Kill one, frighten ten thousand.
Intimidation is discouraging people from acting by threats of violence; it is a pervasive, global problem. Autocratic regimes use intimidation to repress citizen demands for government accountability. At the other end of the spectrum, groups opposing legitimate authority use intimidation to reduce the effectiveness of security forces, to discourage citizens from supporting the authorities, and to keep the general public from taking part in activities sponsored by the authorities. Even in the United States, witness intimidation is a serious problem in some areas of high gang activity. Reluctance to cooperate with authorities may be in response to a perceived or actual threat of retaliation, or simply by a general expectation that retaliation will occur if there is cooperation with the authorities.
Intimidation is necessarily local, with individuals in imminent fear of physical violence against themselves, or against their families, their associates or their property. For it to be effective, the threats must be credible. The intimidators must regularly demonstrate that official security cannot protect marked individuals. They must also use measured actions to insure that the result is widespread fear and not anger. This is much easier to do if the main demand on the local population is passivity. The more that individuals suffer personal losses, are forced to give up benefits, or sense a violation of cultural norms, the more difficult it is to avoid stoking resentment.
Local authorities are the key - if they can build confidence that they can protect the population and support people in earning a livelihood, then the intimidators can rapidly lose effectiveness. But if the intimidators can demonstrate an ability to commit violence with relative impunity, then the population may be effectively cowed. Thus the requirements for the authorities are transparent:
- To identify and eliminate the intimidators;
- To protect individuals at risk;
- To build popular incentives to oppose the intimidators.
In Afghanistan, the ability to meet these requirements varies widely from area to area. Nowhere is the situation simple and straightforward.
Eliminating the intimidators is the core requirement in any intimidation situation. In Afghanistan, that means identifying Taliban operators to the authorities. Generally, locals know who the operatives and sympathizers are, and in most areas there is a high percentage of people who do not support them. But individuals are also concerned about their own safety, often disenchanted with the government for its corrupt practices, unhappy with the presence of foreign troops, and protective of their Islamic culture. So there is a basic ambivalence - people lean toward the government side when these negative factors are less prominent and toward the Taliban when the government is not supportive and the local Islamic culture is strongly fundamentalist. This balance of ambivalence is what determines the success or failure of intimidation.
In many areas in the north, the local climate is very inhospitable to the Taliban. Informal village security forces protect against outside insurgents, though these decentralized grass-roots initiatives are often outside the framework of official government programs. But they illustrate how a local information network can block intimidation.
The situation is very different in other areas, particularly in the south where there is a war going on in the shadows -- the US forces and the government seek to eliminate key Taliban personnel, while the Taliban wage a campaign of assassination on pro-government individuals. The US side of this is particularly murky. In Kandahar, there are reports that small bands of Special Operations forces have been picking up or picking off insurgent leaders and that a local tribal militia has been formed. There has also been extensive use of drone missile strikes against Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and some reports in Afghanistan, such as January strike on a suspected militant safe house in Helmand province.
On the Taliban side, actions are purposely conspicuous, such as the recent assassination of the vice mayor of Kandahar, fatally shot while praying in a mosque - one of a number of assassinations in Kandahar of those who support US efforts. Similarly, in Marjah, despite a major US Marine presence, there have been reports of beheadings, while the new governor acknowledged that militants were holding meetings in randomly selected homes roughly every other night, gathering residents together and demanding that they turn over the names of anyone cooperating with the authorities. Immediately after the US-led forces took control of the town, the local bazaar came back to life as the Marines used cash payments to prod more than 20 store owners to open their doors. But a month later, all but five shops had closed and a prominent anti-Taliban senior elder had been gunned down, prompting some 200 people to flee. A pervasive Taliban presence discouraged residents from having any contact with the government. Midlevel Taliban commanders moved among the farms, staying in different houses every night, while the villagers did not dare give them away for fear of retaliation.
