Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:40 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:40 | SYDNEY

Taliban and Hells Angels: Same difference

15 July 2010 10:12

Jason Thomas is a former Regional Manager for a USAID Implementing Partner in Afghanistan. 

In many respects, the war against the Taliban is no different to a war on gangs such as the Hells Angels. Both rely on a breakdown in the socio-economic conditions that force sections of the community to make unfortunate decisions. Where the community is ravaged by violence, drugs and intergenerational deprivation, how do you stop people supporting the Taliban or their local gang? This is how I began to look at the struggle against the Taliban during my time in Afghanistan. 

Counterinsurgency is the military's version of what criminal and social justice systems have been doing for years. Whether it's Afghanistan or the Bronx, the population is the prize and it is no longer acceptable just to shoot the bad guys. 

Counterinsurgency has become a blindingly complex approach to winning the war in Afghanistan. Fighting the Taliban has become a multi-layered offensive that combines the maintenance of security, the restoration of law and order, community and tribal mapping ('human terrain analysis'), rebuilding social, health and educational facilities, establishing systems of governance and straight-out capturing and killing the enemy. Counterinsurgency is only effective by winning on all these fronts.  

Don't these sound like the challenges the police, local authorities, social workers and governments face when tackling the factors that drive some people to join a gang or a criminal organisation? 

In counterinsurgency vernacular, terms like 'operational environment' are used to understand the root causes that lead to the insurgency taking hold. Acronyms like SWEAT-MUS (Sewerage, Water, Electricity, Academics, Trash, Medical, Unemployment and Security), are used to assess what is broken and where the reconstruction needs to be focused. Governments have been doing this for years where community infrastructure has broken down.

Abraham Maslow established what is known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow said society exists on a foundation, and that foundation is a reasonably secure and safe environment. Maslow's point was that if a nation cannot create an environment in which citizens are safe and have access to basic needs such as food, water, electricity and the necessities of life, then the nation has failed its social contract. Why should citizens pay taxes, obey laws or support government authority under these circumstances?

The socio-economic conditions the Taliban and gangs thrive on are typified by broken infrastructure, over-crowded housing, collapsed basic services and a government that they never see or don't trust.  

To move towards a more lasting solution to the problem of mass violence, we need to understand and acknowledge that, for significant groups, this violence represents not a problem but a solution. Put yourself in the shoes of anyone who lives in these conditions and the Taliban or Hells Angels sound like a good option – either that or they give you an offer you can't refuse. Sure, the initiation can be brutal, but the bond built on violence and a penetrating religious faith is almost unbreakable. 

If you come from a broken and violent family, with no education, no money, and little self-respect, then Hells Angels can become your surrogate family. Equally, the Taliban will make you feel wanted. You will be given a job with the opportunity to climb the gang's corporate ladder. In Afghanistan, young illiterate and unemployed men who have lost countless members of their family through generations of bloodshed are easily drawn to the Taliban. Best of all, as a young boy they will give you a gun and pay you to blow things up. 

A number of counterinsurgency activities involve engaging the villagers to work on community projects instead of working for the Taliban. This is a win-win for everyone. Yet when the work stops, the income stops and the villagers are easily drawn back to the life they know. On a project I implemented in Wardak, no sooner had it finished than two young labourers went back working for the Taliban, only to blow themselves up when laying an Improvised Explosive Device. 

If you are not a military strategist or a new-age counterinsurgency warrior and can't work out why the war in Afghanistan is taking so long, look in the backyard of your own communities and ask yourself why gang intimidation, drug trafficking and violent crime haven't been cleaned up; the answer is fundamentally the same. The truth is, defeating an insurgency requires a massive social re-engineering and a rebuilding of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Except in Afghanistan, we are trying to do it for a whole country.

Photo by Flickr user strangejourney, used under a Creative Commons license.