The other path to victory: Influence and restriction

The classic clausewitzian view of warfare* is that wars are won by breaking the enemy's will to resist your plans. The standard method of breaking that will is to push him into a hopeless situation. The best way to do that is to disarm the enemy - usually by winning a decisive battle.

The events in Afghanistan seem to show another promising path. I don't want to claim that the Taliban have a coherent strategy (or at least unity), but they seem to stumble onto something - as did most likely many other insurgencies before.

This other path consists of two main methods and many necessary conditions.

The first main method can be called "influence":

They gain influence in covert mode instead of setting up visible structures. Taliban don't go to a village in order to raise their flag and set up a fortified camp. Instead, they gain influence, with conspiratorial methods.

One example is the judiciary system. The Afghan Central state has established a network of official courts as judiciary systems, but these courts' judgments resemble too often an auction. The party that pays best wins. The Taliban have set up a shadow judiciary system in many places, with much less corrupt judgments (and based on their version of Islamic law).

This kind of influence gains undermines the official structures and turns them (almost) irrelevant even in places where they still exist. Official and shadow structures could even change sides in the perception fo the people; the shadow structures become legitimate and the official structures become something more akin to a highwayman.

This influence would of course be the result of covert political activity. It could be a shortcut to power for an insurgency that seeks to rule - and it needs very little if any force to use it.

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The influence method could be counteracted by the use of force if the shadow structures are not secured enough in their covert mode. It's therefore often necessary to reduce this threat to tolerable level.

This is where the "restriction" main method comes into play.

It's not necessary to destroy or disarm the enemy if you can (partially) break his will without. This works on the strategic/political level by limiting one's goals and on the regional level by the induction of fear and inefficiency.

The actions of the Taliban show this quite well. Supposedly non-combat activities like supply, camping, diplomatic trips, construction and repair are under severe threat of attack and require strong cover by combat-capable forces (or the non-combat forces need to become combat-ready).

This drives the efficiency down; the tooth-to-tail ratio (combat personnel available for operations : support personnel) becomes poor and the effective capability of the opposing army to intervene against the shadow rule is much reduced.**

Another interesting aspect is the constant threat against troops on the move. Every march becomes a dangerous operation, and every dangerous operation needs to be justified by its benefits.
The threat on the enemy forces can grow to an unacceptable level; the forces restrict their actions on mere sustainment in camps and on the roads with protected convoys. Such a total restriction isn't necessary for the shadow forces' success, though. Again, it suffices to reduce the ability of the official forces to intervene against shadow structures to an acceptable level.

The end result would be a rule of the shadow forces over almost the whole of the country - without a single decisive battle, probably even without having ever won a single battle or firefight.

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There are many necessary conditions for success on such a path. One is the political inferiority of the opponent. Another condition is his ability and intention to react with costly countermeasures. An unterrified enemy won't allow the enemy to restrict his freedom of action with the threat of losses. There's also a long list of possible mistakes that could sabotage the insurgent's efforts.

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One could argue that no victory is complete until war is over and peace begins. Well, who says that insurgents need to define victory like that? Maybe they could live well with a permanent mobilization, with a useful scapegoat in-country all the time? Maybe they define 'their' country to be freed as an area that does not include the official powers' enclaves?

I don't argue that the Taliban are on a path to victory (although I don't believe in a Western 'victory' over there as well). This was also no representative description of events in Afghanistan - this is a theoretical text.
Instead, I'm arguing that a rebellion doesn't necessarily need to go conventional (equivalent to Mao's Third Phase of guerrilla war) to win even if the enemy doesn't fold politically at home. There's at least one other path to victory imaginable.

*: Carl von Clausewitz did never complete his book; he remarked before his death that he didn't properly cover guerrilla wars. His best example for that kind of war was the Spanish insurrection against Napoleonic rule.

*: See also my text on countermeasures. The force protection efforts are countermeasures and their price is huge, possibly even able to justify setting up the threat in the first place on its own.


