21st Century Warfare Considerations

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DND photo IS2007-7233 by Master Corporal Kevin Paul

A group of Canadian Forces and Afghan National Army soldiers prepare to return fire during a dawn skirmish with the Taliban during Op Season, a company-level operation in the Panjwaii district of Afghanistan, 20 June 2007.

Cultural Irregular Warfare:
The Crossroads between Strategic Culture and Non-Kinetic Strategies employed by Non-State Actors

by Juan Castillo

Juan-Camilo Castillo, BA, MSc, has a Master of Science degree in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen. In civilian life, he is an associate case manager for a consultancy firm that specializes in intelligence, due diligence, cyber security, and physical security. He has held teaching and research positions with the University of Aberdeen, the United Kingdom Defence Forum, and the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. He is an Army Reserve corporal in the British Columbia Regiment, is currently attached to the Queen’s York Rangers in Toronto, and he previously served for a year with the British Territorial Army in Scotland.

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When entering the realm of violent non-state actors (VNSAs) and low-intensity conflicts, it becomes imperative to acknowledge the great diversity that exists underneath these headings. As noted by Dr. Ulrich Schneckener, Professor of International Relations at the University of Osnabrück, a variety of groups that differ in motivation, behaviour, organization, and membership form the general notion of VNSAs. Within this great diversity there is a great deal of confusion, as some of these actors tend to be categorized by the tactical tools they employ, such as terrorism or guerrilla warfare.1 Thus, when labelling an actor as a terrorist or guerrilla organization there is a risk of neglecting salient features that define both the organizational behaviour and motivation behind these groups. Conversely, these violent groups do share two common qualities: their use of violence as the main vehicle to advance their interests (as the name implies) and some sort of social organization. The first and most significant quality places the non-state actors in a recalcitrant position towards the state, as the latter’s role has always been the legitimate use of violence.2 Also, the use of force creates a political effect in which powerful violent actors manage to generate and run “para-states,” where the state’s monopoly on violence is broken.3

Nevertheless, the resources that VNSAs enjoy are limited in comparison to those of the state; thus, the toolbox of unconventional warfare becomes their core instrument for effecting political change. Even though there are instances in which, due to the hybridization of warfare, violent non-state actors have been able to minimize the capabilities gap (i.e. Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah, and the Mexican cartels), these groups will ultimately rely upon maximizing the advantages of asymmetric warfare.4 This strategic choice brings the local populace to the centre of the struggle between the state and the violent actors. The U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual states that any irregular warfare campaign will rest its centre of gravity upon the civilian population.5 The VNSA’s ability to infiltrate civil society thus becomes as significant as any military action. For the actor to effectively recruit, acquire logistical support, and, (most importantly), obtain some sort of legitimacy, it must be able to align the population with its own raison d’être. Consequently, the civilian’s normative perceptions become a contested space where the violent actor’s narrative seeks to usurp the state’s natural position of authority.

This article aims to examine how different armed non-state actors employ non-kinetic doctrines and tactics to influence civilian populations as they seek to erode the normative power of the state. To accomplish this, it will look at the VNSAs’ choice of non-kinetic activities through the lenses of strategic culture, as this paradigm helps to elucidate the way in which these groups’ organizational features and political perceptions influence their strategic choices.6 It is important to note that kinetic and non-kinetic actions are interlinked, and thus it should be considered how they complement each other. Accordingly, this article will be divided into two comprehensive sections that will discuss the theoretical framework behind the development of non-kinetic doctrines and its application in reference to the Taliban insurgency.

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A man holds a placard in Geneva during a demonstration in protest against Sri Lanka’s military offensives in territories held by Tamil Tigers, 16 March 2009.

The Intrinsic Trinity: Strategic Culture, the Civilian Populace, and Non-Kinetic Action

As mentioned previously, ‘VNSA’ is a broad term incorporating different types of social organizations that use violence to advance their interests. Accordingly, the global presence of actors such as illicit armed groups, youth gangs, terrorists, militias, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations have made the state’s monopoly on violence nothing more than a “convenient fiction” in the 21st Century.7 The very existence of these actors sets them in opposition to the political, social, and economic order desired by the state. This does not, however, define the VNSA’s desired interaction with the state. For instance, criminal gangs are interested in maintaining existing state structures because these facilitate the accumulation of wealth through a parasitic relationship.8 If anything, this type of actor normally seeks to stay undetected, since, under normal circumstances, the state can neutralize it through formal force mechanisms, such as law enforcement agencies.9 Other types of VNSA may have pro-state political interests, and thus, may be supported by agencies within the state structure.10 This article, however, will focus upon VNSAs that not only pose an ontological challenge to the state, but also seek to usurp its power by advancing political outcomes through coercive means. Hence, this section seeks to elucidate the relationship between anti-state VNSAs, their modus operandi, and the civilian population.

