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Afghan War’s Local Realities and Demand-side COIN

In the spring of 2008, I heard some wise and—though I did not recognize it then—ominous words about the nature of Afghanistan from now-Brigadier General Marty Schweitzer, then a colonel and head of Regional Command (RC) East in Afghanistan.

“Reality in Afghanistan is district by district,” he said, by way of explaining the checkerboard of “red,” “green,” and “yellow” security designations for his six-province region. The American military and NATO have recognized this aspect of the fight by breaking their command down into smaller pieces. RC East is now two separate commands. RC South has lost some provinces to the new RC Southwest. And of course each province within these commands still has a lieutenant colonel as maneuver commander.

Now, Schweitzer did not mean that every district in Afghanistan has a very different look or feel or culture or way of life. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the country is how similar houses, shops, local dress and food look whether you are in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north or Zabul or Helmand in the south. Contrary to shallow “contrarian” wisdom, Afghanistan is one country, one culture, and Afghans want it so.

What Schweitzer meant, though, is still ominous for anyone conducting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

One month there might be Taliban or bandit attacks in a certain district, and the next month the area might be safe. The people in one district might be a unified tribe, so that when the elders give their decision, everyone abides by it; the people ten kilometers away might be members of three different, unfriendly tribes. The people in one district might be all Hazara, in another all Pashtun, with very different attitudes toward education, for instance, though they grow the same crops and live the same way.

One way of expressing it is to say that the more time you spend in Afghanistan, the fewer generalizations you can make about the security situation. You tend to say, “Oh, it’s better in this district and worse in that one and …”And if you are a maneuver commander or provincial reconstruction team commander or State Department representative in a particular province, you will tend to become a world class expert on that province, and become immersed in the details, and—sometimes—less and less able to abstract from its particularity. Paradoxically, as you learn more and more about your minute area, or even as you learn more and more about a number of different provinces or districts, you become less able, as an adviser or analyst or actor, to make the sort of broad policy recommendations that your increased time and experience of Afghanistan is supposed to make possible.

When combined with the unfortunate American emphasis on “demand side” management of insurgency, this hyperlocalism has really bad results. As I’ve discussed in a prior blog entry, Charles Wolf Jr. and the late Nathan Leites published a very important little book called Rebellion and Authority in 1970. They distinguished between the supply-side and the demand-side approach to counterinsurgency. They said, in a nutshell, that you can either focus on reducing supply, or on reducing demand.
But reducing demand is less productive.

The authors are opposed to the so-called hearts-and-minds school of counterinsurgency, which looks at the demand for insurgency in the population: “Attitudes, in the sense of preferences, affect behavior but are not identical with it; nor, in most cases are they the primary influence on it.” And supply for rebellion is probably more elastic than demand. Instead, they argue that counterinsurgents ought to focus on reducing the supply of insurgency: Cut the inputs that allow rebels to act, rather than focusing on the much harder task of changing the preferences of the population.

If you view your task as a counterinsurgent as reducing demand for insurgency, and you become paralyzed by your local knowledge, you are lost. I suspect this is where we are in our war, or rather I should say our 360 wars—one for every district in Afghanistan.

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