Friday, August 21, 2009

Ganesh Sitaraman: "The land of 10,000 wars"

Ganesh Sitaraman
Harvard Law School
(Image from Harvard Law School)

In Monday's edition of The International Herald Tribune appeared a short but interesting article by Ganesh Sitaraman on the complexity of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, but the article can also be read under the same title, "The land of 10,000 wars," on Harvard Law School's website.

Sitaraman, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, has recently returned from Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was working as a research fellow at the Counterinsurgency Training Center, presumably under its director, John Agoglia, and probably as part of General Stanley McChrystal's effort to formulate a strategy for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Sitaraman opens his article with a reference to McChrystal:
As General Stanley McChrystal's 60-day strategic assessment is wrapping up, he poised to recommend a new approach for Afghanistan, one grounded in counterinsurgency's strategy of protecting the population.
I'm no expert on counterinsurgency, but my understanding is that this strategy of "protecting the population" has been developed since World War Two, and especially since the Vietnam War in response to the US failure there. The strategy is somewhat counterintuitive at times because it entails putting troops at risk to protect a population that may in fact have some sympathies with the insurgents. But the rationale -- insofar as I understand it -- is that even a population with sympathy for insurgents will be ambivaent about the insurgency, so a counterinsurgency strategy that protects the population can perhaps "win the hearts and minds" of the population by offering more than the insurgents offer.

This worked rather well in Iraq against Islamists who alienated Iraqis by brutally applying strict Islamic law. To the extent that the Taliban Islamists threaten the same brutality, this counterinsurgency strategy might work. Afghanistan, however, is a more complex place than Iraq:
The defining feature of Afghanistan is its diversity. Consider, for example, the eastern province of Nangarhar, on the Pakistani border. Nangarhar is about 90 percent Pashtun, but it has a significant minority of Nuristanis, Tajiks, and Pashai, each of whom speak different languages. In addition to ethnicity, Afghans identify by qawm, a kinship or residence group akin to a tribe. There are almost 30 different qawm within the Nangarhar Pashtuns alone.

The sources of conflict in Nangarhar are as complex and overlapping as the identities of the people. The local insurgency has splintered into at least three major factions, each of which was once aligned with one of the others. Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda send fighters into the area, and vast criminal networks provide support to the local Taliban faction. In the midst of these interconnected insurgent relationships, tribal feuds and blood feuds between families put the Hatfields and McCoys' to shame. One story I heard featured a man who waited 40 years before taking vengeance on his neighbor. Insurgency was his cover for retribution.
This might make application of the counterinsurgency strategy of protecting the population rather complicated and therefore difficult. Some of this effort is military, but a lot of it is police work, which requires state-building efforts, and that entails that the state be perceived as legitimate. Unfortunately, Afghanistan's government is seen as grossly corrupt, detracting from its legitimacy.

And even if this state-building is successful in the short run, will it prove a long-term success? Iraq is seen as a success story, but it was easier because a semi-functioning state had been in place there for some time, and even with Iraq, questions remain as to whether the quasi-democratic system constructed with American assistance will survive. Afghanistan raises even bigger questions. I suppose that we'll just have to see what happens.

By the way, does anybody know where Sitaraman gets his expression "the land of 10,000 wars"? Is Afghanistan known as a land of 10,000 wars?

In William Whiston's 1737 translation of Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus tells in Book 8 of a dream that King Solomon had in which God informed him that if the people of Israel turned away from the Torah, they would be destroyed "with ten-thousand wars and misfortunes" (page 337), and in The Flame of Attention, published in 1983, Krishnamurti states in Chapter 3 that human beings have suffered "ten-thousand wars" (page 39), but neither of these two instances of the expression has any specific link to Afghanistan.

If anybody knows where Sitaraman got the expression -- or if he coined it -- please let us know.

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