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.