Nearly eight years after removing the Taliban from power in Kabul, U.S. and NATO International Security Assistance Force troops continue to struggle against an elusive enemy. As the United States and NATO ramp up their offensive against Taliban strongholds, STRATFOR examines the nature of the Afghan Taliban phenomenon: how they operate, what their motivations are and what constraints they face.
The Taliban are a direct product of the intra-Islamist civil war that erupted following the fall of the Afghan Marxist regime in 1992, only three years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Dating back to the 1960s, the Soviet-allied communist party in Afghanistan sought to undermine the local tribal structure: It wanted to gain power via central control. This strategy was extremely disruptive, and resulted in a deterioration in order and the evisceration of the traditional local/regional tribal ethnic system of relations. But these efforts could not dislodge regional and local warlords, who continued to fight amongst each other for territorial control with little regard for civilians, long the modus operandi in Afghanistan. After the Islamist uprising against the communist takeover and the subsequent entry of Soviet troops into the country in 1979, disparate Afghan factions united under the banner of Islam, aided by the then-Islamist-leaning regime in neighboring Pakistan, which was backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. In terms of the Taliban movement, Pakistan was the most influential, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were also involved — mostly through financial support. The Saudis had political and religious ties as well. During this time, madrassas (Islamic schools) in Pakistan became incubators, drawing young, mostly ethnic Pashtun youth, who would in turn facilitate the later rise of the Taliban in the early/mid 1990s in the wake of the decline of the mujahedeen factions. The madrassas were instrumental in providing assistance, allowing orphans or displaced war refugees to study in Pakistan while Afghanistan experienced a brutal civil war. Refugees were taught a particularly conservative brand of Islam (along with receiving training in guerrilla tactics) with the intention that when they returned to Afghanistan, Pakistan would be able to control these groups, maintaining a powerful lever over its volatile and often unpredictable neighbor. These radicalized fighters, many of whom originated in the madrassas and considered themselves devoted students of Islam, labeled themselves "Taliban." The name "Taliban" comes from the Pashtun word for student — "Talib" — with Taliban being the plural form. The Taliban restored some sense of law and order by enforcing their own brand of Shariah, where local warlords previously ruled as they pleased — often to the detriment of civilians. The Taliban, issuing arrests and executing offending warlords, avenged injustices such as rape, murder and theft. As a result, the Taliban won support from the locals by providing a greater sense of security and justice. (click here to enlarge map) By the mid-1990s, the Taliban had become more cohesive under their nominal leader from Kandahar, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Taliban gained prominence as a faction in 1994 when they were able to impose order amid chaos in the Kandahar region. By 1996, Taliban forces had entered Kabul, overthrown then-President Burhanuddin Rabbani and claimed control, renaming the country "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." Omar was named the leader of the country but remained in Kandahar. It was during this rise to power that outside forces began partnering with the Taliban — namely al Qaeda — emphasizing their common radical Islamist ideology, but ultimately putting the Taliban in unsavory company. Pakistan and al Qaeda competed for influence over the Taliban, with Pakistan seeking to use them as leverage in Afghanistan and al Qaeda wanting to use the Taliban's control over Afghanistan to spread their power throughout the Islamic world. During their rule, the Taliban attempted to rid Afghanistan of any Western influences that had crept in, such as Western clothing, cinemas, music, schools and political ideologies. The proxy forces of the Pakistanis were now essentially governing the state, providing Pakistan with a tremendous amount of influence in Afghanistan, and, consequently, a very secure western border, which allowed Pakistan to focus on India to the east. But this situation did not last long. Al Qaeda's influence was on the upswing in Afghanistan, from which it staged 9/11. As a result, and after the refusal of the Taliban regime to disassociate itself from al Qaeda, the Pashtun jihadist group was forced out of power by U.S. forces in late 2001 following 9/11. (The United States implicated the Taliban for providing sanctuary to al Qaeda.) Instead of fighting against conventionally superior U.S. and NATO forces, the Taliban retreated into the rural southern and eastern traditional strongholds, returning to their traditional support bases. In other words, despite both claims and perceptions of a quick U.S. victory in Afghanistan in 2002, in reality, the Taliban largely declined to fight. In many ways, there was no real interregnum between the fall of the regime and the insurgency. The West's earliest attempts to talk to the Taliban occurred in 2003, a sign that the West viewed the Taliban as a force that had not been defeated and was capable of staging a comeback. In the early days, the West's strategy was to eliminate the Taliban as a fighting force, but they were never successful, due to adverse geography, the lack of forces and the shifting of focus to Iraq in 2003. More importantly, the fight to control the Pashtun areas turned into a fight to prevent a resurgent Taliban. The U.S. focus on the insurgency in Iraq allowed the Taliban to galvanize and regroup, and by 2005, it was clear that they were rebounding. Since 2006, the Taliban insurgency has gained momentum to the point that U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus commented in April that foreign forces in Afghanistan are dealing with an "industrial strength" insurgency.
