The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon shook the world from the heart of New York. The unprecedented lethality caused and the coordination of events on that day gave a new meaning to terrorism. Yet, it also left the United States of America (US) with a tough decision to make in the aftermath. The contradictions in the counter-insurgency strategies used by the US and NATO in Afghanistan and avoidance of any Taliban insurgence contributed to their failure to achieve their goals to win the war (Peceny and Bosin, 2011).
Following former President George W. Bush’s declaration on the war on terror, two consecutive US administrations followed counter-insurgency strategies that focused on fighting the Taliban in its initial stages (Eikenberry, 2013); a classical shape-clear-hold strategy that was used in the Malaya emergency that prioritised killing over restoring government authority (Thruelsen, 2010). Peceny and Bosin (2011), argue that Washington was not ready to go into war; however, the Bush Administration strongly believed that a military intervention was the “the only way” to defeat Osama bin Laden.
The Northern Alliance, that was once expelled from the Kabul government by the Taliban were the best proponents to the US counter-insurgency; in fact, they paved the way for “one of the greatest military successes of the 21st century” (O’Hanlon apud Peceny and Bosin, 2011). Kabul was captured in just three months after September 11 2001, Osama bin Laden’s forces fled to the neighbouring Pakistan and the Taliban regime was overthrown (Peceny and Bosin, 2011), a short-term victory when compared to the end result.
A reconstruction of Afghanistan was announced as a part of the counter-insurgency strategy to restore Afghanistan’s authority (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000). The Northern Alliance relations remained on a military level and the US developed ties with the Pashtun southern minority in fears of any opposition, or worse, growing support for the Taliban in the region (Peceny and Bosin, 2011).
Although favoured by Afghan ethnic groups and the US, President Hamid Karzai’s, a Pashtun, election in October 2004 was a result of a trade-off between votes from warlords for local autonomy according to the Independent Election Commission (apud Peceny and Bosin, 2011). President Karzai placed some notorious warlord members in parliament, leading to the mal distribution of foreign aid and the latter using their executive power to control opium cultivation, drug trafficking and foreign investment and private enterprises through security contracts or joint ventures (Peceny and Bosin, 2011).
The population’s faith in Afghanistan’s future, in effect, began to drop according to the Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People (Thruelsen, 2010). Increased population dissatisfaction combined with a deteriorating security situation is the perfect equation to dominate local perceptions, according to Thruelsen (2010), and continue targeting urban areas leaving the legitimacy of the Afghan government in question and increasing intimidation of the population.
Henceforth, the plagued corruption only contributed to the growth of Taliban insurgents (Peceny and Bosin, 2011). The number of Taliban insurgent attacks quintupled within one year (Thruelsen, 2010) and operations against them combined with reconstruction and enhancing national police and military proved unsuccessful.
The failed US and NATO counter-insurgency strategies were not the only drivers for the growth of the Taliban. According to Thruelsen (2010), they built a new and modern insurgency in Afghanistan based on a combination of war and religious beliefs, unlike their traditional structure based on ethnic backgrounds, through local networks. Playing on the lack of security mentioned previously, the Taliban were able to move into urban centres to further utilise the lack of confidence in in the central government and continued to undermine US and NATO’s credibility (Thruelsen, 2010).
Theulsen (2010) also adds that the Taliban succeeded in their information operations that allowed them to reach international media before the international forces did.
For example, when a Taliban officer had placed an explosive device that killed women and children, the insurgents were able to spread the story first and accuse international forces (Thruelsen, 2010). Kilcullen (2006) explains that both classic and modern counter-insurgency is contingent on insurgents. Yet, the Taliban were able to manipulate local perceptions and convince the population otherwise. The Taliban information operations were also proven to have a global outreach as the world has witnessed.
The failed Afghan economy also allowed the Taliban to reach out to the public through economic incentives. For example, safeguarding farmers’ opium fields, an important source of revenue, as well as earn money from trafficking was a lesson the Taliban learned from banning opium cultivation previously (Thruelsen, 2010).
The lack of trust in the central government and loss of confidence for a better future played into hands of the Taliban insurgents (Thruelsen, 2010). They were able to continue their recruitment and gain support in 2008; apart from the continued support they were receiving from the neighbouring Pakistan (Peceny and Bosin, 2011).
The Obama administration inherited a growth of Taliban insurgents by the time they had walked into office in 2009. More coalition troops were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq (Thruelsen, 2010); but nevertheless, the new administration carried the same strategy and deployed more troops.
The military, political, economic and social, development of Afghanistan (Thruelsen, 2010) was carried out through means of institution building, providing basic services to the people and training local military and police forces…etc. Yet, the permeating corruption impeded every aspect of Afghan society (Indurthy, 2011). President Karzai’s re-election in November 2009 was covered in fraud; even his runoff victory is matter of question (Council on Foreign Affairs, 2000). He was still favoured by warlords who relied on the former for continued foreign aid that they benefitted from (Peceny and Bosin, 2011). It was the same battle all over again.
It was not only President Karzai’s power that reinstated the warlord system in Afghanistan, however. According to Indurthy (2019), the US relied on and paid Afghan warlords millions of dollars for the protection of NATO convoys; the warlords, in turn, bribed the Taliban not to attack the convoys.
Warlords’ power became rivalled to national forces as a result. Although the latter was better trained and equipped to fight the Taliban, they lacked the motivation to fight (Indurthy, 2011). The US even failed to win the support of locals, such as opium farmers for example, who were not convinced to switch to other cash crops as they did not generate the same income (Indurthy, 2011).
A democratic, strong and prosperous Afghanistan was far from achieved. Warlords undermined the stability of the national government and controlled private armies in their areas. Targeting warlords was not an option. According to Peceny and Bosin (2011), it would have intensified the war on the Taliban and the warlords simultaneously and would have most likely increased a US opposition from the population. With the warlords being in power, the stakes became higher.
Former US Amassador to Afghanistan, Karl Einkenberry (2009), describes the Obama Administration’s new strategy in December 2009 as a far more expensive troop surge to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and their safe havens in Pakistan to train the national forces before their withdrawal from the region leaving the responsibility of fighting the Taliban under the Afghan government by 2014. Peceny and Bosin, 2011 (2011); however, criticise that the administration was more concerned with building capacity rather than democracy. There were some changes from previous strategies, however. The Obama Administration added a new geographical target on top of the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, their safe havens in Pakistan.
Nevertheless, neither military nor civil surge saw any success. The attack on the Taliban governed city of Marjah was of no surprise to the public as they were forewarned; this gave Taliban fighters the chance to flee the city and reappear again carrying out more terrorist activities (Indurthy, 2011). Members of the Afghan parliament also became concerned of their ability to take over the responsibility of the war (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000)
Yet, the administration remained committed to their strategy. Even firing Gen. McChrystal, who referred to the strategy as a ‘bleeding ulcer’ (Indurthy, 2011) or successfully killing Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad did not lose track of the strategy announced in December 2009.
Expanding their strategy beyond Afghanistan to target Taliban havens in Pakistan may have reflected on awareness of the modern insurgent tactics. However, the drone strikes in Pakistan only generated more anti-American sentiments from the public thus contributing to the insurgence of the Taliban in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing (Einkenberry, 2013). Additionally, the Pakistani army needed the Taliban as potential loyal constituencies, thus the Taliban insurgence continued to grow (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000). This left the Obama administration with no choice but to ultimately negotiate with moderate members of the Taliban to fight off irreconcilable insurgents with similar deals provided to warlord allies previously (Peceny and Bosin, 2011. In short, the strategy stayed, but the actors were changed.
In reality, no talks have been finalised between both parties even after the international forces withdrew in 2014 or a power-sharing agreement was established in Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000). The two consecutive US administrations and the NATO have failed in eliminating any Taliban insurgency. The US should have been aware of the Taliban’s new form of power and modernity through the execution style of the September 11 attacks. In his article, Young (2019) recalls the US’ defeat in Vietnam and relates it to the war on terror. The similar challenges of how a corrupt government only bred an armed insurgency is a lesson that was “rushed to be forgotten by the US national security and overlooked what was necessary to win”.
Although a short-term victory was achieved by driving out the Taliban in the beginning, it clearly proved that it was not the end of the war. Eikenberry (2013) argues that the hasty military surge was not in favour of the population. A more effective strategy would be to remove anarchy with security to avoid any growing perception of international forces as invaders. This also implies, as Kilcullen (2006) states, that modern counter-insurgency has become less military and more political (or possibly not military at all!). Avoiding a military surge requires a control of the environment (Kilcullen, 2006); henceforth a combination of political, military, social, infrastructure and information campaign was necessary to defeat the Taliban.
Whilst the Bush administration showed some understanding of Afghanistan’s demographics and ethnic minorities, they still relied on the Northern Alliance to conduct their military surges against the Taliban in the initial stages. Reviving the warlord system and inadvertently placing them into power only weakened the Afghan state and brought corruption contributing to the population’s dismay.
Kilcullen (2006) states that today’s insurgents no longer operate from one geographical point anymore; they can remotely recruit, and receive funding form a virtual sanctuary. Until December 2009, the US and NATO counter-insurgency only focused on Afghanistan. Therefore, modern counter-insurgency requires attention to neighbouring countries.
The Taliban successfully adapted to new information operations for global outreach. They provided economic incentives to unite different tribes and ethnicities in Afghanistan. With the Afghan state in anarchy, the Taliban was to win the war on local perceptions and gain further support.
Resorting to peace talks with moderate or reconcilable Taliban members does not mean that the US and NATO have won the fight. Rather, the former’s office establishment in Doha (Graham-Harrison and Roberts, 2017) only legitimised their existence.
In short, modern-day insurgents are able to gather support and recruit globally using multiple resources (Kilcullen, 2006). A counter-insurgency strategy carried by both the Bush and Obama administrations revived ties with warlords and brought political fragmentation and corruption and ultimately weakened the Afghan state. President Karzai maintained the warlord system by placing warlords into power impeding any political, economic or social change to the country. Growing military surges by the US and NATO through deploying troops or drone strikes were not received well by the public.
As a result, the Taliban “hijacked the public’s dissatisfaction” (Peceny and Bosin, 2011); and growing resentment towards the new Kabul government only contributed to the insurgency that came back to threaten it and undermine the counter insurgency efforts by the US and NATO who ultimately failed in the war against Taliban. “Knowing how to kill people is far from sufficient to defeat insurgencies” (Young, 2019).
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