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Can Allen apply Iraq to Afghanistan?

By Revelly Robinson - posted Friday, 5 August 2011

The change of United States military command in Afghanistan from David Petreaus to General John Allen on 18 July came at a crucial time for the country. With the military transition already in its first stage, John Allen’s approach to military strategy will no doubt be integral in determining how the war against insurgency in Afghanistan will develop.

The handover of command from Petraeus to Allen happened on a day marred by violence. Under the tightest of security conditions on the lawn next to a café in Kabul, the ceremony took place and was attended by high-ranking military personnel, diplomats and members of the media. The country had just been shaken by the murder of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the President’s half brother, the week before. Just the night before, the home of former Oruzgan Governor, Jan Mohammad Khan was attacked and assailants shot him and his high profile acquaintance from Uruzgan dead.

Allen remarked that difficult times lay ahead for Afghanistan and given the events of that week, it was evident that this was no understatement. With two assassinations occurring within less than a week of each other in the midst of a security transition handover, John Allen’s assumption of command comes amidst turbulent times. However, there is no doubt that President Obama made a careful decision when choosing Allen. Allen was chosen for his credentials during the Iraq War. Whilst deputy commander of the Anbar province, Allen backed a suggestion to coax local people away from Al Qaeda by providing them with cash and jobs in exchange for their support. The ‘Anbar Awakening’ characterised the point that changed the tide of the war in Iraq.


This approach was seen as epitomising Allen’s tactic towards countering the opposition. Allen’s leadership is characterised by an intrinsic regard for diplomacy and a desire to negotiate with local communities. He has a deep understanding that this is a hearts and minds war, one that depends on changing perceptions as a tactic to countering military insurgencies. Such an approach does not deviate significantly from that used by Petraeus, who also emphasised diplomacy as a means to ending the war in Afghanistan. As the U.S. becomes more frank about its desire to enter into talks with the Taliban, the need for a General who is seen as willing to engage in such an approach, is no doubt integral to the success of such discussions.

Regardless, the highly intricate social dimensions of Afghan culture will no doubt prove a challenge to any military strategist. The Taliban’s composition derives mainly from the Pashtun ethnic group, a tribe governed by strong cultural precepts known as the Pashtunwali code. There are nine fundamental principles to Pashtunwali and these concepts are evident in all aspects of Afghan culture. The history of this strong moral code being followed by Pashtun tribes can be traced back more than 1700 years.

One of the strongest facets of Pashtunwali is Sabat - loyalty. Loyalty is a defining feature of the code and tied to the Pashtuns’ sense of honour. Loyalty must be exercised first to the family then to the community, friends and tribe. To be disloyal would bring shame upon an individual’s family whom would then suffer the consequences for one of their family member’s actions.

The innate sense of loyalty that Pashtuns feel towards their tribe will be a difficult sentiment to counteract for international forces. In this deeply communal society, a tribe’s honour or Ghayrat must be defended at all times. If any foreign element is perceived as humiliating the honour of a Pashtun tribe then the community will undertake whatever recourse necessary to seek retribution.

Deeply tied to the Pashtunwali principle of loyalty is the concept of ‘Badal’ – justice. To seek justice and revenge against the wrongdoer is a concept that Pashtuns will pursue for generations. However, the Pashtun concept of right and wrong is at times dissimilar to Western codified standards. For instance, the shedding of blood would not be the most extreme act imaginable in Pashtun culture. In fact the concept of revenge is one of the fundamental precepts of Sharia law. Such extreme acts of retaliation seeking an ‘eye for an eye’ are commonly practised as part of the Pashtuns’ strict moral code. Pashtunwali dictates that a Pashtun must undertake whatever lengths necessary to avenge an insult or ‘Paighor’ to the reputation of their family.

Given the strict moral code by which Pashtuns, predominantly in Afghanistan’s south, still subscribe to, it is difficult to foresee how more modern concepts of institutional affiliation and patriotism can be reconciled in such a culture. Coaxing Iraqis away from terrorism with money and jobs presented a viable alternative to people struggling against poverty in the Sunni province of Anbar. By convincing Sunni Sheiks to form ‘Awakening Councils’ which would eventually lead to the formation of community police forces the U.S. succeeded in instilling a network of affiliations opposed to Al Qaeda.


However for such a strategy to be deployed successfully in Afghanistan the international forces must counter codes of loyalty that are much more entrenched. Several decades of war and a decade of international occupation have failed to subvert the warlord system, which remains the primary form of vesting power in the less developed southern provinces. Personal allegiances and tribal loyalty play a much more important role in politics than establishing institutions.

Private security contracting in Afghanistan, fuelled by the constant insurgency is also big business. With such contractors being paid more than government-employed police or army officers, those with the guns are becoming increasingly beholden to private businessman, companies and warlords. It is precisely due to the misdirection of funds that turmoil continues unabated in Afghanistan. With donors rolling out contracts without any accountability or monitoring mechanisms, exploitation of the funding dollar is rife.

Money has been flowing into this country from all sides. In the rundown streets of downtown Kabul, business is flourishing. Afghans are constantly on the lookout for the next funding grant, which is more often than not viewed as a get rich quick scheme without any thought given towards maintaining the sustainability of such funds. Certain communities are more adept than others at gaining access to such grants. Exploitation of funding dollars by certain communities and also in many cases by the Governors of each province perpetuates inequalities and increases hostilities between tribal groups. Despite the influx of funds, the terrorist acts continue.

With such feudalism already prevalent and without the advantage of money and jobs being as attractive an incentive as perhaps was the case in Iraq the tactics that were so successful in Iraq may not be employed as effectively in Afghanistan. Evidently, the Taliban’s influence in tribal areas of Afghanistan is much more entrenched than was the case in Iraq. The system of personal allegiances, which is perhaps splintering due to the recent assassination of Jan Mohammad Khan, also appears to be more complex.

With the U.S. already touting talks with the Taliban as the way forward in this decade long war, its clear that a military strategy that depends on diplomacy will be more important than ever. Local liaison will become a crucial element in this war and it is in this area which General John Allen has already demonstrated his skills. Regardless, the crucial challenges of dealing with communities characterised by tribal bonds in an economy buoyed by insecurity differentiate the Afghanistan situation from the Iraq process. These factors will no doubt contribute to whether or not Allen is able to steer Afghanistan towards some semblance of security.

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About the Author

Revelly Robinson is an independent writer and consultant based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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