January 19, 2010

COIN 101

Weighing military and propaganda losses can be a tricky process. Propaganda defeat can neutralize a military success, while propaganda can turn military defeat into success.

The following story is a case in point. Which is more damning, and thus more open to US exploitation: porn or faulty guerrilla strategy?

Porn naturally grips the attention, but this isn’t just any porn. A fouler genre couldn’t be found. A recent Jawa report is slowly spreading about Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani’s formula to rape women on camera before killing them. And he does so under the blanket of Islam, encouraging young men to join the jihad against foreign occupation and corruption.

If the story turns out to be true then America now possesses a propaganda nuclear bomb. The Jawa report already cites several disenchanted commanders who smuggled out what was left of the tapes after Siraj had most of them burned.

A few rogues could turn into a trend if America is able to expose Siraj as anti-Islam to his own fighters.

Fully utilizing these rape tapes won’t be so easy though. Their accuracy is critical because a fabricated story is useless, unlike Taliban propaganda which spreads quickly even if full of lies. America cannot fight to the Taliban’s standard. It must fight with the truth, not lies.

To jump on these rumors, when they turn out to be false, would surely ricochet back on America. Falsely accusing a Taliban commander of impiety smacks of typical Western propaganda - lewd and materialistic. America seems to understand the potential for backlash as this story, nearly 10 days old, has yet to go mainstream.

We’ll get a better idea of its validity depending on how the US military reacts. Weakening his movement won’t end the war in Afghanistan, but every piece adds up. Needless to say, Siraj’s immoral actions must be ferociously pounced on if true.

And yet, Siraj may be committing an even greater blunder on the military battlefield. Al Jazeera somehow managed to catch up with him for a brief and relatively hollow interview. More than anything, the video’s purpose seems to be pure exposure, feeding the perception that Haqqani’s network is free to move around, feeling secure enough to come on camera.

After the torrent of drone attacks on Haqqani’s territory in North Waziristan, Siraj is certainly trying to project his own power. But he also lets slip an error that, if true, has more potential to bring down the Afghan insurgency than video rapes.

“Thank God the mujahedeen are getting more advanced,” he tells Al Jazeera. “The war is now being dictated by them. I can guarantee you in the future their fighting will be better.”

This boast, contrary to its apparent strength, could work against the Taliban. Decoding his statement is necessary, since who makes up his “mujahedeen” are goes unsaid. But given reports that Haqqani is the main road for foreign fighters into Afghanistan, he’s likely referring to them.

And turning the Afghan insurgency into a foreign enterprise would be a fundamental mistake in guerrilla warfare.

The effects of such a scenario are hard to gauge. Mullah Omar still commands over 20,000 Afghan fighters so how much Haqqani can dilute the pool remains to be seen; Jalaluddin or Siraj aren’t taking over so long as Omar is alive. At the same time, slowly increasing the pool of foreigners could weaken the overall insurgency.

In the short-term Siraj needs foreign fighters, many of whom already have battle experience in previous wars. They add expertise and commitment to the resistance. But in the long-term, any insurgency should be kept predominantly homegrown. Importing an insurgency lasts for about as long as Iraq, which has degraded into a low-intensity conflict more than true guerrilla warfare.

This model isn’t sustainable. To advance from terrorism to insurgency to proper guerrilla warfare - to swim with the people - the majority of foot soldiers and commanders must remain local. If we were the US military, we would hope Siraj’s interview to be truer.

Not just because the Jawa story is sickening (although advantageous), but because real hope in Afghanistan lies in the insurgency becoming outsourced.

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