The Current Status of the Taliban
Despite their removal from power in Kabul, the Taliban continue to be the most powerful indigenous force in Afghanistan. Unlike the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police, which are entities built around the idea that Afghanistan can be centrally controlled (although the geography of Afghanistan severely limits the power of any governing body in Kabul to exert power beyond the capital). The Taliban have a much looser command structure that functions on regional and local levels. Various Taliban commanders have attempted to control the movement and call it their own, but the disjointedness of Taliban units means that each commander enjoys independence and ultimately controls his own men. The Afghan Taliban should also not be confused with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban. The TTP are an indigenous movement, and while they cooperate with the Afghan Taliban and share similar objectives, the two sets of groups are independent. The closest the Taliban have to a leader is Omar, who has no coequal. He has recently issued orders in an attempt to consolidate the disparate forces in various regions. However, these orders are not always followed, largely because the malleable and semi-autonomous command structure allows the Taliban to be much more in tune with the structural realities of operating in Afghanistan than the Afghan forces created by the United States and ISAF (in addition to U.S. and ISAF forces themselves). Though a loose command and control structure denies its enemies from targeting any central nerve center that would significantly disrupt the group's existence, the nebulous structure of the Taliban also prevents them from being a single, coherent force with a single, coherent mission. The Taliban fighting force is far from uniform. Fighters range from young locals who are either fighting for ideological reasons or are forced by circumstances to fight with the Taliban, to hardened, well-trained veterans from the Soviet war in the 1980s, to foreigners who have come to Afghanistan to cut their teeth fighting Western forces and contribute their assistance to re-establishing the "Islamic" emirate. This also leads to variable objectives. On the most basic level, the desire to drive out foreign forces from the area and control it for themselves is a sentiment that appeals to every Taliban fighter and many Afghan civilians. The Taliban know that foreigners have never been able to impose an order on the country and it is only a matter of time before foreign forces will leave, which is when the Taliban — being the single-most organized militia — could have the opportunity to restore their lost "emirate." For now, the presence of foreign fighters restricts their ability to administer self rule. This common sentiment is what keeps the Taliban somewhat united. However, the Afghan national identity is easily trumped by subnational ones. While there is consensus for opposing foreign militaries, agreement becomes more tenuous when it comes to the presence of Afghan security forces. Tribal and ethnic identities tend to trump any national identity, meaning that the ethnic Baluchi in the south are unlikely to support the presence of an ethnic Pashtun military unit from Kabul in their home village. These tribal and ethnic splits explain why Afghan security forces are frequently targeted in attacks. (click map to enlarge) But Taliban forces across Afghanistan share one goal: removing foreign military presence. The Taliban have plenty of fighting experience outside of their opposition to the Soviets. Militants know that direct confrontation with foreign military forces typically ends poorly for the Taliban because, given enough time, foreign forces can muster superior firepower to destroy an enemy position. For this reason, the Taliban rely heavily on indirect fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which avoid putting Taliban fighters directly in harm's way. When the Taliban fighters do confront military forces directly, it has generally (though not universally) been in hit-and-run ambushes (often supported by heavy machine guns and mortars) that seek to inflict damage through surprise, not overwhelming force. Rough terrain and meager transportation infrastructure limit mobility in Afghanistan, which limits the routes that ground convoy traffic can choose from, especially in rugged, outlying areas where the Taliban enjoy more freedom to operate. This makes routes predictable and creates more choke points where IEDs can be placed, which have caused the most deaths for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. These tactics do not always inflict damage on foreign forces and are often unsuccessful, but their model is low-risk, cheap and very sustainable. Meanwhile, as Taliban forces inflict casualties against foreign forces, the overall campaign becomes harder to sustain for Western governments. Additionally, suicide bombings and suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) are on the rise in areas like Kabul. However, various elements of the Taliban (as well as entities like foreign jihadists) have not proven to be able to use these tactics as effectively as Iraqi or Pakistani militants. This is because the Afghan Taliban have much more experience using guerrilla tactics, fighting as small, armed units, than using terrorist tactics such as VBIEDs and suicide bombings. VBIEDs are hardly indigenous to Afghanistan and did not become common until around 2005-2006, well after they had become common occurrences in Iraq. As militants migrated from different jihadist theaters and shared information, tactics spread to Afghanistan. There was also an effort by al Qaeda to impart their tactics onto the Taliban. But there is a learning curve for perfecting the construction and tactical expertise at deploying these weapons. While the Taliban have not been as proficient as some of their contemporaries, their capability could be improving. It remains to be seen what kind of implications the collateral damage that these attacks cause will have on the popular perception of the movement. One clear implication of killing civilians is that it undermines local support for the Taliban, which is why Omar has sought to limit the use of suicide bombings as a modus operandi. (Afghans have traditionally abhorred suicide bombings.) But the continued employment of such tactics against Afghan and Western security forces can be expected. But areas where the Taliban conduct attacks should not be confused with areas that the Taliban control. Attacks certainly indicate a Taliban presence, but the Taliban would not necessarily need to conduct sustained attacks in an area if they did not feel they were under threat. The issue of controlling territory is, in reality, much more complex. There have been many mainstream publications recently that attempt to calculate what percentage of Afghanistan is under Taliban "control" or where the Taliban have influence. But these terms are misleading and need to be properly defined to understand the reality of the insurgency and its grip on the country.
