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Sep 1, 2010 | 12:37 GMT

17 mins read

Afghanistan: Why the Taliban are Winning

With additional troops committed and a new strategy in place, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is making its last big push to win the war in Afghanistan. But domestic politics in ISAF troop-contributing nations are limiting the sustainability of these deployments while the Taliban maintain the upper hand. It is not at all clear that incompatibilities between political climates in ISAF countries and military imperatives in Afghanistan can ever be overcome. And nothing the coalition has achieved thus far seems to have resonated with the Taliban as a threat so dangerous and pressing it cannot be waited out.
Click here to download a PDF of this report Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict Almost 150,000 U.S. and allied troops are now in Afghanistan, some 30,000 more than the number of Soviet troops at the height of their occupation in the 1980s. The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is now at the pinnacle of its strength, which is expected to start declining, one way or another, by the latter half of 2011, a trend that will have little prospect of reversing itself. Though history will undoubtedly speak of missed or squandered opportunities in the early years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, this is now the decisive moment in the campaign. It is worth noting that nearly a year ago, then-commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the ISAF Gen. Stanley McChrystal submitted his initial assessment of the status of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to the White House. In his analysis, McChrystal made two key assertions:
  • The strategy then being implemented would not succeed, even with more troops.
  • A new counterinsurgency-focused strategy just proposed would not succeed without more troops.
There was no ambiguity. The serving commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan told his commander in chief that without both a change in strategy and additional troops to implement the new strategy, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan would fail. Nowhere in the report, however, did McChrystal claim that with the new strategy and more troops the United States would win the war in Afghanistan. Today, with the additional troops committed and a new strategy governing their employment, the ISAF is making its last big push to reshape Afghanistan. But domestic politics in ISAF troop-contributing nations are severely constraining the sustainability of these deployments at their current scale. Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to retain the upper hand, and the incompatibilities of the political climates in troop-contributing nations with the military imperatives of an effective counterinsurgency are becoming ever more apparent. This leads to the question: What is the United States ultimately trying to achieve in Afghanistan and can it succeed?

The Iraq Campaign

The surges of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 and into Afghanistan in 2010 represent very different military campaigns, and a look at the contrasts between the two campaigns can be instructive. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Washington had originally intended to install a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad in order to fundamentally reshape the region. Instead, after the U.S. invasion destroyed the existing Iraqi-Iranian balance of power, Washington found itself on the defensive, struggling to prevent the opposite outcome — a pro-Iranian regime. An Iran unchecked by Iraq (a key factor in Iran's rise and assertiveness over the last seven years) and able to use Mesopotamia as a stepping-stone for expanding its influence across the Middle East would reshape the region every bit as much as a pro-American regime. The American adversaries in Iraq were Sunni insurgents (including a steadily declining pool of Baathist nationalists), al Qaeda fighters and a smattering of other foreign jihadists and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The Sunnis provided support and shelter for the jihadists while fighting a pair of losing battles they viewed as existential struggles — simultaneously taking on the U.S. military and the security forces of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, with a Shiite Iran meddling all the while in Iraqi Shiite politics. But the foreign jihadists ultimately overplayed their hand with Iraq's Sunnis, a decisive factor in their demise. Their attempts to impose a harsh and draconian form of Islamism and the slaying of traditional Sunni tribal leaders cut against the grain of Iraqi cultural and societal norms. In response, beginning well-before the surge of 2007, Sunni Awakening Councils and militias under the Sons of Iraq program were formed to defend against and drive out the foreign jihadists. At the heart of this shift was Sunni self-interest. Not only were the foreign jihadists imposing a severe and unwelcome form of Islamism, but it was also becoming clear to the Sunnis that the battles they were waging held little promise of actually protecting them from Shiite subjugation. Indeed, with foreign jihadist attacks on the traditional tribal power structure, it was increasingly clear that the foreign jihadists themselves were, in their own way, attempting to subjugate Iraqi Sunnis for their own purposes. As the Sunnis began to warm to the United States, they found themselves with very few options. Faced with subjugation from many directions and having realized that the way they held the upper hand in Iraq before 2003 was simply not recoverable, the Sunnis came to see siding with the United States as the best alternative. When the United States surged troops into Iraq in 2007, one of the main U.S. adversaries in Iraq (the Sunnis) turned against another (al Qaeda and the jihadists). While the surge was instrumental in breaking the cycle of violence in Baghdad and shifting perceptions both within Iraq and around the wider region, there were nowhere near enough troops to impose a military reality on the country by force. Instead, the strategy relied heavily on capitalizing on a shift already taking place: the realignment of the Sunnis, who not only fed the U.S. actionable intelligence on the foreign jihadists but also became actively engaged in the campaign against them. While success appeared anything but certain in 2007, almost an entire segment of Iraqi society had effectively changed sides to ally with the United States. This alliance allowed the United States to hunt down jihadist leaders and systematically disrupt jihadist networks while arming the Sunnis to the point that only a unified Shiite segment with consolidated command of the security forces could destroy them — and even then, only with considerable effort and bloodshed. But despite the marked shift in Iraq since the surge, the security gains remain fragile, the political situation tenuous and the prospects of an Iraq not dominated by Iran limited. In other words, for all the achievements of the surge, and despite the significant reduction in American forces in the country, the situation in Iraq — and the balance of power in the region — is still unresolved. (click here to enlarge image)

