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Afghan Taliban’s Classic Guerrilla War Strategy at Work

By Ahmad Faruqui

June 26, 2018

A US drone strike is credited with having taken out the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Even though a new leader has been appointed already, some are saying that the Pakistani Taliban are in retreat.

But across the border, the opposite is true. We are witnessing the second coming of the (Afghan) Taliban. According to US sources, the Taliban now hold sway over a third of Afghanistan. Several provincial capitals remain in government hands only due to US air support. When US forces are visible, the Taliban disappear. When the US forces are not visible, the Taliban reappear. That is classic guerrilla war strategy at work.

The Afghan security situation has deteriorated significantly since the launch of the Taliban’s 2015 spring offensive. One Afghan analyst has said, “The enemy is at our gates.” He added that the Taliban are not just winning the military battle, but also the hearts and minds of the local populace.

Across Helmand, new mosques are cropping up, funded by private businessmen. While government schools stand empty and decrepit, there are 2,000 Taliban Madaris in Helmand.

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies notes that while the US has made major improvements in military tactics and plans for developing Afghan forces, it has “done nothing to deal with civil and political stability”. The US “not only faces a deteriorating security situation, it has no clear political, governance, or economic strategy to produce Afghan stability,” and the US military has been assigned a ‘mission impossible’.

Last November, the US commander in Kabul, Gen. John Nicholson, stated that the Afghan army had “turned the corner.” Soon thereafter, as if they were egged on by his statement, the Taliban began to conduct a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul.

Dan Coats, the director of US national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “We assess the overall security picture will… modestly deteriorate in the coming year and Kabul will continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban-led insurgency”.

At the same hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, offered a mixed outlook. He predicted the Taliban will “threaten Afghan stability, undermine public confidence by conducting intermittent high-profile attacks in urban areas,” increase its influence in rural areas and threaten district centres.

Presently, the Taliban roam huge swaths of the country and, with foreign troop levels currently at about 15,600 — down from 140,000 in 2014 — there is little hope for an outright government victory.

In the seventeen years since the Taliban was deposed by the US Army, two US presidents have come and gone and a third now holds that office.

In a brilliant book, Unwinnable, Theo Farrell has analysed what went wrong with the ISAF strategy. The Taliban were never well liked by the Afghans for all the harsh punishments and restrictions they had imposed. Unfortunately, after deposing the Taliban, ISAF ended up pursuing a brutal air campaign which killed Afghan civilians in large numbers. That made ISAF becoming even more hated than the Taliban, however counter intuitive that sounds.

Today, the Taliban are playing the religion card to bond with the population. And they are resetting their military skills and retraining for a different war. It does not help that at various times they have been backed by the Pakistani deep state.

ISAF commanders have made three strategic blunders. First, they under-estimated the enemy, thinking they had decimated the Taliban in the first couple of months of the 2001 campaign. It never occurred to them that the Taliban would disappear into the hills or cross the border into Pakistan. They considered the Taliban a hapless force which was poorly trained and armed.

US hubris did not end here. They thought that their air superiority could put the Taliban out of action. But it failed, as it had failed in Vietnam.

Most importantly, the ISAF did not take the time to learn Afghan culture, geography or history. It is never easy for outsiders to fight an insurgency. It is essential to understand the local culture in order to understand the locals and gain their trust and confidence. Decisions were made often by the ISAF in haste with incomplete knowledge and so mistakes were made. Farrell says that ISAF did not exploit the local channels and often dismissed them because it would complicate their job.

Ahmed Rashid, in his review of Farrell’s book, says that an American general told him that between 2001 and 2005 the US had not bothered to monitor Taliban activity in the south or across the border in Quetta where the movement’s leadership had migrated and was now based. The general said that “NATO would pay the price for the military’s lack of a look-down satellite capability.”

Rashid adds that initially the British also failed to understand Helmand province’s significance to the Taliban insurgency. They did not grasp the fact that Helmand, “with its long desert border with Pakistan, allowed drugs to flow out and recruits and ammunition to flow in. By 2007, western intelligence reports were all pointing to the role of Pakistan in providing sanctuary, training and supplies.”

Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb directed against the Pakistani Taliban had an unintended consequence as well. In response to the operation, several thousand Uzbek, Arab and Pakistani fighters fled from North Waziristan to Afghanistan. The arrival of these foreign fighters strengthened the Taliban and further intensified the fight against the Afghan government.

Farrell contends the overall strategy was misguided and traces the failure to “political absenteeism and military hubris.” A senior Afghan official concurs, saying that “Even if you kill all the teenagers, the next generation will join the Taliban. The insurgency used to be mostly a business. Now it’s also about revenge.”

I had made the same point in 2003 in an article written for Security Dialogue, an academic journal.

Farrell concludes the US should have declared victory and gone home in 2002. After 17 years of fighting, faced with a resurgent Taliban, the US seems anxious about bringing the Taliban to the peace table, declaring victory, and leaving honourably.

It is unclear whether the Trump administration, known for its ham-fisted dealings even with its allies, let alone with its enemies, has the diplomatic smarts to needed to make this happen.

Furthermore, if the Taliban senses that the enemy is on the run, why would they seek a compromise?