November 1, 2011

U.S. Twisting Afghanistan’s Netwar

Some vanish in the explosion. Others feel the numbing sting of shrapnel. As singular nerves in an insurgency, their pain and absence amplifies throughout the intricate network stretching from Kabul to Washington. Unfortunate pawns caught up in Afghanistan’s cycle of violence, those civilians who perish in U.S. and Taliban attacks trigger the main reaction in an insurgency: the politico-information battle.

U.S., NATO and Afghan forces have yet to put an end to the Taliban’s “spectacular” attacks in urban areas. On Saturday a suicide bomber recruited from Europe drove his vehicle into a NATO convoy traveling in Kabul, killing four American soldiers and five civilian employees, a Canadian soldier, two British civilians, one Kosovo national, an Afghan police officer and three Afghan civilians. A second truck of explosives ran into a UN compound in Kandahar, killing at least three employees of the U.N. Refugee Agency, two Afghan civilians and an Afghan National Police officer. This attack followed a militant raid on the US-run Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) office in Kandahar.

The overall message was clear: the Taliban can strike anywhere in Afghanistan’s major population centers.

Evolution of a “high profile” attack

However commanders have developed a rhetorical response to these strikes, now specifically labeled as “high-profile.” Numerous U.S. and NATO officials will deploy to contain the information blast-site and attempt to black out the Taliban’s narrative. According to ISAF spokesman Brig. Gen. Cartsen Jacobsen, “We see less and less capability to actually face us, so there’s an increased use of I.E.D.’s and assassinations, and we can call them spectacular attacks, attacks that are simply laid on to make it a big story in the media.”

Another coalition official described Kabul’s bombing as an "act of desperation,” insisting that “all of these attacks by the insurgents in the last few months have not accomplished anything military or strategic."

U.S. and NATO information operations (IO) have produced mixed results. Apathy plays a role in the Obama administration's relative freedom to act, and low poll figures haven’t stopped him from extending his time-lines without a domestic response. Surge reinforcements (many of them support personnel) began to withdraw after summer - and after his supposed July deadline - in order to extend the fighting season. The rest of President Barack Obama’s surge received another summer to “take the fight to the Taliban,” and will likely overstay their time-line as well. Meanwhile perceptions of instability have risen or remains stagnant in many areas of Afghanistan.

The West’s response to the Taliban’s PR campaign operates on a minimum of three levels. One of the Pentagon’s ongoing goals is to dumb down the Taliban’s intellect, simultaneously crediting and discrediting its fighting ability. General Jacobson, for example, said the Taliban was adapting to losing its territorial dominance in the south, a truism that tacitly accepts their evolution as a guerrilla unit. He added that coalition officials were still working to determine whether the Taliban bomber had intel on his target, as a spokesman subsequently claimed.

“This could be a target of opportunity or a planned attack,” the general said. “We will have to find out. It might turn out that he just had a stroke of luck.”

These types of statements eat away at the Taliban’s sophistication, with the ultimate purpose of minimizing their influence in Afghanistan. Attacks in Kabul aren’t a sign of prolonged insecurity or the Taliban’s infiltration, but the last resort of a crumbling insurgency. The Taliban’s new campaign does indicate a relative weakening in the group’s lower and middle networks - and a high level of intelligence and information operations. Furthermore, conventionally battling a numerically/technologically superior force is the last strategy an insurgency should adopt. Guerrillas shouldn’t fight for territory that they can’t hold, as this approach quickly reduces their force levels and, most importantly, shortens the occupier’s time-line.

The Taliban has accomplished a strategic goal; many Afghans and international observers believe that U.S. forces are permanently stalemated. The group was responsible for thousands of Afghan deaths and has killed 382 U.S. soldiers in 2011, compared to 499 in 2010. Their annual total won’t be significantly lower than the previous year, and eclipses 2009’s total of 317 casualties. Assassinations have also eliminated key political leaders such as Hamid Karzai and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Afghanistan's political and economic rehabilitation remains behind U.S. schedule, a problem actively concealed by heightened military operations.

The combined effect of these developments will distort the West’s 2014 time-line.

Western counteroffensive targets Haqqanis

Because of the threat to U.S. troops and Washington’s overall strategy (and domestic support), the Obama administration is attempting to physically isolate the Haqqani network on all fronts. First, U.S. forces are beginning to shift from Kandahar and Helmand to the eastern provinces, where military officials claimed the lives of several hundred Taliban over a series of battles. Dozens of suspected “Haqqani” fighters were included in the death toll, as though they were foreign to the Taliban. The eastern campaign will likely dominate the 2012 fighting season.

