Pakhtunkhwa Times

Deconstructing the Taliban

Posted in 1 by ppfcanada on January 28, 2009

Deconstructing the Taliban
June 22, 2008

Abu Muqawama’s newest blogger is Troy, who christens that blog by reviewing two articles about Afghanistan in the most recent issue of International Security. The first piece, by Seth Jones, argues that the neo-Taliban insurgency emerged due to the lack of state authority, a structural factor. Thus, Jones’s solution is fairly conventional as Troy admits, namely extend governance into Pashtun areas and restore law and order. One the other hand, Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason make a cultural argument: the values and norms of Pashtun society, in particular pasthunwali, or the Way of the Pashtun, makes this group resistant to the central authority emanating from Kabul and sympathetic to Fundamentalist Islamic movement when threatened. His recommendations are to give the Pashtuns greater autonomy and rebuild traditional tribal structures that have a better record of keeping peace and order. As Troy points out, this is completely opposite our current strategy in Afghanistan. He concludes by admitting a bias towards governance based strategies for COIN and suggests that culture should not be seen as ’the’ preeminent variable.

Both arguments are good, and soundly based in traditional social science approaches to violence and insurgency. However, they can be merged. Alex Wendt does just this in Social Theory of International Politics. That is, structure and culture may not necessarily be two separate variables in causing political behavior. Culture itself is a structure that constrains and alters the behavior of actors (pp. 249-250). For example, if two states believe that each is likely to seek the destruction of the Other, then they will act with hostility towards each other and confirm those hostile beliefs. In this way, culture can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (pp. 184-189).

I should add that by culture, Wendt is referring to ‘common knowledge’ held intersubjectively by each state about its own identity and the identity of other states (pp. 157-164) This knowledge of Self and Other implies that each state should behave a certain way toward other states. Thus, culture provides states with their identity and norms of behavior depending on the perceived identity of the other state. Again, culture itself is a structural variable: it imposes itself on the behavior of states and drives them to act in a certain way.

This isn’t to say that culture-structure is unchanging – it does. Based on the perceived identity of Other states, the Self has certain expectations about the behavior of Others, that leads to certain behaviors based on those expectations. However, if the actions of Other states run contrary to the expectations of Self, then Self has to revise his understanding of their identity. In Social Theory, Wendt argues that this process of cultural-structural change has led to great cooperation among states. In fact, as states falsify each other’s belligerent expectations, they could to see they are more alike than different, and a shared identity emerges between them. Thus, through social interaction, staes become socialized to coopereate with each other and eventually see themselves in each other.

What does this have to do with the Taliban? Again, its not culture or structure, but how culture-structure imposes itself upon actors, or how identity constitutes an actor with self-interest and gives meaning to observations of power. Thus, to win over the Pashtuns, the solution would be to alter their perception of Self (their identity) and Other (the identity ascribed to the state, and Western powers). At the moment, we can assume that the Pashtuns perceive us as hostile threats to their identity: we are Western crusaders who want to subjugate them and destroy Islam (Taliban propaganda). To alter this identity which is ascribed to us, we must falsify it by taking actions which run contrary to Pashtun expectations. From these interactive experiences, Pashtuns will learn to ascribe a new identity to us, one that is not hostile and perhaps neutral, or even friendly.

But, how can we be sure that our new actions will falsify their expectations of us? Who is to say that the Pashtun won’t simply mentally discard these new observations and retain their hostile perceptions?

This is where indigenous cultural norms such as pashtunwali come in. If we want to make friends with Pashtuns, we must take actions that Pashtuns know correspond with friendship. We must learn the Way of the Pashtun as if we were Pashtuns ourselves. This would give us knowledge about how to act like a Pashtun in different contexts: what would constitute a demonstration of honor or respect which would necessitate civility, or what would constitute dishonor and disrespect, necessitating revenge and hostility. Once we learn how to operate within the cultural code of the Pashtun, we can then use it to turn the Pashtuns against the Taliban. Once we develop an intersubjective understanding of honor, respect, and civility, we can point to Taliban actions which violate that understanding, suggesting an appropriate response to deal with them.

Here’s the point: culture and structure are not separate causes of action, they impose themselves on actors as identities, which make certain actions rational. If we want to make violent resistance irrational and quiesence rational, we must construct a shared identity with the Pashtun. At the same time, this would deconstruct the shared identity between the Pashtuns and the Taliban. The cognitive frames by which the Taliban mobilize against us (Crusader/Imperialist) would no longer be effective, instead they would crash against the shoals of social experience developing between us and the Pashtuns. In this way, our very social presence can alter the structure-culture of the Pashtuns. More broadly, it should alter the entire structure-culture of Afghan society. Zenpundit quotes Nagl saying something quite similar in describing the necessary operational capabilities of a SysAdmin force: “The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies.” This is the key to victory in contemporary warfare, War Amongst the People, or 5GW, however it might be labeled. We win by manipulating identities, worldviews, perceptions of reality itself, within the simulcra that makes reality (if I’m using the concept of simulcra incorrectly, please let me know, I’m new to the Baudrillard stuff).

Lastly, I haven’t talked about governance so much here, which, as Troy points out, is the traditional solution of COIN. Michael Fitzsimmons also notes this, but argues that new COIN theory should inquire into the impact of identity, as the cultural content of some identities makes building legitimacy impossible through simply applying ‘good governance’. I hope the above analysis demonstrates a theoretical path to square this circle: yes, some identities will make attempts to build legitimacy through applying good governance unsuccessful. But, we can also work within those identities and the cultural norms they encompass to figure out exactly what ‘governance’ means to an indigenous population. The next step is to think about how to initiate the process of state and institution building, so one day we can pack up and go home.
Posted in Alexander Wendt, Constructivism, Counterinsurgency, Insurgency |
5 Responses to “Deconstructing the Taliban”

Dan tdaxp Says:

June 23, 2008 at 1:57 am

One reason that I’m skeptical of Self/Other interpretations is that it is too simple. Humans are competitive-cooperative, naturally forming coalitions against rival coalitions. This does not boil down to a Self/Other dichotomy though, as there is Self, In-Group, Out-Group, and Other-Groups.

Presenting some evidence of a progressive research agenda and real-world success with that sort of analysis would help, too.

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