The Western approach to winning "hearts and minds" focuses on economic incentives combined with a Western conception of legitimate government. US counterinsurgency doctrine also stresses the importance of providing security for the population: it contends that one cannot reasonably expect cooperation from people who live under the constant threat of draconic retaliation measures once the foreign forces leave their village. While all this is surely an important ingredient in securing goodwill from the population, these priorities do not exactly confront what the Afghan insurgents are constantly communicating. In contrast to the leftist liberation movements of the Cold War-era, Afghan insurgents have never focused on economic well-being and political emancipation. Listening to their messages reveals that their complaints lie with foreign occupation (eshghal), moral corruption (fassad) and oppression (zolm).
The sense of living in an occupied country cannot be easily wiped away by pointing to the existence of an elected government. In the past, all invading armies brought their own rulers with them; elections, on the other hand, are not generally perceived as a fair way of determining who is to rule legitimately for the coming years. Furthermore, moral corruption in the eyes of many Afghans is more than just financial corruption and warlordism: in the absence of any other universally accepted form of collective morality, many conservative Afghans are highly sensitive to any perceived threat to the role of Islam as the foundation of their society. Publicly drinking alcohol, the mixing of men and women, and secularizing education, politics and law are often seen as the first steps in tearing down the only remaining barrier that protects society from total chaos.
Likewise, the perception of oppression does not result from the absence of democracy -according to its Western definition. Once again, it is religion that is most widely accepted as the benchmark for justice and injustice. That God laid down rules for all kinds of individual behavior as well as society as a whole is among the central tenets of orthodox Islam. While the exact interpretation of God’s rule may be hotly contested, permitting what God has forbidden or forbidding what God has allowed is the exact definition of injustice and tyranny in Islamic thinking.
It is perceptions that drive an insurgency, not facts and figures. So what can the West do to counter those popular Afghan perceptions which see many Western staples of democracy in a negative light? Enlisting Islamic concepts of legitimacy will be difficult for the West for several reasons: while well-versed in our own political culture, we have, of course, little understanding of Islam – something that might increase our tendency to diminish its importance. Furthermore, we do not know to whom to turn: most Afghan religious figures have been part of the political game for so long that they can hardly be perceived as neutral by anyone. Another objection is our very limited credibility when trying to talk the language of Islamic law. Even the communists – who were at least raised in an Islamic environment and were thus familiar with the ideas involved – tried in vain. Last but not least, the domestic audience in the West is another center of gravity in this campaign. Approval of the mission might decline noticeably if the goal were not perceived as worth fighting for.
This said, would it not it be better if we were just ourselves, promoting our own values and our own political culture? Given the success of an insurgency that is driven by religious narratives, I would emphatically say no. All the problems outlined above affect the strategic level much more than the critical tactical level. It is not necessary that our heads of state suddenly switch to a language firmly grounded in concepts of Islamic law. What we can achieve is to enable the “strategic corporals” (more likely to be lieutenants or senior sergeants) as well as PRT commanders to speak the language of Islamic morality. We can increasingly incorporate religious projects into our reconstruction measures. We can involve local religious dignitaries much more closely. Leaving the field of religion to the insurgents and focusing our information operations exclusively on concepts of democracy, civil society and good governance – concepts alien to most Afghans – may be ideologically satisfying and easier in the short term; it might equally be catastrophic in the long run.
Florian Broschk is a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Bonn University and teaches Dari at the Federal Language Institute. As a reserve officer he served four tours with ISAF in Afghanistan.