Afghanistan in 16 characters

2010-03-01 00:00

“By May 1928, the basic principles of guerrilla warfare ... had already been evolved; that is, the 16-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 guerrillas in Afghanistan have read Mao on guerrilla 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 guerrilla warfare, but he did write the book on it. The 16-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 guerrilla,” as Mao put it — and this 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 United States 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 guerrilla warfare, he was merely a very successful practitioner who tried to codify the rules. Afghans don’t really need instruction in it, since this has been the hill-tribes’ style of warfare since time immemorial. The only new element in the equation, since the forties, is that these wars have almost all ended in victory for the guerrillas.

The Jewish war against British occupation in Palestine in the forties; the war against the French in Algeria in the fifties; the Vietnam war in the sixties; the Rhodesian war in the seventies; the victory of the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet army in the eighties: in these and several dozen other wars, Western armies with all their fire power eventually lost to the lightly armed nationalists.

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

The guerrillas 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 guerrillas had to do was observe the 16-character formula and stay in business. 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 30 years ago.

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, interchange-able 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 who 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 guerrilla 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.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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