How Afghanistan Looks to the Taliban

A year ago I imagined how the Taliban, a term that at best only serves as broad shorthand for the complex Afghan opposition to foreign occupation forces and the government that the outsiders have installed and support, may assess the past and coming 12 months (The Taliban's Winter Plans, 16 November 2009).

While the military campaign has intensified, with both sides committing increasing numbers of troops or fighters to the conflict, the political mood has shifted as foreign casualties and domestic priorities combine with the weakness of the Afghan government and the resilience of its opponents to erode the West's will to prevail.

The coming 12 months are likely to see a decisive moment in the campaign as public support in key Western powers is challenged by the continuing drain on personnel and money in exchange for few tangible gains. In some countries that had previously committed military assets to the war, this moment has already come. Political leaders have weighed the implications of straining present and future ties between their nations and the United States or losing their domestic base – and acted accordingly. How the US reacts towards these otherwise staunch allies may either lead to further withdrawals, or make long-standing relationship further casualties of the Afghan campaign.

The Taliban's diffuse and barely united leadership will have carefully monitored these developments and weighed their implications for their own priorities and agenda. Overall, and despite heavy losses among their own fighters, their assessment is likely to be far more upbeat as 2010 ends than their opponents.

The main points of a hypothetical Taliban summary on this year's campaign and the prospects for 2011 may reflect on the following issues.

Enemy disposition

The NATO forces' efforts to strengthen the government's army and police capacity have largely failed. Some army units are troublesome, but our fighters quickly learn to either avoid contact or seek other means of ensuring they do not press our forces. Our policy of warning junior enemy personnel and their relatives not resist our military or political actions or policies, and where necessary punishing those who fail to accede, is effective in many areas of the country.

We have no problem with junior government personnel, many of them recruited from the northern provinces, taking the foreigners' money so long as they recognize that any obligation this may create is subservient to their duty to our faith and country. The foreign money also ensures that there is a tax base we can draw on to help fund the resistance.

The foreign soldiers present other problems, though these are less complicated than our relations with the government forces. There is no doubt that the American-led ‘surge' strategy over the past 12 months has cost us numerous casualties and that we have had to call on our fighters to demonstrate great sacrifice and resilience to withstand the foreign offensive. However, we believe that pressure from ground forces will now ease as reliance switches to their almost invulnerable aircraft and their special forces.

Enemy capability

Our ability to erode the enemy capabilities remains weak. Despite protracted attacks against their lines of communications, sufficient supplies continue to enable the enemy to maintain high-tempo operations against our forces. This is unlikely to change in the coming 12 months. Their growing dependence on pilotless aircraft, particularly across the Pakistan border, has disrupted our communications and command structure. This has forced our field commanders to devise alternative means of conveying orders and has constrained movement. While these obstacles have been identified by the enemy as indicators of success, we consider these tactical rather than strategic reversals as our timeline remains infinite and our opponents does not.

Enemy will

The past 12 months have seen a marked change in the foreign forces' attitude towards the conflict. All of the foreign troops are professional military personnel and their senior commanders' political sensitivities often appear more focused on their own career paths and service interests than in understanding the dynamics of their campaign in our country.

This a mixed blessing as careerist and sectoral interests can cloud more analytical judgments and encourage the pursuit of tactical and strategic options that have no relevance to the ultimate outcome of the conflict other than prolong the fighting. On the other hand, the failure of the enemy to devise an effective model of dividing our forces – other than crude propaganda presumably intended for their own domestic audiences or costly and frequently laughable attempts to purchase loyalties – is to our clear advantage.

Response

Our response to increased military pressure both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border has been twofold. The first is to devise means of countering the aerial threat to our command structure, and the second is demonstrate resilience in the face of the surge and other military developments in order to ensure faith in and support for our cause is not diminished.

An enemy officer gave an accurate description when he was reported saying that the heightened tempo of operations against our fighters and networks had removed the ‘stupid Taliban' There is much truth in this remark, however intended. The result of more intense operations has also trained and hardened a new generation of commanders and specialists, with no shortage of recruits to fill the gaps caused by increased casualties.

Our response to domestic affairs remains unchanged. We confidently await the collapse of the Karzai regime, but still seek to manage the impact rather than simply respond to events. We maintain lines of communication into the government, and have made it clear what our expectations are once the foreign soldiers have left and our reaction if these expectations are not met.

As noted in 2009, a precipitous collapse of the regime would trigger further violence, including conflict between groups presently allied against the government and their foreign patrons. We see no advantage in a return to intra-Afghan conflict, and our efforts remain directed at forming a post-war consensus – at least in the Pashtun majority provinces. We can see, however, that the government and its foreign backers have a great interest in achieving exactly this outcome. A result, we are alert to such efforts and any other stratagems designed to undermine our internal and external relationships.

Targeting

Our targeting policy remains unchanged: create as many casualties as possible among the foreign forces and seek a defining military victory over at least one of their small bases. The imagery of our fighters seizing such an outpost and capturing enemy personnel we believe would have a political impact far in excess of its limited military outcome by strengthening opponents of the war and, eroding faith in the command structure. We recognize, however, that the enemy is equally determined that this does not occur and is prepared to invest unlimited resources in ensuring that it does not.

Tactics, strategy and technology

Our tactics remain inflicting maximum casualties on the foreign soldiers while ensuring local government forces recognize that their present employment will have serious long-term consequences unless they keep clear of our fighters. Little has changed from the 2009 assessment other than finding a response to the enemy's increased use of air power.

We now recognize that wounded enemy personnel are a more potent demonstration of the consequences in fighting against our people than fatalities. This is increasingly so as the foreign media and popular opinion are now largely focused on the impact of the conflict on the individual soldier rather than the purpose of the war. From our perspective this offers an opportunity, although we would be foolish to somehow limit our military actions to attempting to injure rather than kill our opponents.

We would like to secure anti-aircraft and anti-drone weapons, but recognize that this represent a huge political commitment from any source that supplied such systems. As a result, our principal response to the aerial threat has been through devising tactical means to neutralize the effectiveness of drones and other aircraft through observational and simple technical methodologies.

Summary

The military situation in 2010 was harder than the previous year. The enemy's decision to signal their intention to heavily reinforce their presence in the southern provinces and along the Pakistan border enabled our commanders to plan a response, but our heavy losses in some regions cannot be ignored. Our message to our fighters has focused on maintaining their belief in ultimate victory while accepting that it may be their fate to fall before this is achieved.

We have seen no indication of any weakness in our fighters determination – and nor have the enemy. The message we have to continually demonstrate through action is that our fighters are more willing to fall for their faith and country than the foreign professional armies set against them.

Foreign support for the Karzai regime shows deep divisions between their most experienced diplomats and soldiers and the political aspirations of their political masters. The failure of the foreign powers to produce a credible Afghan government capable of unifying the country will continue to serve as one of our main sources of strength.

There is no indication that such an outcome can possibly be reached within the next few years, leaving the foreign armies in the position of facing an endless and draining conflict that distorts wider strategic interests and compromises their domestic political priorities.

Political failure has left our foreign opponents with few options other than to believe that they can kill their way to resolving the Afghan conflict. We appreciate the irony of this position as only a few days ago many of them marked their own losses in past and present wars, when hundreds of thousands of their fighters died. Do they doubt that we can also tolerate such losses in defence of our faith and land?

Gavin Greenwood is a political risk consultant and former soldier.