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SHADOW GOVERNMENT: The Taliban Takes a Village

tali1A common method used by Taliban tribal members in eastern and southern Afghanistan to gain control of an area deemed of strategic interest to the Taliban leadership operating from safe havens in Pakistan or within Afghanistan is to identify and target villages to subvert. The Taliban has recognized the necessity to operate with the compliance of the local population.

The modus operandi has been to gain its cooperation through indoctrination (preferred) or coercion (when necessary).  e control of villages is tactically needed to allow the Taliban to stage  ghters and equipment to be used in attacks against Afghan security forces and US and coalition troops, and strategically to operate an e ective and parallel “shadow government” that supplants the Afghan central government. 

The Taliban utilize existing tribal networks and alliances to further its own organizational growth in areas whenever possible.  is “piggybacking” on Pashtun tribal structure facilitates the ability of the Taliban to rapidly spread into areas and to withstand network targeting as US and coalition forces disrupt old and established Pashtun tribal agreements.  e Taliban destabilize and alienate the population from Afghan government and US policies and e orts in a targeted area. One must understand Pashtun tribal structure and apply lethal and non-lethal operations appropriately to interdict our adversaries’ ability to exploit traditional Pashtun tribal networks.

Village Nodes of Influence

For a non-Afghan or foreigner to understand how the Taliban can subvert a village, we can use a simple social structure model to identify the key nodes of in uence within a typical Afghan village. A village can be divided into three areas that most a ect how daily life is lived.  ese areas generally fall under political and administrative, religious, and security.  ese three areas can be considered key nodes of in uence in every Afghan village.  tali2The node that is the most visible to outsiders is that of the malik and village elders.  e malik and village elders represent the political aspects of the village. A second key node is the imam.  e imam represents the religious node of in uence within a village. A third local node of in uence is the system of security found within a village. Security is traditionally conducted by the men of each individual village, which is a village-based militia (lashkar).

When one or more of the parts or nodes of in uence is controlled by either the Taliban or Afghan government in a village, then the side having taken or controlling the village nodes will have the most in uence.  This victory can be temporal in nature.

Taliban Control of Village Nodes

The Taliban looks for villages and areas that it can operate within and use as a base against US and Afghan forces. Areas with little US presence or Afghan police or army are prime areas the Taliban will initially seek to subvert and hold. The Taliban builds networks by getting a fighter, religious leader, or village elder to support them. Whichever one or more are initially used will be exploited by tribal and familial ties. The village politics administered by the elders and represented by an appointed leader (malik) are the most identifiable node of influence of any particular village.

The Taliban will attempt to sway those village leaders who are not supportive by discussion and if necessary, threats, violence, or death. In villages where the locals say there is no malik, it is usually described as a convenience to the village as “no one wants the position” or sometimes “the elders cannot agree on a malik so it is better that there is none.” In these cases, it is likely that the Taliban has intimidated, driven out, or killed that village representative. When locals are pressed for a representative they will give you a name of a person who has come to represent the village. This individual will most likely be in support of and supported by the Taliban. The Taliban will use coercion or force, if necessary, to install a malik or “representative of the village.”

tali3A “sub-commander” will be established in the village to keep those in line who would resist the Taliban or the malik, and will be supported by limited funding. The sub-commander may have several fighters under his control with the ability to augment with other sub-commanders and fighters as needed. The fighters will often be armed only with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. They may or may not have an IED capability, and if not will coordinate IED activities for defense and when possible offense against US and Afghan forces. These fighters may stay in the village but preferably are not from the village.

Currently, many fighters are recruited from the Punjab and in Pakistani religious schools (madrassas). Locals can sometimes be pressed into service to fight when needed, but the Taliban tend to use fighters from different villages so that when threats or physical violence is utilized it won’t be kinsman against kinsman. Blood-relative males from Pashtun villages may fight and it may be revenge against Afghan and coalition forces due to what they feel are egregious acts committed against themselves and their village, which is exploited by the Taliban.

The imam and local mosques of villages are often visited by the Taliban. This is not generally opposed by villagers as it is expected that even the Taliban must be allowed to perform and express their Islamic duties. These mosque visits afford the Taliban opportunities to gauge village sentiment and to build and establish contacts within localities.

