The Taliban have withdrawn from major Afghan cities and dispersed into the countryside. However, they are far from defeated; they have simply abandoned positional, frontal warfare for the guerrilla tactics more suited to their numbers and resources. In doing so, they have also reset the clock on the conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban war plan will play out over the coming years rather than days.
Northern Alliance officials reported Nov. 14 that Kandahar, headquarters of the Taliban regime, had fallen to opposition forces. If the report proves accurate, it caps off a lightning operation that in six days drove the Taliban from power, from Afghanistan's cities and from the battlefield.
On the surface, it appears the Taliban were dealt a crushing defeat. Thousands of Taliban fighters switched sides or were captured during the Northern Alliance's advance, and the remainder melted into the hills having put up almost no fight. However, the Taliban withdrawal was far from a rout. Rather, it reflects abandonment of a strategy that could have led to their destruction, in preparation for a more traditional and effective strategy for combat in Afghanistan — guerrilla warfare.
The Taliban's strategic change will substantially alter the tempo and tactics of the war in Afghanistan, as well as the shape of the theater of operations. As multinational peacekeeping forces prepare to enter the country, they will face a low-grade guerrilla war that is likely to last for years and extend into neighboring countries.
As STRATFOR set about crafting the section of our Ground War Strategy series covering the Taliban, we found ourselves with two predicaments. On one hand, as some of our readers have vociferously asserted, the Taliban appear to have been utterly routed. In less than a week, Taliban forces have been swept from all major cities and have ceased resistance across Afghanistan. What kind of strategy emerges from a comprehensive retreat?
On the other hand, we forecast this withdrawal on Oct. 7, the day the United States began bombing Afghanistan. We have already outlined the strategy that underlies this turn of events, so what is there to add?
Positional and Frontal War
This week, the Taliban abandoned a strategy — holding cities and defending fixed fronts and lines of supply — utterly unsuited to its resources and numbers. In northern Afghanistan, the Taliban were occupying the territory of hostile ethnic groups. They were forced to deploy their limited troops in fixed garrisons and positions easily targeted by U.S. air strikes and easily outmaneuvered by the Northern Alliance. To bolster their forces, the Taliban had sided with local forces that were fundamentally hostile and unreliable. At any time, they could find the enemy within their own ranks.
The Taliban had to defend long supply lines — on which they drew heavily for high-intensity warfare — against an enemy with air superiority. U.S. political pressure constricted the sources of supplies, which originated in Pakistan. The Taliban could not count on maintaining the level of supply necessary to hold their positions. At the same time, the Northern Alliance enjoyed ever-increasing supplies.
The Taliban are basically a light infantry force, and they did not have the heavy equipment necessary to defend cities and provide air defense. Their one strength, maneuverability, was stifled in urban warfare.
With the Taliban on the strategic defensive, their enemies controlled the tempo of the war. The Taliban were in the same position as the British in the late 19th century and the Soviets 100 years later. They controlled the cities, but that is not where war is fought and won in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army controlled the cities throughout its occupation of the country, but the mujahideen operated freely in the countryside, able to interdict the supply lines at will. The rebels imposed constant, grinding attrition on Soviet forces.
And so, the Taliban decided to turn the tables. Their sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan's cities suggested they had cracked under the pressure of U.S. bombing and Northern Alliance offensives. But before their withdrawal from Mazar-e-Sharif, and while still under heavy U.S. bombardment, the Taliban had no trouble repulsing Northern Alliance offensives. Forces elsewhere in northern Afghanistan had yet to see a U.S. bomb.
Instead, they withdrew systematically and with only minimal rear-guard action where needed. In doing so, the Taliban were able to save their core troops, leaving behind mostly marginal and untrustworthy allies. This core force has melted into the Afghan countryside, returning to the guerrilla tactics that defeated both the British and Soviet empires.
A guerrilla strategy allows the Taliban to control the tempo of the war. They are free to maneuver, hitting where and when they want. They can turn the tables on the United States and the Northern Alliance, interdicting supply lines between the major cities.
Defending supply lines will tie down huge numbers of Northern Alliance and foreign troops, already burdened with securing cities and scouring the countryside for Taliban and al Qaeda forces.
Guerrilla warfare burns much less ammunition, supplies and equipment than does frontal warfare or the defense of fixed positions. It also requires simpler forms of supply — primarily food and light ammunition — much of which can be acquired locally from allies or through looting. This relieves some of the pressure placed on the Taliban by the constriction of supply sources in Pakistan.
Political Hand Grenades
In precipitously handing the cities to the Northern Alliance, the Taliban tossed two political hand grenades at the United States.
First, they generated an immediate crisis in relations between the United States and Pakistan. Islamabad invested a tremendous amount of money and both domestic and foreign political capital into securing control of Afghanistan via the Taliban. With the Taliban swept from power, Pakistan now needs to ensure it does not lose all its influence in Afghanistan to Russia and Iran, which back the Northern Alliance.
Pakistan fears the primarily Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara Northern Alliance will marginalize the role of Pushtuns, Pakistan's allies, in the new Afghan government. While promising to forge a broad-based government, the Northern Alliance has done little to dispel this fear, rejecting any former Taliban members in the new government and downplaying any potential role for exiled Pushtun king Mohammed Zahir Shah.
The United States needs Islamabad not only as a base of operations and to influence the Pushtun tribes but also to cut off sources of Taliban support inside Pakistan. Thus, Washington's first priority is to hammer out a deal between the Northern Alliance and Pakistan instead of mopping up al Qaeda.
