In my last post about the theory and practice of terrorism, I took great pains to separate terrorism and guerrilla warfare as operational and tactical approaches from the goals of the groups waging these types of conflicts. Not everyone who uses kidnapping, sabotage, suicide bombings, or assassination is necessarily a revolutionary. In fact, what we sometimes call death squads or militias, allied with a particular regime or ruling faction, are often using the same methods as the regime's enemies. The civil war in the Sudan, in which the Janjaweed militias are operating on behalf of the government in Khartoum, is the most vivid example from today's news.
However, the preponderance of groups pursuing terrorist or guerrilla strategies are, in fact, revolutionaries of some stripe. Asymmetric warfare is a necessity for these groups, but governments have other ways to defend themselves. The national army, for example, should already provide sufficient firepower to wage a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism campaign. These same armed forces are usually uncomfortable with private groups, beyond their control. In Northern Ireland, the frictions between the British army and the Protestant paramilitary groups is emblematic of these frequently troubled relationships.
Not every revolutionary group wants to change the world, however. War aims range across the political map, from the modest (simply twisting the arm of a government to make reforms) to the apocalyptic (overthrowing the regime and radically transforming all of society).
|Eject an invading power.||French maquis in World War II, Afghani mujahideen during the Soviet occupation.||Partisans, resistance fighters.|
|Change a government's policies.||Rebels, iconoclasts, resisters, renegades, dissidents, reformers.|
|Replace a government's leaders.||Different factions in Sierra Leone's civil wars, dynastic struggles in China prior to the Chinese Revolution.||Rebels, factions, insurrectionaries.|
|Replace a government, then use its power to transform society.||Afghani Taliban, Peruvian Shining Path, Nicaraguan Sandinistas.||Revolutionaries, radicals.|
|Break away from the central government to form a new nation.||Biafran separatists in Nigeria, Confederate States of American in the US Civil War, Québécoise separatists in Canada, Basque ETA terrorists in Spain.||Separatists, secessionists.|
Some of the very same groups will move from one row in this table to another, depending on the enemy. During World War II, the main enemy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the Japanese occupational force. After Japan lost the war, the CCP turned its guns on the Kuomintang. In the first war, the CCP fought as partisans, and in the second , as revolutionaries. These same groups might have a blend of goals, and therefore more than one enemy, at the same time. The internecine fighting among anti-Nazi partisans in Eastern Europe, between the CCP and the Kuomingtang during the Japanese occupation, and between Cambodian factions during the North Vietnamese incursion shows how groups making common cause against one enemy may still bitter differences over other goals.
When you first look at a conflict like the Angolan civil war or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they look like William James' "blooming, buzzing confusion" of details. Different groups with different alphabet soup acronyms; a long, sad history of societal breakdown, punctuated by battles, massacres, assassinations, and the inevitable tragedies of civilians caught in the middle; a web of connections among different government and military organizations and outside political factions; and, increasingly in the last few decades, multiple foreign powers and transnational organizations (the UN, NATO, OAS, Shell Oil, the Carter Center, etc.) involved in the conflict.
However, it's not too hard to eliminate the confusion if you build a simple table or scorecard, with a row for each combatant, civilian or military branch of the regime, or other important player. Who are they? What are their goals? What strategies are they pursuing at each level (theater, operational, etc.)? How are they faring? What were the important events in the history of the group?
Combatants in internal wars can lose track of their own war aims, a problem endemic to war in general. (Thanks to Princessboo for reminding me of this important point.) Sometimes, a group may be unwilling to give up arms, even long after their original terms of victory have been achieved. Sometimes, demobilization simply looks dangerous, as it did to the contras in Nicaragua, or the IRA in Northern Ireland. It's a great leap of trust in the trustworthiness of former adversaries that not every group is willing to take. At other times, as is arguably true of these and many other revolutionaries, these groups are unwilling to give up the fight for fear of losing the clout, prestige, and resources that they enjoyed while in arms. Simple mental inertia or crass self-interest are as much in play in revolutionary organizations as any other type.
The practical conclusion one can take away from this discussion is fairly obvious: since there are multiple groups comprising "the insurgency" in Iraq, you can't fight them all the same way. What might satisfy bandits comes down to simple cash. What might satisfy clan leaders looking for opportunities to gain an edge against their rivals depends completely on regional or local politics. What might satisfy a real partisan group is the withdrawal of US forces. And what might satisfy a radical Islamist group is nothing short of a revolutionary transformation of Iraqi society.
The same principle applies in Afghanistan. President Karzai's campaign to end warlordism is directed against mujahideen factions like Hekmatyar's. Warlordism in Afghanistan has a familiar face that a 19th century British officer stationed there would immediately recognize. The warlord factions want autonomy, wealth, and prestige, none of which they feel a powerful central government can give all of them simultaneously. Whenever someone in Afghanistan has tried to centralize power, either in the hands of an occupational power or a native Afghan regime, it has been accomplished to the benefit of one faction, and by extension, to the detriment of others. This makes the job of making Afghanistan a less threatening place to the West, either as a terrorist stronghold or an opium exporter, extremely difficult, but not impossible. Other societies have moved from a fragmented collection of local elites to a central national authority--including every European nation that emerged from feudalism with a real state.
The gradual transformation of Afghanistan away from warlordism is not the same as the war with the Taliban, however. The Taliban emerged as a reaction to the corruption and despotism of the mujahideen once they had won power. They are not, however, a warlord faction like the others, so they won't be appeased or defeated in the same way. Although the Taliban are predominantly Pashtun, they are a group outside the normal ethnically-rooted factionalism of warlord politics. They have at least one point of similarity with the medieval military orders, such as the Templars or the Hospitallers: they are a group with transcendental goals, with no allegiance to any temporal authorities. The Taliban bow to no clan leader like Hekmatyar; their crude, flinty version of Islam is their ultimate sovereign.
In both countries, therefore, the mix of objectives among insurgent groups certainly adds complexity, but it also represents an important opportunity. If the United States, Great Britain, and other international players in Iraq and Afghanistan deploy people with the right combination of cultural understanding and political guile, it should be possible to help the weak new regimes in these two countries play insurgent groups off one another. Alliances of convenience form and dissolve all the time, as evidenced by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani's on-again, off-again defense of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sistani has no love for Sadr and his Army of the Mahdi, but at times, he's either compelled or enticed to defend the Sadrists against the United States. Since we fight wars to create particular political outcomes, the use of force in Iraq has to be designed to fragment insurgent groups and other important figures like Sistani, not unite them in a common front. For the time being, we have other forms of leverage to use as well, and we should have the outcome we want--the isolation and elimination of the worst groups, like the bandits with faux revolutionary titles, and the absorption of other groups into the civil order of the new Iraq. Otherwise, when Americans go into battle in Najaf, Fallujah, Basra, or Sadr City, they might as well be firing their weapons into the air.