The result was a somewhat cumbersome double chain of command, in which Taliban units belonging to a particular front would respond to both their parent networks and the Peshawar or Quetta military commissions whichever had given direction. But if we make a plan to attack someplace, I ask Haji Mullah [his mahaz chief].
Sometimes we get orders from the nizami commission as well. The Taliban also adapted tactics in response to battlefield pressures. In Helmand, for instance, the group made wide use of fairly conventional infantry assaults in and in an attempt to overrun British outposts. The exact number of Taliban fighters killed in action over this period is unknown, but British defense intelligence estimated it to be in the thousands.
Taliban commanders interviewed across nine districts in Helmand reported this change. Three of these interviewees confirmed that the imperative to reduce Taliban battlefield casualties drove the shift in tactics. This included, most spectacularly, an assault on Lashkar Gah in October by a strong force, with the objective of decapitating the provincial government and discrediting the British mission. This attack was repulsed by airpower, leaving around Taliban dead. It is very likely, however, that these Taliban technological innovations were facilitated by equipment and training provided by Pakistan.
In , around 30 percent of all coalition fatalities were caused by IEDs. The next year, the share rose to almost 40 percent. From to , IEDs were responsible for more than half of all coalition troop deaths. The number of such devices detected in Helmand jumped from around per month in late to more than per month in the summer of they caused 80 percent of British fatalities that summer. This number continued to rise in , to more than in February and in March.
Initially, most improvised explosive devices were made using recycled Soviet mines and unexploded ISAF ordnance. To meet demand, however, the Taliban had to switch to large-scale production of explosives using fertilizers from Pakistan. The Taliban responded by reducing the metal content in the devices to make them harder to detect. Such extensive use of IEDs made it increasingly difficult for U. There were six teams by late and 14 by late , but this was still not nearly enough.
The situation gradually improved for U. By , the proportion of coalition troops killed by IEDs fell below 50 percent. It dropped further, to around 30 percent, in With a shift in tactics came a new military training regime, reinforced by directives from Quetta and Peshawar compelling the tactical commanders to undergo training and receive regular advice on guerrilla tactics.
One day we get training in one area and the other day we get training in another area. These men are most likely members of mobile training teams dispatched from Quetta or Peshawar that move from village to village. The ability to adapt has been key to the success of the Taliban insurgency. Early tactics learned during the Soviet war — ambushing military convoys and raiding enemy bases — proved suicidal in the face of Western artillery and airpower.
The Taliban adapted in two major ways: first, by introducing some degree of centralized command of fighting groups through a system of provincial military commissions and district military commissioners; and, second, by shifting to guerrilla warfare tactics and avoiding direct engagement with enemy forces. The latter adaptation involved a massive increase in the use and sophistication of IEDs, significantly hindering freedom of movement by international and Afghan security forces. The typical drivers of military adaptation are present in the case of the Taliban.
Growing battlefield losses drove the Taliban to find new ways to fight and organize. This effort accelerated when Mullah Zakir assumed leadership of the Quetta Military Commission in The decentralized structure of the Taliban had given local commanders too much latitude to fight when and how they liked. Under Zakir, some semblance of centralized command was superimposed on the mahaz system. This, over time, enabled the rolling out of new tactics, training, and bomb technologies. Finally, new ideas travelled with people into the Taliban: Organizational and tactical innovations came not only from the Pakistani ISI as previously believed but were also adopted when a breakaway faction of Hezb-i Islami was absorbed into the Taliban movement, forming the Peshawar Shura.
The resilience of an insurgency is substantially shaped by its social resources and its ability to adapt. The importance of these factors is identified in the relevant theoretical literature and is furthermore evident in the case of the Afghan Taliban. The group was founded on a powerful horizontal network. In establishing a post insurgency, however, the Taliban were able to exploit vertical links into host communities as well.
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The group was less successful in its efforts to rebuild the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but garnered some legitimacy from the efficiency of Taliban courts. The Taliban also adapted militarily, in terms of tactics and supporting technologies, as well as in the command of insurgent fighting groups.
Previous studies have further highlighted the importance of foreign support for the Taliban and of their ability to operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan. Ultimately, insurgencies win by not losing, especially when facing off against a foreign great power. Essentially, the insurgents need only outwait the foreign interloper.
