Even though I am critic of the war in Afghanistan, I do agree that in many ways we underestimate the Taliban. This is an extraordinary movement. It rose from a regional militia to control of 90% of Afghanistan within two years from 1994 to 1996. And while Pakistani intelligence aided at the margins, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban was either wholly or even largely a Pakistani creation. It was a real movement that was very, very savvy in terms of creating a public image and co-opting local elites in Afghanistan.
Even more impressive to me is that the organization is still alive and still under much of the same senior leadership. How many groups have been able to survive a military defeat and being forced out of power with as much cohesion as has the Taliban? I have not researched the issue systematically, but the cohesion of the Taliban post-2001 and its resurgence since 2004 is, I think, close to unprecedented.
It is possible to also over-estimate the Taliban. Even if they seize control in Afghanistan, they would have limited capacity to destabilize the rest of South Asia. But within Afghanistan, this is a force to be reckoned with.
Which I why this story from the WaPo is both unsurprising and disheartening:
The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the U.S. military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy’s resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.
In recent months, the Taliban fighters have used mortars to force U.S. troops into defensive positions, where they are then hit with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and machine guns. Insurgent units have learned to maintain “radio silence” as they move and to wet down the ground to prevent dusty recoil that would make them targets. They have “developed the ability to do some of the things that make up what you call a disciplined force,” including treating casualties, the Army general said.
The Taliban has also taken advantage of changes in U.S. air and artillery tactics, adopted to decrease civilian casualties that have alienated the population. U.S. airstrikes and culturally offensive night ground raids are authorized far more selectively than they were. The Taliban has also adjusted its own tactics, gathering in populated areas and increasing its night operations, and “the playing field is leveled,” one U.S. officer said.
Military officials expressed confidence in the evolving U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, but also concern about whether there is time to make it work. “I’m not one myself to believe it’s a zero-sum game of winning and losing,” said an official with long experience in Afghanistan.
“To the Taliban, winning is, in fact, not losing,” he said. “They feel that over time, they will ultimately outlast the international community’s attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. It’s really a game of will to them.”
I am not surprised by any of this. In fact, had I been asked, I would have predicted most of it. We are facing a dynamic, learning adversary. And unfortunately, the reason we’re surprised by this is that our counter-insurgency doctrine has abstracted away the enemy. We are assuming that if we do everything right, we’ll “win.” But war is a strategic interaction, and the enemy gets a vote.