The Emergence of Horizontal Command Structures

Taliban fighters

We — the major Western powers, led by the United States — have been officially at war for the last nine years. It is not an all-out war, but there has been plenty of shooting and killing, and we have taken thousands of casualties.

Above all, it has been an expensive war. It’s hard to calculate a cost-benefit ratio for it, given that our objectives are so vague. If we were simply seeking conquest, we could measure success by the amount of territory gained, and say that our victory had cost us $50 million per square mile. Or whatever it actually cost.

But our goals are more nebulous. Besides killing hopped-up terrorists, we:

  • train police, soldiers, and administrators,
  • build schools and sewage treatment plants,
  • repair highways and bridges, and
  • write sharia-based constitutions.

Given this metastasis of mission, a pragmatic analysis becomes that much more difficult to carry out. Our overall aim is to avert new terror attacks, and since we can’t tell how many such attacks our overseas contingency operations have actually forestalled, there’s no way to tell how many billions of dollars each non-occurrence has cost us.

And who is the enemy?

We have officially decided that we are making war on “violent extremism”. Yes, that’s right: we aim to kill or capture “violent extremists”.

We can all agree that they’re violent — they are, after all, trying to kill us — but what, precisely, are they “extreme” about?

Do they enjoy extreme sports?

Do they eat extremely hot food?

Are they perhaps extreme hedonists?

When pressed, our leaders occasionally acknowledge that something called “Islam” is involved with all the extremism and violence. Or maybe not: Attorney General Eric Holder, when grilled during a congressional hearing, adamantly refused to say the I-word. However, if enough “Allahu akhbars” fill the air during a murderous attack, a military or national security official may sometimes grudgingly admit that “evil people who have distorted and hijacked the great and peaceful religion of Islam” may have been responsible.

Never before in history has such a powerful nation amassed such incredible firepower and spent such great treasure for such amorphous and poorly-defined goals. No wonder we’re still at war nine years later — and being blown up by the “allies” on whom we have lavished so much attention, training, and cash.

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A few days ago I discussed the fact that Western cultural and political leaders have cut themselves off from complete and accurate information about their own societies. By imposing a priori ideological constraints on information, they have foreclosed the possibility of gaining a true understanding of what is happening within their own populace in the face of Islamization.

The corollary to this fact is that the most crucial part of the current information war is being fought in a semi-clandestine fashion at the lowest levels via horizontally-linked distributed networks. Necessity requires that our most dedicated information warriors bypass official channels, since those channels deny the very premises on which the info-war is fought.

A mirror of this process is now underway in the shooting war in South Asia. The United States, in its dedicated effort to kill “violent extremists”, has developed successful techniques for taking out commanders at the highest levels of the Taliban leadership.

According to the standard doctrinal template applied to counterinsurgency operations, this should have damaged the enemy and dramatically impaired his effectiveness. Unfortunately, “cutting off the head of the snake” has not reduced the Taliban’s offensive capabilities as much as the model would predict. The disappearance of the vertical lines of command has resulted in the emergence of horizontal command structures. Although these groups lack a centralized command, they are able to mount simultaneous attacks over a wide area.

Before I suggest why this might be happening, take a look at this article from AKI:
Pakistan: ‘Butcher of Swat’ Was Striking Ceasefire Deal When He Was Killed by US Drone

Islamabad, 22 Dec. (AKI) — By Syed Saleem Shahzad — Notorious as the “Butcher of Swat” in the Pakistani military circles for his merciless nature, Al-Qaeda commander Bin Yameen (also known as Ibn-e-Amin) was ready to strike a ceasefire deal with the Pakistani security forces to divert fighting to neighbouring Afghanistan when he was killed last week in an attack by US drone aircraft.

Yameen, the chief of operations in northwest Pakistan’s Swat Valley and the chief of the Tora Bora Brigade, one of the six brigades in Al-Qaeda’s Shadow Army called a meeting of other insurgent commanders but his movement was tracked by American intelligence.


Bin Yameen’s death has indicated a strange dimension in the South Asian war on terror theatre where American drones have successfully eliminated the big number of the vertical command of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated group leaders, but has developed a new situation in which thousands of freshly trained men have split in to small cliques, after the killings of their commanders. This is the most little known aspect behind the much boasted American drone strike successes in the AfPak war theatre.

A recently trained group of the surviving total 400 Swat militants under Bin Yameen in the Khyber Agency are likely to face the similar fate. They are oblivious of their commanders intention to strike a ceasefire deal with Pakistan, which would have diversified strategies in the region making it difficult to figure out by the international intelligence cartel operating in the region. [emphasis added]

In other words, the same type of battle will continue, but without central control or direction. It will be fought by the same kind of mujahideen, only these lower-level cadres are indifferent to — and possibly unaware of — any attempt to control them from above.


This trend of the disappearance of the vertical command structure among the militants, deepened in 2010, and the emergence of the little known horizontal commands has become so significant throughout the region it appears that it could create an identical situation of 2007 and 2008 when the Pakistani army conducted military operations in Lal Masjid Islamabad and Swat areas at the simultaneously while scattered groups unleashed opened fronts all across the country. Amid this process, former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and Pakistani security forces suffered a record number of attacks. However, this time militants are gathered all around the border regions and there is a threat that chaos shall spread throughout Pakistan and into Iran and Afghanistan.


Bin Yameen was a rebel and defiant but still Pakistani security forces communicated with him before he was killed in drone strike. This was one of the several communication channels which security forces opened with the militants allowing for a relatively calm during the month of Muharram. The talks were close to arriving at a ceasefire deal when Yameen was killed.

So Bin Yameen was part of the elaborate symbiotic South Asian ecosystem which includes tribal leaders, independent jihad fighters, the Taliban, and elements of the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency). That fragile web of relationships has now been shredded, and a decentralized spontaneous jihad by lower-level operatives is continuing without any direct chain of command.

And, most importantly, this outcome was previously unknown and unanticipated by our military.

Could it have been known? Could the persistence of venom in the “headless snake” have been predicted?

Maybe; maybe not. But we completely foreclosed any possibility of predicting the enemy’s likely behavior by denying our analysts at every level the tools to examine the ideology and motivations that guide the mujahideen of the Taliban.

When you fight “violent extremism”, you can’t get a handle on what is going on inside the head of an “extremist”. In order to understand what makes him tick, you’d have to be familiar with the Koran, the hadith, the sunna, and the basic tenets of sharia law. You’d need a good grasp of the deadly political ideology known as — gasp! — Islam.

All of these horizontally-organized groups share this ideology. They know exactly how it works. They pass around the same audio and video tapes reminding them of why they fight, and what their deen requires of them. They are awash with weaponry and explosives bought with opium money from North Korea, Iran, and God knows who else. They don’t need orders from headquarters to coordinate and carry out attacks. They are aware of what has to be done, and how to do it.

An understanding of all this is fairly routine within the horizontally organized information networks of the Counterjihad. But it is not clear at the top levels of the U.S. military command, because our commanders have deliberately made themselves opaque to any information that would permit them a deep understanding of the enemy. They cannot examine jihad. They cannot investigate Islam. They cannot even say these words without risking their careers.

This is a failure of mind-boggling proportions. We have spent nine years and a gazillion dollars to fight an enemy whom we cannot possibly comprehend.

The horizontal networks of the Counterjihad could teach our military and political leaders a thing or two about what motivates and energizes the horizontal networks of the Swat Valley. But I doubt we’ll ever get the chance.

Hat tip: C. Cantoni.
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