Village religious leaders also serve to educate children in villages where the Taliban have either closed or destroyed the local school. The mosque and imam serve as an education center for the Taliban while still presenting an opportunity for village children to be “educated.” This presents a solution to the unpopular notion of schools being closed. A constant and recognized complaint from the Afghan people is the lack of opportunity because of poor education. The Taliban will supplant the local imam if needed by supplying its own to a village. A village with no imam will receive one and the Taliban will establish a mosque. This mosque will serve as a meeting place for Taliban, a storage facility/cache, and an indoctrination center.

Sympathetic locals are used as auxiliaries to provide food and shelter. One way to do this is for known supporters to place food and blankets outside their living quarters or in guest quarters to be used by Taliban in transit or operating within a village. This gives the resident supporter some cover of deniability. When US or Afghan forces arrive, all that is found are the blanket, possibly clothing, footprints, and other signs of the Taliban’s visit.  e Taliban has blended into the surrounding village.

Taliban Can Control With Few Fighters

 e Taliban method requires relatively few of its own personnel. Its strength is in the local subversion of the most basic levels of village organization and life. It is also a decentralized approach. Guidance is given and then carried out with commanders applying their own interpretation of how to proceed.  e goal is to control the village, and at the local level the only e ective method, which must be used by all commanders, is to control what we have termed the “nodes of in uence.” Form  ts function—an Afghan village can only work one way to enable its members to survive a subsistence agrarian lifestyle, and the Taliban know it well.

tali4To control an area, the Taliban will identify villages that can be most easily subverted.  ey will then spread to other villages in the area one at a time, focusing e orts on whichever node of in uence seems most likely to support their e ort  rst. Using this model, the Taliban could in uence and dominate or control a valley or an area with relatively few active  ghters and  ghting leaders.  e actual numbers may be more population and fewer  ghters. Recently, one  gure reported in the news from a Canadian general’s assessment held that active Taliban members had gone from 15 percent to 1 percent to 2 percent in villages in the districts of Zari and Panjway in southern Afghanistan. One to two percent of a population involved with an insurgency enables the Taliban to maintain resistance and control of a populated area. Most likely, the remaining Taliban members in these villages are cadre or leaders who can reconstitute  ghters and staging areas as needed when government forces depart that area.

The Taliban will have an elaborate network to support their  ghters in areas they control or dominate.  They will have safe houses, medical clinics, supply sites, weapons caches, transportation agents, and early warning networks to observe and report. The US and Afghan forces, heavily laden with body armor and excessive equipment, are reluctant to leave their vehicles, sometimes by command design.  They are blown up on the same predictable roads and paths that they entered the area on.  e Taliban will use feints and lures to draw our forces away from caches and leaders in an attempt to buy them time to relocate, or draw friendly forces into a lethal ambush. After the attack, the Taliban disperse and blend into the village.  e village will usually sustain civilian casualties and propaganda will be spread of US and Afghan forces using excessive force.  e US and Afghan forces will leave or set up an outpost nearby, but the Taliban attacks will continue because the forces are not in the village, do not truly know “who’s who in the zoo,” and aren’t able to e ectively interface with the village nodes of in uence to their bene t.

Locals are reluctant to help because to be seen talking with the Americans and Afghan security forces will result in a visit from a Taliban member to determine what they talked about and to whom.  e local villagers know the government has no e ective plan that can counter the Taliban in their village and will typically only give information on Taliban or criminal elements to settle a blood feud.  e Pashtu people are patient to obtain justice and will use what they have to pay back “blood for blood,” even against the Taliban, through a complex code known as Pashtunwali of which badal (revenge), nanwatai (asylum), and melmastia (hospitality) are examples that can help or hinder US and coalition e orts at pacifying a Pashtun tribe or area.

Countering the Taliban in the Village

Countering Taliban subversion of the populace is not done e ectively with just more troops located at outposts.  e troops must coordinate their activities with the local population and establish security through and within the village. When US and Afghan forces do this the  ght will typically take on a particularly violent aspect, and involve the population as the Taliban attempt to maintain control.

 e US and Afghan forces and government will need to identify individuals to use lethal and nonlethal targeting.  is requires in-depth knowledge of tribal structure, alliances, and feuds. Viable alternatives or choices need to be available to village leaders and villagers. Just placing US and Afghan soldiers at an outpost and conducting token presence patrols and occasionally bantering with locals and organizing a meeting (shura) once a month have not worked.