The anti-state VNSA (unlike the criminal or pro-government type) is able to organize, plan, and execute physical attacks that have “… strategic effects against the state.”11 Moreover, the armed non-state actor seeks to slowly acquire the state’s characteristics by exercising power in a wide range of matters within a controlled geographical space.12 Thus, the VNSA is faced with the complex tasks of undermining the state’s security apparatus while pilfering its legitimacy. The state normally has the upper hand in matters of coercive force, since institutions demand force mechanisms with which to back them up. Similarly, legitimacy is something that the armed non-state actor lacks, due to its inherent illegal character within the state’s framework.13 Therefore, irregular warfare is a rational response to these challenges. According to US Air Force doctrine, irregular warfare is characterized by being a “violent struggle” in which non-state actors compete for legitimacy and “influence over the relevant populations.”14 Accordingly, the use of physical violence accompanies a political struggle for popular support. The needs and expectations of the VNSA determine the relationship between the non-state actor and civilian populations.

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A Lebanese girl waves a Hezbollah flag in front of a poster of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasraliah during a rally in Beirut, 22 September 2006.

Violent Non-State Actors and Strategic Culture

The paradigm of strategic culture explains the VNSA’s interactions with civilian populations by elaborating its strategic preferences and choices. A study made by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)/Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (ASCO) defines strategic culture as:

“Shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behaviour, derived from common experiences and common narratives that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives.”15

Traditionally, this notion has been assigned to the study of states’ behaviour in the international system since it was introduced in the 1970s.16 However, many VNSAs are sufficiently complex in organization to be examined through this framework as well. According to Colin Grey, strategic culture is “contingently prescriptive” by providing “a guide to strategic action” in the battlefield.17 Moreover, strategic culture ought to translate an actor’s interests and beliefs into operational reality.

Social and political scientist James M. Smith argues that political traditions, history/experience, beliefs/values, geospatial situation, classical texts/stories, economic resources, and security concepts all help determine an actor’s strategic culture.18 As these determinants shape the VNSA’s strategic culture, they provide the medium in which decision-making processes and information flows take place. Given the varied nature of armed non-state actors, these determinant variables will be heterogeneous as well. Regardless, these determinants play the same role among all VNSAs. As Smith points out, elements such as the relationship between the leadership and membership, the group’s overall situational awareness and the actions it undertakes are all structured on the actor’s strategic culture.19

In this way, the content of a VNSA’s internal narrative affects not only its normative structure, but also its operational activities. According to Sir Lawrence David Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, narratives are in themselves “strategic” because they are “deliberately constructed” and reinforced with “current ideas that when not grounded on actual evidence seek to appeal to the human emotion.”20 That is, narratives seek to generate response from a target audience either within or outside a group. More importantly, however, the narrative allows any strategic actor to define its position in relation to others, and, consequently, its actions towards them.21 In some instances, the narrative itself is used to generate specific reaction among civilians. Al Qaida, for example, had tailored propaganda campaigns to sub-populations in the Muslim world that are under political stress.22 Even though their major political goal was to gather the entirety of Muslims behind their cause, the organization attempts to influence specific segments of the populace that they perceive as being more responsive.23

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DND photo IS2011-2005-07 by Master Corporal Angela Abbey

An Afghan villager halts for a Leopard C2 tank from the 1 R22eR Battle Group as it patrols the construction site on Route Hyena, 22 February 2011.

Finally, the VNSA’s leadership’s interaction with strategic culture is equally significant when examining the organization’s behaviour. Traditionally, the leadership element within a VNSA is seen as the provider of “… strategic direction to break the ties between the population and the government and to establish and maintain “the credibility for the movement.”24 However, an actor’s strategic culture can affect how the leadership makes choices and develops preferences when confronted with adversity. Distinguished professor and leadership theorist Edwin P. Hollander noted that leaderships reflect a “… dialectical relationship between strategic culture and operational behaviour.”25 Also, there can be some level of stress between ad hoc leadership decisions and the strategic culture shared by the collectivity. Nevertheless, the leadership elements within a VNSA are “strategic users of culture” that have the power to steer the direction of the cultural discourses within the organization, and thus, to set its general direction.26 Hence, the VNSA’s strategy towards the civilian population and the state is defined by the leadership’s ushering of the actor’s culture.

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Protesters hold banners and flags, one showing an image of ‘Che’ Guevara, during a national strike in Lima, Peru, 9 July 2008.

