Small Wars Journal

Co-Opting the Afghan Taleban

Thu, 02/23/2012 - 7:10am

Editor's Note:  In suggesting that ISAF attempts to co-opt the Afghan Taleban, M. Shands Pickett offers a bold solution that may be welcomed by some and seen as disingenuous by others.  As we contemplate the drawdown, however, we must explore those nuances and options that have been there all along, but were put off in hopes of a miracle.

People have the idea that their countries are important to them.  But in Afghanistan the fighters don't have this notion, and the poverty here leads them to join whoever is powerful.

--Shahmurat, village elder[1]


Throughout their history, Afghans have constantly switched allegiances to suit changing goals.  The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should take this lesson to heart.  Instead of assigning their Marines and Soldiers the Sisyphean missions of securing the Afghan hinterlands alongside reluctant Afghan National Army (ANA) partners, ISAF should instead harness the Afghanistan Taleban against Pakistan-based insurgent groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and the Haqqani Network and employ the Afghan Taleban to provide governance and security in the countryside.  This is, somewhat counterintuitively, this best way to preserve the existence of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and prevent the country from sliding into a civil war after ISAF departs Afghanistan en masse in 2014.

The Taleban Multiplicity

The Taleban is not a monolithic organization. It is, instead, a lose movement of various groups local and foreign, small and large.  Mullah Omar, the Peshawar shura, and the Quetta shura do not exercise direct command and control over many Taleban-associated insurgents.  And the Afghans themselves have many ways of differentiating between Taleban groups.  The diffuse nature of the Taleban that makes traditional negotiations problematic (such as those underway in Qatar) but also makes rapprochement from the bottom-up all the more likely.  It is here, at the local level, where GIRoA should focus its reconciliation efforts.

While serving with Task Force White Eagle in Ghazni Province, I interviewed hundreds of Pashtuns about Taleban-related security concerns.  A common theme emerged in these interviews: the consistent assertion on the part of the Afghans I spoke with that the so-called Taleban threat originates not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan.  The Afghans always seemed at a loss to understand why ISAF couldn’t simply cross the border and, in the words of one particularly angry district governor, “kill them in their womb.”

Of course, many Afghans were simply protecting their cousins and extended family members with active associations with local Taleban fighters in telling a platoon-sized group of ISAF personnel to “look over there” for targets.  But I heard the assertion repeated with such frequency that I’ve come to believe the fissures between local and non-local groups fighting under the “Taleban” umbrella are in many areas much greater than we suspect.

The Locals and the Foreigners

The ties that bind Afghan village communities together are much stronger than those which link foreign insurgent groups to local Taleban fighters.  Every Afghan I interviewed predominately self-identified with their village before they identified with GIRoA, Afghanistan itself, or even Islam.  The qwam, or rural tribal and familial tie, is the basic building block of Afghan life.  According to Afghan scholar Thomas Barfield, “The outstanding social feature of life in Afghanistan is its local and tribal ethnic divisions.  People’s primary loyalty is, respectively, to their own kin, village, tribe, or ethnic group, generally glossed as qwam.”[2]

ISAF’s counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts often ask Afghans to put our Western perceptions of security before their own concept of the good of the qwam; we expect Afghans to give up members of their own communities (our “Taleban fighters”) in service of a government from which their qwam has likely seen no benefit.  These fighters are also village’s fathers, sons, and cousins.  Much energy has gone into creating rural GIRoA-backed police forces, the Afghanistan Local Police (ALP), to counter these rural insurgents.  Yet, this effort ignores an important ground truth.  The Afghans already have a local police force: the Taleban.

There is no reason that ISAF vis-à-vis GIRoA can’t successfully negotiate with these local groups.  Afghan Taleban are not a serious threat to America’s vital interests – unlike many Pakistan-based terrorist groups.  If ISAF were not to have a footprint in their areas, most Afghan Taleban members would simply go back to tending their fields, repairing motorcycles, or watching after their families.  We create, embolden, and perpetuate the Afghan Taleban insurgency by our very presence.  With night raids, clearing operations and even well-intentioned construction projects gone awry, ISAF disrupts Afghan daily life and grossly distorts the Afghan economy.

We must ask ourselves why violence reached peak levels in 2011.  Simply, it is because there are more ISAF troops on the ground, which creates more targets of opportunity, but also exponentially magnifies the social disruption the foreign presence in Afghanistan causes.  If ISAF were to leave Afghanistan, violence would drop to negligible levels within the eastern and southern parts of the country.  Instead of continuing down the path of the ill-conceived and under-resourced COIN effort, ISAF should spend its remaining time in country enabling GIRoA to incorporate the best practices of Taleban shadow governance into its formal structures.  By enfranchising the Afghan Taleban, GIRoA can leverage them against non-local actors.  ISAF can rely on the Afghan Taleban to secure their communities with far greater efficiency than the corrupt GIRoA police forces.  In essence, ISAF should help GIRoA outsource COIN to the Taleban.

