Afghanistan’s Center of Gravity: The Taliban and Case for AFPAK FATA
Victor R. Morris
The Taliban are the center of gravity in Afghanistan. This is not due to the fact the group is the perceived adversary, but because the Taliban wield power. The insurgency predominantly composed of ethnic Pashtuns are a tangible physical agent performing actions. Equally important, the insurgency is emboldened by intangible socio-cultural variables like Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, Salafi jihadism and Pashtunwali. These intangible variables influence relevant populations and actors, but the Taliban insurgency has the inherent capability for action required to achieve their political objectives. After almost two decades of misidentifying and attacking centers of gravity (COGs), another insurgency strategy needs to be considered or re-considered for successful and effective limited defeat of the Taliban hybrid threat.
This article conducts COG analysis on the Taliban sub-system and Pashtun tribal system using revised joint doctrine and non-linear dynamical systems analysis. Identification of vulnerabilities and recommendations for non-military strategies are outputs of the analyses.
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 controls or contests 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. Therefore, the COG identification assertion is validated based on the above criteria. This article 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 integrate systems theory into Clausewitz’s Schwerpunkt concept. These critical factors are the fundamental capabilities (abilities to accomplish 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. 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.
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% they are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the Punjabi ethnic group accounts for the majority 44.68% of the population followed by 15.42% Pashtun. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are a semi-autonomous primarily Pashtun region in northwestern Pakistan and border of Afghanistan. The FATA have been strategically important and complex 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 in the madrassas. The roughly 27,000 square kilometer region is included in the Constitution of Pakistan and governed 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 Pashtun social ecosystem is the most resilient in the region based on 300 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. A successful revolution resulted in the establishment of an independent state in the 18th century. The system is resilient because it copes with disturbances or perturbations. System disturbances are also viewed as chronic stresses and shocks. 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 like Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks. The Pashtun tribes have ancient rivalries, but are mitigated or coped with through traditional assemblies called “jirgas”. The purpose of a jirga is to prevent tribal war. Overall, these system disturbances are viewed by Pashtuns as assaults on their land, culture and way of life. They behave in a manner consistent with tribal customs, resistance and aversion to unrepresentative government and foreign intervention.
The Taliban are an interconnected subsystem driven by Sunni fundamentalist ideology and resistance and revolutionary warfare that enables self-repairing, self-maintaining and coherence. New order and coherence enables evolution and sustainability. The Taliban are sustained by state and non-state actors, but have the inherent capability to survive. A variety of factors enable their survival since their emergence, but a key social variable is ethnicity and origins in Pashtun nationalism. This accounts for identity driven behavior and a receptive audience. They are a hub in the largest tribal network in the world, which they draw power and resources from.
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. In 2017, the Taliban system is 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 thriving. Next, the “population” are routinely assessed as the COG in irregular warfare’s counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and unconventional warfare operations. The Pashtun and Taliban insurgency are a large part of the population and have 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 on-going 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 either. Taliban shadow government, which consist of departments and directorates are the only alternative in these areas based on ineffective foreign intervention and tenuous Afghan led reconciliation efforts. The Taliban mainstream faction thrive on exploiting population grievances, human collateral damage, and foreign occupation as critical factors linked to messaging and objectives.
Change the COG, 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, the power resides with the tribes and is the ultimate case for autonomous regions with effective federal government and tribal penetration. Penetration refers to the provision of security, infrastructure and economic capacities. 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 Kalyvas’ “logic of violence”, which predicts when insurgents are in a sovereign area, insurgent violence is absent. 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 is the degree in which Islamic law is exacted, which has implications for human and women’s rights. The root causes of civil war are rational and involve hostility and resentfulness among the population.
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 autonomous areas, whilst cooperating diplomatically, informationally and economically with Pakistan and the international community. International support involves Russia, China and Iran and includes non-military means and enabling of sustained government penetration. There are still enduring requirements for security force advising and deterrence which enable government penetration, but another multinational troop surge is not a viable strategy now. It provokes resistance warfare and sets back any prior peace proceedings. The current FATA reforms in Pakistan are scheduled to conclude in 2022 and if adopted will take time in Afghanistan. They will require positive Pakistani involvement, non-obstruction by officials and decreased support to the insurgency. The proposed AFPAK FATA are not limited to Pashtun areas and are meant to incentivize a negotiated settlement and broker ceasefires, reconciliation, reconstruction and repatriation processes. There will still be unreconcilable Sunni fundamentalist sub-systems 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 after the reforms and time will ultimately tell. The ceasefire between the Columbian government and FARC came after four years of peace talks in Cuba ending a 52-year old war. If history has taught us anything, it is Afghans have the time.
In conclusion, the current center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban subsystem of the greater Pashtun social system. The insurgency is effectively wielding power to meet their independence and removal of foreign occupation objectives. Analyzing the critical factors and engaging the critical vulnerability of ineffective governance forces nonlinear change. Decoupling interdependent systems causes changes in initial conditions and effects 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 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 are established 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 tribal power, which draws resources from the federal government and multinational systems (Figure 1). This is not a silver bullet, but balances divergent interests and offers an alternative to the status quo for re-establishing stability in Afghanistan.