The Human Battlespace:
The Strategic Civilian Populace

The VNSA’s success in achieving political change depends upon the local population’s support. Therefore, it becomes imperative for the non-state actor to develop a doctrine through which it can produce the desired effects on the population, and in that way, satisfy its strategic needs. The US Air Force Irregular Warfare White Paper states that the “… support of the people determines which side prevails” in the VNSA’s struggle against the state: the people provide the necessary “moral or physical strength, freedom of action” and “the will to act.”27 A belligerent entity survives only by acquiring and maintaining access to demographic resources, which provide “multidirectional” strategic and tactical goods such as “… logistical support; a recruiting base; intelligence; cover and concealment.”28 For instance, Mao Tse-Tung, described the civilian populace as the “true bastion of iron” and the “richest source of power to wage war” against the state.29 Ernesto “Che” Guevara noted that the VNSA engaged in guerrilla warfare must become one with the people in order to succeed, and not become “exterminated like criminal gangs.”30

The VNSA’s reliance upon the populace has led some distinguished scholars, such as Martin Van Creveld, to describe low-intensity conflicts as “non-Trinitarian” wars in which the roles of the “army” and the “people” become amalgamated.31 However, VNSAs are separate political entities in their own right, which, regardless of their motivation, emerge when there is “feasibility for conflict” within state structures.32 The interaction between the VNSA and the population is better described as a pathogenous relationship in which the armed actor seeks to infiltrate and influence the civilian communities within its area of operations. The Australian scholar David Kilcullen, a leading theorist on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, argues that cases such as Al Qaida show how a VNSA seeks to ‘infect’ areas where the state is weak in order to start a ‘contagious’ operation that can penetrate similar areas, and thus influence a significant segment of the population.33 Moreover, as Kilcullen points out, areas with weak state institutions resemble sick organisms that can be taken over by an invasive bacterium; i.e. the VNSA.34 In addition, USAF officers and scholars Troy Thomas and William Casebeer have used the Applied Systems Theory to explicate “the energy flows” between VNSAs and the civilian populace.35 According to this paradigm, an organization comprises different sub-systems that interact with the environment to meet its needs. Thomas and Casebeer observe that functions such as support, maintenance (internal entropy and culture), cognition (decision-making ability) and conversion (tactical actions) are carried out by sub-systems within the VNSA, which act in the same way as organs in a living organism.36 Like a cardio-respiratory system, the support sub-system enables the VNSA macro-system to perform sustenance functions by acquiring recruits, stakeholders, and logistical assets that must come from the civilian population.37

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DND photo IS2011-1016-01 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor

During Op Crazy Flight 1 (one of the last operations for the Royal 22e Régiment, Charlie Company, before the Canadian Forces ends its mission in the Southern region of Afghanistan), Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army accompany Canadian Forces soldiers during an early morning operation in Panjwa'i District.

A Model of Non-Kinetic Action

The civilian population’s high strategic value in an asymmetrical conflict obliges the VNSA to obtain certain desired outcomes from it. The US Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual notes that there are four methods through which armed actors seek to generate support: persuasion, coercion, encouraging over-reaction, and apolitical methods (economic incentives).38 These methods are not mutually exclusive and can be combined according to the VNSA’s choices. Most significantly, they involve both physical and non-kinetic actions, which can potentially complement each other. However, the non-kinetic element is most significant, as, without requiring “physical momentum,” it can generate “effects” that will quickly translate into “support” from the civilian population.39 Ultimately, it influences the population’s collective normative values and aligns/morphs them towards the VNSA’s strategic objectives.

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Reuters/Reuters TV RTR2V9J1

Still image taken from a video shows Pakistani Taliban fighters holding weapons as they receive training in Ladda, South Waziristan tribal region, 15 December 2011.

Non-kinetic actions can include direct communication, indirect communication, and the so-called “voice of actions,” all of which vary according to the VNSA’s doctrine and expectations of the population.40 Direct communication involves any sort of direct interaction with the populace. For example, Mao’s Three Rules and Eight Remarks ensured that the Chinese communist insurgents behaved well towards civilians, and thus emphasized that the “People’s Army” was the “Army of the People.” 41 Similarly, Mao’s ideological cadres indoctrinated peasants in order to influence the population directly through non-kinetic means.42 Indirect communication refers to information or propaganda that the VNSA can supply without being physically present (i.e., websites, print media, or clandestine radio stations). The Iraqi insurgency, for instance, used the Internet as a “virtual sanctuary,” not only to broadcast jihadist propaganda, but also to facilitate recruitment and receive economic support.43 Finally, the “voice of actions” refers to the distribution of public goods, such as infrastructure or health care, to generate popular support.44 For example, Hezbollah and Hamas have accomplished this by providing public goods that local governments have failed to or been unable to deliver.45

“Strategic culture plays an important role in shaping the choices and preferences that direct these operational activities.”

