War & Peace

Can the Taleban outwrestle the government? An assessment of the insurgency’s military capability


The Taleban are poised to bounce back and threaten the Afghan state once foreign troops withdraw – this is the kind of doomsday scenario one hears these days as foreign troops prepare to depart. Recent statistics have shown that 2013 was at least as violent as 2011, the previous record year for attacks and casualties. However, as AAN’s Borhan Osman argues, the insurgency does not (yet) look to be showing any signs of winning – whether in the fight on the battlefield or the one for minds. Indeed, he argues that the Taleban can win on the battlefield only if the future government loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people.*

First, let’s read a few of those gloomy predictions:

The heads of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees said Sunday that the Taliban is poised for a ‘come back’. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on State of the Union Sunday said that the Afghan Army will not be able to sustain itself financially and that she was fearful about an Afghanistan with “60 per cent of the country controlled by the Taliban.”

CNN 1 December 2013

US intelligence agencies warn in a new, classified assessment that insurgents could quickly regain control of key areas of Afghanistan and threaten the capital as soon as 2015 if American troops are fully withdrawn next year, according to two officials familiar with the findings.

Los Angeles Times 29 December 2013

Hard-fought territory in southern Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban after British forces withdraw this year, British commanders and military experts believe… [to the end] Lord Ashdown predicted that the Taliban would govern the southern provinces until local people kicked them out, while the central Government would struggle. “The writ of Kabul diminishes by the day and the writ of the Taliban increases.”

The Times 6 January 2014

Obviously, the withdrawal of foreign forces are already leading to major changes in the war, but are the Taleban really strong enough to pose an existential threat to the Afghan state or force the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to crumble? As AAN recently wrote, with more casualties among members of the ANSF, Afghan civilians and, it seems, the Taleban, (1) the statistics certainly mark out 2013 as a particularly violent year. However, although body counts tell us much about the nature of the conflict (it is now overwhelmingly Afghan versus Afghan), they do not, necessarily, say much about how strong the insurgency is.

In essence, the figures are open to different interpretations. The increase in killing of civilians could, for example, mean the insurgency is stronger and able to stage deadlier attacks or that it has become weaker, more desperate and more ruthless. By the same token, the increase in direct attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) does not necessarily mean the insurgency is gaining in momentum. The higher number of engagements with the ANSF (see, for example, the increase in ‘ground engagements’ in 2013 reported by UNAMA in 2013 would count as a serious achievement for the insurgents only if it translated into proportional strategic gains. However, looking at a different set of figures in 2013, this does not seem to be the case. Often, we find that the Taleban have launched attacks, but have not gained ground. Although the Taleban’s current asymmetric warfare is not meant in the first place to establish an absolute control over territories, they do strive to expand their influence over as many areas as possible. Additionally, there is no strong evidence that the increase in the ground engagements last year led to a tangible progress for the Taleban. On the contrary, the United States Department of Defence – even bearing in mind the data may be spun, the ratio looks overwhelming – puts the rate of firefights the Taleban won at less than five per cent. Winning here means Afghan government forces could not keep their ground in the face of the Taleban’s attacks. And to contextualise one more statistical spike, last year saw the highest number of police and army (2) casualties, but this could well be offset by the reportedly much higher number of the insurgents’ casualties: the annual UN Sanctions Committee report estimated there had been 10,000 to 12,000 insurgent casualties only during 2013 which, if accurate, would make the police casualties figures of 7000 – if they are accurate – look relatively low. It is also not particularly surprising if there is an obvious increase in the ANSF’s fatalities over the past three years since they have been taking over the fight from NATO forces and are expanding their operations. Moreover, the figures-only perspective allows only a limited measuring of the momentum and gravity of the insurgency and how much of a real and imminent threat the Taleban pose to the government.

Impasse on the battlefield: historical comparisons

Looking at historical comparisons is useful here. Two previous Afghan insurgencies from earlier stages of the war, the mujahedin against the communist regime in the 1980s and the Taleban’s first emergence in the mid-1990s, provide some useful clues for gauging when an insurgency becomes a dangerous challenge to the state. There are multiple indications from the battlefield to show when an insurgency becomes an existential threat.