Although the Taliban effort may be very visible, it has to tread fine lines between promoting fear and promoting anger, between denouncing Westerners as anti-Islam and showing itself to be anti-Islam with brutal killngs, promotion of opium, and suicide bombings. Recent reports say that two-thirds of the stalls in Marja's main bazaar have reopened, but the only baker fled the area a week ago after insurgents kidnapped his son. Still, Marjah elders line up outside the new governor's office and the yard is filled with Marjah farmers seeking to register for seed, fertilizer and water pumps, or to sign up for a program that pays them $120 per acre to plow up their poppy fields and grow something else. School resumes, but threats loom - eighty boys showed up the first day, 135 the next, 200 the next. So even in an area where the Taliban presence remains high, there is a clear desire for a better life.
Supporting these aspirations is now a central theme in the US-backed efforts. So, meeting a group of local elders, the new provincial governor in Kandahar stresses the promise of western largesse as the strategy shifts to a civilian focus. The clear objectives of these efforts are to give the ordinary Afghans a stake in supporting real provincial development and at the same time to undercut Taliban propaganda depicting the government and the Western forces supporting it as predatory and anti-Islamic. The Taliban like to stress that time is on their side because the Americans will inevitably leave. But in reality, it is not the Americans which pose the main threat to their resurgence, but development and better lives for ordinary Afghans. If the Taliban simply wait for the Americans to leave, they can find that they have become irrelevant as development has swept them aside.
Therefore it is no wonder that the Taliban are reacting ferociously at US-backed efforts to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. They know that local security forces with supporting intelligence networks incorporating a wide range of local individuals can break their grip on contested areas. The more positive contact that everyday Afghans have with government authorities and Western military and civilian supporters and the more visible progress they see, the more everyday citizens will see the prospects for better lives for themselves and their families. And the more difficult it becomes for the Taliban to identify individuals who may be informing on them. The balance of ambivalence shifts against them. Opportunistic Taliban - David Kilcullen's "accidental guerrillas" - will find increasing incentives to abandon militancy for development. So there is no single element which can abolish intimidation. It is a question of the balance of ambivalence. Actions need to delegitimize and Taliban and undermine their aura of pervasiveness while building up the positive aspects of coalition operations.
In regards to the Taliban:
- It is imperative to demonstrate that they do not control the night, to interdict at least some of their night activities, showing that they cannot operate freely. This depends on intelligence collection. The more contact between everyday Afghans and coalition personnel, the more information coming in, the more opportunities to intercept and detain Taliban operatives. This is certainly part of the ongoing Special Forces activities; it rests on widening contacts with the population at large and providing opportunities for anonymous and discreet reporting.
- Although the Taliban present themselves as the defenders of true Islam, many of therir actions belie this claim. Their cruelty and suicide bombings are alien to mainstream Islam; their promotion of opium production (which they roundly denounced when in power) is totally at odds with Islam. The authorities need to take advantage of every opportunity to publicize the judgements of major Islamic figures against Taliban extremism.
- Low-level Taliban must see that their actions undermine their own communities and prolong a needless war.
In regards to coalition activities:
- The ongoing efforts to minimize civilian casualties are critical to popular perceptions of coalition goodwill. The recent shift in a campaign to stabilize Kandahar from a military emphasis to a civilian development one reflects this sensitivity.
- Giving everyday Afghans a sense that they have a stake in government-led development is a crucial aspect of building communication and undermining Taliban leverage. So the Kandahar operation, for example, is setting up administrative districts, each with a representative council, to insure that projects meet local needs and are not seen as simply fueling corruption.
- Demonstrating respect for Islam and for Afghan culture directly contradicts Taliban propaganda of coalition troops as marauders intent on destroying Islam.
Time is the bottom line. Intimidation campaigns are greatly aided by perceptions of ultimate Taliban victory. But the Taliban are also in a race with time, a race to seize control before modernization will sweep them away, before the Afghan people develop a vision of what a new life could be and of how the Taliban's medieval tenets are a distortion of Islam. The Taliban are not a Wave of the Future, but a Relic of the Past. Providing support to local leaders and local development while continually highlighting the emptiness of Taliban programs can defeat not only intimidation but Taliban.