Using the Afghan Taleban to Expel Foreign Insurgents

In his most recent book, Bing West describes an episode where a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Asadabad, Kunar Province is blamed for an attack in a bazaar, despite a video clearly showing an insurgent throwing an explosive into a crowd.[3]  This destroys the morale of the unit tasked with building projects by demonstrating that no matter what they do to build goodwill, the local population is ready to believe that worst of them—many cups of tea and ten million dollars later.

The bad news is that most Afghans don’t trust foreigners.  The good news is that most Afghans don’t trust foreigners.  We are of course more foreign than Pakistani insurgent groups, and Afghans will always defer to a fellow Pashtun from Pakistan over an American from ISAF.  But, the rural Afghan with Taleban sympathies would prefer to have neither around if given his druthers.

ISAF’s presence enables intra-insurgent allegiances that would otherwise not exist.  The call-to-arms of “foreign occupiers in the homeland” creates strange bedfellows in Afghanistan (as the Soviets and British before us learned so well).  The coming drastic reductions in ISAF’s footprint should address much of this problem.  As combat troop are drawn-down, ISAF should simultaneously work with GIRoA to indentify and grant legal amnesty to all Taleban fighters born and based in Afghanistan.  ISAF should exploit the cleavages between the Afghan Taleban groups and the non-Afghan groups with this general amnesty.

With a massively reduced ISAF footprint, legal amnesty, and no fear of ISAF targeting, most Afghan fighters will find little incentive to continue escalating attacks on GIRoA and will actively self-police their communities as they have always done.  But this is not to cede the whole country to the Afghan Taleban, just the rural areas where GIRoA is non-present, the difficult geographies deemed “ungovernable.”  There, the Taleban can continue to provide the population with the legal and security services that led to their rise to power in the first place—and which they do exceedingly well.

GIRoA in the City, Taleban in the Country

From urban centers like Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Ghazni City, GIRoA can continue to expand its services and provide a cosmopolitan refuge for those who would prefer a more liberal interpretation of sharia law.  GIRoA is often criticized (and usually with good reason) for failures to live up to its promises, deliver services, or provide honest governance. Yet, at least in the larger municipalities, GIRoA gets a better than passing grade from Afghans for power, water and roads.[4]

A liberalizing, urban influence will radiate from the cities into the countryside.  And perhaps over a period of several generations, Afghans in the countryside will become invested in a more mature GIRoA brand of democracy and the services it offers.  But now, and for the foreseeable future, GIRoA cannot exert much influence outside of the city centers.  It is even possible that perhaps the rural Taleban will even have a positive effect on the rampant corruption within GIRoA.


The idea of co-opting local villagers as a security force is not new.  ISAF has tried several times to create community policing programs.  The ALP is the latest in series of these programs and is good point of departure for officially bridging the divide between GIRoA and the Afghan Taleban.  The reason: many ALP are also Taleban.[5]

The first step in reconciliation with local Taleban groups is acknowledging that the ALP and the Taleban are not discrete and opposing entities.  In fact, the ALP can become the lowest-level hybrid GIRoA-Taleban organization.  But it must be formalized in policy that the Taleban working with the ALP will not be targeted by ISAF.  The local fighters must be able to join or work with the ALP without renouncing their Taleban associations (as previous reintegration efforts have asked them to do).  ISAF Village Stability Operations (VSOs) can monitor this process in areas where they are present and help negotiate ALP/Taleban roles and responsibilities.  VSOs can also ensure that foreign fighters remain separate from those Afghan Taleban groups working in the villages.

GIRoA’s district governors can also play a leading role in arbitrating the reconciliation between GIRoA at the provincial level and the Taleban at the village level.  Indeed, most effective district governors already straddle the two groups—otherwise they’d be dead.  The governors can help GIRoA and the Afghan National Army (ANA) indentify the foreign groups operating in their areas. U.S. Army Civil Affairs (CA) teams and State Department District Support Teams (DSTs) can mentor their local governors in reaching out to their shadow government counterparts where and when negotiations become possible.

Both village-level and district-level efforts to engage the Afghan Taleban will take time and must be done with great caution to avoid creating power vacuums or empowering foreign-based terrorist organizations.  Yet, because engagement with Taleban groups places more emphasis on diplomatic rather the combat capabilities, efforts can take place on a longer timescale and without a robust a ground troop presence.

