23 October 2009

What's in a Name?

In the 1967 James Bond parody movie, Casino Royale, a number of the British agents decide to re-name themselves "James Bond" in an attempt to confuse the enemy. To that end, we have David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and even Ursula Andress all playing characters who have changed their names to "James Bond". It sounds like a ridiculous plot point--after all, who would be confused simply by giving a whole bunch of agents similar names?

Most of you should be raising your hand right now.

(H/T SWJ's daily roundup) Today's New York Times ran an interesting article regarding the confusion even within the major policy think-tanks regarding the vast number of groups in Afghanistan who refer to themselves as the "Taliban". (As the author notes, "Taliban" is not so much a proper noun as it is a word for "students" in Arabic). Note that the points the author makes about the all-encompassing term "Taliban" can also be applied to the all-encompassing term "al Qaeda" (e.g., al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, etc). Take a look:

[A]s it devises a new Afghanistan policy, the Obama administration confronts a complex geopolitical puzzle: two embattled governments, in Afghanistan and Pakistan; numerous militias aligned with overlapping Islamist factions; and hidden in the factions’ midst, the foe that brought the United States to the region eight years ago, Al Qaeda.

But at the core of the tangle are the two Taliban movements, Afghan and Pakistani. They share an ideology and a dominant Pashtun ethnicity, but they have such different histories, structures and goals that the common name may be more misleading than illuminating, some regional specialists say.

“The fact that they have the same name causes all kinds of confusion,” said Gilles Dorronsoro, a French scholar of South Asia currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

This week, Mr. Dorronsoro said, as the Pakistani Armybegan a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, many Americans thought incorrectly that the assault was against the Afghan Taliban, the force that is causing Washington to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan...

...“To be honest, the Taliban commanders and groups on the ground in Afghanistan couldn’t care less what’s happening to their Pakistani brothers across the border,” said Mr. Strick van Linschoten, who has interviewed many current and former members of the Afghan Taliban.

In fact, the recent attacks of the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistan’s government, military and police, in anticipation of the army’s current campaign into the Pakistani Taliban’s base in South Waziristan, may have strained relations with the Afghan Taliban, saidRichard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer who tracks Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations.

The Afghan Taliban have always had a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence agencies, Mr. Barrett said recently. “They don’t like the way that the Pakistan Taliban has been fighting the Pakistan government and causing a whole load of problems there,” he said...

...Before 9/11, the Afghan Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda, but the groups are now separated geographically, their leaders under pressure from intensive manhunts. On jihadist Web sites, analysts have detected recent tensions between Al Qaeda, whose proclaimed goals are global, and the Afghan Taliban, which have recently claimed that their interests lie solely in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dorronsoro, the French scholar, said the Afghan Taliban were a “genuine national movement” incorporating not only a broad network of fighters, but also a shadow government-in-waiting in many provinces.

By comparison, he said, the Pakistani Taliban were a far looser coalition, united mainly by their enmity toward the Pakistani government. They emerged formally only in 2007 as a separate force led by Baitullah Mehsud under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Students’ Movement of Pakistan....

...Polls show that Americans, frustrated by the United States’ supposed allies and confused by the conflict, are losing their fervor for the fight. “The complexity of all this is hard enough for experts to understand,” said Paul R. Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at Georgetown University. “It’s not surprising if it baffles a lot of ordinary people.”

I've made this analogy before, although I stole it from my Middle Eastern history professor some ten years ago, but it's worth making again: the vast number of groups with similar-sounding names but vastly different agendas bears a striking similarity to the various Palestinian liberation groups in Monty Python and the Life of Bryan (all COINdinistas should probably find that link amusing).

As David Kilcullen points out in The Accidental Guerrilla, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are hybrid wars--fights against multiple insurgent groups, numerous terror networks, various competing sectarian and tribal groups, criminal syndicates, and so forth. This is common among many "small wars". Indeed, during the Hejaz War of 1916, Lawrence could not convince many of the Arab groups to join together to fight the Turks. Rather, he was able to get one tribe to lay an explosive device on the railway on one day of the week, then another tribe to mount a small attack somewhere on another day of the week, and so forth. It drove the Turks mad, as they were unable to discern any larger pattern to the operation. As Lawrence quipped, "maximum disorder was our equilibrium".

Small Wars are increasingly frustrating for the populations of Western countries. In addition to the factors frequently cited--namely, the length of time needed to conduct a successful counterinsurgency--the complexity of these operations is sometimes too much for the public to comprehend. In conventional wars, we find it easy to follow the success or failure of our forces. In many ways, it resembles a game of football--we watch our forces move increasingly closer to the "goal line", we face lines of battle which are generally similar to our own, and there's clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys". Insurgencies and hybrid wars, on the other hand, are difficult to relate to--there are often many enemies, their numbers can grow or dwindle at will, they remain hidden and seek battle on their own terms, and success is difficult, if not impossible, to measure.

But this is the future of warfare--it's increasingly confusing, complex and muddled. And that's why we need to train leaders capable of dealing with these environments.

(Additional Reading: See "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence", which has some great passages dedicated to military leaders' aversion to ambiguous situations)

No comments: