Urban Terrorism in Afghanistan

A post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder for [looks at watch] 15 months. Dated, but worth publishing.


The recent suicide truck bombing in Kabul was the deadliest in a long series of attacks targeting Afghanistan’s capital and highlights an important component of the insurgency’s strategy against the Afghan regime and supporting coalition forces. Kabul was the target of an extensive urban terrorism before, during the communist era, and an examination of this earlier campaign yields insights into the strategy of the current insurgency, its assessment of the political situation within Afghanistan, and the identity of the forces who orchestrated the attack.

Throughout history, all of Afghanistan’s would-be conquerors have identified Kabul as the natural seat of power: the one city capable of exerting a degree of influence over the entirety of a country fractured by geography and ethnicity. Located at the confluence of several large valleys, Kabul is the central node for transportation and communication in eastern Afghanistan, and has been home to the few government institutions that Afghanistan managed to develop.

Naturally then, the Soviet-supported communist government of the 1980s was centered on Kabul, and it thus became a primary target for the Mujahideen resistance, orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence and supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency. Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI general who coordinated the Afghan campaign from 1983 to 1987, described in his memoir the centrality of Kabul in the anti-communist campaign:

Kabul has great strategic importance. As we at ISI appreciated, so long as a communist government controlled Kabul it controlled the nerve centre of the country. To win the war we had not only to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but also to eject the Afghan communists from Kabul. Only with the Mujahideen ensconced in the capital would the world recognize our victory. Such was General Akhtar’s belief, such was our objective. In order to achieve it Kabul had to burn. (p.144-5)

It was impossible for the guerrilla Mujahideen to take Kabul by direct assault, but the ISIS assigned such importance to the city that they attempted a short-cut to victory by collapsing the city from within. There were 3 components of this strategy: (1) isolate the city from supplies and facilities by attacking lines of communication and infrastructure supporting the city; (2) bombardment of regime facilities with long-range artillery rockets; and (3) an extensive campaign of urban terrorism, which Yousaf politely described as “sabotage and assassination from within,” and illustrated with some vivid anecdotes:

These attacks could range from a knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar to the placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office … The latter included placing a bomb under the dining-room table of Kabul university in late 1983. The explosion, in the middle of their meal, killed nine Soviets, including a woman professor. Educational institutions were considered fair game, as the staff were all communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma. To the Mujahideen this was corrupting the youth of the country, turning them away from the true faith of Islam. (p. 146)

Unsurprisingly, this campaign was not enough to seriously threaten the regime’s hold on Kabul, and with Soviet assistance the security cordon around the capital was expanded and the Mujahideen were pushed further away from the city. The very idea that guerrillas could somehow conquer an enemy capital without a military victory borders on fantasy, but that apparently did not discourage the ISI. When the Soviet Union began to wind down its direct military involvement in Afghanistan, the ISI tried to revive the plan to topple the Najibullah regime, thought to be weakened by the absence of Soviet forces. This plan failed when the Mujahideen directed their energies to and ill-advised on Jalalabad in 1989, much to the chagrin of their ISI handlers, who remained fixated on Kabul:

General Akhtar had an obsession with Kabul. He was adamant that attacks on Kabul should have priority over all others. If a Commander made known to the general that he wanted heavy weapons to hit the city, then he was well on the way to getting them, even if I was opposed. Keeping the pressure on the capital was the fundamental theme of our strategy. If Kabul fell we had won the war – it was as simple as that. (p. 151)

The current terrorism campaign in 2017 has the same objective of overthrowing the capital, and though its targeting is more indiscriminate, the strategy guiding it is more sophisticated and effective. Whereas the campaign in the 1980s targeted the regime and its security services directly, the bombings in recent months are undermining the regime’s legitimacy by attacking the population’s sense of security.

The May 31 bombing on the edge of Kabul’s Green Zone is illustrative of the strategy. A truck bomb was detonated near the German embassy during morning rush hour, killing 150 people and making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Kabul history. The objective of this attack was revealed in the days following the attack, when on 2 June violent protests at the government’s failure to provide security resulted in 5 dead at the hands of Afghan security forces. So in the eyes of the populace, not only had the government failed to protect them from terrorists, they killed them when they dared protest that fact. Days later, 3 suicide bombers struck a funeral for Salim Izadyar, a prominent victim of the protests, killing another 18 people.

The object of the entire attack cycle was revealed by a very clever tweet by Abdulqahar Balkhi, a Taliban spokesman and a wily social media operator, that appealed directly to the natural inclinations of President Trump and his political base:

#Kabul imploding, warlords about to launch turf wars, great opportunity for @realDonaldTrump to throw in towel & let savages to [sic] own devices

To recap: first, a devastating truck bomb targets civilians in morning rush hour, in an attack designed to generate the maximum body count. Days later, ethnic-nationalist rhetoric is used to gin up violent protests against the government’s failure to prevent the attack, resulting in the security forces killing additional citizens, and the funeral of one is subsequently attacked by suicide bombers. Chaos threatens to envelop the Afghan capital, and a Taliban representative invites the American President to quit the mire. A well-orchestrated series of events that strongly suggests that the tentacles of the ISI still reach deep into Afghanistan, and its old strategy of chaos and mayhem remains active.


Return address: ISI?

The Blogger Who Came in from the Cold

2011 was not the year to quit blogging. The world is on fire. But I have been unable to study the flames.

Because I’m now in them.

In other news, I’ve hit the big time: an article based on my work in graduate school was recently published by Small Wars Journal. The abstract is as follows:

According to the principle of destruction the best way to achieve victory in war is to disarm the enemy by destroying his forces in battle. However, irregular warfare is commonly assumed to operate through processes that make the principle of destruction irrelevant. An analysis of the writings and military experiences of T.E. Lawrence, Mao Tse-tung and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, three of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of irregular war, supports the argument that the principle of destruction remains valid in irregular warfare. This conclusion admits of one major exception in conflicts where a sharp asymmetry of interests exists between the belligerent parties, when it is possible for irregulars to achieve victory by exhausting the enemy’s political will, rather than by destroying his military forces.

I encourage all my readers to head on over to SWJ and take a look, though unfortunately, my present circumstances preclude me from active participation in the discussion.

Until next time: Happy New Year.

Was the Soviet Union “defeated” in Afghanistan?

Gen. Mohammad Yousaf, who as an ISI officer coordinated the Afghan resistance campaign from 1983 to 1987, concludes his lively [and utterly parochial] memoir with the following comment:

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I feel the only winners in the war in Afghanistan are the Americans. They have their revenge for Vietnam, they have seen the Soviets beaten on the battlefield by a guerrilla force that they helped to finance, and they have prevented an Islamic government replacing a Communist one in Kabul. For the Soviet Union even their military retreat has been turned into a huge political success, with Gorbachev becoming a hero in the West, and still his hand-picked puppet, Najibullah, remains unseated, dependent on Soviet aid for his survival.

The losers are most certainly the people of Afghanistan. It is their homes that are heaps of rubble, their land and fields that have been burnt and sown with millions of mines, it is their husbands, fathers and sons who have died in a war that was almost, and should have been, won.

Yousaf defined “victory” in terms of establishing an Islamist regime in Kabul, which was the best case scenario for both Pakistan’s national interests and Yousaf’s own fundamentalist ideology, which was shared by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan. By this measure, the hazy conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan war was an obvious disappointment, though only a few years later they did get their victory when the Taliban seized power.

Yousaf’s comment reflected the dominant narrative of events in the U.S. at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. For obvious reasons, the intervening decades have cast serious doubt on the notion of an American “victory” in Afghanistan. Instead of rehashing that ongoing debate, a more interesting question is to what extent the Soviets were truly “defeated.”

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Victorian feminism in Afghanistan

I have been reading the diary of Florentia Sale, which because of its meticulous detail is one of the primary historical sources for the disastrous events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Florentia was the wife of Gen. Robert Sale, one of the most famous officers in British colonial history, known for his apparently total lack of fear and his penchant for joining the thick of battle alongside his soldiers. (In the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, Sale slew the Burmese chief in single combat, a deed that would make him eligible for the spolia opima, had it occurred in a different millennium.) 

In 1840, after the British had installed Shah Shuja in Kabul and lodged garrisons around the country, Florentia and her daughter joined Gen. Sale in Kabul where they resided at the cantonments that were constructed to house the British families and much off the military contingent. In September 1841 Gen. Sale was dispatched with his brigade to the east to suppress tribal uprisings along the road to Jalalabad, leaving the capital with a severely diminished garrison. Not long after Sale’s departure uprisings began in Kabul itself, beginning the events witnessed by Lady Sale that culminated with the annihilation of the Kabul garrison as it attempted to flee the country via the Khyber Pass. 

