Brothers At War Update

Current Taliban capabilities in Afghanistan

There is an excerpt from David Kilcullens's book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One today at NRO. As usual it is insightful and informative regarding the current capabilities of the enemy we fight in Afghanistan. It is also less fatalistic than many of the reports about that region as it focuses on the military goods and bads of these forces and not the overall difficulties of achieving peace in the region. The enemy he describes, while better equipped and organized, than in previous years is still not much of an actual foe in any force on force encounter although they can be formidable when they mass against smaller numbers of our troops.

Taliban organizational structure varies between districts, but most show some variation of the generic pattern of a local clandestine network structure, a main force of full-time guerrillas who travel from valley to valley, and a part-time network of villagers who cooperate with the main force when it is in their area. In districts close to the Pakistan border, young men graduating from Pakistani madrassas also swarm across the frontier to join the main force when it engages in major combat — as happened during the September 2006 fighting in Kandahar Province, and again in the 2007 and 2008 fighting seasons.

They remain mostly a mobile guerrilla force that uses it's local knowledge and assistance from villagers to roam around and engage actual or perceived weak spots in our force projection. It has not gained the ability to take ground and defend it openly and relies heavily on support, coerced or freely-given, of the local populace. It also shows us the place we can do them the most damage.

These multifaceted motivations provide Taliban fighters with a strong but elastic discipline. Although opportunities may arise for us to “divide and conquer” elements of the enemy, in practice local ties tend to far outweigh government influence. Thus we need to induce local tribal and community leaders who have the respect and tribal loyalty of part-time elements to wean them away from loyalty to the main-force Taliban. Appealing to the self-interest of local clandestine cell leaders may also help isolate them from the influence of senior Taliban leaders who are currently safe in Pakistan.

This requires an adaptation of the clear, hold and build COIN doctrine we employed successfully in Iraq done at an even more micro level. The tribal structure in Afghanistan is complex and splintered and each successive valley often contains a group of people with completely different loyalties and motivations. Relationships with tribal leaders take time to nurture and must be based on the belief that we are there for the Long War as they know the Taliban will be back as soon as we leave. But to start such a campaign requires a political will I do not see in the country and certainly not in our leadership.

The military enemy described by LTC Kilcullen can be defeated tactically and even strategically by our forces in conjunction with the Afghans. But killing their shock troops and pushing them out of the villages does not create a lasting peace. That requires a full scope of forces military, diplomatic, security, reconstruction, developmental and humanitarian. It also will take years and more likely decades. That is the only way to win more than a temporary victory.