The Afghanistan Campaign

With this understanding of the 2007 surge in Iraq in mind, let us examine the current surge of troops into Afghanistan. In Iraq, the United States was forced to shift its objective from installing a pro-American regime in Baghdad to preventing the wholesale domination of the country by Iran (a work still in progress). In Afghanistan, the problem is the opposite. The initial American objective in Afghanistan was to disrupt and destroy al Qaeda, and while certain key individuals remain at large, the apex leadership of what was once al Qaeda has been eviscerated and no longer presents a strategic threat. This physical threat now comes more from al Qaeda "franchises" like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (click here to enlarge image) In other words, while the original objective was never achieved in Iraq and the United States has been scrambling to re-establish a semblance of the old balance of power, the original American objective has effectively been achieved in Afghanistan (though the effort is ongoing). Most of what remains of the original al Qaeda prime that the United States set out to destroy in 2001 now resides in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Despite — or perhaps because of — the remarkably heterogeneous demography of Afghanistan, there is no sectarian card to play. Nor is there a regional rival, as there is in Iraq with Iran, that U.S. grand strategy dictates must be prevented from dominating the country. Indeed, an Afghanistan dominated by Pakistan is both largely inevitable and perfectly acceptable to Washington under the right conditions. The long-term American geopolitical interest in Afghanistan has always been and remains limited: to prevent the country from ever again serving as a safe haven for transnational terrorists. While counterterrorism efforts on both sides of the border are ongoing, the primary strategic objective for the United States in Afghanistan is the establishment of a government that does not espouse transnational jihadism and provide sanctuary for its adherents and one that allows limited counterterrorism efforts to continue indefinitely. Al Qaeda itself has little to do with this objective in Afghanistan anymore. The challenge now is crafting circumstances in the country that are sufficient to safeguard American interests. Given this objective, the enemy in Afghanistan is no longer al Qaeda. It is the Taliban, which controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and provided sanctuary for al Qaeda until the United States and the Northern Alliance ousted them from power. (It is important to note that the Taliban were not defeated in 2001. Faced with a superior force, they declined combat and refused to fight on American terms, only to resurge after American attention shifted to Iraq.) But it is not the Afghan Taliban per se that the United States is opposed to, it is their support for transnational Islamist jihadists — something to which the movement does not necessarily have a deep-seated, non-negotiable commitment. As a grassroots insurgency, the Taliban enjoy a broad following across the country, particularly among the Pashtun, the single-largest demographic segment in the country (roughly 40 percent of the population). The movement has proved capable of maintaining internal discipline (recent efforts to hive off "reconcilable" elements have shown little tangible progress) while remaining a diffuse and multifaceted entity with considerable local appeal across a variety of communities. For many in Afghanistan, the Taliban represent a local Afghan agenda and its brand of more severe Islamism — while hardly universal — appeals to a significant swath of Afghan society. The Taliban's militias were once Afghanistan's government-sponsored military force. And as a light-infantry force both appropriate for and intimately familiar with the rugged Afghan countryside, the Taliban enjoy superior knowledge of the terrain and people as well as superior intelligence (including intelligence from compromised elements of the Afghan security forces). The Taliban are particularly well-suited for waging a protracted insurgency and they perceive themselves as winning this one — which they are.

Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency

The Taliban are winning in Afghanistan because they are not losing. The United States is losing because it is not winning. This is the reality of waging a counterinsurgency. The ultimate objective of the insurgent is a negative one: to deny victory — to survive, to evade decisive combat and to prevent the counterinsurgent from achieving victory. Conversely, the counterinsurgent has the much more daunting and affirmative task of forcing decisive combat in order to end hostilities. It is, after all, far easier to disrupt governance and provoke instability than it is to govern and provide stability. This makes the timetables dictated by political realities in ISAF troop-contributing nations extremely problematic. Counterinsurgency efforts are not won or lost on a timetable compatible with the current political climate at home. Admittedly, the attempt is not to win the counterinsurgency in the next year or the next three years (the U.S. timetable calls for troop withdrawals to begin in July 2011). Rather, the strategy is now one of "Vietnamization", in which indigenous forces are assembled and trained to assume responsibility for waging the counterinsurgency with sufficient skill and malleability to serve American interests. But the effort to which the bulk of ISAF troops are being dedicated and the effort in which the ISAF hopes to demonstrate progress for domestic consumption is the counterinsurgency mission, not the counterterrorism one. This effort, specifically, is taking place in key population centers and particularly in the Taliban's core turf in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the country's restive south. The efforts in Helmand and Kandahar were never going to be easy — they were chosen specifically because they are Taliban strongholds. But even with the extra influx of troops and the prioritization of operations there, progress has proved elusive and slower than expected. The fact is, the counterinsurgency effort is plagued with a series of critical shortcomings that have traditionally proved pivotal to success in such efforts.


