The outcome of the current fighting season in Afghanistan, which started early in the spring and will end before the first snows cover the mountain passes, is decisive for the Trump administration because the premise of the new US strategy in Afghanistan centers on pressuring the Taliban and compelling them to the negotiation table. However, the Taliban have adopted a counter-strategy to resist the US mini-surge and prove that they will not relinquish their military pressure and will thus force the US to negotiate on their terms.
President Donald Trump has given the US military the necessary authority and support to break the current stalemate in favor of the Afghan security forces by relying extensively on air power and special-forces operations. The US military operations started last autumn, and even greater military campaign is expected against the Taliban’s field commanders and special units during the next several months.
While the US firepower in Afghanistan could seriously damage the insurgents’ fighting capacity and relieve pressure on the Afghan National Army, it will not be enough to defeat them, because they have gained resiliency and learned how to avoid direct confrontation with a superior force.
In addition, the main objective of counterinsurgency is to gain popular support, and therefore the fate of the war will not be decided on the battlefields but in winning hearts and minds of local populations. This is where the US has been struggling despite spending billions of dollars on humanitarian, stabilization and development projects.
In fact the new US strategy adequately addresses major challenges and obstacles to victory in Afghanistan such as insurgents’ safe havens in Pakistan and low capability of the Afghan security forces due to nepotism and endemic corruption, but it fails to stress the responsibilities of the Afghan government.
A real game changer in this seemingly endless conflict would be an inclusive, effective and accountable government capable of addressing people’s legitimate grievances
A real game changer in this seemingly endless conflict would be an inclusive, effective and accountable government capable of addressing people’s legitimate grievances. The US military could push the Taliban out of any area but it relies on the Afghan government to provide governance and deliver basic services to the local population.
According to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government controls 56% of 398 districts, the insurgents 14%, while 29% of districts remain contested and outside the direct control of either side.
Before Trump’s decision to send additional US troops to Afghanistan, the Taliban concentrated their military assaults on a number of major cities such as Kunduz in the north and Lashkar Gah in the south. They were able to capture Kunduz twice in 2015 and 2016 and encircle Lashkar Gha in Helmand province for an extended period from 2014 to 2017 until US and British special forces intervened and prevented its collapse.
However, since the start of the US military surge last autumn, the Taliban have developed their counter-strategy, and instead of facing heavy US firepower in the battle for control of major population centers, they have opted to strike the weak and demoralized Afghan forces in remote and rural districts where a military assault is least expected. Therefore, they have been able to make significant strides in central and northern Afghanistan where the US military has few or no military assets to block their advances.
Meanwhile, the Afghan political elite has been engaged in infighting for greater control of political power and have become oblivious to the danger of losing control of the population in the contested areas in favor of the Taliban.
In addition, a lack of effective governance, political decadence among the elite in Kabul, and an increased level of poverty have become major sources of public frustration, which has helped the Taliban sell their narrative to an increasingly disfranchised population, particularly in the rural areas. Also, people’s distrust of the current political process, which has been disguised as democracy but functioned as a kleptocracy, is a serious challenge for survival of the regime in Kabul.
In fact the benchmark for the Taliban victory is to resist the growing US firepower, expand their control of territory in rural areas, and preserve their assets. They know well that the US commitment is not open-ended, and soon Afghanistan will become a hot political debate in Washington before the next US presidential election. Also, risk of a serious political crisis in Kabul, in the context of the upcoming elections and growing ethnic polarization, is higher than ever before.
Therefore, the Taliban’s counter-strategy is to ride out the current US military surge, wait, and prepare for political meltdown in Kabul.