A second grenade is the Northern Alliance itself. The Alliance is anything but allied. It encompasses the oft-conflicting interests and egos of several ethnically and regionally distinct armies. Alliance factions have fought each other as frequently as they have fought the Taliban, and with Mullah Mohammed Omar out of the way, they are once again focused on dividing the spoils.
Alliance squabbling will complicate the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. It will saddle Washington with the burden of nation-building and relief operations and thus tie up transportation assets and troops. It will also render the Afghan border with Pakistan harder to secure from the Afghan side.
NOT EXACTLY THE SOVIET WAR
Although the Taliban appear to be reverting to a familiar war — one they fought in the 1980s — there are some key differences now.
The most important difference lies in access to refuge and supply. During the war with the Soviets, the Mujahideen were supported and supplied by Pakistan, where they were largely immune from retaliatory strikes. Though guerrilla armies can live off the land, foreign support is crucial for effective long-term combat in Afghanistan. The Taliban must secure access to lines of supply from Pakistan.
For now, Pakistan is at least officially off limits to the Taliban. However, the border is extremely rugged, remote and porous; it also cuts artificially through ethnic Pushtun territory, greater "Pushtunistan." The Taliban's ideological and ethnic allies in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province are already preparing to support a guerrilla war. Pakistani media is reporting that some Taliban forces and Afghan Arabs are already regrouping inside Pakistan.
The government of Pakistan nurtured and supported the Taliban as a tool of national interest. Links with Islamabad remain, and if Pakistani interests are not taken into account by a future Afghan government, restraints on pro-Taliban activity may evaporate.
The first battles in the next phase of the Afghan war will be fought along the Pakistani border. Depending upon the degree of anti-Taliban action from Islamabad, the battles may well spring up on the Pakistani side of the border, where the United States' ability to respond is limited. The Taliban could even seek to destabilize the Pakistani government, both freeing up refuges for the Taliban and making a bigger problem for the United States.
Pakistan is not the only potential source of logistics support. While in power, the Taliban aided Islamic rebels in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and could draw on them for support in return. Additionally, although Tehran was hostile to the Taliban government, elements within Iran may have a use for the Taliban as guerrillas. Iran fears the United States had ulterior motives behind its attack on Afghanistan, and intends to establish a permanent presence there; the Taliban could help preclude that. Afghan factional leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is backed by Iran, has already loudly advocated supporting the Taliban against the United States.
During the Soviet war, the Mujahideen had access to a key weapons system that the Taliban lacks: state of the art, surface-to-air missiles. And the United States has air superiority — a distinct, albeit logistically costly, advantage. The Taliban have two options. They will likely attempt to secure access to SAMs from neighboring or sympathetic states, through purchase or theft. They could also target aircraft on the ground or at low altitudes, where machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are nearly as effective as SAMs.
The importance of SAMs should not be overrated, however. Only a few Mujahideen had Stingers in the 1980s, though they were enough to change the Soviets' flight patterns. Fear of SAMs was enough to keep U.S. planes in Kosovo at such high altitudes they were unable to distinguish between Yugoslav army columns and refugees on tractors. And air strikes did little against Taliban troops massed around Mazar-e-Sharif. They held and fought effectively until they chose to withdraw. Air strikes will be even less effective against dispersed forces in the mountains.
The United States has one major technological advantage that was missing for the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya: much better sensors. U.S. satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles can monitor Afghanistan's rugged expanses better than Moscow's helicopters and armored patrols. But sensors have difficulty distinguishing between Taliban Pushtun warriors and ordinary Pushtuns. Indiscriminate targeting would quickly build broad opposition to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and fuel the guerrilla war.
Over-reliance on technology may prove to be the United States' Achilles heel in Afghanistan. Sensors do not kill or capture guerrillas. For that, the United States still needs to employ foot soldiers. Washington is prone to seek technological solutions to battlefield problems, setting expectations of zero casualties. This only bolsters a guerrilla strategy of attrition, allowing the Taliban to hunt and kill U.S. and allied troops one or two at a time.
At present, the Taliban suffers from one critical weakness. In a departure from the war against the Soviets or their own campaign against feuding warlords in the mid-1990s, the Taliban do not share a common enemy with most Afghans. In fact, the Taliban have now become the common enemy for many. This will limit the effectiveness of Taliban fighters in the near term, as they will find little refuge outside their native villages.
That will likely change over time. Heavy-handed attempts to root out the Taliban, abuses by the fractious Northern Alliance or exclusion of Pushtuns from the future government could all build support for a guerrilla army, one increasingly diverse and less distinctly Taliban.
The Taliban, through their allies in al Qaeda and sympathetic groups abroad, have the ability to project power into their enemies' countries. They have allies engaged in wars in Chechnya, Indonesia, the Philippines and across the Middle East. They can stage diffusion attacks or punitive strikes, even in the United States. In addition to guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan and agitation in neighboring states, expect this war to spread abroad.
The final feature of the coming Afghan war, very much like the war against the Soviets, is that it will take time. The Taliban are not regrouping for a massive new offensive, though they may try to strike quickly to demonstrate that they remain cohesive. Rather, guerrilla wars are measured in years. The Taliban have time to select and carry out strikes on their own terms. Their priorities will be survival and grinding attrition of the enemy, not large-scale advances.
The U.S. bombing campaign took weeks. The Taliban withdrawal took days. But the war against the Soviets took a decade. The Taliban are settling in for the long haul.