The heart of the problem is twofold. First, the core strengths of the Taliban as a guerrilla force are undisputed, and the United States and its allies are unwilling to dedicate the resources and effort necessary to fully defeat it. To be clear, this would not be a matter of a few more years or a few more thousand troops, but a decade or more of forces and resources being sustained in Afghanistan at not only immense immediate cost but also immense opportunity cost to American interests elsewhere in the world. In reality (if not officially), the end objective now appears to be political accommodation with the Afghan Taliban and their integration into the regime in Kabul. The idea originally was to take advantage of the diffuse and multifaceted nature of the Taliban and hive off so-called "reconcilable elements," separating the run-of-the-mill Taliban from the hard-liners. The objective would be to integrate the former while making the situation more desperate for the latter. But from the beginning, both Kabul and Islamabad saw this sort of localized, grassroots solution as neither sufficient nor in keeping with their longer-term interests. While some localized changing of sides has certainly taken place (in both directions, with some Afghan government figures going over to the Taliban), the Afghan Taliban movement has proved to have considerable internal discipline that is no doubt bolstered by the widespread belief that it is only a matter of time before the foreigners leave. This makes the long-term incentive to remain loyal to the Taliban — or, at the very least, not to so starkly break from them that only brutal reprisal awaits when the foreign forces leave — very difficult to resist. So the negotiation effort has shifted more into the hands of Kabul and Islamabad, both of which favor a comprehensive agreement with the Afghan Taliban's senior leadership.

Compelling the Enemy to Negotiate

And this is where the second aspect of the problem comes into play. While special operations forces have been successful in capturing or killing some Taliban leaders, the Pakistanis have so far continued to provide only grudging and limited assistance, and there is no Afghan analogy to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. In addition to building up indigenous government forces, the focus of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is on securing the country's key population centers, thereby denying the Taliban key bases of support. The idea is that, as the Taliban continue to decline decisive combat and resort to harassing attacks, local loyalties will have shifted by the time ISAF forces leave and strengthened Afghan security forces will be able to manage a weakened Taliban movement. However, this entails much more than just temporarily clearing Taliban fighters out of key population centers. The ISAF has made a concerted effort to secure and protect such areas (including Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan) from surreptitious intimidation as well as overt violence and to guarantee not just stability but also jobs and adequate governance. But the strategy requires that such transformations become entrenched and durable on an extremely short timetable in a national population that is anything but homogenous. Indeed, all three aspects of the ISAF's concept of operations — shifting local loyalties, weakening the Taliban and putting capable Afghan security forces in place — are proving problematic. The underlying point here is that the United States does not intend to defeat the Taliban; it seeks merely to draw them into serious negotiations. While deception and feints are an inherent part of waging war, the history of warfare shows that seeking to convince the enemy to negotiate without being dedicated to his physical and psychological destruction can be perilous territory. The failed attempt by the United States to drive North Vietnam to the negotiating table through the Linebacker air campaigns is an infamous case in point. Like those bombing campaigns, current U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan appear to lack the credibility to be compelling — much less forceful enough to bring the Taliban to the table. The application of military power, as Clausewitz taught, must be both commensurate with the nation's political objectives and targeted at the enemy's will to resist. The Taliban's will to resist is unlikely to be altered by an abstract threat to key bases of support, especially one that may or may not materialize years from now — and, in particular, when the Taliban genuinely doubt both the efficacy of the concept of operations and the national resolve. In any event, this is ultimately a political calculation. The application of military force to that calculation must be tailored in such a way as to bring the enemy to its knees — to force the enemy off balance, strike at his center of power and exploit critical vulnerabilities. To be effective, this must be done relentlessly, at a tempo to which the enemy cannot adapt. This is done to force the enemy not to negotiate but to seriously contemplate defeat — and thereby seek negotiation out of fear of that defeat. Although Pakistan has intensified its counterinsurgency efforts on its side of the border, an international border and the Taliban's ability to take refuge on the far side of it further restricts, as it did in Vietnam, the American ability to target and pressure its adversary. So far, nothing that has been achieved appears to have resonated with the Taliban as a threat too dangerous and pressing to wait out. Political accommodation can be the result of both fear and opportunity. Force of arms is meant to provide the former. And the heart of the problem for the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan is that the counterinsurgency strategy does not target the Taliban directly and relentlessly to create a sense of immediate, visceral and overwhelming threat. By failing to do so, the military means remain not only out of sync with the political objectives but also, given the resources and time the United States is willing to dedicate to Afghanistan, fundamentally incompatible. As an insurgent force, the Taliban is elusive, agile and able to seamlessly maneuver within the indigenous population even if only a portion of the population actively supports it. The Taliban is a formidable enemy. As such, they are making the political outcome appear unachievable by force of arms — or at least the force of arms that political realities and geopolitical constraints dictate.

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