More than five years since their ouster from power, Afghanistan’s Taleban have adopted new strategies to battle NATO forces.
Since their ouster from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces, Afghanistan’s Taleban have resurfaced as a more organized and sophisticated insurgency. Many analysts say the Taleban have been able to do this because remnants of their core leadership fled to neighboring Pakistan and regrouped after their Islamist government fell.
Common History, New Approach
But while the old Taleban and today’s insurgents share a common history of fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1970s and ’80s, Barnett Rubin, Director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, says today’s Taleban are different.
“There’s continuity in the leadership of the Taleban from the group that was ejected from power five or six years ago," he says. "But the insurgency that is taking place now includes broader groups as well. And in addition, since that time, they have learned a lot of new techniques and become a lot more politically sophisticated, especially under the influence of al-Qaida and the insurgency in Iraq.”
A New Taleban
The new Taleban, some experts argue, are better at manipulating public opinion through intimidation and by projecting themselves as kinder and gentler than the draconian leadership that ruled Afghanistan before 2001.
Their military strategies and tactics have also changed, says Jeremy Binnie, an analyst with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London. “If you look at how the fighting in Afghanistan evolved, it was very much a guerilla operation against Soviet forces. Once Soviet forces retreated, then it became a more conventional struggle between light infantry forces. It was less about hit-and-run attacks. It was more about frontlines and bombardments and things like that," says Binnie. "Now they’ve reverted back to the 1980s style of hit-and-run tactics, which, when you’re fighting a technologically superior force, becomes a much more viable way of waging a conflict.”
Conventional battlefield skirmishes between the Taleban and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, often involve the use of allied air power and typically inflict heavy insurgent losses.
But Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Contemporary Conflict in California says the Taleban’s tactics are designed to limit their own casualties and offset NATO’s technological and military superiority.
“They do not now want to sit and fight unit-to-unit with ISAF. They utilize traditional guerilla tactics, hit and runs and they scamper before our forces can really respond. But what’s very disturbing is the introduction of I.E.D.s [i.e., Improvised Explosive Devices], of vehicle-borne D.B.I.E.D.s [i.e., Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices], as well as suicide bombings. You saw none of that during the ten years of soviet occupation in Afghanistan by the Mujahedeen,” says Trainor.
Lessons from Iraq's Insurgents
Most experts agree that some of these tactics, especially the increasing number of suicide bombings, have been copied from insurgents in Iraq with the intention of inflicting heavy collateral damage.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor says the Taleban do not need anything more sophisticated than home-made bombs and mines, or vehicles packed with explosives to achieve their immediate objectives.
“Right now, the Taleban movement and al-Qaida are trying to bleed the NATO forces so that people become discouraged. And the political end of that is that the home governments say, ‘We don’t want our troops out there being exposed to unnecessary dangers.’ So that’s really the goal that they [i.e., the Taleban] will pursue. That’s the one that really holds the most promise for them in terms of discouraging the NATO forces.”
Many observers note that the insurgents are trying to drive a wedge between NATO members. They are also using local anger over incidents where civilians have been killed in NATO actions to rally support against allied troops.
However, Barnett Rubin of New York University’s Center for International Cooperation says that is only one of several strategic goals the Taleban are pursuing.
“They are also trying to demoralize the Afghan government and illustrate that it is unable to protect people by launching suicide attacks against police and other civilian officials. And finally, they may try to combine those with various forms of offenses to take territory in outlying areas and create some kind of panic within the government,” says Rubin.
Some experts point out that the Taleban have targeted non-governmental organizations engaged in reconstruction in order to undermine the Kabul government and foment dissent over the lack of progress in economic development.
In the end, retired General Bernard Trainor says the Taleban are waging a war of attrition.
“Time is really on their side. The NATO forces that are in there don’t want to be there any longer than necessary. And they want to be able to put the Afghan central government in such a position that it can manage the insurgency without the help of people on the outside,"says Trainor. "On the other side, the Taleban figure that they can keep up this slow drip, drip, drip attrition warfare until the Westerners leave. And then they can regain their control of Afghanistan, over the government that exists in Kabul right now.”
Many experts say the Taleban will be able to sustain their insurgency in the long-term only if they continue to have access to safe havens in Pakistan.
But others warn that NATO forces, which have recently launched a major offensive against insurgents in southern Afghanistan, are too thinly spread across the country to root out the Taleban.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.