Apr 1, 2010 | 12:22 GMT

6 mins read

Afghanistan: The Taliban's Point of View

Any war is a two-way struggle. The Taliban's perspective and their information and propaganda efforts are important both in shaping the direction of the war itself, and in understanding it.
As any student of war knows, there are two sides to any conflict. The opposing side is not a passive entity to be acted upon, but an active and creative enemy that is part of a continually evolving struggle that Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz characterized as a "two-struggle." This is every bit as true in an insurgency where the insurgent is waging an asymmetric struggle from a very different position, with very different strengths and weaknesses. In all the strategic discussions about Gen. Stanley McChrystal's population-centric efforts in Afghanistan, combating the Taliban has been a comparatively rare point of discussion as rules of engagement have shifted to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties, military offensives are announced publicly well in advance and emphasis has been placed on establishing effective governance and civil authority. There is a clear rationale behind the thrust of American efforts to undermine the Taliban's base of support. But as recent developments in southern Afghanistan attest, the Taliban are not passively accepting those efforts. At the same time, the Taliban are waging a classic guerrilla campaign – conducting hit-and-run attacks to wear down their adversary while avoiding decisive engagement. Their strategic incentive is to wait out the United States while conducting dispersed, economy-of-force efforts to prevent the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from achieving its goals within the aggressive and ambitious timetable to which Washington has committed itself. So while the United States attempts to apply military force to lock down the security situation in key areas, its ultimate objective is much more difficult, complex and tangential. The United States aims to achieve the positive objective of effecting meaningful shifts in perceptions and political circumstances that will undermine the Taliban's base of support while training and improving Afghan security forces. By comparison, the Taliban's negative objective of preventing American success is far simpler and more attainable. As such, both the Taliban's tactics and measures of success will be profoundly different than those of the United States. The Taliban's tactics and claims regarding success warrant close scrutiny (including their claims regarding combat successes), and are now being included in STRATFOR's Situation Reports. There is no doubt these reports include an element of exaggeration, but they are critical to providing insight into the Taliban's information operations and how they perceive themselves and their efforts. For example, every day the Taliban make multiple claims about destroying numerous ISAF "tanks" across the country. In truth, the number of main battle tanks in Afghanistan is rather limited, and the casualties inflicted are lower than the Taliban claim. Similarly, almost any armored vehicle in the country that the Taliban destroy or claim to destroy is reported as a "tank," so the word is best understood to signify anything from an actual main battle tank to a Stryker or even a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (both of which are wheeled). But at the same time, both the Taliban and the ISAF are engaged in information operations (IO) and propaganda efforts designed to shape perceptions domestically and abroad. Although there are some urban exceptions, it is the Taliban that have established considerable dominance in IO in Afghanistan. It is their claim and message that is reaching the Afghan population in areas targeted by U.S. strategy to retake and deny the Taliban. Similarly, even though a multiple-fatality improvised explosive device (IED) attack on an ISAF vehicle constitutes a bad day for the coalition, it is not seen as a strategic or operational-level event. But for the Taliban, it is precisely that. Just as the United States trumpets the capture of a midlevel Taliban commander or his death in an unmanned aerial vehicle strike as an important success, the Taliban consider inflicting pain on the "foreign occupier" with a successful IED strike as the same sort of tactical and IO coup. Of course the loss of a midlevel Taliban commander may have more impact on the Taliban's operational capability than ISAF's loss of even several front-line troops. But the IED has broader implications. If the vehicle belongs to a NATO ally with a particularly shaky commitment to the mission, or a particularly vocal opposition to the war at home, it can absolutely have a strategic impact if the death toll hastens that ally's withdrawal. But even in more normal, day-to-day scenarios, the IED can increase the threat level on that particular road. While few routes are "closed" this way, the convoy and force protection requirements can change, requiring additional commitments of vehicles and specialized units. This can make them more difficult to arrange and slows travel time as stops to investigate and disable IEDs become more frequent. The IED continues to be the Taliban's single most effective tactic against the ISAF. While it is not yet clear whether Taliban IEDs have significantly impeded ISAF operations, their claims regarding IEDs also serve to undermine U.S. attempts to shift perceptions held by ordinary Afghans. As long as the Taliban are widely perceived as not only resistance fighters — an important point of national identity in Afghanistan — but as an undefeated and undefeatable reality, the incentive for Afghan locals is to limit their interaction with and support of local government and ISAF forces. This is because they fear being abandoned later, left to face the return of the Taliban to local power. Like any entity, the Taliban also faces the issue of credibility, which acts to limit the degree to which they can exaggerate claims about battlefield successes. But because they are so dominant in IO right now, it is not clear that these claims are perceived as anything but reasonably close to the truth. So while it may be clear elsewhere that a given Taliban claim is exaggerated and inaccurate, that claim shapes perceptions where it matters — on the ground in Afghanistan — far more than ISAF does. And ultimately, the United States is engaged in IO and shaping domestic opinion as well, so the ground truth generally lies somewhere in the middle. STRATFOR will continue to closely monitor Taliban claims for many reasons: They say a great deal about what the Taliban perceives as significant tactical victories; they are an important part of the IO and propaganda efforts to shape perceptions on the ground in Afghanistan; and they are an important aspect of the war.

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