Western military forces and the Taliban have pursued different strategies to control territory in Afghanistan. Foreign forces have pursued the model of controlling the national capital and projecting power into the provinces. This means that Kabul is the main objective, with other major cities and provincial capitals being the secondary objective, followed third by district capitals and smaller towns. Foreign forces tend to hold urban areas because they are crucial to maintaining heavier logistical needs, and the supply chains that support them, and are deemed necessary to carry out a more centralized conception of national governance. Holding urban areas and roads allows them to expand further into the rural areas where, conversely, the Taliban derive their power. The Taliban implement almost the exact opposite model. The Taliban employ decentralized control with a much lighter logistical footprint. The Taliban begin at the local level, in isolated villages and towns so that it can pressure district-level capitals. This scheme, which comes naturally to the Taliban, is much more in line with the underlying realities of Afghanistan. Both sides have managed to prevent the other from gaining any real control over the country. By holding district and provincial capitals, foreign forces deny the Taliban formal control. By entrenching themselves in the countryside, the Taliban simply survive — and can afford to wait for their opportunity. Click map to enlarge Few areas of the country are secure for Taliban, foreign or Afghan forces — or civilians — indicating that no side has absolute control over territory. What STRATFOR wrote in 2007 still stands today: Control in Afghanistan essentially depends on who is standing where at any given time. The situation remains extremely fluid, largely because of mobility advantages on both sides. Taliban forces have mobility advantages over foreign forces due their self-sufficiency. Taliban conscripts do not rely on lengthy, tenuous supply chains that cross over politically and militarily hostile territory. They are local fighters who depend on family and friends for supplies and shelter or, when forced, use intimidation to take what they need from civilians. They can also easily blend into their surroundings. These abilities translate into superior tactical mobility. An example of the control that the Taliban have on the ground is opium production. In poppy-producing (the flower used to make opium) areas of the south and west, locals rely on the Taliban for protecting, purchasing and moving their product to market. In these areas, the Taliban have not only physical leverage over civilians, but also economic, which helps strengthen allegiances. While opium production in Helmand, the province with the highest rate of poppy cultivation, dropped by one-third over the past year, poppy production continues to increase in other provinces such as Kandahar, Farah and especially Badghis province, where poppy production increased 93 percent and violent attacks have increased over the past year. This province — and the north/northwest of Afghanistan in general — is an area that STRATFOR certainly needs to watch as it has traditionally not been a Taliban stronghold. Conversely, foreign forces and the Afghan forces modeled on them are bound by supply chain limitations — a weakness that the Taliban have targeted in the past year. This reality constrains their ability to be flexible and spontaneous, resulting in predictable troop movements and requires the reliance on stationary bases, which make for easier targeting on the part of the Taliban. However, what U.S. and ISAF forces have that the Taliban do not is air superiority. Foreign forces have been able to deny the Taliban sanctuaries by using air surveillance and air strikes that can neutralize large contingents of Taliban fighters and commanders without putting U.S. and ISAF forces in harm's way. Air superiority gives foreign forces an advantage over the Taliban's superior ground mobility and denies the Taliban's complete control over any territory. However, air superiority does not guarantee control over any specific territory, as ground control is required to administer territory through organized government. This arrangement creates concentric circles of influence: The Taliban may patrol one stretch of land one day, but U.S. forces will patrol the next. Similarly, village allegiances shift constantly as they try to avoid being perceived by foreign forces as harboring Taliban lest they are the target of an airstrike, yet also maintain cordial relations with the local Taliban to avoid harsh reprisal. Additionally, foreign forces are able to use air power to overcome some of the limitations of the supply chain vulnerabilities by relying on helicopter transport for shuttling supplies and deploying troops. Helicopters greatly reduce reliance on ground transport and convoys, but are in short supply and, in an environment where counter-tactics develop as quickly as tactics, they have their own vulnerabilities.
The Realities That Remain
Just as foreign and Afghan forces struggle to outright control territory, so do the Taliban. Even during the days of the Islamic Emirate, when the Taliban were at their peak, considerable swaths of territory in the north eluded their control. The fact remains that Afghanistan's geography and ethnic/tribal makeup ensure that any power seeking to control Afghanistan will face a serious struggle. With flat, unprotected borderlands (where the bulk of the population resides) and a mountainous center, Afghanistan is both highly susceptible to foreign interference (it has so many neighbors who are able to easily project power into it, yet are unable and unwilling to rule it outright) and is governed poorly from any centralized location.