Strategic culture plays an important role in shaping the choices and preferences that direct these operational activities. The actor’s culture simultaneously defines its position towards the population and provides guidance on how to interact with it. Since cultural determinants such as narratives, myths, and ideologies provide a ‘theory’ with respect to how to achieve ‘victory,’ they will conceptualize strategies of non-kinetic action towards a populace.46 The VNSA’s leadership elements can also modify an established non-kinetic doctrine. Tribal, socio-economic, religious, or ethnic divisions among the civilian populace can also influence the leadership’s choices, since the actor is likely to focus upon sub-groups that are susceptible to its influence.47 The dialectical relationship between the VNSA’s strategic culture and its leadership will determine what non-kinetic strategy will effectively influence the population, while simultaneously adhering to the actor’s political and cultural dogma. In addition, the non-kinetic doctrine must complement the VNSA’s use of violence, and advance its overall strategic objectives.

The Taliban: Cultural Determinants as Cohesion in a Decentralized System

David Kilcullen argues that, in its present form, the Taliban is an “insurgent coalition” composed of a “fragmented series of tactical alliances of convenience.” 48 Currently, the major factions within the “Greater Taliban” are the Taliban Quetta shura (council), which is mainly the leadership of the 1990s Taliban regime led by Mullah Omar, Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan, and smaller movements, such as Lashkar e Tayyiba (LeT), Tehereek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), plus surviving elements of Al Qaida.49 This section will examine how the current Taliban organization’s over-arching strategic culture has helped shape its current non-kinetic strategy.

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17 Wing Publishing Winnipeg

Map of Afghan Tribal Distribution

This general description of an insurgent federacy may give the impression that today’s Taliban is somewhat chaotic and without effective central command structures. However, according to Antonio Giustozzi, a research fellow at the Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics, between 2002 and 2006, the Quetta shura successfully co-opted and re-absorbed the lesser insurgent groups, and now exercises a high degree of control over them.50 The only exception has been HiG, which, since 2004, has violently clashed with the Taliban.51 Even so, the Taliban and its subsidiaries remain the major VNSA operating throughout Afghanistan. Shahid Afsar, Chris Samples and Thomas Wood argue that the Taliban is a “network of franchises” in which a “local Taliban” gains recognition from the organization’s main hierarchy (Quetta shura) in return for “support and cooperation.”52 Consequently, the local franchise will support the Taliban grand strategy, while retaining local freedom of action that allows it to exploit “tribal loyalties” or other socio-cultural structures within its area of operations.53 To maintain the general direction of the organization’s grand strategy, the central shura appoints six regional commanders to oversee that the franchises act according to the leadership’s interests, while allowing them considerable flexibility in their organization and tactics.54 These regional commanders are responsible for disseminating the central shura’s directives as fatwas (religious decrees), which the leaders of the local cells must follow in the context of their operational situation.55

Given the extensive geographical area covered by each regional command, cultural determinants represent the Taliban leadership’s primary influence upon the organization’s strategic direction. For instance, since the Taliban’s shift from being a vertically integrated regime to a horizontally managed insurgency, Mullah M. Omar ceased to dictate direct operational orders, but instead, focused upon sending “messages of encouragement” to field commanders as strategic guidance.56 The leadership has also set up more rigorous control mechanisms, such as the Laheya, a guidebook on conduct and discipline that Taliban insurgents are expected to follow.57 This rulebook bears some resemblance to Mao’s Three Rules and Eight Remarks, as it seeks to generate popular support through positive interactions between the insurgents and civilians. The Laheya has three prevalent themes: the importance given to the local commander and the chain of command; the prohibition of the harassment or ill-treatment of civilians; and the use of local commanders, the Council of Ulema (clerics’ council) or tribal elders, to resolve issues between local cells and the civilian population.58 Moreover, according to Giustozzi, as far as the available information shows, the Taliban throughout Afghanistan seem to adhere to this rulebook, reflecting a functional command and control structure between the Quetta shura and the local Taliban cells.59 Through such narratives, the central leadership is able to ensure that the local cells are part of the organization’s main effort without compromising their decentralization. Both Kilcullen and Giustozzi note that the ability of local Taliban to operate without central support has become one of their strengths, as any COIN operation must take into consideration the difference that exist in the modus operandi of each cell.60

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Supporters of UCPN-Maoist carry portraits of former Chinese chairman Mao during a rally marking the 17th anniversary of the “People’s War” in Kathmandu, 13 February 2012.

By the same token, the Taliban’s grand strategy is divided into four sequential stages. First, the Taliban seeks to mobilize the religious public in Afghanistan and neighbouring states; next it will rally the Pashtun tribes through ideological means against the Kabul government; thirdly, it will secure legitimacy for the movement while people lose confidence in the government; finally, it will re-establish an Islamic emirate comprising present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.61 In principle, this strategic scheme follows a classical irregular warfare framework through which victory is achieved through gradual popular support. Moreover, Seth Jones argues that the general strategy being adopted by the Taliban allows each local cell to develop its own logistics and support networks, which are tailored to the local population’s characteristics.62  Clearly, this approach has helped the Taliban regain strength in an extremely heterogeneous battle-space. By way of illustration, some observers initially suggested that the Taliban has traditionally favoured the Ghilzai Pashtun tribe based in Kandahar province (the group to which Mullah M. Omar belongs).63 Nonetheless, as demonstrated by Guistozzi, the Taliban “did not want to present themselves as aligned with a particular tribe or community,” as they yearn to expand and operate throughout the whole of Afghanistan.64 Indeed, the Quetta shura currently contains primarily members of non-Ghilzai tribes (mainly Durrani and Karlanri), demonstrating that the Taliban’s decentralized organization is inclusive through ideology rather than exclusive through ethnicity.65 Simultaneously, the Taliban franchises have successfully gathered support from other ethnic groups, as in the case of pro-Taliban cells composed mainly of Hazaras and Tajiks in the northern part of the country.66 Its decentralized system allows the Taliban to use local commanders that are native to their area of operations and thus exploit existing cultural dynamics regardless of the region’s human geography.67

Non-Kinetic Doctrine:
Mullahs and the Shadow Emirate

Within the Taliban’s decentralized system, non-kinetic doctrine directs local Taliban commanders in translating the main shura’s guidance into operational action. While a cell’s individual tactics must be tailored to the target population, the Taliban overall seems to use similar direct and indirect non-kinetic actions throughout its area of operations. For instance, David Kilcullen notes that the Taliban has launched a propaganda campaign throughout southern Afghanistan that focuses on five simple slogans: “Our party, the Taliban;” “our people and nation; the Pashtun;” “our economy; the poppy;” “our constitution, the Shari’a;” and “our form of government; the emirate.” 68 In principle, the purpose of these “rallying calls” has been to create a unified front among competing groups (i.e. Tribal elders vs. Islamists vs. poppy growers).69 This approach also permits local commanders to focus on non-kinetic tactics that target the interests of major regional stakeholders, such as poppy growers in Southern Helmand, Islamists in Kandahar or tribal patriarchs in Zabul.

Nonetheless, at the tactical-cell level, local Taliban commanders can employ a variety of tactics that shift from district to district. The Taliban has a wide-ranging psychological operations arsenal that can target specific audiences in diverse operational theatres. In the case of indirect non-kinetic action, the Taliban has learnt that technology in the form of multimedia goods can “serve its cause” as it did for the insurgency in Iraq.70 For example, the Taliban has distributed thousands of DVDs and VCDs in Kabul, Kandahar and other major cities containing footage of “successful” Taliban operations, speeches by mullahs regarding the “inherent clash” between Islam and the West, and other recordings showing jihadists from all over the Muslim world.71 Sympathizers of the Quetta shura are able to disseminate such propaganda even in areas controlled by the government or NATO. The Taliban also seeks to reach protected populations using clandestine radio stations and websites, which can reach audiences all over the region.72 Furthermore, the Taliban has also become quite skilful in using official media outlets, such as regional and international news agencies, to promote itself and gain new recruits or gather popular support.73 According to (until recently) TIME Magazine’s Kabul correspondent and multimedia journalist Jason Motlagh, the Taliban currently has the upper hand in this sphere, as the GOA has been sluggish in developing a propaganda strategy that could counteract the insurgents’ multimedia approach.74 However, the strength of the Taliban’s non-kinetic doctrine really lies in its direct action tactics, as most Afghans do not own TVs, radios, or computers.75

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Hamas activists raise Islamic banners and flags in the air in front of a large poster draped over a building in the background at a rally at Al-Najah University, Palestine, 9 December 1995.

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DND photo IS2011-1016-13 by Sergeant Matthew McGregor

During Op Crazy Flight 1, Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army and Canadian Forces soldiers question a villager in Panjwa'i District to clear several small villages and compounds.

