Analysis: Military spokesman mocks Taliban video, but exposes US lack of understanding of the enemy

Yesterday, Colonel Dave Butler, the top spokesman for US Forces -Afghanistan and Resolute Support Mission, mocked a Taliban video that shows its so-called “commandos” conducting training, and ridiculed the group as a “global internet joke.” Butler’s tweet has since been deleted. His tweet highlights a lack of seriousness and understanding about the threat posed by the Taliban that seems to be pervasive throughout the upper echelons of the US military.

Butler’s deleted tweet referred to this juvenile article at The Military Times, entitled Bring it on! New Taliban video shows intense training for cheer squad competition. To his credit, Butler acknowledged that there is little funny about the Taliban killing people. He then referred to the Taliban as a “global internet joke” because he and the very unserious Military Times think the video is ridiculous.

Bulter and many others think the Taliban’s activities in the video make them look silly. Fair enough. But they are missing the deeper problems that this video highlights, some of which are listed below, in no particular order:

You are not the intended audience. The Taliban does not publish videos like this with Westerners as the primary audience. These videos are not in English nor are they subtitled. The intended audience is Taliban supporters and potential recruits. While some Westerners may think videos such as the one mocked by Butler look funny, these videos are effective as propaganda, fundraising, and recruiting tools. The Taliban is giving the message to Afghans, Pakistanis, and anyone willing to join their ranks that it is organized and providing real training. And the Taliban is showing its donors that they are getting bang for their bucks.

These camps produce killers and an effective Taliban military. While the training may not live up to the standards of Western militaries, the camps, such as the one seen in the commandos video, churn out fighters who are what I call Afghan good enough: they are good enough to go toe to toe with the Afghan military and police. The camps produce effective fighters who kill dozens of Afghan security personnel a day, launch suicide attacks on civilian, police, and military installations, and assassinate high-level Afghan officials. There is a reason the Taliban currently controls 13% of Afghanistan’s districts and contests another 49%.

Training in Afghanistan or Pakistan under the noses of USFOR-A. We can laugh all we like at Taliban fighters jumping through flaming hoops and dueling with sticks (Want a laugh? Watch US Army soldiers dueling with pugil sticks), but the reality is the Taliban, after 17 years of war, is training its fighters in the open, in either Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or, most likely, in both countries, without fear of reprisal. US Forces Afghanistan and Resolute Support have been unable to stop this. In Afghanistan, the Taliban runs these camps in areas that it controls. In Pakistan, the US military is powerless to act and instead has groveled to the Pakistani military for help that will never come, even as the Pakistan military sponsors the killing of US soldiers.

Desperate to surrender to a joke. The Taliban is such a “global internet joke” that the US government is desperate to cut a deal with it and leave Afghanistan to its predations. Even US Forces-Afghanistan says it can not defeat the Taliban. It stopped trying years ago.

Underestimate your enemy at your peril. “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat,” Sun Tzu wisely said. There is a reason (many actually) that after 17 years of war, the US wants out of Afghanistan. One of them is that many US military leaders, policy makers, and intelligence officials have failed to take the Taliban seriously, refusing to accept that its ideological motivations fuel its insurgency. The US has squandered tactical gains (such as the surge) because it has refused to understand the nature and motivations of the Taliban. In his confirmation testimony to the Senate, General Miller, the commander of US Forces Afghanistan and Resolute Support Mission, either couldn’t or wouldn’t, call the Taliban an enemy of the US. So, it is no wonder that his spokesman is cavalier about mocking the Taliban.

An unprofessional attitude. Butler’s tweet reflects what I have detected for quite some time when dealing with public affairs officers in Afghanistan: a generally unprofessional attitude towards the mission and those inquiring about it. The fact that Butler’s tweet was deleted should speak volumes about the impression it made on those higher up.

While it may feel good to joke about the Taliban’s methods of training and indoctrinating its recruits, the last laugh is on those doing so. The Taliban is winning as the US is eager to leave, and there is nothing funny about that.

