is a principle source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the proposed region would have to be co-governed: a joint FATA with equal laws. There will still be irreconcilable Sunni fundamentalist subsystems in the region driven by Islamic law and Salafi jihadism, but the system’s inputs, interactions, and stimuli must change. Corruption, militant, and violent extremist subsystems will either thrive, recover, survive with impairment or succumb. For example, the ceasefire between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) came after four years of peace talks in Cuba ending a 52-year old war. If history has taught us anything, Afghans have time on their side.
The present center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban subsystem of the greater Pashtun social system enabled by Pakistani elites. The insurgency is effectively wielding power to meet their independence and removal of foreign occupation objectives. Re-analyzing the critical factors and engaging the critical vulnerability of ineffective governance forces nonlinear change. Decoupling interdependent systems causes changes in initial conditions and adjusts the system’s later state. Based on Afghanistan’s overall history and resilience, cascading failures through nonlinear escalation will most likely not move the system into a chaotic state. Results may be mono or multi-stable. Legitimate central government control of urban areas and de-centralized agreements with tribal areas worked during the King Zahir Shah era (1933-1973).
Ineffective governance by all relevant actors is mitigated by transforming Afghanistan into a federal system of government with semi-autonomous areas. This includes political accommodation, ethnic nationalism, financial incentive structures, and power sharing. Non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan also favor a decentralized and moderate form of government based on Afghan social structures. Pashtunwali and jirgas can establish and maintain democracy, and if given the chance, co-evolve with the operational environment and alleviate core population grievances. The tribes are the main emphasis and must become the primary friendly COG and wielder of political power, which draws resources from the federal government and multinational systems. This is not a silver bullet, but this analysis balances divergent interests and offers an alternative to the status quo for re-establishing stability in Afghanistan.
Victor R. Morris is a civilian contractor and former U.S. Army Officer who has served in Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: A Pashtun tribal leader addressing a jirga near the Khyber Pass (Majeed Babar––RFE/RL).