Can the Taliban make a comeback in Afghanistan?
KANDAHAR, August 9, 2014—Pessimism has infected Americans’ outlook on the world. Nowhere is the tendency more evident or pronounced than in Afghanistan.
It is a bipartisan affair, too. Conservatives seem resigned that a Muslim country will go the way of our other two recent interventionist projects in Iraq and Libya. Liberals are convinced that military power is inherently flawed and can never achieve stability built on democratic principles.
Even supposedly neutral military professionals in Afghanistan are less than sanguine. Stars and Stripes, the semi-official newspaper of the deployed military, ran a cover story last month under the title, “Grim Resurgence: As allies prepare to leave Afghanistan, Taliban appear as strong as ever.” One NATO officer was heard to have said to another, perhaps only half-jokingly, “I hope the Taliban have fun here when they take this place over.”
Of course, recent high profile attacks, including the killing of a major general by an Afghan soldier in Kabul, make it difficult to be optimistic. Near-daily reports of roadside bombs in Afghanistan and too frequent instances of green on blue or green on green attacks are certainly demoralizing.
Those attacks, as terrible as they often are, show the Taliban’s weaknesses, rather than its strength.
By its very nature, the insurgency seeks to destabilize and instill fear rather than to compete head-on against NATO and Afghan forces. It hopes to create the conditions for popular discontent with those very security forces.
Notwithstanding the tragic death of a senior American officer and other well publicized insurgent attacks, anti-government forces are far from making a significant resurgence.
Here are four reasons why the Taliban is unlikely to make a comeback any time soon.
Reason 1: Insurgents die easily.
Lots of insurgents are getting killed. Routine reports from Afghan media sources indicate that dozens of Taliban militants are killed daily, compared to a handful of government security forces. The ratio is probably close to 10:1 in all attacks.
So the general pattern is, Taliban plant a roadside bomb and kill two or three policemen. The Afghan National Army conducts a clearing operation in a known Taliban staging operation and kill 30. With every round, the insurgency loses fighters and weapons while the government security forces gain experience and confidence.
Yes, there is a (seemingly endless) stream of fighters willing to die. But to the extent that the Taliban is training them to fight well, they are wasting time. If they simply use them as fodder, it puts a burden on recruiting. So far the Taliban hasn’t found the right mix to tip the balance in its favor.
And it shows in supposed Taliban gains, which have been a nuisance but have failed to achieve any strategic gains.
Reason 2: Afghan security forces are getting better.
Yes, the specter of a NATO withdrawal looms, but the Afghan Army continues to improve its operational effectiveness.
Reports from NATO advisers are positive. While endorsements should be read advisedly, they indicate a level of proficiency among Afghan troops that take American soldiers years to realize. Skills like combat casualty care, explosive ordnance disposal, and marksmanship are trained and honed daily. The government forces here have some of the best military trainers in the world, and it shows in operations—all of which are now led by Afghans.
They are not perfect, but they are improving quickly, and they are better fighters than the Taliban.
Reason 3: The insurgency can’t claim to be pro-Afghan.
The Taliban has for years relied on a simple message—they were repelling a foreign invasion. Even though Afghans and their government wanted ISAF here, that message resonated for a long time—until now.
With Afghan forces in the lead on all conventional operations, Afghans are the main targets of Taliban attacks. Afghan casualties far exceed NATO causalities. Civilians are frequently on the losing end of clumsy Taliban aggression.
A war-weary population that overwhelmingly despises the Taliban will only increase its support for the government forces that promise to defeat it completely.
Reason 4: The Taliban can’t govern.
In 1996, the Taliban filled a vacuum of leadership, promising an end to ideological conflict and corruption.
Now, they have no capacity to provide basic services. Even if they caused enough instability to undermine any faith in current government, they would never be able to step in and fill the role like they did two decades ago.
Eli Lake recently described Mullah Omar as “reclusive,” a mammoth understatement. For the leader of a movement that wants to govern the Islamic Emirate, reclusive does not inspire a following.
It is easy to group conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan under the general heading of Islamic civil wars, destined to prove the rule that the most ruthless will prevail. But Afghanistan is far different from either Iraq or Syria.
The one similarity is Americans’ penchant for pessimism regarding all three of these important conflicts.