The Taliban at war: inside the Helmand insurgency, 2004–2012
by Theo Farrell and Antonio and Giustozzi
International Affairs 89: 4 (2013) pp845–871
Reviewed by Nigel Chamberlain, NATO Watch
NATO is preparing to withdraw the last of its combined military forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and appears confident that the transition process is going well, with an increasingly capable Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) leading combat operations. A new, insightful article published by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs informs us that the Taliban insurgency shows little sign of abating and is clearly planning a return to a position of power and influence in some regions of Afghanistan, if not the entire country.
Ten years ago the Taliban appeared to have been defeated. By January 2002 the international community had agreed to provide extensive assistance to stabilize and rebuild the Afghan state. By mid-2002, US and British task forces were chasing the last remnants of the Taliban out of the country and hunting down Al-Qaeda terrorists. However, they regrouped, recruited and started to return to Helmand Province in small numbers, followed by larger groups from 2004 onwards.
Following battlefield setbacks in 2006 and 2007, the Taliban changed their tactics. In 2009 and 2010, a US Marine Corp (USMC) arrived to support the existing British task force, taking the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commitment to 20,000 troops in Helmand. In late 2009 the USMC launched Operation Khanjar, a major assault against Taliban strongholds in southern districts of Nawa, and in Garmser. This released British forces to concentrate in central Helmand.
In February 2010 ISAF and ANSF launched a massive offensive to push the Taliban out of central Helmand. Operation Moshtarak involved simultaneous helicopter borne assaults by British and Afghan forces into Nad-e Ali and by USMC and Afghan forces into Marjah. Taliban leadership in Helmand was also targeted by US and British Special Forces in a kill/capture campaign of growing intensity. Consequently, over 2009 and 2010 the Taliban withdrew from the more densely populated, flat areas near the watercourses, but maintained a presence in all of Helmand’s districts, basing their combat groups in the outlying sparsely populated areas on the edge of the desert in Marjah, Nad-e Ali, Musa Qala, Garmser and Nahr-e Seraj.
The Taliban were also forced out of much of Sangin’s Alokozai territory, but their presence in Kajaki and Nawzad was less strongly affected. For a while the Taliban maintained underground operations even in the more populated areas of central Helmand garrisoned by ISAF and ANSF, but gradually their underground network wore out under the weight of the government security operations.
The authors, Theo Farrell and Antonio Giustozzi, set about answering the two questions of how the Taliban returned and why they have not been defeated via a detailed study of the Taliban themselves and their activities in Helmand Province where British Forces were deployed in 2006. Their research findings are based on:
• 53 interviews with Taliban commanders and fighters in Helmand from autumn 2011 to spring 2012;
• 49 interviews carried out with Taliban members in other parts of Afghanistan over the same period; and
• 58 interviews with local elders in Helmand and elsewhere who are not members of the Taliban.
Some of the interviews in Helmand with Taliban cadres and elders were free-flowing, but most were based on questionnaires. Most of the interviews were carried out by Afghan researchers, typically journalists by trade, who were organized in three different teams, without contact with each other. Two experts on the Afghan insurgency, both with years of field experience in Helmand, independently assessed the reliability of interview transcripts. Triangulation from multiple interviews increased the reliability of the data. Single interviews were not used to make a definitive statement about the Taliban.
1. Local support for the Taliban, although somewhat eroded, is still strong in Helmand.
2. The Taliban are planning to retake areas of Helmand as ISAF forces withdraw.
3. The British presence and tactics in Helmand have been counter-productive.
4. The Taliban have regrouped and restructured to some effect with greater support from Quetta in Pakistan.
5. Heightened operations by ISAF and ANSF have limited the Taliban’s ability to strike against them.
6. Taliban casualties in the field may be around 20%.
7. Friction between Quetta and Peshawar appears to have reduced the Taliban’s ability to maintain a strong presence in Helmand.
8. Problems remain with the quality of Afghan soldiers and police, and with endemic corruption in the Afghan security forces and significant gaps remaining in their capability.
