Hammami, COIN, Yemen & Drones – A Weekend’s Worth of Reading

I took the long weekend off and am now trying to catch up on all the excellent reading that has surfaced since I last blogged.  Here’s want I’m lining up to read/watch today and much to discuss:

  1. The Battle over Counterinsurgency doctrine – It was bound to come after the questionable results and objectives of pursuing COIN doctrine in Afghanistan.  Read here, West Point is the battleground between COL Gian Gentile of the History Department versus the lauded COINdinista’s who will not go down without winning your “Heart and Mind” over the effectiveness of COIN in our nation’s decade of war.  For my take, see this 1 pager from 2007 – “Can the Anbar Strategy Work in Pakistan?
  2. AQAP, Yemen, Drones, POTUS – I just found out that today is international media day for AQAP in Yemen and the debate over the Obama administration’s drone war.  Frank Cilluffo and I wrote an article a year ago about the prospects for increased drone operations amongst AQAP’s growth and Yemen’s instability.  I received a honorable query from @frontlinepbs to comment on the use of drones in Yemen as part of a round table supporting their upcoming (and what appears to be excellent) documentary on AQAP in Yemen.  David Ignatius at Washington Post wrote an interesting analysis this morning from his perspective having watched the video.  In contrast, the New York Times released an in depth article on President Obama’s administration and their handling of the drone war in Yemen.  I’ve just started reading but thus far the reporting is excellent and some of the insights (even for me as a drone advocate) are alarming/disappointing.  More to follow from me and others in the coming days.  However, for those interested, I’ll be live tweeting during tonight’s PBS broadcast from my handle (@selectedwisdom).  Watch as the drone critics get really angry with me in what seems to be a never ending debate.  See these beginning posts on drones if you are interested in my machinations (Drone #1, Drone #2, Drone #3, Drone #4, Drone #5, Drone #6, Drone #7).  Definitely more to come on this front.
  3. J.M. Berger’s exclusive with Omar HammamiAfter I noted the pitfalls of being an American foreign fighter to al Shabaab, @intelwire trumped me with exclusive material from Omar Hammami himself.  Good work by J.M. and I encourage everyone to take a read at this link when they get a chance.  Here’s a choice quote on strategy from Omar which I’ll address in a later blog post.  “The current “conglomerate of local jihadi fronts” is a failure, he says, because local concerns tend to take precedence over global leadership.”  I’m not sure what Hammami was thinking joining Shabaab but he should have stuck to acting, he was much better in Into the Wild.

Young Tribesman from Splinter Faction Attack Tribal Elders

For the second time in as many months, young men from a splinter faction of a conservative rural tribe attacked clan elders.  On the first occasion, five young men pulled a tribal elder from his home in Mesopotamia and forcibly cut the man’s beard.  On the second occasion, a young clansmen invited his father, a religious leader in the community, into his home.  After discussions broke down, the young son attacked his father and forcibly cut his beard – an embarrassment as:

“to cut their beard is an assault on not only their personal identity but also on their religious identity and their religious faith as married men are expected to let their beards grow.”

The son, a member of the Bergholz region breakaway faction and son-in-law of the rebel leader Mullet, initiated the attack in response to perceived unfair rulings by tribal elders enforcing tribal law. Breakaway leader Mullet says tribal elders:

“changed the rulings … and they’re trying to force their way down our throat, make us do like they want us to do, and we’re not going to do that,” 

Analysts note that while:

“it’s uncommon … to take disputes public and enlist authorities, there is no central authority to decide so it usually falls to the … leaders or those involved.”

Mullet’s breakaway faction in Bergholz, Ohio ….. OH YEAH, BREAK…did I forget to mention that I’m talking about the Amish.  I hope I didn’t confuse anyone that this might be an Afghanistan-Pakistan discussion about the Neo-Taliban. All of this is happening in Ohio.

NPR, and of course only NPR, brought to light the story of the Neo-Amish faction of Johnny Mullet in rural Ohio. While rogue Amish are less violent than an Occupy Oakland protest, I found the narrative fascinatingly similar to counterinsurgency discussions over the years. 
Younger, self-appointed cleric with no religious training begins challenging the old tribal guard through the use of force atypical of the culture
.  Older generation leaders struggle to ward off the aggression of young upstarts seeking to change cultural decision-making processes.  I’m waiting to hear if we should dispatch advisers to quell the insurgency.  We’ve seen this sort of breakaway Amish radicalism before in the movie Kingpin and we all know where it leads (I think no where but it’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie). Turns out the first attack was around Mesopotamia, Ohio and not Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It is still unknown if either side will enlist the support of foreign fighters from Pennsylvania Amish country.  The Pennsylvania Amish could potentially provide either side a decisive edge as everyone recognizes the training provided them by Harrison Ford in the movie Witness.  They were instrumental in defeating a rogue Danny Glover.

Despite my bad movie references, I value both articles as an alternative, less violent U.S. version of the cultural dynamics the U.S. has encountered during overseas COIN operations in recent years.  As I’ve told friends in the past, “there’s a little Taliban in all of us” … even the Amish!

Shout-Outs: Doctors of COIN

I’m overdue for some recommendations to my Expert List.  I’ve talked infrequently about counterinsurgency but should absolutely deliver two shout-outs to top notch PHD’s I’ve worked with in the past.  This week I recommend two great COIN & Quant doctors from Stanford University: Jacob Shapiro and Joe Felter. Joe and Jake kicked off the Harmony program and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s research with their work, Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting Al Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities in March 2006.

