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Afghanistan in Sixteen Characters

24 February 2010

Afghanistan in Sixteen Characters

By Gwynne Dyer

“By May 1928 the basic principles of guerilla warfare…had already been evolved; that is, the sixteen-character formula: The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
Mao Tse-tung, 1936

Not many of the Taliban guerillas in Afghanistan have read Mao on guerilla warfare, but then, they knew how to do it anyway. The current crop of officers in the Western armies that are fighting them don’t seem to have read their Mao either, which is a more serious omission. The generation before them certainly did.

Mao Tse-tung didn’t invent guerilla warfare, but he did write the book on it. The “sixteen-character formula” sums it up: never stand and fight, just stay in business and wear the enemy down. “The ability to run away is the essence of the guerilla,” as Mao put it – and that is why the much-ballyhooed “battle” for Marjah and Nad Ali, two small towns in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is irrelevant to the outcome of the war.

Breathless reports of the “battle” by embedded journalists have filled the American and European media for the past two weeks, as if winning it might make a difference. The truth is that some of the local Taliban fighters have been left to sell their lives as dearly as possible, while most have been pulled back or sent home to await recall. “The enemy advances; we retreat.”

Mao didn’t invent guerilla warfare; he was merely a very successful practitioner who tried to codify the rules. Afghans don’t really need instruction in it, since that has been the hill-tribes’ style of warfare since time immemorial. The only new element in the equation, since the 1940s, is that these wars have almost all ended in victory for the guerillas.

The Jewish war against British occupation in Palestine in the 1940s; the war against the French in Algeria in the 1950s; the Vietnam war in the 1960s; the Rhodesian war in the 1970s; the victory of the Afghan “mujahedeen” against the Soviet army in the 1980s: in these and several dozen other wars, Western armies with all their massive firepower eventually lost to the lightly armed nationalists.

By contrast, the number of times when they won can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand. By the 1970s, Western armies had figured out why they always lost, and began to avoid such struggles – but now, they seem to have forgotten again.

The guerillas always won, in that era, because the Western armies were fighting to retain direct control of Third-World countries or impose some puppet regime on them, at a time when the people of those countries had already awakened to nationalism. All the guerillas had to do was observe the sixteen-character formula and stay in business.

They could accept a loss ratio of dozens or hundreds dead for each foreign soldier killed, because they had an endless supply of local 18-year-olds eager to join the fight. Whereas the Western armies could not take many casualties or go on fighting for many years, because popular support at home was always fragile.

In the end, the Western army could always quit and go home without suffering any especially terrible consequences. The locals did not have that option, since they were already home, so they always had more staying power. Eventually, pressure at home forced the foreigners to give up and leave – and the Taliban’s leaders know that. They watched the Russians leave only thirty years ago.

The current generation of Western officers are in denial, as if the past half-century didn’t happen. They parrot some of the slogans of the era of guerilla wars, like the need to win the “hearts and minds” of the population, but it’s just empty words. The phrase dates from the Vietnam War, but the tactic didn’t work there and it isn’t working in Afghanistan.

The plan, in this “offensive” in Helmand province, is to capture the towns (“clear and hold”), and then saturate the area with Afghan troops and police and win the locals’ hearts and minds by providing better security and public services. It might work if all the people involved on both sides were bland, interchangeable characters from The Sims, but they are not.

The people of Helmand province are Pashtuns, and the Taliban are almost exclusively a Pashtun organisation. The people that the Western armies are fighting are local men: few Taliban fighters die more than a day’s walk from home. Whereas almost none of the “Afghan” troops and police who are supposed to win local minds and hearts are Pashtuns.

They are mostly Tajiks from the north who speak Dari, not Pashto. (Very few Pashtuns join the Kabul regime’s army and police.) Even if these particular Afghan police are better trained and less prone to steal money, do drugs, and rape young men at checkpoints than their colleagues elsewhere, they are unwelcome outsiders in Helmand.

This is just another post-imperial guerilla war, and it will almost certainly end in the same way as all the others. Thirty years ago, any Western military officer could have told you that, but large organisations often forget their own history.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“They could…fragile”; and “The current…Afghanistan”)