The Accidental Guerrillas

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In mid-2004, I began to think that the war on terrorism might actually be best understood as a form of globalised insurgency, with a vanguard of hyper-modern, internationally oriented terrorists, namely al Qaeda and its affiliates.

This vanguard can be seen to make use of all the tools of globalisation, applying a strategy of transnational guerrilla warfare while seeking to organise, aggregate and exploit the local, particular, long-standing grievances of diverse, but usually tribal or traditional, Muslim social groups.

Taliban organisational structure varies between districts, but most show some variation of the generic pattern of a local clandestine network structure, a main force of full-time guerrillas who travel from valley to valley, and a part-time network of villagers who co-operate with the main force when it is in their area.

In districts close to the Pakistan border, young men graduating from Pakistani madrassas also swarm across the frontier to join the main force when it engages in major combat — as happened during the September 2006 fighting in Kandahar Province, and again in the 2007 and 2008 fighting seasons.

These multifaceted motivations provide Taliban fighters with a strong but elastic discipline. Although opportunities may arise for us to "divide and conquer" elements of the enemy, in practice local ties tend to far outweigh government influence. Thus we need to induce local tribal and community leaders who have the respect and tribal loyalty of part-time elements to "wean" them away from loyalty to the main force of the Taliban. Appealing to the self-interest of local clandestine cell leaders may also help isolate them from the influence of senior Taliban leaders who are now safe in Pakistan.

Clearly, the weakest motivational links within the Taliban confederation are those that are based on the "accidental guerrilla" syndrome — as when a guerrilla is fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours. He follows folk-ways of tribal warfare that are mediated by traditional cultural norms, values, and perceptual lenses; he is engaged (from his point of view) in "resistance" rather than "insurgency" and fights principally to be left alone.

Potential approaches to detaching these individuals from main-force influence include going through local security measures such as neighborhood watch groups and auxiliary police units, the creation of alternative organisations and life-pathways (including jobs and social networks) for young men, protection from Taliban intimidation, and alternative economic activities. The main force itself is highly cohesive in most districts, and relatively invulnerable to direct penetration or infiltration. But the habit of recruiting part-time local fighters to join the main force, including forced recruitment, might expose the main force to indirect infiltration.

In terms of combat skills, reports from units in the field, as well as my participant observations, suggest extremely high competence in some areas, but some equally significant lapses in others. Key areas of skill include ambushing, use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), sniping, field defences, and reconnaissance. Weaknesses include a tendency to operate in a set routine, lack of communications security, poor indirect fire skills, dispersed tactical movement, and sloppiness in the security of cross-border infiltration.

Insurgent groups have mounted ambushes using up to several hundred fighters, including co-ordinated mortar, rocket and sniper fire to engage Coalition troops in the killing area, and the use of L-shaped or T-shaped layouts to catch troops in crossfire. They have shown good fire discipline, marksmanship and tactical control during these activities. Although in many cases they have suffered significant casualties, they have shown an aggressive spirit and a marked willingness to accept severe losses in order to press home an attack.

Proficient use of snipers, operating in pairs and co-ordinating their activities by radio both between pairs and with manoeuvre forces, are a key feature of improved insurgent tactical proficiency since 2005. Camouflage, stalking, use of high-powered optics, and co-ordinated engagement are all signs of increasing professionalism by enemy snipers, who have graduated from the category of "marksmen" to become true sniper pairs in the professional military sense. This bespeaks at least some training by professionally qualified military snipers, or by foreign fighters (such as Chechens) with previous operational sniping experience. It also shows an emphasis on training and preparation that was absent from some of the ad hoc Taliban efforts of previous years.

In terms of strengths, the insurgents have shown great skill in scouting and intelligence collection, using local villagers and clandestine cadres for close target reconnaissance and conducting stand-off observation from dominating hills and by means of night and day movement in mountainous and vegetated areas (particularly in the eastern hills and the "green belt" in the Helmand and Arghandab river valleys).

Finally, insurgent equipment has improved substantially over time. By 2005 and 2006, small arms and RPGs being carried by the Taliban were generally of much better quality than the weapons carried by their opponents in the Afghan National Army (ANA) or the Afghan National Police (ANP), though Government weapons have improved in quality since that time. Other insurgent weapons capabilities (especially rockets and IEDs) continue to improve in sophistication. Handheld radios, satellite phones, and cell phones have become common. Some infiltrators wear items of camouflage uniform, and some even have rudimentary badges of rank. Vehicles are of better standard than most of those belonging to the Afghan Government or its forces, and the supplying of food, water, and ammunition is very effective.

Meanwhile, the Taliban still tends to travel more lightly, with far less reliance on the road network or logistic resupply, than the ANA/ANP or the Coalition forces, giving the enemy greater tactical mobility in rural parts of the country, especially where a measure of popular support exists for their agenda.

This is an edited extract from The Accidental Guerrilla — Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one by David Kilcullen (Scribe).

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