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!

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