I was particularly struck by her entry on November 23, 1841, not for what it indicates about Afghanistan or the history of the First Afghan War, but what it suggests about the author, Florentia Sale herself. It would seem that she shared many of her husband’s attributes.

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Advice to the President

Maybe you shouldn’t have fired this guy:

I can’t help but think that McKiernan is currently pondering the metaphysical nature of poetic justice. He was terminated because – as a supposed representative of the “Big Army” – his career track made him poorly suited for  counterinsurgency warfare. The Administration needed a different sort of general: one that wasn’t afraid to think outside the box; who could grasp the intellectual complexities of COIN, implement the President’s “new strategy” in Afghanistan, and lead an Army – still populated by too many dumb Cold War relics like McKiernan – into the new generation of warfare. In short, the White House needed their own man in Afghanistan.

Well…they got him.

The Empire Has No Brains

America is missing something in its foreign policy…something very important. I am not referring to a unified grand strategic vision; we certainly don’t have one of those, but as I’ve commented elsewhere, that is to be expected in a democracy and its absence is not fatal to American statecraft. Nor am I referring to the ability to actually conduct strategy; that isn’t our strong suit either, but when we put our minds to it we’re able to muddle on through well enough. What is missing is something much more basic…much more elemental. I will let Bernard Brodie explain:

It is the conception simply of reasonable price, and of its being applied to strategy and national policy – the idea that some ends or objectives are worth paying a good deal for and others are not. The latter include ends that are no doubt desirable but which are worth attempting to achieve only if the price can with confidence be kept relatively low. Can it really by that such a simple and obvious idea is often neglected or overlooked? The answer is, most decidedly, yes.

Brodie was writing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but his point remains just as relevant today: the U.S. is apparently incapable of conducting a simple cost-benefit analysis. At least not until the American public realize that they’ve been incurring significant costs but experiencing few benefits. Unfortunately, nearly nine years after the Afghan war began, U.S. policymakers have still not faced the blunt question of whether the return is worth the investment, and if not, how to bring costs and benefits back into equilibrium. The need to combat terrorists is not in dispute. What should be debated is the current strategy to pursue this objective.

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Rory Sterwart on Afghanistan

A few weeks back I re-read Rory Stewart’s The Placed in Between, an account of his walk across central Afghanistan in early 2002. He makes some pointed comments about Afghan development efforts that remain relevant today:

Most of the policymakers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people ‘who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.’

But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region … These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas. (p.246)

He also has some harsh things to say about international officials who are so quick to condemn the colonial officials from empires past:

Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the differences between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression. (p. 248)

Balkhing at Kabul

A short piece in the London Times encapsulates the political dilemma currently facing the U.S. in Afghanistan:

There are few better illustrations of the weakness of the Afghan state than the situation developing in one of its most secure regions. General Atta Mohammad, a powerful Tajik warlord and Governor of Balkh province, has successfully kept the peace — and the Taleban at bay — across a swath of the north of the country since 2004.

However, critics say that he has carved out a mini-state openly defying Kabul, sparking increasingly determined efforts in the capital to unseat him.

By operating under the delusion that a centralized government based in Kabul can rule Afghanistan, the U.S. blinds itself to the successes that can be achieved if we reconcile our strategy to Afghan society. Atta Mohammad may be a warlord who is carving out his own personal fiefdom, but he has kept the peace and kept out the Taliban; in Afghanistan, the U.S. should ask for nothing more. If U.S. strategy embraces feudalism the success of Balkh province could be replicated all across the country.

Aging in Afghanistan

Remember Forward Operating Base Rhino…the very first piece of Afghan real estate seized by U.S. forces at the beginning of the war? The past eight years have not been kind to this landmark. The paint has been sandblasted from the walls and roofs, part of the main hangar has collapsed, and the north side of the base is completely overwhelmed by dunes. The Registan Desert is rapidly reclaiming the site.



Afghanistan, Democracy, and Strategy



Yesterday, Afghans defied Taliban threats and endured a number of attacks across the country as they lined up to vote in Afghanistan’s third major election since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Apparently, several hundred polling stations had to close due to security concerns, but there were no spectacular attacks that succeeded in derailing the election. Overall, this was a successful election for an underdeveloped and war-torn country.

It was also an expensive and misguided exercise in futility.