Dr. Jacob Shapiro, a professor at Princeton University, currently delivers much of the top research on insurgency, counterinsurgency and Pakistan.  Jake and I co-edited al Qa’ida’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and his qualitative and quantitative expertise helped guide me through the second installment of the Harmony program.

Dr. Joe Felter, a professor at Stanford University, has done it all.  A soldier-scholar-Special Forces operator extraordinaire, Joe has served and studied on most every continent.  Joe’s quantitative analysis of counterinsurgencies in the Philippines  combined with his practical knowledge from Iraq and Afghanistan give him a remarkable combination of insights.

I highly recommend both of these COIN superstars.

Rory Stewart’s Afghanistan TED Talk

I’ve been taking a face-first beat down from a guy named Murphy lately (translation= busy yet achieving little).  However, I did get some time during an airplane flight to watch Rory Stewart’s recent TED talk and wanted to pass it on to those that might be interested.

Rory’s tales of personal adventure in Afghanistan (The Places in Between) and Iraq (Prince of the Marshes) gave me an excellent and contrasting perspective during my transition from government service.

As a student of security and development, I find Stewart’s presentation and perspective enlightening in an era dominated by advocates of counterinsurgency doctrine.  I strongly doubted in 2007 that a COIN surge in AFPAK would achieve the intended results.  I doubted even further that the costs of COIN were in line with the gains that could be achieved.

Stewart’s question is “why are we still in Afghanistan?”.  He makes some interesting points on how we arrived in our tenth year in Afghanistan.  His discussion illustrates why Western dynamics led to our arrival in Afghanistan, our shortcomings in achieving our goals, the logic behind our persistence to stay in Afghanistan and why the West has a hard time letting go. I highly recommend everyone watch Rory Stewart’s discussion and take note of his points on strategic interests and the challenges of policy implementation.

The only part I didn’t like of Stewart’s discussion is his repeated quoting of each military and political leader advocating their year in Afghanistan as “decisive” (Minute 8:40 ish).  Stewart did this to entertain his audience and I respect the need for this dynamic in punchy TED talks.  However, Stewart should recognize from his experience that leadership is about inspiring subordinates as much as managing processes.  Does Stewart really think a senior policy leader would best serve his organization and subordinates by saying, “Yeah, this year in Afghanistan isn’t really important, I think my year in command will be particularly inconsequential, Iraq has sapped our resources, in fact, I’m not sure this is worth our effort.  Everyone take Friday off, you know what, take half of Thursday off too, Let’s just drag our feet through this year and hand off our problems to our replacements in 12 months.”  Come on Stewart, I like you, I realize you need to play to your audience but be careful, as your fame grows, you will likely find yourself saying things you’ll be called to answer for later when things don’t progress as you predicted.

Atran’s Taliban Argument

I’m surprised I’ve not heard more about Dr. Scott Atran’s well done NY Times Op-ed “Turning the Taliban Against Al Qaeda.”  Atran argues that the Taliban can be negotiated with due to long-standing tribal affiliations between the Haqqani’s and other Pashtun groups such as Karzai’s Popalzai tribe.  Atran identifies at least one impediment to negotiation: the emergence of young Taliban commanders to replace those killed in battle.  Atran says these young, rogue Taliban:

“are removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage, or qawm, and especially of friendship born of common experiences, or andiwali, that bind together the top figures in the established insurgent groups like the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network.”

Atran’s analysis is exemplary and I encourage all interested in developing a long-run strategy for Afghanistan to read the results of what outstanding field research looks like.  However, I’m not sure Atran’s conclusion, or my perception of it, should be quite so pessimistic.

Rising violence from young Taliban commanders will not necessarily correlate with endless rounds of more violence.  The phenomenon discussed by Atran occurs quite regularly on American streets as new, upstart gangs try to stake out a piece of turf amidst other well-established gangs. New gangs conduct more violence than established gangs for several reasons:

  1. Violence is needed to create operational space for expanding the new gang’s turf.
  2. Violence increases credibility leading to further recruitment.
  3. Low opportunity costs- for new gangs, there is relatively little to lose as they have yet to develop an illicit economy (drugs, prostitution, etc.) which will be adversely affected by increased law enforcement scrutiny or group competition.

I imagine these upstart Taliban packs are unlikely to last for long and will probably suffer the fate of many upstart American gangs.  If they continue to escalate violence, the young, Taliban upstarts will likely suffer one of the following fates:

  1. Be eliminated by competing Taliban groups. For any given upstart Taliban commander, there is likely to be a competing newcomer that may try to eliminate them.  If not, it’s quite likely that veteran Taliban tribes will destroy them.
  2. Be co-opted into the traditional system. Many of these young Taliban groups will come to realize that they need resources to survive.  Like their predecessors, these young Taliban will develop some form of illicit revenue stream to support themselves.  Once this occurs, the young Taliban will become like old Taliban- dependent on their base of resources and will subsequently alter their pattern of violence to defend their resources.
  3. Be eliminated by NATO forces.  If they proceed on a particularly violent tear, the Taliban upstart group will stick out above all other Taliban groups and thus be elevated in targeting priority.
  4. Be suffocated by their inability to govern.  If the young groups decide to hold ground and create a mini-caliphate, they will slowly lose popular support as their repressive tactics will fail to provide for the population which will defect or revolt.

I believe the young upstart Taliban may be a useful strategic tool for NATO forces.  As young, splinter Taliban groups antagonize traditional Taliban tribes, the U.S. may find more common ground with the old Taliban like the Haqqani.  Both parties might enjoy the elimination of young upstarts and a return to a more predictable order. ——The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t!