Brian M Downing
Fighting in Afghanistan is seasonal. Although recent warm winters have allowed the war to continue into winter months, most fighting takes place from spring to fall. This year’s fighting season began with considerable dread. The Taliban seemed on the verge of taking Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south. Major drives were expected in other parts of the country.
The Afghan army (ANA) has taken high casualties in recent years and desertion rates are ominous. Overused special forces units are weak. American commanders who’ve been upbeat over previous years are requesting reintroduction of American and western forces. Otherwise large amounts of territory will be lost.
The fighting season is coming to a close. The Taliban have taken several districts but no large expanses. The ANA hasn’t folded. Western troops haven’t conducted significant ground operations. Why haven’t the Taliban accomplished more?
The Afghan army isn’t showing improved effectiveness. Its officer corps remains corrupt and incompetent. Ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and northerners persist. Logistics are so poor that isolated positions have to surrender. Special forces continue to take on the bulk of the fighting, which requires them to be shuttled between contested areas. The Taliban have not been deterred by the ANA.
The United States, Britain, and other NATO countries have sent troops back into Afghanistan. They are chiefly training Afghan soldiers in rear areas but also advising them on ground operations. While western special forces units have occasionally battled the enemy, engagements are brief and rare.
Nonetheless, the possibility of having to take on hundreds of western troops, perhaps swiftly airlifted in, may be deterring the Taliban from concentrating the thousands of troops needed for major drives, especially those seeking to seize and hold provincial capitals.
More importantly in deterring Taliban troop concentrations has been the remarkable rise in American and allied airstrikes. The levels for this year are on pace to be four times those of the previous two years combined. Of course, greater reliance on airpower brings more civilian casualties which work to the Taliban’s advantage.
Inside the Taliban
Offensive capabilities may be less than they were a few years ago. First, past Taliban operations have been in limited areas, mostly along the Af-Pak frontier. Now, however, operations are attempted well north of Pakistan, close to Kabul and as far away as Kunduz near the border with Uzbekistan.
This presents logistical troubles. The transition from guerrilla raids to large-scale operations isn’t easy. Getting weapons and munitions from the Af-Pak region to troops hundreds of miles away calls for specialized skills and reliable transports. Logistical problems will of course be aggravated by drone surveillance and ground intelligence.
Second, the Taliban may be rent by friction in leadership councils. The death of Mullah Omar did not lead to a smooth succession. The movement has always had divisions between a wing favoring an internationalist agenda and another focused on Afghanistan. The growing presence of ISIL in Afghanistan may be deepening this division. Some Taliban bands fight against ISIL, others fight alongside it. Impending defeat in Syria and Iraq is leading to an influx of ISIL fighters whose stance on the issue is clear.
One of the more critical US intelligence snafus in recent years was failure to recognize Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. The country’s generals provide them with arms, intelligence, and safe havens. This may be changing.
China has extensive interests in Afghanistan’s natural resources and wants to extract and export them via routes running north, south, and west. The Taliban hinder production and encourage Islamist militancy which is taking hold in Central Asia and western China. Beijing’s frustration may be serving a critical role in weakening the Taliban’s offensive this year.
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.