The Taliban mounted a suicide attack in the capital of the southeastern province of Helmand on Jan. 29. While the attack does not stand out tactically, that it occurred in the Taliban heartland illustrates limitations on the militant movement.
A suicide team comprised of at least a half a dozen Taliban militants in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southeastern Afghan province of Helmand, seized a building near the governor's office and other local government facilities near an Afghan army base on Jan. 29. After an eight-hour standoff with Afghan security forces backed by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter support, the attackers — who were armed with assault rifles and suicide vests — were all killed. Four of the militants were shot, while the remaining two to three blew themselves up. The Taliban claimed the attack, which saw only militants die, through one of its two official spokesmen, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi. Tactically, the attack is no different from ones in Kabul, especially the last one two weeks ago. What is different — and quite significant — is that this attack occurred in the Taliban heartland in the south, and in a province that has become the focal point of the U.S. surge. In general, suicide assault teams are useful for striking areas beyond insurgent supply lines. This attack in Helmand — which is made up of 13 districts and is contested territory between the Afghan/U.S./ISAF forces and Taliban militants — shows the Taliban face challenges even in their stomping grounds. It also establishes that the Afghans and ISAF can create strongholds in Taliban territory for use in Afghanistan's reconstruction, strongholds the Taliban naturally will want to attack. As the Taliban insurgency has grown, many respected institutions have published reports that up to 70 some percent of the country is under the control of the Afghan jihadists. The problem with these far-reaching claims is that they are based on partial information and an imprecise understanding of control. In many areas the Taliban do control territory, but in many others they simply enjoy freedom of operation because of the weak writ of the state and lack of Western forces. To varying degrees, Taliban turf is composed of rural areas outside provincial capitals and other major towns in Afghanistan's south and the east. The Taliban insurgency is expanding beyond these regions toward the north, west, and center. But as this attack has shown, the Taliban also are seeking to expand their operational capabilities in their heartland. The Taliban goal is to spread beyond the smaller towns and villages in the countryside to the headquarters of the various districts in any given province and then to the provincial capital. Conversely, Afghan and Western forces have sought to push from Kabul toward the Pashtun south and east, starting with the provincial — and followed by district — headquarters and from there into the countryside. And it is here that the shortage of manpower and Afghanistan's vast geography place severe limitations on how far Afghan and Western forces can go, thus permitting zones where the Taliban can operate unmolested. Ultimately, Kabul and its Western backers face limitations in terms of dealing with the insurgency, but the Taliban also face limitations in terms of projecting power, particularly in provincial centers. And this explains why it is not just Kabul and the West talking about talks, as evidenced by the rare Taliban statement Jan. 29 that the matter has not been decided. Ultimately, these Taliban limitations will have to be exploited if the jihadists' momentum is to be undermined.