On Jan. This is where the other element of the Trump strategy to intensify the relatively modest U. Around 11, U. In August , Trump approved the deployment of an additional 3, troops to Afghanistan. Joseph Vogel, head of U. Central Command, declared that in U. Two years later, that share was down to just over half of the districts.
History is instructive here: When the United States got bogged down in drawn-out wars against peasant armies in Korea and Vietnam, it resorted to major bombing campaigns to break the stalemate. This failed to work in both of those wars. In December , the U.
John Nicholson, revealed that a major campaign by U. Civilian casualties notwithstanding, the United States is pursuing a targeted bombing campaign. Mansfeld finds accordingly that the bombing campaign is having far less impact on Taliban revenue than is claimed by U.
Citing various Afghan opinion polls, Jones argues that public support for the Taliban has plummeted thanks to its extremist ideology, brutal tactics, and reliance on both the drug trade and support from Pakistan. He fails to note, however, that polling in Afghanistan is famously unreliable and that public views of the Taliban are especially difficult to gauge in areas under Taliban control. Some in the Taliban leadership have long understood these realities and foresee the Taliban entering government only through a power-sharing arrangement.
In November , Michael Semple and I spent a week conducting interviews with seven senior Taliban figures. Our subjects included two former deputy ministers, a former provincial governor, and two former senior military commanders. What we discovered surprised us.
We had expected Taliban confidence to have been boosted by recent battlefield success. Instead, those we interviewed reported widespread disillusion within the movement, with the state of Taliban leadership, and with a seemingly endless war. Multiple interviewees told us that many Taliban members feel that the war lost direction and purpose after the withdrawal of foreign combat forces. This is undermining the ideological cornerstone of the Taliban, namely obedience to the emir.
Several factions are vying for power within the movement, most notably the Ishaqzai-dominated Mansour network based in northern Helmand led by Mullah Rahim, the Taliban governor of Helmand. Sending more U. Importantly, the presence of a Marine battalion in Helmand helps prevent the provincial capital from falling to the Taliban.
Yet this marginal increase in combat-force levels will not break the strategic stalemate in Afghanistan when massive U. Rather, sending in more troops and conducting more airstrikes may well make the Taliban stronger. Meanwhile, destroying drug processing and production facilities will hurt not only the Taliban but also anybody involved in opium farming, which is just about every farmer in Helmand.
It stands to once again drive them into the arms of the insurgents. And just as before, public patience is likely to wear thin at apparent U.
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If the United States is not careful, it could end up bombing its way to defeat in Afghanistan. Acknowledgements : The author would like to acknowledge the generous funding of this project by the U. Theo Farrell is professor and executive dean of law, humanities, and the arts at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
He is a fellow of the U. It was also named as a book of the year in the Times and the Evening Standard. Image: isafmedia. Auerswald and Stephen M. Norton, Tauris, Those interviewed were not paid for their interviews. Interviews were recorded in field notes and transcribed into English. The research project was led by myself, and the field research was supervised by Dr. Antonio Giustozzi. In conformity with the project protocols, I do not reveal the precise location and date of the interviews in order to protect the anonymity of the interviewees.
Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan
Arjona et al. Initially, it was believed that the Taliban originated in Kandahar in as a religious militant group that sought to bring law and order to southern Afghanistan and stop local warlords from abusing the area population. However, van Linschoten and Kuehn have subsequently proven that the Taliban predated the s and indeed fought in the mujahedeen war. This is also recounted in the published memoir of a former senior Taliban.
A number of Taliban fronts also reactivated in Nangarhar in —05, each with many hundreds of fighters. Interview with mahaz commander no. Britain was the lead nation for the international counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan; however, the British Army quickly realized that it risked losing local support in Helmand if its forces were too closely associated with the destruction of the poppy crop. The British got blamed for it anyway. See Farrell, Unwinnable , Johnson and Matthew C. Also confirmed by interviews with elder no. That is fine in and of itself, but the United States is still embroiled in building a military in Afghanistan that assumes the existence of something resembling a Western nation.
More specifically, the military America has been building assumes a strong and legitimate central government, effective bureaucracies, a lack of corruption, the absence of sectarian division, and a literate and technically competent population of potential recruits. In this, Washington put the cart before the horse in building a military for a nation that did not exist.
