By Arun Anand
This is 27th part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 27th part-
The Taliban of 2021 was different from Taliban of 2001 in terms of military strategy. Benjamin Jensen, senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council has analyzed what he calls the ‘Operation art’ of the Taliban.
He says, “This Taliban is now adept at integrating military and non-military instruments of power in pursuit of its political objectives.”
He adds, “The Afghan government didn’t lose the fight because most US military forces withdrew from the country. Instead, the government’s troops were outmaneuvered by a more adaptive military organization. The Taliban delineated specific objectives and lines of effort to hollow out the Afghan security forces and conduct a strategic encirclement of Kabul designed to force the government to capitulate.”1
Over time, the Taliban has evolved into a military group capable of advancing along multiple lines of effort. The shadowy insurgent network deft at executing rural ambushes and planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been replaced by a complex organization managing as many as 80,000 fighters who are even more skilled at using social media than AK-47s. Their operational art combines information operations, including appeals from tribal elders alongside text messages and Twitter, with decentralized orders that allow local commanders who know the terrain and politics in their areas to identify opportunities for taking the initiative. When Taliban forces achieve military success, they reinforce those advances with mobile reserve exploitation forces—hordes of commandos on motorcycles—allowing the group to maintain tempo on the battlefield.2
David Zucchino outlined the Taliban’s strategy in The New York Times, “The Taliban adopted dual strategy of coercion and persuasion. The militants cut multiple surrender deals that handed them bases and ultimately entire provincial command centers, culminating in a stunning military blitz…. that put the militants back in power two decades after they were defeated by the United States and its allies.”3
“The negotiated surrenders were just one element of a broader Taliban strategy that captured heavily defended provincial capitals with lightning speed, and saw the insurgents walk into the capital, Kabul, (on 15 August, 2021) with barely a shot fired. It was a campaign defined by both collapse and conquest, executed by patient opportunists,” he adds
Each surrender, small or large, handed the Taliban more weapons and vehicles — and, vitally, more control over roads and highways, giving insurgents freedom to move rapidly and collect the next surrenders as the security forces were progressively cut off from ammunition, fuel, food and salaries. Each victory also added to a growing sense of inevitability that the Taliban would eventually prevail, especially after the militants poured so many resources into winning the north, a traditional stronghold of anti-Taliban militias. As those outposts and districts fell, the Taliban gained important propaganda victories, quickly spreading the word that they could overcome even dogged resistance, and would keep their word to allow soldiers and policemen to walk away with their lives. The result was a lopsided fight between an adaptable and highly mobile insurgent juggernaut, and a demoralized government force that had been abandoned by its leaders and cut off from help. Once the first provincial capital city surrendered this month, the big collapses came as fast as the Taliban could travel.4
The Taliban triumph came just four months after President Biden announced on April 14 that he would honor a deal with the Taliban signed by the Trump Administration to withdraw all American troops beginning May 1. The announcement sank the morale of already beleaguered security forces and emboldened the Taliban, which had failed to honor most pledges under the February 2020 agreement. The Taliban seized the advantage in May, crushing government troops now forced to defend themselves, with only an occasional long-distance American airstrike to help hold off Taliban surges. The militants quickly expanded their control among the country’s 400-odd districts from 77 on April 13 to 104 on June 16 to 223 on Aug. 3, according to the Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The Taliban also received money, supplies and support from Pakistan, Russia and Iran, analysts said. That included 10,000 to 20,000 Afghan volunteers sent from Pakistan, a Taliban safe haven, and thousands more Afghan villagers who joined the militants when it became clear they were winning, said Antonio Giustozzi, a London-based analyst who has written several books about Afghanistan. The volunteers swelled Taliban ranks to more than 100,000 fighters from most analysts’ estimates of 60,000 to 70,000, Mr. Giustozzi said. That was more than enough to crush a government force listed at 300,000 on paper but hollowed out by corruption, desertion and a staggering casualty rate — U.S. officials have said that perhaps only a sixth of that total was in the fight this year. The key to victory, Mr. Giustozzi and other analysts said, was the Taliban’s plan to threaten and cajole security forces and government officials into surrendering, first at the checkpoint and outpost level, then the district and provincial level as they swept through the countryside.5
According to Jensen, to achieve their objective, the Taliban’s military campaign relied on four lines of effort:
Isolating the Afghan military
The collapse of the Afghan security forces was a result of operational-level isolation. In US Army doctrine, isolation involves sealing off an enemy both physically and psychologically from its base of support—denying them freedom of movement and preventing reinforcement. The Taliban took a deliberate approach to isolating its foe at the operational level for more than eighteen months by taking advantage of fundamental weaknesses in the posture of Afghan security forces.