The first indication is the insurgents’ (increased) capability at disrupting the logistics of their enemy and interdicting its lines of communication. The mujahedin demonstrated their ability to seal off some important garrisons from the rest of the country and to regularly cut land communications to garrisons in cities of strategic importance. One example was the permanent siege of Khost city by blocking the Gardez-Khost road; multiple operations for opening it escalated into (semi-)conventional warfare with large numbers of fighters battling against the Soviet and Afghan forces for ground. The current insurgency does not seem to have been able to, or reckless enough to, try to block major lines of communication and besiege major towns. Such sieges would have threatened the security of vulnerable towns and the areas surrounding them. The current trend indicates a reverse development, however. Major provincial cities, once scenes of running battles, with insurgents knocking at their gates, have seen a significant increase in security. This author has found from visiting some of the key cities in the south and east such as Kandahar, Lashkargah and Khost that they have become far safer during recent years compared to 2008-2010. Not only the towns, but districts, for example Arghandab in Kandahar, used as a springboard to attacking the provincial capital, or Zherai also in Kandahar that saw massive re-emergence of the Taleban in 2006, have both become almost Taleban-free. (3)

The second indication of a successful insurgency is a more offensive-centred approach to the fighting. Both the mujahedin’s fight in the 1990s and the Taleban’s first emergence were characterised by consistent military offensives which often involved winning face-to-face battles (4). The Taleban’s current insurgency is hardly capable of engaging in frontal battles. So far, they have rather focussed efforts on hit-and-run attacks among other asymmetric tactics, which can bleed the enemy, but usually not enough to knock it down. A key reason that makes a more offensive approach unattractive, however, is the presence of NATO air power. Even here, the mujahedin did dare to launch regular raids and offensives despite heavy and ruthless bombing by Soviet aircraft. It remains to be seen if the cessation of NATO air strikes will be a game-changer for the insurgency (see AAN reporting on the Afghan Air Force here and here).

The third indication is effective infiltration into government institutions and large-scale defections, especially among the security forces. This was one major reason for the success of the mujahedin and the Taleban in the 1990s. Defection – switching sides – has been a normal practice and a quite pragmatic manoeuvre when one party to the conflict appears to be winning. In the 1980s, whole units of the army would defect to the mujahedin. In the 1990s, the Taleban swept through much of the country as mujahedin commanders switched side or surrendered. There is no sign of anything but small-scale defections among the ANSF or of anything but limited Taleban infiltration into government institutions.

A retreat in popularity

In the Taleban’s battle for minds, the biggest threat to the movement – possibly existential – could come from those rural communities, especially in the south and east of Afghanistan, which have long served as the Taleban’s bedrock, supplying the insurgency with almost all its needs, from fighters to food and shelter. One way of judging how such support has diminished, is the establishment of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) even in Taleban-backing communities. There were initially deep misgivings about the ALP holding together, especially as it was designed to be raised in those very Taleban strongholds. It remains a controversial force – the 2013 UNAMA protection of civilians in conflict report had nine pages devoted to abuses by some ALP units. However, UNAMA also said the ALP does improve security in many of the 126 districts it operates in. The ALP has endured, despite such controversies and even though it often bears the brunt of Taleban attacks. This would not have been possible without the backing of, at least, parts of the rural population. Although the ALP, like the Taleban, has not been able so far to get unanimous community support (it has rather polarised some societies along pro and anti-ALP lines thanks to the ALP’s often abusive and militia-style behaviour), it still represents a strong anti-Taleban – or pro-state – tendency among local populations. (For AAN reporting on ALP including how it was set up and examples of abusive behaviour, see here, here and here.)

The erosion of support for the Taleban in some of their initial constituencies can be attributed to various reasons. One is that these communities are bearing the brunt of the endless fighting that the insurgents keep failing to win. The more an area remained supportive of the insurgency, the more it has suffered casualties and a deterioration of life and economy as a result of the fighting. Realising this probably only needed some time for the local population which initially foresaw the Taleban would win sooner than later. They had not expected to remain stuck in an unwinnable war.

Where the insurgents’ influence at grassroots level is waning, their resilience and recruitment capability also seems to have been badly harmed, even in places that were once Taleban strongholds. For example, the insurgents have failed to stage an effective comeback in districts such as Marjah, Nawa, Garmser and Nad Ali – all in Helmand province – which were once virtually run by the Taleban. NATO and Afghan forces retook them during intensive military campaigns in 2010 and 2011 and they are now mostly in the control of the ANSF. These districts show little signs of the Taleban regrouping. On a more specific level, in one area of Ghazni I have watched closely since 2003 when the initial sparks of insurgency started, the Taleban used to be able to replace dead foot soldiers easily. However, since 2009, it has been increasingly become difficult for the insurgency to find fresh recruits. To take a cluster of seven villages from that area as an example, its contribution of ten fighters in 2009 has dropped to three in 2013.

