We’ve got the watches, they’ve got the time
A common saying in Afghanistan is “we’ve got the watches they’ve got the time.” A perfect metaphor to describe the Western obsession time and the Taliban’s eternal patience. That is why U.S Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates’ statement that the United States will not be leaving Afghanistan is exactly the message to send to the Taliban. If you don’t have the time don’t start a war in Afghanistan.
The simplicity of life in Afghanistan is also a camouflage for the Afghan’s ability to withstand asymmetrical threats from the climate, terrain or a foreign military. We have failed to recognise their historical capacity to adapt. Ahmed Rashid, one of the best contemporary authors on Afghanistan, suggests that the devastation of the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war influenced the Taliban state of mind. The longer we engage the more they evolve – both politically and violently.
They know they don’t have to win the war. They just have to outlast our domestic time constraints and out-govern Karzai and his corrupt Provincial representatives.
The Taliban know all about counterinsurgency. Messages would come back to me from the Quetta Shura to say “we don’t want those men working because they won’t have time to fight.”
Some Taliban leaders are even encouraging reconstruction projects where the corrupt Provincial Governor is only interested in lining his own pockets with international aid money.
Success in Afghanistan starts with a better understanding of this human terrain. This is an unconventional war in a deeply tribal society where foreign forces are attempting something that has never been done in Afghanistan.
In fact it is not really a war. The conflict in Afghanistan was described to me by a U.S Provincial Reconstruction Team Commander as “international policing amidst random acts of horrendous violence.”
Sure, the character of the Afghan people may be beyond our control, but we have complicated the atmospherics by things we have done that are in our control. It has been made harder by mostly international NGOs who lack the guts to engage with the population outside the wire. They are too Kabul centric.
Endless green tea at the Governor’s compound is not counterinsurgency. We have also spent too long funding Warlords and tolerating corrupt Governors. A sub-Governor in Ghazni who raped a young girl was simply shifted to another District. He was only sacked when he did not steal enough wheat from the World Food Program for the former Governor of Ghazni, Usmani Usmani.
What makes a murdering warlord or a corrupt Government official any better than the local Taliban? Most importantly, we continue to treat the Taliban as a homogenous group of insurgents. We have failed to turn the local Taliban against the foreign insurgents coming from Pakistan who have no interest in the future of Afghanistan.
International security forces are not the only “foreigners” in Afghanistan. The local Taliban could have been turned against the foreign insurgents by facilitating an organic uprising. Similar to how General David Patreaus took advantage of the Awakening movement of disaffected Sunnis against the barbaric degradation of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Sunnis rose up against the foreign al-Qaeda. General Petraeus armed and supported the Sunnis who were far more effective and ruthless in eliminating the foreign insurgents.
Abdul Mohammed, a local Talib interviewed by The Telegraph in March 2010, was one of a force of around 160 Taliban fighters from Helmand Province. As well as local Afghans, his unit was composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis. Abdul said the foreign fighters kept themselves apart from the Afghan Taliban, who they regarded as being less committed to the cause of global Jihad.
Local Talibs like Abdul could easily pick up an AK-47 to shoot Coalition forces one day and a shovel to clean a canal the next. Yet, and this is the key, both actions are in direct support and protection of their local interests. Neither action is intended to be part of a global terrorist network.
To understand this state of mind requires a level of emotional intelligence that is difficult to acquire within the strict rules of engagement for Coalition Forces and the current approach of civilian development organisations.
In Afghanistan it helps to have two interpreters. One to translate the literal meaning of your discussion and the other to watch and sense what is “really” being said – this person is more important than the first. This is as much about winning the mind games as it is about winning the war games.
We also need to start learning how to shoot and chew gum at the same time. By that I mean fight and negotiate, with the local Taliban. In Afghan tribal society even when engaged in war against another tribe, lines of communication are maintained.
Dialogue between elders from rival tribes is often what resolves disputes not military defeat. Once members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had been dismantled, direct engagement with local Taliban should have occurred.
Australia could look to shift its game across three areas: military, civilian and political. We need to cut deals with local Taliban and turn them against the foreign insurgents, warlords and criminals. Our forces should establish Village Engagement Teams – who move into a village and live, eat sleep with villages to provide a protection and security blanket. This is a superb concept put forward by a member of a U.S Human Terrain Team I worked with in Southern Afghanistan.
We need to arrest warlords and corrupt Governors and sub-Governors. Our tolerance of these scoundrels simply feeds into the foreign insurgents. Australia has gone somewhere towards increasing our civilian commitment by taking over the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan but they need to learn how to operate outside the wire away from armoured vehicles.
They need to be trained on how to blend into the community. On the political front Australia needs to apply direct diplomatic pressure in bi-lateral and multi-lateral forums on Pakistan. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, had the opportunity to do this with U.S Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, during her recent visit to Australia. Again and most importantly, resist the domestic political pressure to put time frames on our military or civilian commitments.
Not only is conflict 80% political and 20% military, the 80% in Afghanistan is virtually 100% local. In that context, foreigners feel they know better and dont have the patience to build deep relationships at the local level.
One of the most prescient lessons from T.E. Lawrence, in his famous 27 Articles published in 1917, is not to do too much with your own hands.
There is always the temptation to impress upon the locals how we can do things better. Better the local people do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. What was so true in Afghanistan is our practical work was never as good as, perhaps, we thought.
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