The Afghan Taliban is a group of insurgents who ultimately seek to secure power over Afghanistan, but first they must merely survive as a cohesive entity during the current International Security Assistance Force offensive. Nevertheless, the Taliban is a diffuse entity being pulled in many directions by multiple actors, and the precise definition of "securing power" and the appropriate strategy to regain that power are still being debated. Editor's Note:This is part two in a three-part series on the three key players in the Afghanistan campaign.
Click here to download a PDF of this report The Taliban were never defeated in 2001, when the United States moved to topple their government in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As STRATFOR pointed out at the time, they largely declined combat in the face of overwhelmingly superior military force. Though they were not, at that moment, an insurgent force, their moves were classic guerrilla behavior, and their quick transition from the seat of power back to such tactics is a reminder of how well — and how painfully — schooled Afghans have been in the insurgent arts over the last several decades. While the U.S.-led coalition never stopped pursuing the Taliban, Washington's attention quickly shifted to Iraq. In Afghanistan, the mission quickly evolved from toppling a government in Kabul to combating a nascent insurgency in the south and east. U.S. officials, led by the American ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, first began the process of talking to the Taliban on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. All this took place while Washington continued to press Islamabad to do more against the Taliban. And though it took the Taliban a while to regroup, a considerable vacuum began to grow in which the Taliban began to re-emerge, particularly amid poor, corrupt and ineffectual central governance. As early as 2006, it was clear that the Afghan jihadist movement had assumed the form of a growing and powerful insurgency that was progressively gaining steam; the situation was beginning to approach the point at which it could no longer be ignored. As the surge in Iraq began to show signs of success, the United States began to shift its attention back to Afghanistan. It was thus clear to the Taliban long before U.S. President Barack Obama's long-anticipated announcement that some 30,000 additional troops would be sent to Afghanistan in 2010 that there would be more of a fight before the United States and its allies would be willing to abandon the country — a surge that is an attempt, in part, to reshape Taliban perceptions of the timeline of the conflict by redoubling the American commitment before the drawdown might begin. Overall, the Taliban ideally aspire to return to the height of their power in the late 1990s but realize that this is not realistic. That ascent to power, which followed the toppling of the Marxist regime left in place after the Soviet withdrawal and the 1992-1996 intra-Islamist civil war, was somewhat anomalous in that the circumstances were fairly unique to post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban's opponents are much stronger and far better equipped to challenge the Taliban than in the mid-1990s; this opposing force is as much a reality as the Taliban and has a vested interest in preserving the current regime. The old mujahideen of the 1980s, whom the younger Taliban displaced in the 1990s, have grown steadily wealthier since the collapse of the Taliban regime and are now well-settled and prosperous in Kabul and their respective regions, benefiting greatly from the Western presence and Western money. This is true of many urban areas of Afghanistan that have been altered significantly in the eight years since the U.S. invasion and have little desire to return the Taliban's severe austerity. In many ways, this fight for dominance is between not only the Taliban and the United States and its allies; it is also between the Taliban and the old Islamist elite, the former mujahideen leaders who did their time on the battlefield in the 1980s. (click here to enlarge image) So, in addition to fighting the current military battle, there is a great deal of factional fighting and political maneuvering with other Afghan centers of power. At a bare minimum, the Taliban intend to ensure that they remain the single strongest power in the country, with not only the largest share of the pie in Kabul (the ability to dominate) but also a significant degree of power and autonomy within their core areas in the south and east of the country. But within the movement (which is a very diffuse and complex set of entities), there is a great deal of debate about what objectives are reasonably achievable. Like the Shia in Iraq, who originally aspired to total dominance in the early days following the fall of the Baathist regime and have since moderated their goals, the Taliban have recognized that some degree of power sharing is necessary. The ultimate objective of the Taliban — resumption of power at the national level — is somewhat dependent on how events play out in the coming years. The objective of attaining the apex of power is not in dispute, but