9. Heightened distrust between Kabul and Washington has undermined prospects for an orderly transition.
10. The prospects of the ANSF holding Helmand are not high.
The authors found an insurgency that is driven both by a strong unifying strategic narrative and purpose—jihad against foreign invaders—and by local conflict dynamics: rivalry between kinship groups and competition over land, water and drugs.
Taliban resilience was shown to be based on primarily voluntary recruitment and an increasingly local membership profile. While at the same time, local support for the insurgency has been worn down by the human cost of the war and the ability of the insurgency to extract sufficient material support from local sources has been undermined by the success of the ISAF campaign and the increasing presence of ANSF.
The findings demonstrate how the Taliban crept back into Helmand with small vanguard groups preparing the way from 2004–05 for larger groups to follow. By arriving with insufficient force, by aligning themselves with local corrupt power-holders, by relying on firepower to keep insurgents at bay and by targeting the poppy crop, the British made matters worse in Helmand. They alienated the population, mobilized local armed resistance, and drew in foreign fighters seeking jihad.
The largely decentralized insurgency, comprising fighting groups attached to various (often rival) mahaz, has retarded the tactical effectiveness and strategic flexibility of the Taliban. The Taliban leadership has responded to growing military pressure with increasing centralization, the militarization of its shadow government and the professionalization of field units. Not all Taliban reforms have worked. Early efforts to modify the existing mahaz-based structure proved insufficient, hence necessitating the introduction of greater centralization. The introduction of a system of rotation of field commanders also failed.
The researchers found evidence of the growing power of the Quetta military commission and its ability to exert influence in the field through its district military commissioners. The military commission directed the shift in insurgent tactics, which it is successfully supporting through a new training regime. The Taliban shadow government appears to have lost influence in the face of the rising authority of the military commission on the one hand and, on the other, the increasing Afghan Government presence in Helmand.
The Taliban leadership has demonstrated a determination to maintain a presence throughout Helmand, even if the majority of local Taliban fronts are no longer able to sustain themselves off the civilian population as they were doing up to 2009. Taliban in southern and central Helmand—in Garmser, Marjah, Nad-e Ali and Nahr-e Saraj—now depend on material support from the Quetta shura. One commander from Garmser observed that most of his supplies came from Pakistan and he could get only food locally.
In northern Helmand—in Sangin, Musa Qala and Kajaki—the Taliban are able to obtain sufficient funds for weapons and supplies from opium zakat (tax) at harvesting time. At all other times the Taliban are dependent on funds and supplies from Pakistan. Thus, across Helmand, the Taliban leadership has been stepping in to fill the gap created by reduced taxation and in-kind support from the villagers. Despite the decrease in the Taliban presence in Helmand as a whole, the numbers remain high by the standards of Afghan population density, and the logistical demands of supporting such a force in a sparsely populated area and under close ISAF watch are considerable. This suggests that the Taliban leadership still considers Helmand of strategic importance.
The survey suggests Taliban fatalities for 2011–12 at 20 per cent in Helmand. Continued resilience in the face of such heavy casualties may be an indication of the motivation of the cadres and fighters, and the ability of the Taliban to socialize recruits into the organization. Yet the researchers suggest that the political friction between Quetta and Peshawar appears to have reduced the Taliban’s ability to maintain a stronger presence in Helmand. An outflow of Taliban combatants was reported by various sources in Helmand, suggesting a degree of demoralization, a logistical inability to maintain the same number of men in arms, or a combination of the two.
ISAF began to transfer primary responsibility for security in Helmand to ANSF in June 2011, starting with Lashkar Gah where residents reported having confidence in the Afghan National Army (ANA). But problems remain with the quality of Afghan soldiers and police, and with endemic corruption in the Afghan security forces. Corruption has an adverse impact on public confidence in the police, which remains low in Helmand. A high rate of desertion in the ANA compounds these problems. Significant gaps remain in ANSF capability, especially in logistics, intelligence and special forces.
ISAF planners expect the Taliban to mount an increasing challenge to Afghan army and police units in order to erode the confidence and unity of the ANSF. Growing tension between the United States and President Karzai is making a difficult transition process that much harder and the prospects of the ANSF holding Helmand are not high.
International Affairs 89: 4 pp845–871 (Chatham House)