The attraction of the Taleban’s cause may suffer further as its appeal to jihad has been based largely on the presence of foreign soldiers. Post-2014, this chord will not be available to be struck. The insurgency will be forced to change its narrative for justifying the fight after the withdrawal of foreign forces. It may turn to the residual foreign presence, the ‘puppet’ administration in Kabul or the presence of its old enemies, the Northern Alliance in the government. Yet nothing can resonate as convincingly as the visible presence of foreign soldiers on ground. The strongest case the Taleban might use to keep some jihadi credibility would be some sort of post-2014 arrangement that allows a few thousand international troops to remain. However, even this would represent a minimal provocation to take up arms compared with the heavy foreign military presence, with inevitable civilian casualties, disruption to normal life and detention of locals in Bagram or, in earlier years, Guantanamo Bay.

ANSF not optimal, but fairly strong to keep the Taleban in check

It is true that how the conflict develops depends not only on the momentum of the insurgency, but equally on the capability of the ANSF to confront it. So far, the ANSF has not performed ‘optimally’. As the most recent (September-April 2013) US Department of Defence report on the ‘progress’ of the war in Afghanistan (p 43-52) puts it, the  attrition rate in the Afghan National Army (ANA) is dangerously high and it is still heavily dependent on ISAF for logistics, medical evacuation and other air support. Even so, in the first major test of the ANSF’s sustainability in the face of the insurgency, the 2013 ‘fighting season’, they generally did manage to maintain the areas they took over from international forces. There has been no example of the ANSF losing a single large population centre, although some remote, desert areas in provinces such as Helmand did see increased Taleban regrouping (of small scale, though), according to the US Department of Defence’s latest report published in last October.

The main problem now for the ANSF is not its ability to stand up to the insurgency, but its funding and equipment. Continued funding for the ANSF is reliant on Afghanistan signing a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with US. It is very difficult for the western governments currently backing Afghanistan to fail the ANSF, given the threat of risking all they feel has been achieved in the past 13 years. Yet, they need a willing partner in government. One question is what the minimum level of support is needed to keep the ANSF functioning enough to keep the insurgents off-balance.

The ultimate winner is the victor of minds, not battles

Much more important that the ANSF’s sustainability, however, is the government’s effectiveness and legitimacy. Failing to offer basic functions and services or to clamp down on rampant corruption badly harms the government’s public acceptability and fuels grievances and frustrations. The more grievances there are, the more the insurgency may be able to capitalise on them. It is these grievances with the government that was, at least initially, a major driver for many insurgents to join the ‘jihad’ (5). This is also an issue of momentum: for those who do feel excluded or oppressed, is it worth trying or indeed possible to make life bearable given the current Afghan state?

In the end, it is the legitimacy and inclusiveness of the state which is the main bulwark against insurgency. A government seen as too inept to serve the people or which steals from the people, or is seen to have ‘stolen’ power through rigging the elections leaves it weak in the face of the insurgency. The future of a state whose elites have little collective sense of survival, but instead exploit the institutions for personal advantage looks problematic. Until now, the government has been able to depend on foreign funding and foreign soldiers for support. That support is already ebbing away. To survive, the Afghan state has to be an institution which the members of the security forces believe is worth fighting – and dying – for. To sum up, while the Taleban itself are unlikely to bring down the state on their own, an unpopular government seen as too feckless or selfish would greatly help the ‘jihad’. Even this might not mean victory for the Taleban was nigh, but it could help prolong a conflict in which no party enjoys a decisive enough advantage to bring a halt to the violence.


* AAN is aware and supports the initiative of the Afghan journalists who are enforcing a ban on the coverage of Taleban activities in protests for the ruthless killing of their colleague Ahmad Sardar and his family (see our previous report here). We choose to publish this dispatch as it does not report on actual Taleban activities and had been programmed long before the attack on the Serena.


(1) The source on police casualties is here; see on the civilian casualties the UN report.

(2) There are no exact figures for the Afghan National Army figures, but the Afghan ministry of defence has said there was a 14 per cent increase in the army casualties in 2013 compared to one year ago.

(3) Apart from two incidents in Zherai in which US forces suffered casualties over the past year, the district has largely been safe now. For some sort of a general overview of security in Kandahar, this recent report from Pajhwok offers a useful insight, although not comprehensive enough.

(4) A useful source on the mujahiden’s fighting tactics is The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War by Ali Ahmad Jalali and Lester W. Grau. Originally written in 1995 and reprinted in 2010 by the United States Marine Corps Studies and Analysis Division.

(5) See Sarah Ladbury and Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU), Testing Hypothesis on Radicalisation in Afghanistan (Kabul: Department for International Development, 2009) read here the pdf version. Also Stephen Carter and Kate Clark, No Shortcut to Stability: Justice, Politics and Insurgency in Afghanistan, December 2010 (Chatham House). Read the pdf version here.


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Thematic Category: War & Peace