the best avenue — be it reconciliation or fighting it out until the United States begins to draw down — and how exactly that apex might be defined is still being debated. (click here to enlarge image) But there is an important caveat to the Taliban's ambitions. Having held power in Kabul, they are wary of returning there in a way that would ultimately render them an international pariah state, as they were in the 1990s. When the Taliban first came to power, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the regime, and the group's leadership became intimately familiar with the challenges of attempting to govern a country without wider international recognition. It was under this isolation that the Taliban allied with al Qaeda, which provided them with men, money and equipment. Now it is using al Qaeda again, this time not just as a force multiplier but, even more important, as a potential bargaining chip at the negotiating table. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's central leader, wants to get off the international terrorist watch list, and there have been signals from various elements of the Taliban that the group is willing to abandon al Qaeda for the right price. This countervailing consideration also contributes to the Taliban's objective — and particularly the means to achieving that objective — remaining in flux. To understand the Taliban and their current strategy, it helps to begin with the basics. The Taliban are insurgents, and their first order of business is simply survival. A domestic guerrilla group almost always has more staying power than an occupier, which is projecting force over a greater distance and has the added burden of a domestic population less directly committed to a war in a foreign — and often far-off — land. If the Taliban can only survive as a cohesive and coherent entity until the United States and its allies leave Afghanistan, they will have a far less militarily capable opponent (Kabul) with whom to compete for dominance. Currently facing an opponent (the United States) that has already stipulated a timetable for withdrawal, the Taliban are in an enviable position. The United States has given itself an extremely aggressive and ambitious set of goals to be achieved in a very short period of time. If the Taliban can both survive and disrupt American efforts to lay the foundations for a U.S./NATO withdrawal, their prospects for ultimately achieving their aims increase dramatically. And here the strategy to achieve their imperfectly defined objective begins to take shape. The Taliban have no intention of completely evaporating into the countryside, and they have every intention of continuing to harass International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, inflicting casualties and raising the cost of continued occupation. In so doing, the Taliban not only retain their relevance but may also be able to hasten the withdrawal of foreign forces. Judging from the initial phase of Operation Moshtarak in Marjah and what can likely be expected in similar offensives in other areas, the Taliban strategy toward the surge is: 1) largely decline combat but leave behind a force significant enough to render the securing phase as difficult as is possible for U.S.-led coalition forces by using hit-and-run tactics and planting improvised explosive devices; 2) once the coalition force becomes overwhelming, fall back and allow the coalition to set up shop and wage guerrilla and suicide attacks (though Mullah Omar has issued guidance that these attacks should be initiated only after approval at the highest levels in order to minimize civilian casualties). In all likelihood, this phase of the Taliban campaign would include attempts at intimidation and subversion against Afghan security forces. Being a diffuse guerrilla movement, the Taliban will likely attempt to replicate this strategy as broadly as possible, forcing ISAF forces to expend more energy than they would prefer on holding ground while impeding the building and reconstruction phase, which will become increasingly difficult as coalition forces target more and more areas. The idea is that the locals who are already wary about relying on Kabul and its Western allies will then become even more disenchanted with the ability of the coalition to weaken the Taliban. However, the ISAF attempting to take control of key bases of support on which the Taliban have long relied, and the impact of these efforts on the Taliban will warrant considerable scrutiny. For now, the Taliban appear to have lost interest in larger-scale attacks involving several hundred fighters being committed to a single objective. Though such attacks certainly garnered headlines, they were extremely costly in terms of manpower and materiel with little practical gain. And with old strongholds like Helmand province feeling the squeeze, there are certainly some indications that ISAF offensives are taking an appreciable bite out of the operational capabilities of at least the local Taliban commanders. Conserving forces and minimizing risk to their core operational capability are parallel and interrelated considerations for the Taliban in terms of survival. If the recent assault