The US and allied forces, much like the erstwhile USSR, have become a victim of the asymmetric warfare that the hills and difficult terrain of Afghanistan facilitate. While for the intervening forces the Afghan theater provided a limited-war scenario linked with certain political outcomes, it presented a total-war scenario for the insurgents, who considered the war as the determinant of the very question of their survival.
Afghan insurgents have proved former US diplomat and politician Henry Kissinger’s maxim, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win.”
The continuing stalemate in the Afghan war implies that the Taliban are winning the battle. The insurgent group has only had to conduct a protracted war of attrition and wait out the American will to stay in Afghanistan. The tactical advantages of the asymmetric war also allowed the insurgents to respond effectively to predictable attacks by leaving the area under aerial and artillery bombardment and come back after the pro-government forces had returned to their bases. On the other hand, the insurgents’ unpredictable offensives dampened the patience of the government forces.
Apart from the advantages of geography and the tactics of asymmetric warfare, Afghanistan has witnessed gradual erosion of support for the government forces backed by the US and allied forces and swelling of the support base of the insurgents for reasons such as civilian casualties, unemployment and corruption. Each year civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces kept increasing. Figures released by one of the latest UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports covering the period from January 1 to September 30 ascribed 2,348 civilian casualties (1,149 killed and 1,199 injured) to pro-government forces, a 26% increase from the same period in 2018.
Meanwhile as the progress of liberal democracy failed to have much impact beyond Kabul, the Taliban movement was strengthened by strategies such as tapping into nationalist feelings and creation of employment opportunities by running a shadow economy – production and trade of opium.
Most Pashtuns live in the countryside and have remained susceptible to the Taliban’s narrative of fighting against foreign occupation, as the group’s appeals were able to tap into Pashtun conservatism, which is embedded in the notions of national honor and pride and defending the country from foreign occupation at any costs. The insurgent group in its attempts to evoke the age-old Afghan pride in the country’s honor and independence among the rural masses revived and instilled the memories as to how their efforts and struggle won their country the much-prized independence against the British Empire in the 19th century and against the Soviets in the 20th century. Oral poetry, stories and songs became the insurgent group’s mode of communication in transmitting such messages to rural people who are largely illiterate.
The Taliban’s support base among the Pashtuns runs deeper than their actual number in Afghanistan. While about 40% of the Afghans are Pashtuns, Pakistan is home to more Pashtuns than Afghanistan. The Durand Line separates the Pashtuns of these two countries and those on the Pakistani side of the border have looked upon and assisted the Taliban’s insurgency as a legitimate struggle for independence from foreign occupation.
The Afghan Army was dominated by ethnic groups from northern Afghanistan and encountered formidable obstacles in fighting insurgency in southern Afghanistan – the stronghold of the Taliban. Soldiers not only needed to communicate through interpreters hired for the Americans, the historical rifts between the ethnic groups in the north and south led to them to be looked upon as outsiders by local residents. Drives to include Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan through enhanced quotas did not succeed.
Unemployment and corruption
However, long years of foreign intervention and endemic unemployment have helped the Taliban expand their base. A new generation of local commanders from ethnic groups of northern Afghanistan has been attracted by the Taliban’s offers of jobs and have joined the movement despite historical animosities. For instance, many Taliban fighters in Badakhshan province are now drawn from the Tajik ethnic group. This apart, a perception of triumph that the insurgent group has generated among fighters of other ethnic groups also induces them to join the Taliban movement.
It needs to be recalled how the long years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gradually strengthened a perception among the troops drawn from the non-Russian Soviet republics that the people they were fighting against were more similar to them (shared common identities) than the Russians. The Afghan war accentuated ethnic unrest within the Soviet army and went a long way in discrediting it. The reliability of Central Asian soldiers began to be questioned and they were often removed from active combat duties in Afghanistan.
Thus it is not far-fetched to believe that the Afghans would appreciate each other’s identity more if a sense of occupation by foreign powers were generated with the collapse of the economy accompanied by rising levels of unemployment and corruption. The Soviet invasion fused Islamic ideology with the cause of national liberation, and thousands of officers and soldiers of the Afghan Army defected to the mujahideen, and the insurgents seized hundreds of government outposts, most of which had been abdicated by defecting soldiers.
Corrupt practices have continued to sap the strength of the Afghan Army. There have been reports of non-existent soldiers on the payrolls despite frequent desertions and absences – a practice that has been sustained by endemic corruption in the Afghan governance system. High casualty rates within the Afghan Army have led many to leave. Afghan forces were not properly prepared to fight a long war of attrition and suffered from casualties, losses, and low morale. The numbers of actual soldiers were much smaller in proportion to the population of areas to be defended.
According to World Bank estimates, Afghan population growth is so high that it needs an expanded and sustainable economy to absorb the youth bulge. However, the economy is dominated by massive aid and assistance and an informal and parallel economy – opium production. The Taliban not only earn millions of dollars a year through the opium trade, the country continues to subsist from the large amounts of money made from opium production, creating “600,000 full-time jobs” for its citizens. The American objective of “hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances,” as General John Nicholson has said, could not be successful without provision of an alternative and sustainable source of employment.
It is worth recalling how the Soviets’ policy of destroying agriculture and depopulating the countryside alienated them from the rural masses. The counternarcotics effort of the US “has just been a total failure,” John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said at the Wilson Center in Washington in November.
The Taliban’s control over opium production and trade allowed it a disproportional sway in the rural areas and the group has been able to run a parallel government with a continuous flow of resources, whereas Afghan government’s reach in many local areas remained non-existent. While the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s 2018 report referred to failures in building a consensus among the members of the US-led coalition and the Afghan government on the importance of this trade in defeating the insurgency, the US despite several attacks and raids failed to curb it.
Many Afghans place nationalism above all other ideas and ideologies, and to uphold national pride and honor people rose above ideologies and ambitions to bring territorial incursions of British and Russian Empires and later the Soviet Union to a halt and raised formidable obstacles as and when the US and NATO forces behaved like occupying forces. Disparate local identities usually got transformed into a unifying national identity at the time of threat to the country.