While U.S. and Afghan forces probe their way along the Durland Line, the Obama administration will maintain its blistering pressure on Islamabad to assist in some form. Hyping the Haqqani’s connections to Pakistan serves dual purposes: drive up attention and justify military action in North Waziristan (whether drone strikes, ground incursions or helicopter raids) and remove the burden from U.S. strategy. If only Pakistan obeyed Washington’s commands and cut all of its ties with the Taliban, America’s mission would have already succeeded in Afghanistan.

The argument could persuade many Americans and Afghans by covering up Washington’s self-inflicted wounds.

U.S. and NATO officials have yet to firmly blame the Haqqanis for Saturday’s bombing, but high-ranking Afghan officials claim to possess intelligence on several operatives. The general theme paints a desperate network retaliating against the coalition’s recent operations, even though the Haqqanis possess additional motivation. For the last nine months U.S. officials have cautiously declared victory in southern Afghanistan. Secretaries Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton speak as though Obama’s surge accomplished every goal, that Afghanistan is unequivocally improving, that the Taliban lost its momentum.

The insurgency has every reason to attack Kabul, not just one or two.

What’s striking is how built-in the concept of a network is to the Haqqanis, only for U.S. officials to market it as something foreign from Afghanistan. The Haqqanis couldn’t be any closer to Mullah Omar’s inner circle; Jalaluddin joined his movement during the initial uprising. These men are godfathers of Afghanistan’s resistance, bonded to the end of occupation, and their networks frequently join to assert control over Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A simplistically complex relationship connects the Haqqanis to the Taliban’s main shura; Omar’s fighters weather the U.S. storm in Afghanistan's fields and leave the Haqqanis to plot attacks in nearby Kabul. According to one senior U.S. official, at least 11 of about 15 major attacks in the capital this year can be blamed “on the Haqqanis.”

They argue that the Taliban “doesn’t have the means” to stage these sophisticated attacks, and it doesn’t need them. It already has them.

Washington’s isolation campaign has no basis in COIN except to understand each sub-network’s function. The West’s narrative is designed to smother any counter-argument without making a point beyond the Haqqanis’ destruction. Neither Mullah Omar nor the Haqqanis will stop fighting if Islamabad orders them to stand down, and will only reconsider if Pakistani officials deliver a sweet deal from Washington. Islamabad can only “bring them to the table,” not force Taliban leaders to sign. One Pakistani official told TIME, "If you set down conditions, they'll tell us to go take a hike. They'll say that the U.S. is not winning in the field and so they're not interested."

The New York Times surmised this dilemma in a recent report: “the United States is in the position of having to rely heavily on the ISI to help broker a deal with the same group of militants that leaders in Washington say the spy agency is financing and supporting.”

Apparently deeming Mullah Omar as necessary to the image of reconciliation, the Obama administration's plan calls to eliminate the Haqqanis’ area of the network. The Pakistani official added, “We have leverage [when it comes to the Haqqani network], and they wanted to neutralize that leverage." The White House and Pentagon have displayed no sincere indicators of a negotiated solution with the Taliban, an outcome that screens a prolonged military surge. Washington’s strategic objective remains the Taliban’s conditional surrender, not a political agreement between Kabul, Islamabad and the Taliban. Perhaps Mullah Omar has been deemed too sensitive (despite rumors of a CIA hunt inside Pakistan), so the U.S. will unilaterally target the Haqqanis before finally turning to Omar himself.

This strategy won’t produce the desired effect of capitulation. Regional analysts already fear that U.S. drone strikes hardened a new core of recruits and replaced national commanders with transnational operatives. Some believe that drone strikes empowered the Haqqani network’s position in the region. Western governments continue to misunderstand Afghanistan's other networks, such as the ongoing Pashtun/Tajik divide in the military and police, and the use of tribal militias or warlords as temporarily proxies.

Dividing the Taliban’s network won’t lead to its conquest - its network was constructed to be divided.


  1. It's up. I have thought a couple of times over the years that the Taliban network might be weakening or even unravelling. But it hasn't happened. Even the FLN in Algeria were close to exhaustion at two junctures. They went on to win. The Taliban are more sophisticated, and probably tougher and more resilient, than the FLN in the 60s.

  2. Tony

    This from Danger Room..The surge fell short.

  3. The inherent problem is that "weakening" already favors the asymmetric actor (guerrilla), since these networks fluctuate over long time periods. The FLN was a sophisticated network of dedicated individuals, so I couldn't compare the two, but the Taliban's network cannot be militarily or politically defeated in the next three years (at the minimum). The situation could reverse in another 10 years but the West is running out of time. That's a general goal of an insurgency.

    The Wired article is exactly what I'm talking about: "The problem is that the Obama team and the U.S. military still don’t know how to connect “Fight” to “Talk.”

    I don't think that the administration (Congress/Pentagon) wants to talk.