on Marjah is any indication, the Taliban are adhering to these principles. While some fighters did dig in and fight and while resistance has stiffened — especially within the last week — the Taliban declined to make it a bloody compound-to-compound fight despite the favorable defensive terrain. Similarly, the U.S. surge intends to make it hard for the Taliban to sustain — much less replace — manpower and materiel. Taliban tactics must be tailored to maximize damage to the enemy while minimizing costs, which drives the Taliban directly to hit-and-run tactics and the widespread use of improvised explosive devices. There is little doubt that the Taliban will continue to inflict casualties in the coming year. But there is also considerable resolve behind the surge, which will not even be up to full strength until the summer and will be maintained until at least July 2011. Indeed, it is not clear if the Taliban can inflict enough casualties to alter the American timetable in its favor any further. There is also the underlying issue of sustaining the resistance. Manpower and logistics are inescapable parts of warfare. Though the United States and its allies bear the heavier burden, the Taliban cannot ignore that it is losing key population centers and opium-growing areas central to recruitment, financing and sanctuary. The parallel crackdowns by the ISAF on the Afghan side of the border and the Pakistani crackdowns on the opposite side, where the Taliban has long enjoyed sanctuary, represent a significant challenge to the Taliban if the efforts can be sustained. Signs of a potential increase in cooperation and coordination between Washington and Islamabad could also be significant. In other words, despite all its flaws, there is a coherency to what the United States is attempting to achieve. Success is anything but certain, but the United States does seek to make very real inroads against the core strength of the Taliban. One of those methods is to reduce the Taliban's operational capability to the point where it will no longer have the capability to overwhelm Afghan security forces after the United States begins to draw down. There is no shortage of issues surrounding the U.S. objectives to train up the Afghan National Army and National Police, and it is not at all clear that even if those objectives are met that indigenous forces will be able to manage the Taliban. But the Taliban must also deal with the logistical strain being imposed on it and strive to maintain its numbers and indigenous support. Central to this effort is the Taliban's information operations (IO), conveying their message to the Afghan people. Thus far, the ISAF has been far behind the Taliban in such IO efforts, but as the coalition ratchets up the pressure, it remains to be seen whether the more abstract IO will be sufficient for sustaining hard logistical support, especially with pressure being applied on both sides of the border. Similarly, there is the issue of internal coherency. Any insurgent movement must deal with not only the occupier but also other competing guerrillas and insurgents, whether their central focus is military power or ideological. The Taliban's main competition is entrenched in the regime of President Hamid Karzai and among those in opposition to Karzai but part of the state; at issue are the Taliban's sometimes loose affiliations with other Taliban elements and al Qaeda. The United States, the Karzai regime, Pakistan and al Qaeda are all seeking and applying leverage anywhere they can to hive off reconcilable elements of the Taliban. The United States seeks to divide the pragmatic elements of the Taliban from the more ideological ones. The Karzai regime may be willing to deal with them in a more coherent fashion, but at the heart of all its considerations is the partially incompatible retention of its own power. Al Qaeda, with its own survival on the line, is seeking to draw the Taliban toward its transnational agenda. Meanwhile, Pakistan wants to bring the Taliban to heel, primarily so it can own the negotiating process and consolidate its position as the dominant power in Afghanistan, much as Iran seeks to do in Iraq. Each player has different motivations, objectives and timetables. Amidst all these tensions, the Taliban must expend intelligence efforts and resources to maintain cohesion, despite being an inherently local and decentralized phenomenon. As Mullah Omar's code of conduct released in July 2009 demonstrates, "command" of the Taliban as an insurgent group is not as firm as it is in more rigid organizational hierarchies. The reconciliation efforts will certainly test the Taliban's coherency. If history is any judge, in the long run the Taliban will retain the upper hand. In Afghanistan, the United States is attempting to do something that has never been tried before — much less achieved — i.e., constitute a viable central government from scratch in the midst of a guerrilla war. But the Taliban must be concerned about the possibility that some aspects of the U.S. strategy may succeed. Central to the American effort will be Pakistan — and Islamabad is showing significant signs of wanting to work closer with Washington. Next:Pakistan's Strategy