The notion that a stable and centralized democratic state can survive in Afghanistan is one of the more egregious examples of the hubris underneath Western political idealism. And yet, it has been one of the central pillars of the strategy that has guided operations in Afghanistan for the past 8 years, burdening the U.S. and its allies with an impossible goal. As the West continues to learn quite painfully, democracy is a final product; not a precursor. Economic development, political stability, military security, and a political culture that values individual liberty must exist before democracy can take root; not the other way around. An op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor summarized the problem well:

Democracy is not a coat of paint. A feudal society in which women are still treated as property and literacy hovers below 10 percent in rural areas does not magically shortcut 400 years of political development and morph into a democracy in a decade. The current government of Afghanistan’s claim to legitimacy is based entirely on a legal source – winning an election. Yet this has no historical basis for legitimizing Afghan rule. The winner of today’s election will largely be seen as illegitimate because he is elected.

The much-hyped “new” counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan (which is in fact a classic counterinsurgency strategy) seeks to rob the Taliban of  legitimacy by protecting the population from their intimidation. According to this plan, the Taliban would eventually lose the support and acquiescence of the population, leaving them to wither on the vine. That is all well and good, but it presumes that the Afghan government will be strong enough to develop a higher quality of life for its people. And therein lies the flaw of the strategy; the U.S. and its allies – along with the Afghan National Army, the only strong institution in the country – is creating the security shield for political and economic development that will not be occurring, because a centralized Afghan government is an oxymoron. Development that does occur will be done by the U.S. and Co., and even this effort will be hobbled by the decrease in political control caused by the pretense of an effective government in Kabul; the U.S. has shackled itself to a rock.

This is not to sound defeatist. If the U.S. is willing to expend sufficient blood and treasure on its present strategy, then victory is eventually assured, though it will be a hard slog. Building a state is not cheap, and that is what the current strategy requires.

However, a much simpler and inexpensive strategy has always been available. It is past time that we embrace it. Why exert ourselves for decades as we defy the currents of a tribal society when going with the current is so much easier?

There is only one vital U.S. interest in Afghanistan: prevent terrorist elements from basing there. A feudal society is perfectly compatible with this objective. Instead of hopelessly campaigning to expand Kabul’s writ across the country, allow the local warlords and tribal leaders to exercise the power accorded them by the tradition and religion that has governed Afghan society for millennia. The U.S. merely needs to set down a  simple list of conditions for these political entrepreneurs: (1) Do not allow Taliban or Al Qaeda to base in the regions they control; (2) acknowledge a symbol of Afghan national unity, perhaps the president and the ANA; (3) rule well. Let it be known that the U.S. will support those that meet these conditions, and it will remove those that don’t. The Afghan National Army could serve as the one national institution that binds the many local power centers together and dampens the centrifugal forces that decentralization would create.

This strategy might appear cynical for the U.S., which has expended so much prestige on a crusade to bring democracy to the Middle East. But it has the benefit of harnessing Afghan society as an ally in the struggle. Transforming Afghan society is as impossible as it is unnecessary.

So much for Plan A...

So much for Plan A...

In the 19th century, the British Empire sought a stable and allied Afghan state as a political buffer to keep Russian influence out of India. When Dost Muhammad – the Afghan regent – began tilting toward the Russians, the British targeted him for removal in order to demonstrate British power and deter the Russians and any other wayward states. So they replaced him with a more compliant ruler, Shah Shuja. The British did not allow Shuja to rule in the necessary fashion, however. They were confident that their passive garrisons would be effective symbols of power and Shuja’s rivals would be duly intimidated into submission. The British were wrong, and their garrisons were annihilated in a calamity that became known as the First Afghan War. It was a traumatic lesson for the Empire, but they absorbed it well: Afghans respected the action of power, not the symbol of it. After the “Army of Retribution” marched through Afghanistan and exacted revenge for the humiliation, Afghanistan came firmly back into the British orbit. The preferred client ruler may not have survived, but the key objective of keeping Russian influence at bay was accomplished. As Edward Ingram writes in Great Powers and Little Wars:

Short, sharp, punitive raids were the most effective way to stabilize Afghanistan, as the Army of Retribution showed. There was no need of friendship; stable disorder was enough. Afghan rulers would learn that the British might not be able to set anyone up but certainly could knock anyone down. As Palmerston put it, they could beat up a few natives once in a while to remind them that they had not lost the knack.

The U.S. need not suffer a similar calamity before it learns the same thing: a centralized democratic Afghanistan is a fantasy. A stable feudal system is adequate, both for the U.S. and the Afghan people.