27 July 2009

WarThinker's Digest - Issue #3 - Taliban Strategy

WarThinker's Digest is a feature of the Science of Global Security & Armed Conflict blog that scans the scholarly literature from academia, government agencies, and major think tanks, highlighting new reports and documents bearing on the complexity of conflict and future trends in warfare. A must-read feature for defense and security strategists from all sectors interested in honing their "actionable intellect."

The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan
Author: Gilles Dorronsoro, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2009)

The following is a digest of excerpts and summary points:

Dorronsoro begins with the premise that: "A misunderstanding of the insurgency is at the heart of the difficulties facing the International Coalition (IC) in Afghanistan. "
  • The Taliban are not an umbrella movement comprising local, unorganized, loosely connected groups that are essentially local and unorganized.
  • The Taliban are a revolutionary movement, deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system.

Taliban Strengths:

  • They are agile, adaptive, and strategically coordinated.
  • Effective leadership.

Taliban levers for population support include:

  • Internal ethnic tensions (being more inclusive of non-Pashtuns)
  • Negative sentiment toward foreign forces
More than two million internally displaced people in camps are likely to become radicalized by political movements that exploit the resentment and aimlessness of the young.
  • Lack of local administration (establishing their own Sharia-based system)

Taliban momentum includes:

  • Strengthening support in South and East Afghanistan
  • Making new support inroads in the North
  • Sanctuary in Pakistan

Taliban Weaknesses:

  • Taliban presence in the north is fragile.
  • Taliban leadership is concentrated in Pakistan, which makes it susceptible to police operations, especially in Quetta. More vigorous Pakistani engagement would force the Afghan Taliban to fight on two fronts.

Strategic Implications:

  • A surge of troops into South (where Coalition resources are currently headed) and East strongholds is unlikely to have a significant impact in delegitimizing the Taliban.
  • Fully securing the extensive and porous Af-Pak Border is not a reasonable military objective.
  • The Coalition’s best chance for success lies in focusing on Taliban activity in the North.

Strategic Recommendations:

  • Focus on stopping the progress of the Taliban insurgency
  • Focus less on local Afghan Taliban leadership and more on the central command in Quetta while pressuring Pakistan directly to take action there.
  • Focus new resources in places where the Taliban are still relatively weak: around Kabul and in the north to counter their strategy of geographical and ethnic extension of the war.

Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org

Full Interview HERE

Q: Let's get granular on current combat operations. United States military veterans of the Iraq war are reporting that the enemy they are facing in Afghanistan is even more tenacious (NYT), technically savvy, more resilient, and in some regards better resourced. Why is this?

Biddle: The nature of the opponent varies enormously from place to place within Afghanistan. Any assessment of the enemy and how they fight is specific to a particular faction, and sometimes to a particular element of a particular faction. For example, the Quetta Shura Taliban maintains a cadre of full-time soldiers that spend a good deal of time in Pakistan and enter Afghanistan. [They] are substantially better trained, better equipped, and better motivated than the rest of the force, which is often a local levy drawn from the residents in a particular valley, or a particular village, or a particular province. Any given firefight will vary enormously as a function of whether or not you're fighting this full-time cadre, or people under their direct command, or whether you're fighting local levies who have substantially less training, equipment, and motivation. And the Quetta Shura Taliban fights differently than other factions within the Taliban coalition.

Q: There are also various reasons why the enemy is fighting--be it ideological, financial, or the quest for power, correct?

Biddle: That's right. The leadership of the Quetta Shura Taliban are ideologically motivated. The leadership of many other factions, the Haqqani network [based in the city of Khost and led by a popular warlord, Jalaluddin Haqqani] for example, is interested in much more local stakes having to do with power, authority, and influence in their home province. Elements of the Quetta Shura Taliban have different motivations. The local fighters in some cases are fighting for the ability to feed their families in the form of what the Taliban will pay them. The leadership is in it for ideology; some of the foot soldiers are not. This is a highly differentiated collection of factions that have different reasons for fighting, different motivations, different interests, and which have in the past had a great deal of difficulty cooperating with each other because of that.

Q: So how do we develop a strategy that deals with all of these different elements?

Biddle: The heterogeneity of the enemy creates an opportunity, unlike Nazi Germany, for instance, or unlike the Viet Cong, [which were] much more monolithic opponents. Because [the Taliban] in Afghanistan is so heterogeneous, there are opportunities to try and drive wedges between elements of that coalition and split it, and peel [off] particular factions, or particular warlords, or particular leaders. That’s not probable in the near term, however. Right now the general perception--increasingly on both sides of this war, but especially on the Taliban side--is that the Taliban are winning. Nobody on the Taliban side is going to switch sides to align themselves with what they view to be a likely loser in the war. [That would mean] setting yourself up to hang from a noose in a few years when Mullah Omar takes over.

So as long as the general perception is that the Taliban are ascendant and their fortunes are improving, the prospects for reconciliation, if you like, or for splitting the hostile coalition, if you prefer, are very, very limited.

More from Biddle in a different streaming audio interview

Media Conference Call: Stephen Biddle on U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan (Audio) July 30, 2009
Speaker: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs