The preliminary quotes of an anonymous Taliban commander have sent a confusing shock wave through Afghanistan and the international sphere. Speaking to Michael Semple, the UN envoy to Afghanistan during Taliban rule, one "of the most senior surviving Taliban commanders and a confidant of the movement’s leadership" will officially go on record Thursday for Britain's New Statesman. Predictably, most media reactions have glanced over the preview's deeper strategic underpinnings in favor of loose generalities. The following points may be expanded upon after the New Statesman releases a full transcript, but their essence isn't likely to undergo significant alterations.
Stalemate is almost as good as victory
"It is in the nature of war that both sides dream of victory. But the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war. The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect. Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness. To do so would undermine the morale of Taliban personnel. The leadership knows the truth – that they cannot prevail over the power they confront."
Somewhat understandably, the Taliban commander's buzz-worthy admission has attracted the majority of media attention and speculation. The idea of fanatical religious militants losing faith in a divine victory appears to be a sign of weakness, a potentially fatal flaw in the insurgency's narrative. However this commander is simply stating the obvious in asymmetric warfare, and to believe that America can now go for the kill blow will only prolong the conflict. The Taliban's leadership was always aiming for survival - they lost control of most of their territory and were nearly annihilated during 2001's ground-air invasion. They accept the reality that they can't beat hundreds of thousands of heavily armed NATO troops, many of them American, and the massive airpower that they enjoy.
They also know that NATO can't defeat them either, that America cannot kill every insurgent, hold every village, secure every mountain pass and close every sanctuary along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The solution proposed by the Taliban commander suggests that he enjoys a mutual understanding with Mullah Omar himself. Just as Omar has alluded to a regional strategy in lieu of a national takeover, the commander explains what has always been the group's probable endgame: "Taliban are fighting to expel the occupiers and to enforce shariat... If they fall short of achieving national power they have to settle for functioning as an organized party within the country." This practical thinking should concern U.S. policymakers more than a suicidal quest to retake Kabul in the name of Mohammed. A foolish guerrilla movement would exhaust itself trying to seize an objective that it cannot take.
The strategy chosen by the Taliban - dodge a military knockout, infiltrate the Afghan army and police, gradually reassert influence as U.S. forces withdraw and shift to Kabul's political arena - is the only real course of action available to the group. A similar strategy has been pursued by Hezbollah, Hamas and Muqtada al-Sadr, with varying degrees of success.
The commander also touches upon a key element of his boss's plan when he confronts the fundamental nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency. After explaining how the Taliban couldn't enforce universal Sharia across Afghanistan, the commander admits, "If the Taliban were ever to return to power they would face enormous problems. But they are a long way from having to grapple with the challenges of power..." By allowing the central government to remain operational, the Taliban can pursue many of its objectives at once without assuming the burden of governing. Assuming that Kabul does remain a corrupt center of power, the insurgency can simultaneously undermine the government's rural authority and complain about its performance inside parliament.
This asymmetric arrangement of political and military power should keep the Taliban alive long after American hopes of its demise.
"At least 70 per cent of the Taliban are angry at al-Qaeda. Our people consider al-Qaeda to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens. Some even concluded that al-Qaeda are actually the spies of America. Originally, the Taliban were naive and ignorant of politics and welcomed al-Qaeda into their homes. But al-Qaeda abused our hospitality. It was in Guantanamo that I realized how disloyal the al-Qaeda people were... To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama. Through his policies, he destroyed Afghanistan. If he really believed in jihad he should have gone to Saudi Arabia and done jihad there, rather than wrecking our country."
The fact is that neither Mulla Omar nor the majority of his "faithful" wanted war with America in the first place. Anger and hatred doesn't necessarily imply a declaration of warfare; one can easily argue that the Taliban were perfectly content with their own little world. Their nationalist agenda had no use for the consequences of international jihad. Pawns on Osama bin Laden's chessboard, they soon lost everything because he attempted to recreate the ill-fated Soviet invasion for his own ideological gains, forcing them to rebuild the bulk of their organization. Now fast forward to 2012. If the Taliban stay relatively intact headed into 2014 and leverage political authority out of the war's "end," Mullah Omar stands to improve his position from 2001’s disastrous invasion.
Stalemate is almost as good as victory for a lowly insurgent. The same cannot be said of the super-powered conventional force that expected quick victory and total hegemony.