It is possible that somehow a state that can control and support the Afghan security forces may someday organically appear in Afghanistan, despite history, but the odds are much more likely that the military America attempted to build will collapse without significant, and endless, foreign support. But Americans have been told for so long that our own military is the best on earth, and is capable of accomplishing the impossible, that it might be hard to grasp the absurdity of this effort without taking it out of the context of Afghanistan.
Imagine for a moment that the senior leadership of the Marriott Hotel chain took a team-building jaunt to remote, western Mongolia. And, having experienced the majesty of the steppes, the yurts, and the nomadic lifestyle, they decided at the end of their trip that the Mongolian countryside could really use a modern Marriott hotel. Of course, few of the roads in Mongolia are paved, it lacks modern infrastructure across most of the country, and there is no culture or economy that would support modern hotels, but Marriot works for us, so they should love it, too!
Of course this is a ridiculous idea, but imagine if the implementation plan made it worse. Imagine that the Marriott executive tasked with carrying out this plan came back to the chief executive officer and said that the best way to execute this plan would be to send the manager of one of the Washington, D.
Marriotts to Mongolia to oversee the effort. This is a fundamentally absurd plan for building a hotel in a foreign land, but somehow Americans have collectively decided that if someone in uniform proposes something similar for building a foreign military, it must be OK. Unfortunately the plan only gets worse in the details. Going back to our Marriott example, it is easy to imagine that Marriott would not want a local manager gone for too long, so they would decide to limit the time any manager spends overseeing the effort to nine months.
Towards the end of that nine months they would then send another manager to take over the effort, with only a week or so overlap between managers planned, but not always executed. Furthermore, given that their primary job is managing domestic Marriott hotels, they would only receive a cursory overview of engineering, finance, or contracting practices before going to Mongolia.
It is difficult to imagine Marriott ever signing off on such a plan, but the military spent almost a decade executing just such a plan in Afghanistan. The difference is that Marriott has interested shareholders and a board that exercises oversight responsibilities. The state of security in Afghanistan remains tenuous, at best. Despite over 17 years of engagement, including nine years of significant military training and financial support, the Afghan government can only claim control of most major cities albeit with frequent bombings , tenuous control of central provinces, and a ceding of significant swaths of rural territory to the Taliban.
The Marriott analogy is helpful for understanding why the Afghan security forces continue to struggle against an enemy that receives only a fraction of the support. Much like the incongruity of a Marriott in outer Mongolia, these headquarters stick out because they were designed for the U. Army, not the Afghans. Today a great number lay underutilized , abandoned , or even never used at all. These wasteful monuments to our hubris have been neglected not only by the Afghans, but are glossed over by Americans who would rather not question the fundamentals of our approach.
Yet they make a good starting point, as these structures assumed the existence of modern command structures, robust air assets, and efficient resupply channels and logistics. But for years, the main focus of the U. Much of this was out of habit. After all, a hotel manager who knows nothing about building construction but a lot about managing is naturally going to gravitate to his or her comfort zone. One can be exceptionally proud of teaching a hotel cleaning crew how to restock bathrooms, but it will not mean much if nobody is working on the infrastructure to deliver running water.
Only 30 children were there; the director had claimed to have Nearly a year after the opening of the orphanage, the Americans returned for a visit. Note: orphans are defined as having no father, but may still have mother and a family structure that will have them home for holidays. An official from Dand Wa Patan, a small sliver of a district along the border with Pakistan, so urgently wanted to talk to the members of the American team that he traveled three and a half hours by taxi — he had no car — to meet them.
Ten days earlier the Taliban crept up to the wall of his family compound and blew up one of the security towers, the report said. His son lost his legs in the explosion. He pleaded for more police officers, weapons and ammunition. He also wanted a car so he could drive around the district he was supposed to oversee. Other officers are more clever.
One forged rosters, to collect pay for imaginary police officers. A second set up illegal checkpoints to collects tolls around Gardez.
Still another stole food and uniforms, leaving his soldiers underfed and ill equipped for the winter. The governor, meanwhile, was all but trapped.
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Such animosity developed between him and a senior security official that the governor could not leave his office for weeks at a time, fearing for his life. Finally, the corrupt officials were replaced. But it took months. Their meetings with Afghan district officials gave the American civil affairs officers unique insights into local opinions. Sometimes, the Afghan officials were brutally honest in their assessments. In one case, provincial council officials visited the Americans at their base in Gardez to report threats — the Taliban had tossed a grenade into their office compound and were prowling the hills.