Initially, the Afghan government focused on holding terrain through checkpoints and small outposts scattered across the country. From a political standpoint, this posture allowed Ghani, who struggled to win broad-based political support, to appeal to different political groups and say he was denying the Taliban terrain.
But the military reality was the opposite: The approach dispersed units across the country and rendered them unable to mutually reinforce one another. The Taliban exploited this vulnerability, disrupting ground lines of communication in an effort to further isolate the checkpoints and set the conditions for the defeat of Afghan forces. As the checkpoints became dependent on getting new supplies by air, resupply missions strained an already overstretched Afghan Air Force. As a result, maintenance issues grounded more aircraft than anti-aircraft fire did.
The net result was a series of outposts where Afghan forces were often without food, water, or ammunition, breeding discontent, disillusionment, and a broken air force to boot.
Targeting cohesion through threats and texts
With Afghan security forces—which likely outnumbered the Taliban by three to one—isolated, the Taliban increased activities along a second line of effort: the use of tailored propaganda and information operations to undermine morale and cohesion. Morale and the will to fight are critical intangibles in war—as practitioners ranging from Sun Tzu to Napoleon have observed. The Taliban further sealed off physically isolated Afghan security forces through a sophisticated psychological-warfare campaign.
The insurgents flooded social media with images that offered surrounded Afghan security forces a Hobson’s choice: Surrender and live—or die and wonder if the Taliban will kill your family next. More than 70 percent of the Afghan population has access to cell phones, and the Taliban has adapted accordingly—using modern, Russian-style information warfare that deploys fake accounts and bots to spread its messages and undermine the Afghan government.
The group combined the new with the old as well, using appeals from tribal elders alongside text messages to compel Afghan security forces to surrender. As outposts crumbled, the Taliban sustained its momentum on the battlefield using captured military equipment not only to resupply its forces but also to exploit images of the surrender for additional propaganda.
Put yourself in the shoes of an Afghan soldier: You are in a combat outpost, running out of food and ammunition, fighting for an unpopular government, and forced to pay bribes due to endemic corruption. As you look at your cell phone, all you see are images of fellow soldiers surrendering. Even if you opt to fight, your morale and will to fight have been undermined.
Practicing a new form of terror: kill and compel
The Taliban used terror to further undermine confidence in the government and degrade Kabul’s ability to fight. Whereas the insurgents once relied on high-value attacks using vehicle-borne IEDs to terrorize the population and strike at the government, in the lead-up to this latest campaign they shifted their tactics to a war in the shadows that proved more effective in undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Over the last two years, the Taliban has employed a covert assassination campaign to target civil-society leaders and key military personnel such as pilots. The intermediate military objective was twofold. First, it amplified the Taliban’s strategic messaging that Ghani’s regime could not secure Afghanistan. Everyone knew the Taliban was behind most of the assassinations, but the fact that it didn’t take credit for them made the killings seem more insidious. Second, the best way to destroy an air force is on the ground. Lacking sophisticated air-defense weapons, the Taliban opted to undermine the Afghan Air Force by killing pilots in their homes—a crude but effective variant of the practice of high-value individual targeting. These attacks were designed to compel other Afghan pilots to abandon their posts.
Negotiating to buy time and constrain military power
The Taliban integrated diplomacy with its military campaign in a way that both Afghan security forces and the United States struggled to replicate. War is a continuation of politics. Any battlefield activity in which the operational logic isn’t connected to clearly defined political objectives will prove self-defeating.
The Taliban took advantage of the peace deal negotiated largely bilaterally between its representatives and the United States under former President Donald Trump. In excluding the Afghan government, the agreement undermined the Ghani administration politically and made it difficult to maintain unity of effort between partners in the counterinsurgency campaign. The Taliban used the cover of the peace deal to move into position across the country, surrounding key districts and provincial centers, while also using the negotiation process to limit US military power. Each round of diplomatic talks constrained America’s ability to attack Taliban targets. 6
According to Jensen, “If there was a critical turning point in the conflict, it was the peace deal signed under Trump: Without it, the Taliban would have struggled to isolate the Afghan military and set the conditions for its rapid advance on Kabul. Likewise, the deal signaled to regional actors that they needed to hedge their bets and start making provisions for the end of the Ghani regime in Afghanistan.”
(To be continued)