Afghan identity is not primarily national, i.e., belonging within a geographic boundary with a centralized national government. Afghan identity is tribal in nature. Americans view identity as a national government; in the villages, Afghans do not.  e tribe is most important.  e country “Afghanistan” running things from Kabul does not mean very much to the Afghan people in the villages under duress from the Taliban.

US and Afghan forces must be able to in ltrate and shape the village nodes of in uence and then target individuals.

Right now our military embraces a centralized, top-down driven approach that prevents our military and UStrained Afghan counterparts from doing so. Current US procedures and tactics attempt to identify the Taliban without regard to their in uence or social role at a village level. Instead, we attempt to link individuals to attacks and incomplete network structures through often questionable intelligence.  e individuals in nodes of in uence must be identi ed as neutral, pro, or anti-Afghan government and then dealt with. To target any other way is haphazard at best and does not gain us the initiative.

US and Afghan forces must also devise and utilize tactics to  ght outside and inside the village. Proactive tactical pursuit operations based on basic military doctrine should be emphasized. Combat and reconnaissance patrols must be practiced and mastered. Afghan troops must be incorporated in operations as they grew up in similar village settings and can instantly recognize normal and abnormal patterns and understand the nuances of village life and mores. Counterinsurgency (COIN) and infantry tactics need to be tailored to the speci c area and insurgents. Best are lightly equipped and fast-moving COIN forces conducting tactical pursuit operations that go into villages and know how to properly interact with locals and identify Taliban insurgents.  ey must have the ability to take their time and stay in areas they have identi ed at the local level as worth trying to take back. Being moved from place to place in armored vehicles while barely engaging local leadership does not work.

A light infantry force conducting specialized reconnaissance in villages, utilizing observation posts, and using proven tactics like trained visual trackers to follow insurgents into and out of villages while conducting ambushes, foot patrols outside the village, and knowing the local village situation are the key. Infantry tactics should also use vertical envelopment of Taliban  ghters by helicopter and parachute to cut o avenues of escape and to insert troops to conduct sweeps and set blocking positions. Helicopters can be used to quickly reposition troops for greater e ectiveness during operations and used for command and control. Gunships can be used to drive insurgents to ground ( x) while troops close upon and capture/ kill those they encounter. Troops should foot patrol into villages at night, talk with and document compounds and inhabitants for later analysis, and have a secure patrol base locally from which to operate. Mega bases or FOBs should only be used for support. Units and tactics must be decentralized.

External Support and Endgame

tali5The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency has been implicated in supporting Taliban activities and movement within Pakistan and into Afghanistan.  e Iranian government and Revolutionary Guards have also been implicated in helping the Taliban with the provision of arms, equipment, and expertise. With external sanctuary and a long, poorly controlled border and focus currently on al–Qaeda-only strikes in Pakistan, the Taliban has increased potential for survival. If the United States won’t or can’t go after the Taliban in its Pakistani sanctuary and stop the  ow of arms and equipment from Iran, it is not surprising that the Taliban has been asked to come to the table and play a part in the governance of Afghanistan because it will not be eliminated by military and police operations as they are currently being conducted.

The future of Afghanistan is going to have Taliban as a political entity in the government if tactics are not appropriately evolved to the mission.  e very same Taliban that forces women to wear complete covering form head to toe in public, limits education of girls, imposes radical interpretations of Islamic justice, has killed hundreds of Americans, and harbored and covered for al-Qaeda training camps and the perpetrators of 9/11, will be legitimized.

Is this the success and win America wants? Should we build a failed state with US tax dollars and blood only to install elements of the Taliban back in power?

About the Author

Mr. Sexton has deployed to Afghanistan as a member of Special Forces A-Teams (ODAs) and as a security contractor and advisor to the Afghan Presidential Protective Security Detail. He is a National Guard warrant o cer.  The information contained in this article is based on his personal observations in Afghanistan and does not represent the perspective of any governmental agency. Mr. Sexton is the founder of Vista Tracking (