Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — a follow-up post, includes the “brother against brother” issue & Afghan Taliban  ]


Following up on my previous post in this series, I’ll begin with some comments specific to the Taliban that address the issue of dehumanization I raised there… and conclude with some comments on “brother against brother” in warfare in general and Afghanistan in particular.


Since various people have mentioned the Taliban in this thread, and some have attributed the actions of al-Qaeda to them — even actions taken many thousands of miles away from Afghanistan and Pakistan — it may be helpful to recall that the Taliban is not al-Qaeda, and has from the beginning had its own bones to pick with them.

Two western journalists who have lived in Afghanistan for years, Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn, have made this very clear in interviews, articles and books like An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan:

Most importantly, in their paper for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan, Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn report:

Afghans have not been involved in international terrorism, nor have the Afghan Taliban adopted the internationalist jihadi rhetoric of affiliates of al-Qaeda.

This 2011 article titled The Taliban is not Al Qaeda summarizes some of the more significant differences between the two groups:

Kuehn points out that the Taliban and Al Qaeda adhere to different strains of Islamic thought, the Taliban associated with Saudi-influenced, Wahhabi-style Hanafi beliefs, and Al Qaeda associated with the more radical, more rigid Hanbali school. The Taliban, of course, are Afghans, and Al Qaeda mostly Arab and almost entirely non-Afghan. Generationally, they are different, too, with most Al Qaeda leaders older than the young commanders of the Taliban, and whereas many Al Qaeda people are professionals and well educated, the Taliban are rural, unschooled, and grew up in places like Kandahar where newspapers were nonexistent and even radios were in the hands of only a privileged few.

The Taliban, in other words, are Afghans concerned mainly about Afghanistan, while al-Qaeda is a multi-national franchise operation, originating in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and focused largely on “the far enemy” — ie the United States.


And how do the Taliban themselves feel about dehumanization? Do they recognize the effects of war in those terms?

One of the best ways to get a glimpse into their hearts and souls is via their poetry, which van Linschoten and Kuehn have painstakingly collected, translated and published in The Poetry of the Taliban — it was researching this book for my review in Christianity Today’s literary review, Books and Culture that led me to several of the quotes I’ve used above.

Here’s a Taliban poem from that collection which directly addresses dehumanization, but through “enemy eyes”…

We are not animals,
I say this with certainty.
Humanity has been forgotten by us,
And I don’t know when it will come back.
May Allah give it to us,
and decorate us with this jewelry,
the jewelry of humanity,
For now it’s only in our imagination.


That pretty much wraps up the “dehumanization of the enemy” side of things for me, at least for now. Next up, the question of brother fighting against brother, and its implications in Afghanistan. What follows is also drawn from the thread on “Marines Urinating on Taliban” in the Princeton Paradoxes of War MOOC


I’m going to bypass the “urinating on the dead” side of things for a moment, and offer a comment on the Afghan Taliban, specifically, and more generally the Afghan mujahideen (vs the Soviets) and  more generally still, the
issue of families that find themselves on both sides of a conflict. I’ll work in from the most general case, and wind up with the specifics of the contemporary Afghan Taliban.


Not without reason, the American Civil War is sometimes termed a war of “brother against brother”.

There seem to have been many families where some members sided with the Confederacy and some with the Union forces. I am usually wary of believing Wikipedia without further research, but it appears that there were two instances in which a pair of brothers were each brigadier generals on opposite sides of the conflict: George Bibb Crittenden (Confederate) and Thomas Leonidas Crittenden (Union), and James Barbour Terrill (Confederate) and William Rufus Terrill (Union). The letters between James and Alexander Campbell are instructive on this point:

I was astonished to hear from the prisoners that you was colour Bearer of the Regmt that assalted the Battrey at this point the other day.  When I first heard it I looked over the field for you where I met one of the wounded of your Regt and he told me that he believed you was safe.  I was in the Brest work during the whole engagement doing my Best to Beat you but I hope that you and I will never again meet face to face Bitter enemies in the Battle field.  But if such should be the case You have but to discharge your deauty to Your caus for I can assure you I will strive to discharge my deauty to my country & my cause.

Interestingly enough, there’s an echo here of Matthew 10.21 in the Christian New Testament:

Brothers will turn against their own brothers and hand them over to be killed.

— although here it is the new religious view which causes families to split apart…


But there’s another strategy which pits brother against brother, not because of ideological principle or geographic sympathies, but as a means of risk management…

Kalvyas (The Logic of Violence in Civil War, p 229) quotes Stone (Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642, p. 144):

Particularly risky (and less frequent) is the family strategy of purposefully sending offspring to serve in competing armies. During the English Revolution, “some contemporary cynics argued that these family divisions [between belligerents] were part of a carefully arranged insurance policy, so that whichever side won there would always be someone with influence among the victors to protect the family property from confiscation and dismemberment”

And this appears to be a regular feature of Afghan Pashtun culture. Here’s Vern Liebl writing in “Pushtuns, Tribalism, Leadership, Islam and Taliban: a Short View”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol 18 iss 3, Sept 2007:

This is a historical tendency among Pushtun tribes; most families/-tribes will play multiple axes, just in case. For example, during the Soviet occupation era, it was not unusual at all to send a son (either of the family or the khel) to join the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Army, essentially serving the Communist
regime, another son or sons to join one or more of the various mujahedeen groups, another son to a madrasah in Pakistan, another son to the West to study and/or work, and a last son to stay and work to keep everybody else alive.

Jonathan Goodhand and Mark Sedra in “Bargains for Peace? Aid, Conditionalities and Reconstruction in Afghanistan” (Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, Conflict Research Unit, August 2006) put this in terms of the conflict of (presumed) opposites:

Afghans on both side of the conflict consistently subverted the bi-polar logic of their external backers; alliances in the field were constantly shifting back and forth between the mujahedin and pro-government militias. At the micro level Afghans would have family members in both the government forces and the mujahedin as part of a political risk spreading strategy.

And the Australian David Kilcullen — a senior counter-insurgency advisor to US General Petraeus — puts it very simply:

A lot of families in Afghanistan have one son fighting with the government, and another son fighting with the Taliban. It’s a hedging strategy.

So — a given Taliban fighter may have a brother working beside ISAF team members in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Is he perhaps “Taliban” only as a risk-avoidance strategy, on behalf of his father, mother, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins? Because that’s not the same as hating all Americans…

And that’s yet another of the paradoxes of this particular war, I’d suggest…


Once again I’m offering these mini-essays here in their original form, which offers opinion backed by research sources, hoping that comments here will point me in new directions and allow me to reconsider and rewrite these materials as I move towards book form…

Thanks in advance!