September 14, 2011

Anatomy of the Taliban’s Psy-Ops

With the dust still settling from the Taliban’s coordinated assault on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, a fierce information battle has broken out over the attack’s significance. Opinions range from a major security breach to a minor propaganda victory, to no victory at all. The Afghan government is using the attack to highlight its burgeoning security forces, which took the lead in retaking a 14-story building seized by five Taliban gunmen.

"If that's the best they can do, you know, I think it's actually a statement of their weakness and, more importantly, since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security, it's a real credit to the Afghan National Security Forces,” argued U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “They are the ones that took down the building and took down those attackers."

However NATO attack helicopters flushed out the majority of insurgents on the rooftop, and three NATO soldiers were injured during a 20-hour clearing operation. Kabul’s residents remain unimpressed with the government’s security, forcing ISAF commander John Allen to concede, "I'll grant that they did get an IO (Information Operations) win.”

Crocker, on the other hand, wasn’t willing to give the Taliban an inch, an ideal position that degenerates when confronted by hard reality. Flanked by anonymous military officials in the media, Afghanistan’s newly-installed ambassador disregarded the Taliban’s attack in spectacular fashion. Accusing the group of weakness, fear and lashing out sporadically to keep its profile afloat, Crocker spoke as though the “success” of Iraq’s surge was washing over Afghanistan. Yet the more U.S. officials downplay the Taliban’s attack, the more their own fear shines through their rhetoric: fear of stalemate past 2014.

"This really is not a very big deal,” said Crocker, “a hard day for the Embassy and my staff, who behaved with enormous courage and dedication, but look, you know, a half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away, that isn't Tet, that's harassment.”

“Yesterday’s attack was a fleeting event; it came and it went,” added Allen. “The insurgents are on the defensive.”

Crocker’s offensive rhetoric - equating over a dozen dead Afghans to “harassment” and citing “traffic” as Kabul’s “biggest problem” - could wind up dealing as much propaganda damage as Tuesday’s assault. Beyond this error, the lesson of Tet is that seemingly fleeting events can yield disproportionate effects. Tet was ultimately repulsed at great cost to the Vietcong, but the offensive shocked an American public that had been fed a constant stream of good news. The lesson of Tet was replayed in Marjah when a large contingent of American, British and Afghan forces secured the town a year after U.S. commanders had predicted.

The Obama administration paid a heavy psychological price for rolling out its surge on a delayed “victory,” which immediately collapsed President Barack Obama’s 18-month time-line.

That the Taliban now operates from the defensive doesn’t warrant an argument, but this claim carries more significance in conventional warfare than in the grand ebb and flow of insurgency. The Taliban sits in a weaker position, militarily speaking, because of a blistering ground and air campaign. While in command from June 2010 to July 2011, current CIA Director David Petraeus tripled the rate of night-raids and aerial strikes; thousands of foot soldiers, hundreds of local commanders and dozens of high-level officials were eliminated in a hellfire of U.S. Special Operations and drone strikes. Special Forces were doubled to over 5,000 personnel and an additional 15,000 Marines saturated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the Taliban’s heartland, forcing the group to go underground, relocate east or flee to Pakistan.

Something would gone terribly wrong had the Taliban’s military structure emerged intact.

However military force only represents a slice of an insurgency’s overall influence, and ongoing estimates still peg the Taliban around 20,000 full and part-time fighters. Islamabad has yet to sever connections with the group and may never do so after Osama bin Laden’s raid; a full-fledged campaign into North Waziristan and Kurram, where the Haqqani network has diversified its forces, remains in the planning stages. Despite several confidence building measures to repair the recent damage from OBL and Raymond Davis, Washington and Islamabad’s interests continue to diverge rather than align.

"It's tough when you're trying to fight an insurgency that has a lot of support outside the national borders," Crocker said, adding that the Haqqani network carried out Tuesday’s attack. "It's complicated, it's difficult but clearly for a long-term solution those safe havens have to be reduced."

