Underestimating the Taliban

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:

Taliban Surprising U.S. Forces With Improved Tactics – washingtonpost.com

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.

5 comments to Underestimating the Taliban

  • We are assuming that if we do everything right, we’ll “win.”

    1. Who is assuming this?

    2. This is a tautology. Of course we’ll win if we do everything right, so long as “doing everything right” is defined as “doing what it takes to win.”

    “Doing everything right” would obviously include adapting to the enemy’s adaptations.

  • Gulliver: Fair enough. Though I would make two points. First, whether it is Exum or Biddle or Kilcullen, the challenge is usually phrased as exogenous to U.S. actions. They admit that pop-centric COIN is an uncertain project, but consider it subject to essentially random effects rather than the possibility of being systematically subverted by enemy action. Second, I obviously didn’t mean it tautologically. I meant it as — if we follow 3-24/Galula with sufficient diligence — “victory” will ensue. I am not sure that is true either, in part because I think there are relatively obvious and straightforward ways in which an adversary could defeat the operational concept laid out in 3-24. I am being a bit vague on the latter because I am writing a long article on that particular issues, and I am still working on some pieces of it, so I don’t want to write things I will later be forced to retract as my research proceeds.

  • I meant it as — if we follow 3-24/Galula with sufficient diligence — “victory” will ensue. I am not sure that is true either, in part because I think there are relatively obvious and straightforward ways in which an adversary could defeat the operational concept laid out in 3-24.

    There may be people who are asserting this, but I don’t know who they are. I’ve been ’round and ’round on this with COL Gentile, too: I keep asking him to produce a culprit and he dissembles. Who are the people saying that 3-24 is a certain template for victory? Who are the people suggesting that the specific nature of the subject population and/or the enemy is irrelevant?

    So if I were asked “can victory be guaranteed through the effective application of COIN doctrine?”, I would obviously say “no, not in all cases, and perhaps not even in most.” One could even suggest that it’s the best approach available to us while still lacking confidence in its universal applicability or chances of success.

    So for me, I’d suggest 1) that the “successful” and consistent application of COIN doctrine in Afghanistan will not necessarily achieve “victory” (such as it were), and 2) that “victory” in Afghanistan will not necessarily make the requisite contribution to American security or interests to justify the costs of our involvement there.

  • The two parts of my response actually need to be considered together. What I have heard people say is that if we follow 3-24 diligently then any failure that occurs will be simply due to either chance or some exogenous factor such as lack of cooperation from the local government. That, in other words, there is no strategic gap that might be exploitable by enemy action, but rather that there are some factors beyond the control of the counter-insurgent force that might prevent success from occurring. Exum has made this argument numerous times in writing, for one.

    But I also think this is the clear implication of 3-24. I mean, look at the chapters 4 and 5 — on designing and executing COIN campaigns and operations, look at the LLOs — where is the adversary there? Everything is targeted at the local population. It is like the enemy does not even exist. He is purely epiphenomenal to the purported legitimacy gap. The nature of the subject population is clearly very important — though largely assumed to be maleable through the provision of material goods. The subject of the enemy receives the most cursory and generic treatment.

    I may be misreading or misunderstanding 3-24. And indeed, you could certainly cobble together individual passages on, say, intelligence gathering that are more enemy-focused. But even the broad categorizations of potential enemy behavior has no clear implications for how operations should be designed or executed.

  • […] no amount of arms or assistance would stop it from happening. In fact, Finel himself has already made the case: […] In many ways we underestimate the Taliban. This is an extraordinary movement. It rose from […]

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