The direct non-kinetic activities (both persuasive and coercive) employed by local Taliban cell commanders depend upon the cultural context of both the cell and the referent civilian populace. For example, Kilcullen notes how the elders of the Mashud tribe in the Afghan-Pakistan border encourage some of their youth to fight and support the Taliban as a result of tribal loyalties to Taliban commanders.76 Also, the commanders may use economic means to encourage local civilians to join their lines or to support them, especially since the latter may not have any political preferences towards the Taliban. Instead, these individuals work as ‘part-time’ insurgents who are remunerated for specific combat tasks. As Kilcullen points out, some of them temporarily join the Taliban and become “accidental guerrillas,” due to a lack of opportunities in their communities.77 Also, the insurgents can offer the prospect of badal (revenge in the Pashtun honour code) to civilians who lost family members or property due to NATO’s collateral damage or “hard knock operations.”78 Comparably, the local commander can win “hearts and minds” by informing about a future ambush or attack against NATO or GOA forces in order to avoid collateral damage and demonstrate good will to the local inhabitants.79 Favourable socio-cultural conditions are not, however, always prevalent in many of the districts in which the Taliban operates, compelling local commanders to use coercive methods against the population.

One of the most prevalent types of coercive non-kinetic action currently employed by the Taliban is the posting of shabnamah (night letters) in local communities.80 Historically, these letters have been literary instruments used by Afghan “religious figures, jihadists, and rebels to encourage people” to oppose “state authority and regulations,” and were prevalent during the wars against the Afghan monarchy and the Soviet invasion.81 Today, the Taliban uses them as a method of popular “instruction and intimidation” to expose civilians to the organization’s narrative, while dictating the behaviour the insurgency expects of them.82 Failure to comply will likely result in public beatings or assassinations for the “collaborationists.”83 An additional cultural weapon are the pro-Taliban mullahs, who are quite influential in Afghan society. In the past, mullahs would be hired by maliks (tribe leaders) as spiritual guides to serve the community; however, after the introduction of Salafist madrassas, the mullahs have transformed into local leadership figures and politically compete against their former patrons.84 More importantly, the Taliban (with most of the leading shuras being composed of mullahs) has used them to set up support networks, as a great majority of clerics in rural areas have links with the insurgency.85 Therefore, local pro-Taliban mullahs can exercise influence on the populace by preaching against backing the “corrupt government in Kabul” or doing anything that would be detrimental to the Taliban’s main effort.86

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New recruits belonging to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebel group march during a passing out parade at a military training base in Afgoye, 17 February 2011.

Ultimately, the biggest success of the Taliban’s non-kinetic strategy has been its ability to install shadow government institutions in 18 districts where the presence of NATO troops or the GOA is weak.87 Mainly, these come in the form of Shari’a courts in which local commanders perform judge/conflict resolution duties for local communities.88 These “shadow courts” present the threat that the civilian populace will come to see the Taliban as a moral and legal authority that is superior to the GOA and even traditional tribal structures. In some instances, the Taliban has sought to provide medical and education services (after destroying government-funded clinics and schools); however, it is difficult to distribute these public goods without government or foreign forces disruption.89 Conclusively, the decentralized approach to non-kinetic action has allowed the Taliban to influence a great portion of Afghanistan’s heterogeneous population. However, the strategic strength of this organizational structure may also become its prime weakness. The contradictions generated by different local Taliban commanders may hinder any decisive action against the GoA or NATO. Furthermore, current COIN operations in Afghanistan can exploit the existing incoherence that may exist among Taliban cells within a regional command as a way to disrupt their influence on civilians.

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Taliban militants hand over their weapons after joining the Afghan government’s reconciliation and reintegration program in Heart, 30 January 2012.


In summary, the precedence of the human battle space in irregular conflict environments makes it imperative for VNSAs to develop non-kinetic strategies that seek to sway civilian populations in their favour. However, their methods are defined by their strategic culture, which ultimately works as an operational guide. Certainly, internal cultural devices such as organizational history, ideology, narratives and beliefs provide the VNSA with a theory on how to achieve victory against the state or other competing actors. Also, it defines how the VNSAs see themselves in relation to the relevant civilian populations and the expectations they have of them. Therefore, the development and implementation of non-kinetic strategies is a process strictly derived from the approach through which an armed non-state actor seeks to achieve victory as it becomes necessary to provide legitimacy to its campaign of physical violence

 Fundamentally, both physical violence and non-kinetic action are complementary and dependent of each other in irregular warfare. As discussed throughout this piece, the shape of these strategies is as diverse as the groups that utilize them, due to the heterogeneous nature of the human societies being targeted. For an armed non-state actor that seeks to displace the state from its area of operations, the use of both persuasive and coercive tactics facilitates the erosion of government presence in target civilian communities. Persuasion allows the VNSA to obtain popular support, while coercion leads the population to lose faith in the public authorities, and eventually regard the armed actor as the regulator of social order. In the case of the Taliban’s decentralized system, local commanders seek to either persuade or coerce the populations at the district level depending on their disposition towards the insurgency, the GoA or NATO-ISAF forces.