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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17 Comments

  • Ken North says:

    Succinct, well-grounded, and incisive as always.

    Parenthetically, quoting Sun Tsu is frequently considered, at best, passe in both the intelligence and military command communities, but his overall principles have inexorably stood the test of time.

    The Chinese continue to prove that reality every passing day in their intelligence initiatives alone. Deng Xiaoping’s subsidiary admonition to “hide brightness – nourish obscurity” is clearly well exemplified in the Long War Journal’s enduring underscoring of the al Qaeda Taliban alliance.

  • Baz says:

    They are not taking the mission seriously anymore because they know it is a lost cause now, they realise that taking this so-called war combat mission seriously is just a waste of time just as the Tally realised that negotiations with the warlord mafia regime is a waste of time, so the US military elites are just enjoying themselves making jokes and earning their salary and pocketing commissions while the mission is still there. Having fun while it lasts, because they know it wont last much longer.
    Now that you know for fact there is no victory at all in this war, there is only one solution Bill: Swallow your pride by not bothering to carry on this useless warmongering anymore, and think of ways to normalize relations with the Afghans’ upcoming ultra-orthodox Muslim version of North Korea (Islamic Emirate government) that is based out of Mullah Omar City (former Kabul or Kandahar). There is nothing new about this, it has already been done before when the US in the 1990s normalized relations with the same Vietnamese regime who defeated it 20 years earlier. So yeah, let Tally take over the Afghan embassy in Washington DC, and sign some good mining and trade deals with them before other rival states like Europe, Russia and China get there first. Trump is supposed to be the expert in signing these kind of business deals, especially with these brutal regimes, so just let him do his job.

  • Charles Dorfman says:

    If I were a U.S. soldier stationed in or around Afghanistan, I would take the Taliban as seriously as a heart attack. Our General in charge of this mission refuses to call them the enemy? What are we doing there? This is nuts.

  • Moose says:

    Afghan culture is all about image and reputation. Even when you lose, you claim victory. If you’re caught doing something you deny, deny, deny and then go on the offensive. Humiliation and gossip drive the Afghan psyche. Our military commanders are starting to understand this. They’re redefining victory/loss in Afghanistan and calling it the “South Asia Strategy.”

    You really think our commanders don’t know what the situation on the ground is? You don’t know what they discuss behind closed doors and they’re under no obligation to tell you. For once, get behind the propaganda.

    • Bill Roggio says:

      I have spoken to several high level officers and officials over the years. You would be shocked what they say about the situation on the ground is when behind closed doors. The level of denial and willful ignorance is stunning.

  • Robert says:

    This article is on-point! This has been going on for YEARS here in Afghanistan. The arrogance! These commanders and so called advisers seem to also forget; just because a lot of Afghans are illiterate, does not mean they are unintelligent. This is what happens when “Big Army” is held to lead an unconventional war. There is NO outside the box thinking, only their silly policies and regulations.

    The mission here is to train, advise, assist, and mentor (TAAM) the ANDSF. Our military has a slew of definitions on what TAAM is. The simplest definition of TAAM is to coach. I’ve heard our military commanders here say silly things from “you cannot tell them what to do, you can only advise,” to this is an “Afghan problem that needs an Afghan solution.” Could you imagine the coach of your favorite sports team saying something silly like this?

    Send Big Army home and have the US Special Forces do what they do best. An SF Colonel in-charge of Afghanistan that reports directly to the Commander in Chief without all these Generals and their conventional commands to answer to (RS, USFOR-A, CSTC-A, CENTCOM, etc…).

    Lastly, a happy retirement to you Colonel Dave Butler and thank you for your service.

  • Global Internet Joke says:

    “Butler’s tweet reflects what I have detected for quite some time when dealing with public affairs officers in Afghanistan…”

    Arrogance and stupidity are not winning traits, and that seems to infect almost all levels of the US society.