  1. Western concepts of national unity won't allow us to see Afghans for what they are. They put great stock in "Quom" or subnational loyalty like family, village, tribe and guild, religion, religious sect, etc. The list goes on and on. One thing that's not on the list of loyalties is a Federally run Afghanistan. It's very difficult to give what we think of as a gift to someone who doesn't want it. It's very easy to find Afghans who wanted the Taliban gone but much more difficult to find Afghans who want Western style democracy. When we speak of individual or woman's rights in Afghanistan we are asking for war.

    In no small measure our creation of a semblance of stability only increased the opium trade which finances the insurgency and creates instability. After US forces took the country in 2002 peace seemed possible. But it wasn't peace we created, it was a vacuum. Afghans no about stepping into vacuums. We've done nothing to achieve our goals of a unified, law abiding and democratic Afghanistan. I'm not aware of any other substantial contribution, other than the drug trade, that NATO has made.

    Afghans were fighting when the Soviets arrived, and fought after they left for three more years against the communist installed government. After that government fell to Massoud (amongst others) they fought for another 9 years with each other. At the time of 9-11 they were still fighting internally. It's not very likely that we caused anything but a realignment of forces (notice I didn't said nothing about "unity") which will fight us until they can return to fighting each other.

    Even if the Taliban wasn't an honest broker, and their use of coercion to install these courts speaks more about Central government weakness than being incorruptible (which they sure are not), whose to stop them from having these courts. It's not like some German Jurist from the World Court is going to come and make decisions stick. The Talibs are filling a vacuum which NATO helped create and can't afford to fill.

  2. In Clausewitzian terms I think we are dealing essentially with a civil war in Afghanistan, although Clausewitz did not mention much on civil war. The Afghan state as it was in 1979 at the time of the Soviet invasion had a low level of material cohesion at the state level but a high level of moral cohesion at the tribal level (refer to Book VIII, Ch 3B of On War). This is the state was a very loose association and fought its own kind of wars reflecting these low material cohesion political conditions. Enter the foreign occupier, the Sovs, and the dynamics changed.

    I would add that the Soviets knew by 1985 that they would have to either remove the entire population of the country and replace them with Soviets, or kill everyone off in order to impose their will on the Afghans. They were unable to do either, and were also unable to withdraw due to domestic political considerations. They only withdrew in 1989, two years before the collapse of the USSR . . .

    Given Afghan political conditions, our continued presence there says more about our political situation in the US than about Afghanistan . . . just as it did in 1986 in regards to the USSR . . .

  3. You both got sidetracked away from the theory, but OK.

    Yes, we are just foreign interventionists in a civil war, and it's a long one.
    That civil War will likely go on after we leave (or limit us to indirect intervention) or at least the conflict(s) will persist.

    There are many conflicts at work:
    domestic vs. foreign powers/interests
    Pashtuns vs. others (Uzbeks, Tadjiks, ...)
    smugglers vs. authorities
    drug economy vs. authorities
    central state authorities vs. local authorities and warlords
    moderates vs. religious extremists
    traditionalists vs. modernisers

    ISAF may accomplish its mission (being placeholder till Afghan security forces take over), but that wouldn't solve any conflict. It might at best suppress a few. I doubt that the Afghan state will become strong enough to sole the conflicts. A violent solution is most likely impossible (or excessively bloody) anyway in regard to most conflicts.

  4. I was trying to answer your theory. It wasn't rejected out of hand, just trying to point out that not much is changed for the better by interventions because of Afghan nature. My answer is that we created a vacuum that allowed the conditions you call "influence" to succeed. It's amazing to me that we're using the exact same outpost tactics, which is passing for strategy, that the Soviets used. This allows the Taliban military victories which make us look week and increase Taliban "influence". That's how they fight and have fought, since before we were a country.

  5. "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test [1st-war must never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy and 2nd-wars must thus vary with the nature of their motives and the situations which give rise to them] the kind of war on which they are embarking: neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive . . . "

    Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Ch 1, Section 27.

    Thus, imo the first question should be as to the nature of the current Afghan war. Does the means used in war - organized violence or simply fighting - serve to achieve the stated political purpose of the establishment of a functioning Afghan state? When has this ever been achieved by an outside force?

    Your questions of will and shadow structures are interesting, although "will" here is that of the US/NATO not the Karzai government I assume, and shadow structures are basic to any revolutionary movement, even non-violent ones, although they fit neatly into Mao's phase II.