Finally, it is worth mentioning how the VNSAs use these non-kinetic strategies to exploit social tensions within target populations. Grievances such as lack of economic opportunities, political oppression or even the state’s inability to provide public goods create a niche for the VNSA’s non-kinetic strategies, as these are moulded in response to these issues. Similarly, the VNSA may choose to employ cultural devices such as mythology, religion or local beliefs as access points to the population, which again can be used to gather support from the target audience. For COIN practitioners, this reflects the necessity to develop strategies against any type of political, economic or cultural exploitation available to VNSAs. Furthermore, they must be ready to not only accurately detect possible features that may be exploited by non-state actors but to use a wide range of military, political and civilian tools to create a barrier between the VNSA and the civilian population.

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DND photo AR2011-0200-61 by Corporal Tina Gillies

During Operation Omid Atal 09, Corporal Jean-Francois Belzil of A Company chats with an Afghan comrade during a patrol, 2 June 2011.

The author would like to thank Mr. James Wyllie, Ms. Corrine Bredin, and Joanna Tymkiw for their advice and support in the preparation of this article.


  1. Ulrich Schneckener, “Fragile Statehood, Armed Non-State Actors and Security Governance,” in Private Actors and Security Governance. A. Bryden & M. Camprini (Eds.), DCAF, Geneva, 2006, p. 30.

  2. Troy S. Thomas, Stephen D. Kiser, and William D. Casebeer. Warlords Rising: Confronting Violent Non-State Actors. (Oxford, UK: Lexington Books, 2005). p. 10.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, (Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute, 2007), pp. 28-31.

  5. United States Department of the Army, US Army – Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, US Army Field Manual No. 3-24, US Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Il, 2007, pp. xxv-xxvi, 20-22.

  6. Jeffrey S. Lantis and Darryl Howlett. “Strategic Culture,” in Strategy in the Contemporary World. John Baylis, James Wirtz, Colin S. Gray & Eliot Cohen (Eds.), Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 96-97.

  7. Phil Williams, Violent State Actors and National and International Security, Occasional Paper, International Relations and Security Network (ISN), ETH Zurich, 2008, p .4.

  8. Robert J. Kelly & Rufus Schatzberg, “Once Upon in America: Organized Crime and Civil Society,” in Organized Crime and the Challenge to Democracy, Felia Allum & Renate Siebert(Eds.), (New York, London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 134-137.

  9. Williams, p. 16.

  10. Alex Alvarez, “Militias and Genocide,” in War Crimes, Genocide, & Crimes against Humanity , Vol. 2 2006, pp. 5-7: also Williams, pp. 11-12.

  11. Richard Shultz, Douglas Farah, & Itamara V. Lochard, Armed Groups: A Tier One Security Priority, INSS Occasional Paper No. 57, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, USAF Academy, Colorado Springs, CO: 2004, p. 14.

  12. Ibid., pp. 30, 104, and David Kilcullen, “ Counterinsurgency Redux,” in Survival, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2006, pp. 116.

  13. Williams, p. 5.

  14. United States Air Force, Irregular Warfare: Air Force Doctrine Document 2-3, United States Air Force, 2007, p. 1.

  15. James M. Smith, “Strategic Culture and Violent Non-State Actors: Templates and Concepts of Analysis,” in Strategic Culture and Violent Non-State Actors: Weapons of Mass Destruction and Asymmetrical Operations and Cases, James M. Smith, Jerry Mark Long, & Thomas H. Johnson (Eds.), INSS Occasional Paper 64, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, USAF Academy, Colorado Springs, CO: 2008, p. 3.

  16. Colin Gray, “Strategic Culture as Context: The First Generation of Theory Strikes Back,” in Review of International Studies, Vol. 25, No.1, 1999, p. 51.

  17. Ibid, pp. 63-64.

  18. Smith, p. 4.

  19. Ibid, pp. 5-6.

  20. Lawrence Freedman, “The Transformation of Strategic Affairs,” Adelphi Paper 379, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006, pp. 22-23.

  21. Darryl Howlett, “The Future of Strategic Culture,” Comparative Strategic Cultures Curriculum, Defense Threat Reduction Agency/Advanced Systems and Concepts Office Ref 18-06-02, 2006, p. 5.

  22. Christopher M. Blanchard, “Al Qaida: Statements and Evolving Ideology,” CRS Report for Congress, Order Code RL32759 , 2007, p. 16.