  • John says:

    Yes-but: While the Taliban continue to fight and are effective enough against the Afghan forces, they are magnificently sub-par when it comes to fighting US forces. Even with overwhelming superiority in numbers, their ability to produce victory on the battlefield is pretty underwhelming. While US elites continue to misunderstand the Taliban and “Leaders” continue to force strategies that make sense only if you’re working for the enemy or are deliberately avoiding a win, the ability of US forces to defeat the Taliban should not be questioned. The key here is that US forces have not been asked or ordered to defeat the Taliban, they are instead asked to leave them alone or arrest them when they get really really bad. If US forces had been instructed to make war on the Taliban, this war would have ended years ago. The Taliban have been largely left to do as they wished by US forces in Afghanistan, and let’s not even mention the ISAF soldiers, affectionately referred to by US forces as wearing a patch that means “I Saw Americans Fighting”. Not because those soldiers can’t fight, but because their respective Governments generally won’t allow them to. It’s been policing and “nationbuilding” from day one, not war. If you need some segment of the Afghan population to point to and say “they can fight”, look at the Ghilzai Pashtu, those folks are hands down tough as nails. But they aren’t usually “Taliban”, that’s usually the softer Durrani. The point is that Western Nations haven’t actually gone to war in Afghanistan, they’ve just set up some bases and dropped some gold in there to see what the locals would do. Turns out the locals just want more gold.

    • Bill Roggio says:

      John, here’s another for ISAF that I heard used a lot:

      I Suck At Fighting.

      And that sums up ISAF as a whole, which had fighting capacity but lacked the will to fight.

      Resolute Support, or RS, is commonly referred to as:

      aRSe

      As to your point, I don’t disagree. All the more reason that Butler shouldn’t be laughing at Taliban videos…

  • Reader says:

    Bill,

    In some news article from the last few days, the Taliban said they want a diplomatic and trade relationship with the US. What are your thoughts on this? We are friends and now strategic allies with Vietnam. Nations have much much more to gain in an alliance with us and thats why the Taliban put that out there.

    • Baz says:

      That is exactly what I have been telling the Long War Journalists for some time now since the last few months in the comments here, calling on them to encourage their pentagon and white house friends to start trying to normalize relations with Tally to become something like another Saudi Arabia-United States relationship, instead of unnecessarily making a big enemy out of Tally. Their Islamic Emirate regime are the only ones who can actually bring peace and stability and shatter the crime and corruption to near zero, like what they actually did do successfully in the 1990s. Letting Tally make a Muslim version of North Korea, is an undesirable but necessary price that must be paid to achieve this.

  • Dgeege says:

    Thank you – this is something I can share with Americans who need more information on the topic. The fact that you ensure your publications are credible is appreciated as much as the information you share.

  • Kit says:

    Great point! I hope some of the brass can keep their ego in check.

  • Michael Green says:

    As always, well stated facts from the Long War Journal, the only accurate, reliable and source of truth about the war in Afghanistan.

    I have been following your Website since 2009 and greatly appreciate what you do.

  • RichardL says:

    the US Armed Forces generally have the wrong attitude to the war in AFG. I think much of it is rooted in the idea that leaving would mean that the dead and wounded have been in vain. They simply cannot think of all those who will be wounded and killed for absolutely nothing. As much as I admire Mattis, I believe he is wrong and Trump is right on this.

    Thanks to Longwarjournal for their sensational work!

  • popseal says:

    If our government refuses to or fails to protect its citizens, then one day it will fall to those citizens to protect themselves.
    Until the West is willing to admit its PC multicultural mistake about the primitive superstition founded 1400 years ago by a known killer, America remains in severe jeopardy.

  • Chris Hughes says:

    Great job Bill. The arrogance shown by military spokespeople, not just American, throughout the Afghan campaign has been staggering, given the death toll of American and British troops and local civilians. The Taliban are a force to be reckoned with and there is a bigger and more motivated audience out there for these videos than westerners watching them, silly-looking though they may be. Anyone vulnerable to being impressed by extremism will get what they want out of them and ignore the amateur nature of them.

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