    On the other hand - and this is basic Clausewitz - if one is wrong on the fundamental basics, it doesn't much matter how one screws up (or not) on the details . . .

  6. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/06/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  7. "Your questions of will and shadow structures are interesting, although "will" here is that of the US/NATO not the Karzai government I assume..."

    The restriction main method also works on ANA and ANP. The will of the government isn't the only one that counts - combat troops morale is also important. The strong willpower of a government can be irrelevant.

    Foreign troops of strong-willed foreign powers can also turn their government's will irrelevant if they stick to their bases.
    The reality in AFG isn't that extreme right now (it's more like troops wanting to do more and certain governments restricting them in fear of politically unsustainable losses), but it's a possible situation.

  8. Sven-

    What you're describing in terms of opposing wills as in those of the troops opposed to those of the government, is a symptom of strategic dysfunction. The military thinks in terms of force protection or "victory" neither of which necessarily mean the achievement of the political purpose . . . which in turn may not even be achievable by military means. . .

    As Clausewitz writes,

    "The counterweights that weaken the elemental force of war, and particularly the attack, are primarily located in the political relations and intentions of the government, which are concealed from the rest of thw world, the people at home, the army, and in some cases even the commander. For instance no one can and will admit that his decision to stop or to give up was motivated by the fear that his strength would run out, or that he might make new enemies or that his own allies might become too strong. That sort of thing is long kept confidential, possible forever. Meanwhile, a plausible account must be circulated. The general is, therefore, urged, either for his own sake or the sake of his government to spread a web of lies. This constantly recurring shadowboxing in the dislectics of war has, as theory, hardened into systems, which are, of course, equally misleading. Only a theory that will follow the simple thread of internal cohesion as we have tried to make ours do, can get back to the essense of things . . . "

    On War, Book 6, Ch 8.

    The Afghan campaign is laboring under eight years of "shadowboxing" . . . the connecting thread of tactics to strategy to political purpose was lost long ago imo . . .

  9. "the connecting thread of tactics to strategy to political purpose was lost long ago imo . . ."

    I was trying to get at the reasons for this but it didn't quite come out right.

    Afghanistan's chaotic nature makes its enemies divorce strategy, tactics and political purpose in order to counter many different problems. This is essentially an 8 sided (or more) civil war which the west has no answer to without going Roman Army on the Afghans.

    The Taliban vigorously enforces it's authority while the Karzai Government in Kabul can't even govern the capitol without Western power. There's no way you can take a corrupt Afghan and make him into a (mildly corrupt) Western politician. It's just not possible. Afghans join the army and police for loot, and no other reason. Their will never be a strong central government because no one but the invaders want it. "The connecting thread" isn't even wanted.

  10. EN-

    Nice comment.

    Clausewitz's is the political theory of war. The politics driving this war is "objective" US politics, that is the probable result of what the US political system has become. Karzai is simply the Afghan reflection of what is going on among the various US war interests. They fancy that they have transformed war into some sort of stable/adventureous economic venture given the power of the US to wage industrial warfare seemingly relentlessly.

    They don't see the inherent contradiction in the first two terms, let alone the existence of perpetual motion. The venture cannot be both steady and thrilling . . . as witnessed by the tectonic shifts of this last week.

  11. "Karzai is simply the Afghan reflection of what is going on among the various US war interests."

    Absolutely! Most of these interests have generically fine purposes; Protect the world, US, people, women... it's always noble sounding and believed by our leaders. Of course in a complex society like the US "interests" begins to attach their own goals to the endeavor, which are often counterproductive to the stated grand strategy.

    On a side note, we are going to lose and lose big. The Soviets were never defeated on the battlefield and left for domestic reasons. We may not be so lucky. In 1986 we knew that the Red Army was defeated and couldn't possibly win, even though losing by combat wasn't possible either. The Muj defeats seemed to be coming fast and furious in that year. It was an illusion and one that brought more sympathy to the Soviet Union's enemies. The Muj was learning and starting to believe they could win.

    It is not understood that the Red Army had more armor and ground mobility than we posses. There are only so many drones and aircraft to be had and without organic firepower we will likely see big defeats of NATO platoons and companies.