Then the officials began a tirade. View all New York Times newsletters. In a short but heated meeting at the presidential palace, the Kabul police chief, Brig. Mir Amanullah Gozar, angrily refuted accusations made publicly by Jamil Karzai that he was corrupt and lacked professional experience.
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He added that he was aware of plans by the American-led coalition to remove him from his post. Incident by incident, the reports resemble a police blotter of the myriad ways Afghan civilians were killed — not just in airstrikes but in ones and twos — in shootings on the roads or in the villages, in misunderstandings or in a cross-fire, or in chaotic moments when Afghan drivers ventured too close to convoys and checkpoints. The dead, the reports repeatedly indicate, were not suicide bombers or insurgents, and many of the cases were not reported to the public at the time.
The toll of the war — reflected in mounting civilian casualties — left the Americans seeking cooperation and support from an Afghan population that grew steadily more exhausted, resentful, fearful and alienated. An airstrike in Azizabad, in western Afghanistan, killed as many as 92 people in August In May , another strike killed Afghan civilians. This report, filed about the activities of a Joint Terminal Attack Controller team, which is responsible for communication from the ground and guiding pilots during surveillance missions and airstrikes, offers a glimpse into one of the bloodiest mistakes in It was nighttime, and the river crossing was not illuminated.
The initial report was wrong. The trucks had been abandoned, and a crowd of civilians milled around them, removing fuel. The media are reporting that Taliban did steal the trucks and had invited civilians in the area to take fuel. The reports show that the smaller incidents were just as insidious and alienating, turning Afghans who had once welcomed Americans as liberators against the war. Afghan police officers shot a local driver who tried to speed through their checkpoint on a country road in Ghazni Province south of Kabul.
The police had set up a temporary checkpoint on the highway just outside the main town in the district of Ab Band. All the police officers fled the checkpoint except one. As the car passed the checkpoint it knocked down the lone policeman. He fired at the vehicle, apparently thinking that it was a suicide car bomber. The police officer was detained in the provincial capital, Ghazni, and questioned. He was then released. Rather than acknowledging the public hostility such episodes often engender, the report found a benefit: it suggested that the shooting would make Afghans take greater care at checkpoints in the future.
Members of a C. Members of the unit shot him in the ankle, and medics treated him at the scene. The unit had followed military procedure — first shouting at the man, then firing warning shots and only after that shooting to wound, the report said. Yet elders in the village told the unit that the man, Shum Khan, was deaf and mute and that he had fled from the convoy out of nervousness. The unit handed over supplies in compensation. The reports reveal several instances of allied forces accidentally firing on one another or on Afghan forces in the fog of war, often with tragic consequences.
A British Army convoy driving at night in southern Afghanistan suddenly came under small-arms fire. One of the British trucks rolled over. The British troops split into two groups, pulled back from the clash and called in airstrikes from American A attack planes. After several confusing minutes, commanders realized that the Afghan police had attacked the British troops, mistaking them for Taliban fighters.
One Afghan police officer was killed and 12 others were wounded. The shifting tactics of the Americans can be seen as well in the reports, as the war strategy veered from freely using force to trying to minimize civilian casualties. But as the documents make clear, each approach has its frustrations for the American effort. Strict new rules of engagement, imposed in , minimized the use of airstrikes after some had killed civilians and turned Afghans against the war.
But the rules also prompted anger from American troops and their families. The troops felt that their lives were not sufficiently valued because they had to justify every request for air or artillery support, making it easier for the Taliban to fight. A short while later, a millimeter artillery piece at a forward operating base in the nearby Pech Valley began firing high-explosive rounds — 24 in all. As the rules tightened, the reports picked up a tone that at times seemed lawyerly. This report described an Apache helicopter firing warning shots after coming under fire.
Social Sources and Insurgency
The report included the information that now is common to incident reports in which Western forces fire. There was no damage to infrastructure. No follow up required.
The next higher command was consulted. The enemy engaged presented, in the opinion of the ground forces, an imminent threat. Higher HQ have been informed. Allies like Britain and Germany fly their own fleets. The incident reports chronicle the wide variety of missions these aircraft carry out: taking photographs, scooping up electronic transmissions, relaying images of running battles to field headquarters, attacking militants with bombs and missiles. And they also reveal the extent that armed drones are being used to support American Special Operations missions.