Stemming the Taliban

by Joshua Foust on 9/20/2006 · 4 comments

Hamid Karzai gave a rather tepid speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he said military action alone would not stop terrorism in his country. He then listed “the destruction of safe havens,” which to this point has been a military activity, as the way to do this.

Maybe he wants us to take a more idealistic, “if you build it they will stop suicide bombing” approach? Indeed, while the creation of the world’s largest bailey bridge under combat conditions is noble, I’m not sure what it’s meant to accomplish. From the locals and the US Commander, it seems more like a token than any kind of firm statement. It is a routine story—a military clash between NATO forces and the Taliban result in the Taliban scattered, bloody, and ineffective. The Americans move in, build a building or a bridge, congratulate themselves on “stamping out extremism,” and move on to the next stronghold.

This strategy has proven ineffective in southern Afghanistan. Not only have the Taliban proved remarkably resilient at surviving battles and replenishing their ranks, they have proved to be very fast about it—often within weeks. Even within Kabul, the city with the greatest degree of government and western control, fears run very high that the Taliban is going to take everything over again, and people will be thrown once more to the dark ages.

It’s unfair to blame the military. They are strapped for manpower, equipment, and cash, most of which has been diverted to Iraq. To successfully conquer an area, you must not only seize it, you must hold it as well. With the exception of Kabul (which is at best problematic), we don’t hold ground in Afghanistan. We sweep, then we move on. The Taliban scatter, then move into the vacuum left behind.

A drastic change in strategy is needed. On this much, Karzai is right. But NATO needs many tens of thousands more troops to do it right.

Update: Strategy Page, not an unbiased source, claims the Taliban are retreating. A commenter noted the possibility of inflated casualty figures for the Taliban (which are eerily similar to the “we killed this many hundred VC” accouncements of 40 years ago, despite my hesitance to draw such a comparison). So take SP’s analysis with a big grain of salt—since they don’t source anything, and since I have so far been unable to find alternate sources for the “retreat,” I’m inclined to dismiss Strategy Page’s analysis.

Indeed, all the news sources and first-hand reports I can find show that, rather than retreating, the Taliban are in fact more powerful and far bolder than they’ve been since 2001. Another big quibble with the Strategy Page report (hawked on Instapundit and other right-leaning blogs): the Taliban announce a retreat? Since when?

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Nick September 21, 2006 at 2:30 am

Why does no-one ever learn? Within the past 20 years we have the example of a major power fighting and losing a war in Afghanistan but because they were communists people high up seem we have nothing to learn from their mistakes.

The problem then was not that the Soviet army couldn’t best the Mujahideen in battle or that they couldn’t hold the urban areas – it’s just they couldn’t conclusively destroy the Mujahideen once and for all and couldn’t control the rural areas. History is repeating itself.

Additionally, an escalation in troop numbers won’t solve anything either – how may million did the Soviets commit to Afghanistan? Whilst I sincerely believe that the justification for the current intervention in Afghanistan is a heck of a lot more noble than the Soviets’ feeble intentions, and I supported the removal of the Taleban and the eradication of Al-Qa’ida, events have conspired to embroil NATO in what is arguably yet another Afghan civil war

Daniel Hoskins September 21, 2006 at 7:59 am

Every time I read about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan there will be a comment about the large numbers of Taliban casualties and how quickly they later regroup. Has anyone thought that those casuality numbers might be just a bit inflated? I once noticed a short comment, deeply inbedded in a longer article about how the Taliban casualty numbers were “estimates” because they quickly removed their dead from the battle field. Hum, somes like some funny counting going on to me.

chicago dyke September 21, 2006 at 11:07 am

since when does instahack care about facts?

anyway, of course the situation is deteriorating. as you note, the military is stretched to thinly thanks to that other disaster in iraq, and the commitment to doing the things that would actually make a difference there is moderate, at best.

i read an interesting piece a while back from an aid worker in pakistan, who made an argument that basically, we’re lost the ‘hearts and minds’ angle. the people of afghanistan see no real effort to stamp out the taleban, rather a series of military blunders and cooperation with pakistan, which happens to be where a lot of the taleban go when they need to hide. she says that people in af’stan perceive that “security” is a term that only applies to rich westerners, and that aid money isn’t being applied in any useful way, when there is aid money at all.

how i long for the days when diplomacy, economic aid, and comprehensive policy designed by actual experts in the region were fashionable.

ElamBend September 22, 2006 at 9:48 am

Bill, Has been covering Afghanistan a lot and is feeling pretty grim about Pakistans capitulation in Waziristan. Even if the Taliban were pulling back, it would be to territory that they now completely control and are expanding within ‘Pakistan.’

Previous post:

Next post: