Generally speaking, the insurgent’s job is to manipulate information and the counterinsurgent’s job is to clarify information. Many governments blur or ignore this division as they attempt to fight fire with fire, but the basic notion urges a counterinsurgency force to become the accurate source on the information battlefield. U.S. and NATO officials find themselves trapped within this dilemma, spinning civilian deaths as unavoidable accidents and countering Tweets from the Taliban.
Apparently U.S. military officials believed they scored a propaganda victory after a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Helmand bazaar. As potential signs of the Taliban’s desperation in its heartland, suicide bombings are ripe material for NATO’s own propaganda campaign; General John Allen, the commanding officer of America’s international coalition, announced that the Taliban had "declared outright war" on the Afghan people. However the latest bombing in Kajaki Sofla doesn’t qualify as a pure civilian target. While NATO wouldn’t disclose details, its statement conceded that civilians, Afghan security forces and coalition troops were all injured or killed in the blast.
Allen ultimately crossed the line from believable to unbelievable propaganda when he confronted Taliban leader Mullah Omar, saying he "has lost all control over Taliban insurgents.”
That Taliban attacks continue to claim civilian lives, whether indirectly or directly, is evident across Afghanistan's war-zone. By violating Omar’s “code of conduct,” the unbroken trend provides ample opportunity to criticize the Taliban’s target selection, and many Afghans wish to live in a country free of militant influence. Yet numerous studies conducted over the years indicate an equal burden of responsibility between foreign and Taliban forces, regardless of who starts the firefight. This distribution of blame obstructs NATO efforts to paint the Taliban as Afghanistan's only aggressor.
It isn’t difficult to picture a well-off Taliban foot soldier armed with his cell phone, viewing Allen’s statements and another explosive video in secession. Timing is a key ingredient of propaganda and the general overshot his bullseye, choosing urinating Marines as his backdrop to attack. Although they weren’t ordered to desecrate Taliban corpses, the incident still underscores the challenge of keeping every last soldier in line. Separately, the Taliban’s bombing in Kajaki came one day after NATO helicopters “accidentally” killed six civilians in Kunar’s Chawkay district.
Provincial governor Fazlullah Wahidi told the AFP, "The raid was not coordinated with us.”
Although the difference between an “accidental” and “intentional” bombing cannot be rendered irrelevant, NATO obliterates its share of civilians despite its public rhetoric. Foreign forces remain willing to trade two militants for six civilians in the same way that the Taliban will sacrifice 10 Afghans to kill a U.S. soldier. After voicing their obligatory regret, night raids are staunchly defended as integral to America’s “success.” Coalition commanders haven’t lost “all control” of their soldiers due to these incidents, and neither has the Taliban’s semi-mythical leader.
Insurgencies can reach a sophisticated level of organization that enables them to finish the cycle as a semi-conventional force (such as the Vietcong), or maintain relatively strict discipline (Hezbollah). They can also thrive in looser formations that encourage personal initiative within the group’s ideological boundaries. The bottom and peripheries of an asymmetric force don’t always respond to its vertical hierarchy for countless reasons; in the Taliban’s case, thousands of part-time fighters operating under minimal oversight form the insurgency's local nervous system. Individual initiative is required to survive and rogue elements are common, whether at the local or regional level. Additionally, the Taliban utilizes netwar to maintain a degree of independence between hubs.
Omar and the Haqqanis’ mutual survival could be better served through isolated coordination.
The Wall Street Journal produced a more accurate account from recent interviews with provincial commanders, reaching the conclusion that most soldiers are loyal to Omar. The Taliban has suffered undeniable losses in men and territory, generating friction between lower and mid level commander, but none are thinking surrender. They argue that rogue elements exist just like U.S. forces and, in their minds, civilian deaths are the inevitable consequences of occupation. Maulvi Darwish, a Taliban commander in the eastern Logar province, tried to explain, “There are some groups in Karzai's government that disobey government guidelines. The Taliban are also a group of people, and there are bad people and good people. The bad people are few and they won't be in the favor of peace—but the Taliban will follow whatever the Leader of the Believers decides."
As for the Haqqanis, Jalaluddin joined Omar soon after his rise and maintained loyalty ever since. His son, Sirajuddin, has made numerous attempts on Omar’s behalf to reign in Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The semi-independent network is tasked to Kabul and Jalalabad, keeping each branch of the Taliban plugged into its local and regional connections. The WSJ offers a common definition of netwar: “the insurgency isn't a coherent and tightly organized movement, and its foot soldiers and local commanders sometimes contradict the top leadership's edicts.”
More disturbingly, preliminary negotiations between Washington and Taliban liaisons are spooking some hard-line jihadists and those who have done “wrong things,” in the words of one commander. Not every foot soldier understands the need to build political capital and outmaneuver foreign powers on the international stage, as the Vietnamese leadership did. Allen’s statements appear designed to strike the insurgency’s pressure points by addressing Afghanistan's reconciliation: "These attacks against the people of Afghanistan have no effect on the progress we are together making here with our Afghan partners and will only further isolate the Taliban from the process of peace negotiation."
Thus the general is simultaneously ridiculing Omar’s inability to control his troops, and antagonizing the less-controllable areas of his network.
One commander from Paktia laid down his own red lines: "Islamic laws are implemented, there will be no foreign interference and nobody will impose this Western democracy on Afghans." This commander predicted that the Haqqanis could continue fighting at the direction of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Another commander from Khost, Mullah Ayubi, outlined a plausible mindset among the Taliban’s lower and middle ranks, explaining, "Whatever the Taliban leadership and the Leader of the Believers decides will be in accordance with Islam and Afghanistan's national interests. He is our guide and we are obligated to obey his orders. But if he makes a decision against Islam we won't follow him and he wouldn't be our guide anymore."
Allen’s rhetoric provoke the Taliban’s more independent elements, or turn into glue as Omar attempts to demonstrate his authority. As for his negotiating position, the insurgency can’t that isolated when Western sources are publicizing their negotiating progress - when the Taliban’s leadership is pleased with their results. Washington is also isolating itself by leaving out Hamid Karzai, Islamabad, and Afghanistan’s minority ethnicities.
Afghans remain fortunate that U.S. night-raids, imprecise as they can be, are more accurate than American propaganda.