Can Resolute Support possibly still not understand Taliban strategy?

After nearly 17 years with boots on the ground, Resolute Support apparently still does not understand the Taliban’s strategy in Afghanistan. Or, if NATO’s mission does, its leaders are being intentionally obtuse in public statements in order to pump its public relations campaign in support of the Afghan military and government.

Just this week, Resolute Support spokesman Captain Tom Gresback claimed that Taliban operations in remote district centers “represent a significant lowering of ambition.” Below is the full quote, from a Reuters report that discusses the fighting in the southern provinces of Helmand and Farah, where the Taliban have recently made significant gains:

“Taliban offensives in these remote areas represent a significant lowering of ambition after their failure to take any provincial capitals in 2017,” U.S. Navy Captain Tom Gresback, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support coalition, said in an emailed statement.

Gresback is parroting the line given by his boss, General John Nicholson, the commander of Resolute Support. Two months ago, Nicholson claimed Afghan forces had a successful 2017 in that it “[denied] the Taliban any of their stated battlefield objectives … In 2017 the Taliban failed to take any provincial capitals.”

Of course, Nicholoson falsely attributed a strategic goal to the Taliban that it never claimed. (For more background on this, see Afghan and Coalition forces prepare for 2018 offensive against the Taliban.)

The Taliban has explicitly stated that part of its strategy is to take control of remote areas in order to pressure more populated areas, including district centers and provincial capitals. In fact, this strategy was explained by Mullah Aminullah Yousuf, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Uruzgan, in April 2016.

Based on the US military’s own statistics, the Taliban has had success: nearly half of the districts in Afghanistan are controlled or contested by the Taliban.

If the US military and Resolute Support truly does not grasp the Taliban’s strategy nearly 17 years after entering the country, we strongly suggest its commanders and its strategists take a history lesson. In his concept of People’s War, Mao Zedong believed it was important to keep the support of the people and fight in rural areas to sap the strength of government forces and extend its lines of communications. The Taliban has had success in both areas; it is always engaging the Afghan public and clearly maintains enough support to sustain its insurgency nationwide, while the Afghan security forces are stretched thin and its bases often are under siege or overrun entirely.

If the military is intentionally obscuring the dire situation in Afghanistan in order to puff up Afghan security forces, that may be even more disturbing. Without a clear, honest assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, policy makers and the public will lose the military’s trust, tire of the war, and ultimately stop supporting it. Support has already waned in some cases. For nearly a decade, top US military leaders have provided wildly optimistic assessments of the capabilities of the Afghan security forces and downplayed the status of the Taliban’s insurgency. Yet the Taliban is stronger today than at any point since the initial US invasion.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Niall says:

    The strategy is this: to do whatever it takes to stay and prevent China/Russia coming in or passing through. Always has been, always will be.

  • F. Seymour says:

    This is exactly what is happening in several countries in central Africa. With Nigeria now in negotiations El Shabaab, a military with around 500 fighters. It is shameful that a country with so many resources, even with massive corruption that extends deep into their military, they cannot protect their borders.

  • Ron says:

    This is the first time I have read what the Taliban strategy is and I thank you for the information.

  • Jim Gant says:

    Bill, Thank you and LWJ for your continued reporting on the war in Afghanistan. It is a bleak picture indeed.

    Jim Gant

  • AC Falk says:

    Bill Roggio has it exactly right on this issue, as he always has.

  • James says:

    Bill, I’ve said it time and time again. What’s needed here is a major and a radical change in strategy. Go after the opium trade. Put the Taliban on the defensive. We need to co-op Afghanistan’s (i.e., take it over) opium production. I guess all of the world’s heroine addicts will have to settle for methadone from US and the legit Afghans instead of black market heroine from the drug gangs and jihadists.

    Also, where are the Taliban getting their arms from? Most likely black market sources. I say find out who they are and high bid what the Taliban are paying and then just arm the legit Afghans. Take the opium production and low bid it to the major pharmaceutical companies.

    Like I said before, just follow the opium trail, CIA. You’ll learn everything you’d ever need to know about the Taliban and then some by doing so (including at least a major part of AQ main).

  • Richard Cavagnol says:

    As a former Marine officer serving as a USAID Field Program Officer in Garmsir District, Helmand Province, and later, in Delaram District, Nimroz Province in the two District Stabilization Teams (DSTs) from August 2009 to August 2010, I managed $850,000 in US aid money. We rebuilt the high school behind our TOC, re[paired the ANP station and District Governor’s residence, and pushed out to surrounding districts to assess needs and funding essential projects. Upon arrival, the Marine battalion commander, stated, “I don’t know why you are here. What are you going to do for me?”The Marines provided grudging support including living quarters and MREs. I was dependent upon them for transportation which I synced up their patrols whilke the battalion commander had two MRAPS that sat because he rarely ventured outside the wire. This was a far cry from my experience in Vietnam where I served as the FO for the first Combined Action Program (CAP) units in Phu Bai in 1965-1966, and later served as the artillery advisor with the Vietnamese Marines 1966-1968. The military has to get it head around how to successfully address low-intensity conflicts if they are going to continue to be part of our mission. The Army Special Forces have it right. I was a student in the Military Assistance Training Advisor (MATA) Corps/Division course at the JFK Special Warfare School and it was one of the best instruction that I have had in my life. These guys are the pros from Dover and they know how to get the job done. Without solid civ-mil integration and cooperation, we might as well fold our tent and go home.

  • Rosario says:

    Bill, can you confirm if Kunduz is cutoff and can only be resupplied by air? A recent article in the NYTimes casually mentioned that. I see the moral flexiblity of Navy Captains has not changed much over the years, perhaps it is now a course taught the the Academy.

  • KW says:

    On the other hand, while we have not won, by keeping a small force in place, we have avoided the kind of collapse that almost occurred in Iraq when we pulled out entirely in 2011. A stalemate is better that utter defeat and a return to Afghanistan being an Al Qaeda safe zone for training, recruitment and planning.

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    I suspect that Resolute Support does have some level of understanding — the question being, how much.

    The problem is, the US is not about to reduce the Darul Uloom Haqqania to a 30′ deep, glass-slag-lined crater that glows in the dark, nor the Darul Uloom Deoband or Zia ul-Haq’s crypt.

    IMHO, there is a possibility that these kinds of inane pronouncements are all the command structure has to offer, and that it too knows they’re BS.

  • Lynn Farley says:

    The Resolute Support leadership is not being truthful, even to a naive citizen such as myself sitting here in rural MA. It is all of a piece with Trump’s desire to leave our war mess in Afghanistan, Iraq, & Syria. Obviously we can’t announce victory & pull out. The Russians did that.


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