Endgame: Countering Violent Extremism and Preventing a Civil War

If we treat them as expert rural security and governance partners, the Afghan Taleban can secure their own communities.  GIRoA should offer the support of the ANA in driving out foreign fighters at the invitation of the local Taleban leadership and formally grant Afghan Taleban-controlled rural areas semi-autonomous status.  ISAF should continue to target foreign national fighters from more remote locations with a much lower visibility.  ISAF and GIRoA should together actively engage local Taleban groups—whether the nominal Taleban leadership in Quetta and Peshawar likes it or not.  Reconciliation with those local groups will build leverage in negotiations at the national level and counter the violent extremism emanating from the madrasahs in Pakistan.

Both rural and urban Afghans alike are horrified by the types of violence they see perpetrated by foreign actors.  In particular, the dramatic increase in suicide bombings over the past year has alienated many more traditional Afghan Taleban groups who see that tactic as anathematic to very idea of being a Pashtun.  The pressure put on insurgent groups has forced them to resort to these types of attacks that eradicate Afghan popular support.  In the space created between the local population and the extreme acts of violence, we have the opportunity to negotiate with broad swaths of local Taleban fighters

Yet, co-opting the Afghan Taleban is not to give up on important social issues in Afghanistan, such as equal rights for women and access to education.  One of our great and largely unrecognized victories in Afghanistan has been in the moderating influence ISAF has had on Taleban groups.[6]  The competition for legitimacy has created a more tolerant iteration of the Taleban that will allow the population under their control nearly the same freedoms those who live under GIRoA enjoy.  But in order to prevent Taleban backsliding on social issues, GIRoA must continue to set an example.

Erasing the lines we’ve drawn in the sand between GIRoA and the Taleban will relieve a great of the pressure that could likely result in a civil war between the Pashtun-dominated south and east and the more diverse north.  A bottom-up rapprochement now can begin to address the grievances that could potential drive future conflict.  As a Pashtun district governor in Ghazni Province once told me, “The Taleban cannot build, but ISAF cannot govern.”  Striking a better balance between these two capabilities gives GIRoA the breathing room it needs to mature.

[1] Jon Lee Anderson and Thomas Dworzak, The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan (New York: Grove Press, 2002), 101.

[2] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (New York: Princeton University Press, 2011), 18.

[3] Bing West, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (New York: Random House, 2011), 71.

[4] USAID, “RAMP-UP East Public Opinion,” Municipal Baseline Survey, October 2010.

[5] David Axe, “ISAF, Afghan Taliban Forge Unlikely Alliance in Key Border Town,” Offiziere, February 2, 2012.


[6] Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, “The Battle for the Schools: The Taleban and State Education,” August 2011.


Categories: Taliban - Pakistan - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

M. Shands Pickett is an operational environment specialist at the U.S. Army Joint Multinational Readiness Center. He holds a Masters in U.S. Foreign Policy from The George Washington University. The views of the author do not reflect the official policies and positions of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Government.



Tue, 06/27/2017 - 1:48pm

"The Taleban is not a monolithic organization. It is, instead, a lose movement of various groups local and foreign, small and large.

Mullah Omar, the Peshawar shura, and the Quetta shura do not exercise direct command and control over many Taleban-associated insurgents. And the Afghans themselves have many ways of differentiating between Taleban groups.

The diffuse nature of the Taleban that makes traditional negotiations problematic (such as those underway in Qatar) but also makes rapprochement from the bottom-up all the more likely.

It is here, at the local level, where GIRoA should focus its reconciliation efforts."


Fri, 03/02/2012 - 10:54am

Pretty good. It sounds like they really get it at the ground level interpretation of Taliban fighter motives that the majority of articles miss. I recognize that articles inherently limit how much discussion this sort of thing gets at, but it does seem like they see things with a kind of rose-tinted glasses. I don’t think that you can just expect there to be this harmony and ease of mobility for individuals to choose a more liberal-urban centers to travel to. I think that the approach is good, but you still need ways of influencing the Taliban to keep from building ambitions to rule over the cities as well. Aka, I think they would feel like the red headed step child of Afghanistan governance if the line was ‘alright, take care of security, and we’re gonna just do what we want over here in the urban areas’, an animosity that would eventually turn to conflict. You also have to ensure that the kind of sympathies engendered for fellow tribe members doesn’t lead to them harboring radical organizations, which was our beef with them in the first place. How you go about this, I’m not sure. The solution is probably something close to offering blanket amnesty for Afghan-born Taliban members and excluding foreigners – which is a brilliant idea, and the most genius part of the article.