The fact is that most landlocked insurgencies receive external support of some kind, historically complicating both American and non-American counterinsurgency efforts. Making U.S-Pakistani relations especially difficult, the Obama administration has essentially given up on repairing America’s image in Pakistan. Meanwhile the Afghan government, perhaps the Taliban’s main advantage, has also failed to improve its capabilities and public relations during Obama’s surge. The result is a persistent insurgency, one that survived the brunt of Washington’s surge and delayed the Pentagon’s expectation of lower violence (which it now claims is occurring).

And while the Haqqani network is being portrayed as a rogue branch of the Taliban, completely under al-Qaeda’s sway, splitting the groups would underestimate the Taliban’s overall status.

An insurgency progresses through varying stages of evolution and de-evolution, each time shifting according to the environment and force equilibrium. Although a positive sign in the moment, a degenerating insurgency is readily capable of transforming again, especially if the wider factors generate a stalemate in favor of the guerrilla. Once the U.S. and NATO countries withdraw to pre-surge levels, the Taliban can attempt to re-infiltrate the south in earnest.

By taunting an insurgency to engage in direct combat on the traditional battlefield, Washington and NATO is daring the Taliban to fight in the open, an unwise strategy for the asymmetric force. PR campaigns on high-profile targets make sense militarily and psychologically, as they are more difficult to prevent and can create equal disturbances in Afghanistan's fabric. These attacks are military significant. By assaulting the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters, the Taliban is demonstrating that its forces can attack anywhere in the country.

These high profile attacks ultimately lead many Afghans to suspect infiltration inside the nation’s security forces, Washington’s lone trump card for escaping a seemingly endless cycle of violence. Or worse, Afghans lose all respect and trust in President Hamid Karzai’s government. This wedge, in the end, represents any insurgency’s objective, and symbolizes progress in the Taliban’s campaign for survival.


  1. The fact that the Taliban can afford to be so profligate with their fighters in these kamikaze style attacks is an additional indicator that they have resources in depth. Too late now for a military strategy from the White House. Obama's speechwriters better get cracking with a damage-limitation strategy.

  2. I think it's too early for an annual review. Better to keep the war out of Washington's new cycle for as long as possible.

  3. Westmoreland on the Tet Offensive, 1968, in the aftermath of the VC raid on the US Embassy:

    "The enemy very deceitfully has taken advantage of the Tet truce in order to, uh, create max, uh, maximum consternation within South Vietnam... In my opinion, this is diversionary effort, which, um,he had planned to take place... Yesterday, the enemy exposed himself by virtue of this strategy, and he suffered great casualties."

    Sound familiar? If it does, it is because forty-three years later, General John R. Allen, USMC, has commented in the aftermath of the assault on the US Embassy in Kabul that:

    “Yesterday’s attack was a fleeting event; it came and it went: The insurgents are on the defensive.”

    How can anyone fail to note the striking parallels between these two statements?

  4. Or the parallels between today's generals and policy-makers and the disconnected Westmoreland. U.S. officials claim to understand public opinion in relation to war, but I think the only part that they understand is taking advantage of apathy, ignorance, etc...

    So will the U.S. fight for another seven years, or longer? U.S. officials are on record in favor of a post-2020 presence.

  5. I recall that Westmoreland died maintaining that Vietnam was not a defeat.

  6. My point is that the US Armed Forces is filled with generals and admirals who are Westmoreland-clones. Were you to resurrect the deceased Chief of Staff from his death and lay him side by side with today's generals and admirals, you would not be able to tell them apart. Then as now, the generals and admirals represent a breed of highly-educated, but pliant and unthinking, managers/executives in the mold of Westmoreland, and his mentor, Maxwell D. Taylor.

    Indeed, why is it that every time I look at David Petraeus--King David!--that I often think of Maxwell Taylor?