Trying to Untangle the Mystery of Afghanistan & Pakistan

taliban_fighterBy Isaac Kfir

(A review of The Afghan Way of War (Johnson) and The Pakistan-US Conundrum (Samad), re-published from Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 42:2.)

Robert Johnson’s The Afghan Way of War: How and Why They Fight is a book that should be particularly read by military and civilian personnel deploying to Afghanistan, even though it is not designed to be a policy guide (p. 4). Although Johnson’s analysis of the Taliban period and the post-2001 US-led invasion is weak, overall the book delivers a thoughtful analysis of how and why Afghans fight, making it clear that conceptions of ‘friends and enemies’ carry different implications for Afghans than for westerners, as Afghans are highly conscious of prevailing circumstances. The appeal of the book is that it examines whether an Afghan ‘way of war’ exists and if so what motivates and drives it. To Johnson, the ‘Afghan way of war’ is based on topography, culture, opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, financial inducement and religion.

Although taking an historical approach, Johnson is careful about drawing lessons from history, arguing that historical assessments ‘…convey values that have been discredited in the West,’ (p. 301). An added benefit of the book is Johnson’s willingness to investigate Afghan domestic wars and not restrict the study to how the Afghans engaged foreigners, allowing him to declare ‘…there was no single Afghan way of war in the country’s history. Every response has been dependent on the situation that confronted the Afghans,’ (p. 36). This may explain why Johnson seems to reject the perception that when it comes to Afghanistan guerrillas do not have an added advantage on conventional forces as these forces, whether Taliban or Mujahedeen, have to contend with a chaotic command and control system, disloyalty, rivalry, poor discipline, assassination threats and weak logistics (p. 303). Johnson’s meticulous research allows him to highlight that whether during the First Anglo-Afghan War or the Afghan wars of the mid-nineteenth century, which occurred mainly between the Durrani tribes, Afghans have had to deal with extreme internal divisions that led some Afghans to work with external forces. In other words, political expediency and survivability is what governs the Afghan way of war.

Johnson’s book also provides a look at the way Afghans negotiate. This could be of immense value to policymakers engaged or seeking to engage with the Taliban. Johnson’s historical approach allows him to identify five stages in the Afghan ‘way of negotiation’: 1. The decision to negotiate; 2. The conditions that lead to the decision to negotiate (threat of defeat or victory); 3. The terms that are offered and the process of negotiation; 4. The implementation of the negotiated terms; 5. The perceived or desired outcome (p. 18). Thus, Johnson argues that when approaching negotiation with Afghans, strength and one’s perception of it is central to the process, as Afghans ‘are more likely to initiate negotiations when there is a stalemate or an impasse, perhaps of some duration,’ (p. 19).

Furthermore, Afghan history indicates that violence is often a form of negotiation, as actors use violence to send a message to their rivals. In the context of the current situation in Afghanistan, this fits with the Taliban’s policy of political assassinations and the overall insurgency as, through their assassination campaign, the Taliban are able to show that no powerbroker is ultimately safe; that they are far from defeated; and, that they remove important leaders which help weaken the Afghan state.1 Finally, Johnson shows that negotiations are a tool used by Afghans to avoid defeat, which may also fit with the Taliban’s current policy, as their sketchy engagement with the Afghan government and the international community could be a tool in helping to end the foreign presence in Afghanistan. That is, by showing that they are willing to negotiate and that they have abandoned their rigid theocratic agenda,2 they can play a role in Afghanistan post-2014. Thus, for example, during the First Anglo-Afghan war, Dost Mohammed was willing to surrender to the British because ‘In conflicts in Afghanistan, rulers expected to be able to surrender and gamble on the chance of returning to power at some later stage… Dost Mohammed was also following a long tradition of seeking exile in a neutral neighbouring state as a base for future operations, just as Shah Shuja had done,’ (p. 55). This is why Johnson is able to declare ‘Dost Mohammed saw his defeat as a temporary setback, not a permanent condition,’ (p. 39) …

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