Making flippy-floppy


Afghan districts 29 july 21

The date for the final US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is fast approaching, and the number of short analytical post-mortem articles on this long war, is approaching a Very Large Number even faster.

Some of them are “I-told-you-so” and some are “viewing-with-alarm” of the apparent speed of the Taliban advance. The latter are often illustrated with a map of Afghan districts and their putative level of control by government; here’s one from a few days ago. Oh, oh, how could this happen so quickly, are they equipped with rocket belts or something? Below is a recent post on Tanner Greer’s blog, highlighting something that Dexter Filkins also pointed out more than 15 years ago in his book Fiasco: the “normal” method of winning fights is for the loser to switch sides, in order to live another day and get some spoils of victory… the end result of picking hills to die on is some dead guys on top of some hills. And when you introduce actors into the system that won’t play by those rules, it does not end well.

To tie this back to gaming, this concept is also central in A Distant Plain with the Taliban’s Infiltrate and the Captured Goods rule in Attacks and Ambushes, and the Warlord Suborn, and more broadly in the movement of pieces between on-map and Available. 

[edited to add – 16 August 2021]

A good piece by Anatol Lieven has appeared in Politico to flesh this out a bit.

Here are some choice paragraphs about what happened: 

The central feature of the past several weeks in Afghanistan has not been fighting. It has been negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan forces, sometimes brokered by local elders. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported “a breathtaking series of negotiated surrenders by government forces” that resulted from more than a year of deal-making between the Taliban and rural leaders.

The power of kinship led to a common arrangement whereby extended families have protected themselves by sending one son to fight with the government army or police (for pay) and another son to fight with the Taliban. This has been a strategy in many civil wars, for example, among English noble families in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. It means that at a given point, one of the sons can desert and return home without fearing persecution by the winning side.
These arrangements also serve practical purposes. It is often not possible for guerrilla forces to hold any significant number of prisoners of war. Small numbers might be held for ransom, but most ordinary soldiers are let go, enlisted in the guerrillas’ own ranks or killed.

Deals between Afghan and Taliban forces during the U.S. war have been detailed in works like War Comes to Garmser by Carter Malkasian and An Intimate War by British soldier Mike Martin. A report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network describes such an agreement in Pakhtia province in 2018:
“Haji Ali Baz, a local tribal elder, told AAN that it was agreed that the government’s presence would be limited to the district centre, and neither side would venture into the areas controlled by the other. This agreement resulted in all of the government security posts outside the district centre being dismantled. In the words of Haji Ali Baz, this led to the end of the fighting, which had ‘caused a lot of trouble for the people.’”
Afghan society has been described to me as a “permanent conversation.” Alliances shift, and people, families and tribes make rational calculations based on the risk they face. This is not to suggest that Afghans who made such decisions are to blame for doing what they felt to be in their self-interest. The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.
We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.

Another good piece by Lieven, from May 2021:

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

3 Responses to Making flippy-floppy

  1. Neal Durando says:

    “I told you so.” Bonus comment: Choropleths are the lyingest cartographic convention since magnetic north.

  2. Pingback: Some more Afghan post-mortem, and a sort of analogue | brtrain

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