  23. Ibid.

  24. United States Air Force, Irregular Warfare: Air Force Doctrine Document 2-3, 2007, p. 81.

  25. Edwin P. Hollander, as referenced in Alistair Iain Johnston, “Thinking about Strategic Culture,” in International Security, Vol. 19, No.4, 1995, p. 40.

  26. Jeffrey S. Lantis, “Strategic Culture and National Security Policy,” in International Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2002, p. 108.

  27. United States Air Force, Irregular Warfare…, 2007, p. 84.

  28. John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 25.

  29. Mao Tse-Tung, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990), pp. 88-89.

  30. Ernesto Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (Mark Becker, [Ed.]), (New York: Bison Books, 1998), pp. 7-10.

  31. Martin Van Creveld, “The Transformation of War Revisited,” in Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 13, No.2, 2002, pp. 7-8.

  32. Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, & Dominic Rohner, “Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, No. 61, 2009, p. 22.

  33. David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2009), pp. 35-36.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Troy S. Thomas & William D. Casebeer, “Violent Non-State Actors: Countering Dynamic Systems,” in Strategic Insights, Vol. 3, No.3, 2004, p. 2.

  36. Ibid, pp. 2-3.

  37. Ibid.

  38. US Army – Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 2007, pp. 105-106.

  39. W.J. Hurley, C.R. Bucher, S.K. Numrich, S. M. Ouellette, J.B. Resnick, Non-Kinetic Capabilities for Irregular Warfare: Four Case Studies. IDA Paper p-4436, Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia, 2009, pp. 4, 13.

  40. Ibid. pp. 16-17.

  41. Nagl, p. 22.

  42. Ibid, p. 23.

  43. Kilcullen, 2006, pp. 113-114.

  44. W.J. Hurley et al, p. 17.

  45. Kevin Siqueira & Todd Sandler, “Terrorist versus the Government: Strategic Interaction, Support and Sponsorship,” in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 50, No.6, 2006, pp. 881, 883-884.

  46. Smith, p. 7.

  47. Hurley et al, p. 17.

  48. Kilcullen, 2007, p.48.

  49. Seth G. Jones, Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Rand Counterinsurgency Study, Vol. 4, Rand Corporation, 2008, pp. 30-31.

  50. Antonio Giustozzi, The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, (London: Hurst Publishers Ltd., 2007), pp. 129-131.

  51. Ibid; also David C. Isby, “Trojan Horse or Genuine Schism? The Hezb-e-Islami Split,” in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 2, No. 11, 2004. Also, Amir Shah, “Militant group in Kabul with draft peace deal,” in USA Today, 21 March 2010.

  52. Shahid Afsar, Chris Samples, & Thomas Wood, “The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis,” in Military Review, May-June 2008, p. 65.

  53. Ibid.

  54. Ibid.

  55. Giustozzi, p. 91.

  56. Afsar, Samples & Wood, p. 67.

  57. Johnson & Mason, p. 80.

  58. Giustozzi, p. 84.

  59. Ibid, pp. 84-85.

  60. Ibid, p. 85.

  61. Giustozzi, p. 85; and Kilcullen, 2008, p. 48.

  62. Jones, p. 41.

  63. Afsar, Samples & Wood, p. 64.

  64. Giustozzi, p. 47.

  65. Ibid, pp. 47-48.

  66. Ibid.

  67. Ibid, pp. 49, 119.

  68. Kilcullen, 2007, p. 58.

  69. Ibid.

  70. Jones, p. 46.

  71. Tim Foxley, “The Taliban’s propaganda activities: how well is the Afghan insurgency communicating and what is it saying?” SIPRI Project Paper, 2007, p. 11.

  72. Giustozzi, p. 122.

  73. Ibid; and Foxley, p. 8.

  74. Jason Motlagh, “Why the Taliban Is Winning the Propaganda War,” in Time Magazine, 3 May 2009.

  75. Foxley, p. 10.

  76. Kilcullen, p. 85.

  77. Ibid.

  78. Giustozzi, pp.40-44; and Kilcullen, 2007, pp. 40-41.

  79. Giustozzi, p. 117.

  80. Afsar, Samples & Wood, p. 61.

  81. Thomas H. Johnson, “The Taliban Insurgency and an Analysis of Shabnamah (Night Letters),” in Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2007, p. 318.

  82. Ibid, pp. 20-321.

  83. Ibid, and Foxley, p. 10.

  84. Kilcullen, 2007, p. 81.

  85. Giustozzi, p. 44.

  86. Ibid, p. 45.

  87. Ibid, p. 111.

  88. Afsar, Samples & Wood, p. 70.

  89. Ibid.