The lack of success in the war in Afghanistan is acknowledged widely, and the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently launched a new counterinsurgency strategy.
That strategy includes a request for 40,000 more troops, a recommendation that has ignited much debate but no action.
The decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan is crucial, as there will be grave consequences if the United States and its allies lose the war. This is partially because many see the war as one between our civilization and barbarism, a point that both President Obama and former President Bush have emphasized.
It is important to realize the difference between traditional war, where two traditional army forces face each other and war against radical groups and suicide bombers, who target civilians.
The difficulties that the United States and its allies face when dealing with Taliban fighters can be summarized in the following points:
1) The enemy is using insurgency as a tool to launch regular warfare.
2) The enemy's fighters are scattered as many small groups rather limited frontlines. This makes it more difficult to win with traditional military approaches used in conventional wars.
3) The enemy predominantly targets civilians in markets, funerals, and hospitals. This factor aggravates the problem as it is virtually impossible and extremely costly to protect all civilian areas in the country.
4) The enemy uses simple tactics and human factors rather than sophisticated technology to communicate. It often is easier to trace messages conveyed via the Internet or by telephone than those passed from one person to another across a table in a busy cafe.
5) The enemy gathers in rural areas where the military is not concentrated.
6) Considering this situation, an increase in traditional troop numbers may be inefficient unless coupled with an enhancement of tactics that can deal with it.
The United States needs to consider the following points to deal more effectively with this unconventional situation:
1) Infiltration of the radical Islamic groups from within by well-prepared intelligence agents is, in my view, the most crucial factor in winning this war. Infiltration by agents suits the scattered and primitive nature of the enemy. Special methods that can work with Islamist radical groups are needed to prepare such kind of spies.
2) This infiltration has to be enhanced both qualitatively and quantitatively.
3) Effective synchronization with military units is needed to launch sudden attacks on the leadership of these small groups or on the members of the group while they are gathering together. The best defense is a good offense!
4) Many residents of the rural areas of Afghanistan are illiterate and simple people. This can give us the opportunity to launch effective psychological operations to create a rift between them and the Taliban fighters. Such a rift could be used for our benefit: The more that ordinary people hate the Taliban, the better intelligence and cooperation we can get from them to fight the insurgents. We need to suppress the growth of the Taliban by suppressing the environment that allows them to grow and function.
5) An example to illustrate the previous point is that the ordinary people in these Afghan villages need to realize that every suicide attack conducted by the Taliban will likely make the U.S. prolong its stay in Afghanistan. This message can be conveyed via the media, or by using a "war of rumors." If this message is conveyed effectively, it can weaken the ability of the Taliban to convince the Afghan people that these attacks will force the U.S. to pull out. The more the Afghan people feel that these attacks by the Taliban are counterproductive, the less likely they are to support them.
6) Such psychological operations also should aim at discrediting the Taliban leadership (especially morally) and distorting or degrading their image as "mujahedeen." Specific covert intelligence tactics are needed to achieve this. The emotions of the simple, primitive, rural people in Afghanistan could be directed against the Taliban leaders, which could further weaken the leaders' ability function.
7) If we engage in effective diplomacy with some Arab Muslim nations and leaders, they also could contribute by issuing fatwas (Islamic religious statements) to denounce suicide bombers and those who support them as apostates who will go to hell forever. Such a fatwa, if worded correctly, could significantly discredit the Taliban fighters in the eyes of Afghan society and limit their ability to get support from the Afghan people. In order for the Fatwa to be effective, it would have to be issued initially in Arabic — the language of the Quran — by Arab Muslim scholars and organizations, rather than by Afghan scholars. Generally speaking, non-Arab Muslims look up to Arab Muslims, as the latter speak the original language of the Quran and the Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed. In addition, most Islamic theology is written in Arabic. This form of ideological war against the Taliban could be an extremely effective tool.
8) A long-term parallel strategy also must be in place to provide young Afghans with better religious education to decrease the possibility that they become attracted to radical views. Such an educational system must encourage critical thinking, use effective cognitive psychology tactics, and provide an alternative theological answer to young Afghans.
To conclude, nontraditional warfare requires nontraditional tactics. Improving our intelligence techniques to allow the infiltration of radical groups from within, having better synchronization with military units, and using better psychological operations are vital elements if we want to achieve victory in this war. The roles that ideology and fatwas against the jihadists also can play must not be ignored in dealing with this complex situation.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." He is a former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) who now is a reformer of Islam. To know more about Hamid, visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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