Thu, 03/01/2012 - 9:58pm

Impressive article that is insightful both on the issue at hand and on the need for improved management of US national security challenges across the board. To the latter point, the policy suggestions are reminiscent of the call to replace ill-fated attempts to dominate complex situations with an “application of credible influence and strength” to shape them, discussed in the national strategic narrative document written last year by two officers at the Joint Staff under former CJCS Mike Mullen.

The proposals consider the sometimes competing dynamics of security, anthropology, and nation-building, in addition to the situation on the ground. In effect, it gives much-needed concrete form to broader ideas articulated by others (such as Fareed Zakaria in his recent blog post “Fantasy and Reality in Afghanistan”). […]

It’s also not at all apparent that these suggestions would require more diplomatic or cultural understanding or effort than is already being expended. The greatest obstacles will likely stem from US politics. The article states: “A liberalizing, urban influence will radiate from the cities into the countryside. And perhaps over a period of several generations, Afghans in the countryside will become invested in a more mature GIRoA brand of democracy and the services it offers.” Long-term, organic, multigenerational approaches are not typical of our political system. Perhaps fortunately, Afghanistan is not atop the list of the U.S. public’s concerns, and a bold solution such as this may manage to fly under the radar.

I keep pleading with analysts to judge their commanders as they would judge their physicians. The truth is that we-- NATO as a whole and US military in particular-- have little say given how we botched Afghanistan. We were sort of surgeon and internist fighting over treatment of the patient. But medicine leaves a minutia documenting record so that you always clearly know where you've been. I know of no case of a physician or surgeon who changed the record after the fact to protect himself that didn't get found out by the patient's suing lawyer. This we cannot say relative to decision making at almost every level of command. As a case-in-point I offer Vietnam. The post-"defeat" historical analysis is still a mutilated and adulterated set of records, much of which is still hidden. Worst still, no one least not enough to get a clear sense of the dynamic social processes into which we intervened. The sudden Vietnamese need for a big brother after the collapse of the USSR and the Chinese effort to dominate SE Asia, has allowed us to think that we lost the war but won their hearts. NONSENSE!

Not only did they beat us in the field for many reasons, but they did it with far less cost to North Vietnam. Indeed, the end of the war was an economic disaster for THE OTHER SIDE. As a result, they sought out, not only business men, but also vets. Hanoi's goal was economic recovery as it raced with Beijing for domination of SE Asia.

Somehow, we have managed to turn that into a strange "success story," as if we managed to do the very "Americanization" that the Viet Cong was not allowing us to do over two decades. As soon as the war was over and the Communists sought our investments and military pacts, we managed to do what we had tried to do since 1950.

The fact is that we got possibly 4 million Vietnamese killed over those years and the bomb crater swimming pools behind the homes that survived, prove that we really didn't rebuild peasant Vietnam but left it possibly irreparable. Furthermore, the effects of Agent Orange are still appearing intensely on a daily basis.

Our war in Afghanistan was at least just as long and definitely almost as destructive as what we did to Vietnam. Can anyone wonder why US/NATO uniforms are the last things Afghans want to see there any longer? Of course, a lot of "our" Afghans would love terms that perpetuate their bonanzas from collaborating with us, but most Afghans-- in poll after poll-- want us out because, to them, we are represented by what we did: blow things up and, as West insisted: doing what we do best: "kill people."

It thus seems unfair to our troops and to the Afghans for us to continue our involvement there in terms of in loco parentis. We should pull out for both our sake and theirs. And, as after Vietnam, we should absorb all those Afghans who chartered their lives on the basis of our reckless promises. Not having stabilized that nation in over a decade but instead blew it up, perhaps our clinical skills have ceased to recommend any authority on our part. We were driven by self-serving and career building motives, mostly expressed through firepower. Now we should follow the Soviet example, recognizing our failure and then see IF we can share common interests from outside.

THE PHYSICIAN OR SURGEON WHO SO MESSED UP YOUR PHYSIOLOGY FOR SO LONG CANNOT PRETEND TO BE THE ONE TO FIX YOUR PATHOLOGY. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can talk in terms of common interests, nation to nation. All the "stabilization" Petraeus claims his "surge" produced in Iraq remains as a professional malpractice for us, whatever our intentions. We must allow the Afghans to choose their own leaders and then deal with alQaeda. We can't pretend to be the solution to Afghanistan's Taliban problem nor Pakistan's nuclear problems. By imposing ourselves recklessly in a military manner, we expose our weaknesses as a nation. It could invite rather than deter a new wave of terrorism. Whether COIN works or not is not the issue. The issue is our professional wouldn't want such a physician or surgeon in charge of your cure.

Ryan Evans

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 3:19pm

Bold concept and well-thought out. But this would take a level of diplomatic subtlety and local factional knowledge that is simply beyond the institutional capabilities of the US government and the Afghan government.