The Taliban’s Afghanistan Strategy

The Taliban strategy in the Khyber is bound to fail, as I’ve said in the past, but it won’t fail for want of trying. Syed at The Asia Times outlines it here, and in past articles (note that much of this is part of the Taliban’s new media blitz now that Al Masri is dead and Haqqani has grabbed the reins for Afghanistan.)

Reading between the lines you see that the Taliban is really incapable of mounting a real offense, so instead they will rely on three things:

  1. Kidnappings to gain press, points in the Islamic “who’s more Jihadi” propaganda contest,  and funding.
  2. Continued Suicide bombings whenever they can find a willing victim (someone young or mentally deficient who they can manipulate to do their dirty work.)
  3. Continued attempts to interdict supplies to Afghanistan.

(More on why the Taliban can’t mount a real offense later.)

Syed’s got some Taliban contacts, but generally what we get from him is what we already know and just what the Taliban want us to see. What’s not said is the educational part.

The attempts to blow the Kohat tunnel, the ongoing war vs. oil Tanker trucks, and the recent bridge bombing are attempts to stop supplies to the US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, as well as to the Afghanistan army.

However it amounts to war on commerce between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and if the attempts actually succeed in blocking the pass (highly unlikely) the backlash will be tough for the Taliban. Not only will they stop supplies to the forces, they will stop supplies to tribal regions already feeling some bite from rising staples prices.  The more they work inside Pakistan, then the more of their base and support structure they reveal, and the more revealed the more destroyed. With the help of Islamic operatives from various countries it’s becoming much easier to pin down their leadership and forces inside Pakistan as well.

While they would like to think they match General Giap, they fail to. Giap had a large, strong ally who resupplied them with more tanks, guns, and ammo than the German army had in WWII for the final push that won. I don’t think the Taliban has that kind of friend right now – and if any country tried to do that I’ll just be blunt and state that they would get destroyed.

They also forget that Giap lost and lost again most of the war. South Viet Nam was still there after we left, and had we applied air support then Giap would have failed again. It was a strange moment in history that created those conditions – that combination of events in the US will never happen again, US demographics alone prevents it. (e.g. While the Democrats have slight control of the legislature they had to elect Conservative Democrats to get there, and anti-war sentiment is nowhere near as strong as it was in the 60’s.) So the Taliban base their hope for victory on the forlorn hope that we will act like we did 30 odd years ago, but it’s just not going to happen, Afghanistan is still largely viewed as “The good war” in the US.

Here’s a hint: When Al Qaeda failed in Iraq, they really failed at the Giap strategy.

Also if AQ and the Taliban are counting on large scale support from Iran as Giap got from the Soviet Union and China, they better forget it. Iran’s playing their covert support role in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a reason, they want to keep both unstable. If they do that long enough then perhaps they can extend eastward at the right moment. Witness the recent pull back from Basra if you need more proof, they aren’t going to go overt and massive in support.

AQ and the allied Taliban have figured out that working inside urban areas of Pakistan is causing them problems, and many urban sympathizers in the Sindh and Punjab have turned from Jihad specifically because of that. It doesn’t pay to rile up the Sindh and Punjab, Pashtuns always lose when that happens. The problem is that the realization is too little too late for the urban areas, and to do anything more there they will have to continue working through students and criminal resources, not the best allies they would hope for.

In the Pakistan frontiers the tribals have figured out that opposition to the Taliban at the moment isn’t wise until the new government sorts itself out, so while AQ and allies might get a lot of visible support at rallies and gatherings, what’s overt doesn’t always match what is covert. They better watch their backs – large swaths of Pakistan are now highly disaffected with the Taliban and their AQ allies. Also note that party affiliations aren’t a good score card as to who’s who anymore, the elections changed a lot of things besides who’s in office.

Why can’t the Afghanistan Taliban mount a reasonable effective campaign?

There are several reasons – the first being the disaffection already spoken of. While they gain lip-service from many, they gain actual participation from few. The other problems are that their key leadership has been destroyed to a large extent over the past two years, and what’s in place is green, or if they are veteran, then they are third or fourth or fifth string. Another reason has been the steady decrement of actual Afghan refugees within both Pakistan and Iran — the recruit pool both inside Pakistan and from without has shrunk. Another reason is the fact that nowadays if you go to fight in Afghanistan, it’s likely that you will face Muslims in the form of the ANA and other foreign operatives in country.

However the main reason is that the Taliban and AQ are flagging – the fractionalization into the previous warlord structure prevents support. The warlords in Afghanistan know that if they actively participate that the US and ISAF will get around to them. It might take some time, but they will get there. Along with that you have the situation inside Pakistan – Baitullah Mehsud is not going to bare his throat to the PPP and others by sending a large amount of his forces in support of a now lost cause. You can forget about that.

One last word: The new strategy is bluster, boast, and mostly distraction. AQ has set their sights elsewhere, whether that’s still Pakistan remains to be seen. The current lull in terror activity could be the lull before the storm, or it could be that the AQ/Taliban is now stinking, rotten, fruit fallen from the vine to the eyes of former supporters.

UPDATE: I might end up eating some crow here if the current blockage of Torkham continues any length of time.