The Explosion of the Afghan Insurgency: Utterly Predictable, Yet Hotly Debated

The U.S. and allied forces now face insurrection all over Afghanistan. The insurgency nearly quadrupled in size since 2006, from 7,000 to 25,000 participants. Recently leaked intelligence assessments reportedly show that Al-Qaida and the jihadist Taliban groups account for only 10 percent of the insurgents.

Now, I hear there is some debate in the intelligence community about this picture of the Taliban. (For example, note how the Reuters interpretation describes an insurgency "dominated" by the "hard-core Taliban loyalists".) And, like all leaks, there's likely an attempt to influence and constrain policy choices behind the leak to the Globe's Bryan Bender. But the real question is not whether the leaker had a motivation for leaking (they always do), but rather whether the leaker allowed their motivation to distort the truth. And it looks like the picture painted by Bender's anonymous source fits very well with the picture painted of the Taliban in the recent DFID study on radicalization in Afghanistan. From the summary:

1. Religious motivation is only one of several reason for joining or supporting the Taliban or Hizb-i Islami. A religious message does resonate with the majority but this is mainly because it is couched in terms of two keenly felt pragmatic grievances: the corruption of government and the presence of foreign forces.


4. As noted by the SCA and other studies, this research confirmed that young men join the Taliban or Hizb-i Islami for a number of personal reasons in addition to broader structural grievances regarding the government and foreign forces. These include:

  • for cash due to unemployment - or underemployment (some were with the Taliban on a call-up only basis, i.e. not full-time);
  • for status reasons - to have a weapon and a cause;
  • because of genuine religious belief (this was the most respected reason for joining as it was felt not to be about individual aggrandisement);
  • for self protection - they had little choice but to take sides;
  • to leverage armed support for an ongoing dispute, usually over land or water, with another family or lineage member. Inevitably such action did not settle the issue; it raised the stakes.

5. Most radicalisation appears to happen after young men join a Taliban group. The evidence from the field study is that young men become Taliban combatants for a mix of reasons (religious sentiment may be one) but their peers then 'radicalise' them into presenting their cause only in terms of jihad and only with reference to Islam. In other words the real process of radicalisation appears to happen after they have become combatants.

The intelligence summarized in Bender's article is the latest report to describe a rapidly growing, specifically Afghan insurgent movement, driven by local economic and social concerns and animus against foreign forces. The image of "The Taliban" however, remains a much-contested issue, not least because the image we settle on will go a long way towards dictating the credible policy choices in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency is so resource-intensive that it needs a cosmic justification. The threat must not only be mortal, but moral. Basic principles and values must be at stake. The battle must be between two Manichean ideals: capitalism vs. communism, Western enlightenment vs. jihadist terror. Thus, the total foreign policy paradigm question is hidden inside the Taliban question. As Bacevich explains:

The question of the moment, framed by the prowar camp, goes like this: Will the president approve the Afghanistan strategy proposed by his handpicked commander General Stanley McChrystal? Or will he reject that plan and accept defeat, thereby inviting the recurrence of 9/11 on an even larger scale? Yet within this camp the appeal of the McChrystal plan lies less in its intrinsic merits, which are exceedingly dubious, than in its implications.

If the president approves the McChrystal plan he will implicitly:

  • Anoint counterinsurgency - protracted campaigns of armed nation-building - as the new American way of war.
  • Embrace George W. Bush's concept of open-ended war as the essential response to violent jihadism (even if the Obama White House has jettisoned the label "global war on terror'').
  • Affirm that military might will remain the principal instrument for exercising American global leadership, as has been the case for decades.

Implementing the McChrystal plan will perpetuate the longstanding fundamentals of US national security policy: maintaining a global military presence, configuring US forces for global power projection, and employing those forces to intervene on a global basis. its core, the McChrystal plan aims to avert change.

This is one of the primary reasons folks will fight back hard against the picture of the Taliban painted in the Globe / DFID reports: If the presence of foreign forces in support of a corrupt government and other social and economic factors, rather than a global jihadist bent, drive the recent massive growth of the insurgency, the utility of huge COIN-related troop deployments is in serious question. And, if COIN is in question along with the appropriateness of a military response to terrorism, then an entire way of being in the world as a nation is under threat.

Thank goodness.

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit