Afghanistan’s military challenge

February 13, 2009

Herschel Smith at the Captain’s Journal has picked up on a presentation about the increasing sophistication of Taliban fighting, which he thinks “should be considered the most important thing to come out of Afghanistan in the past two years.”  It’s very focused on the approach he says the U.S. military needs to adopt in response, but worth a read even by those not interested in army tactics.

The conclusion is striking:

“Iraq has allowed us to become tactically sloppy as the majority of fighters there are unorganized and poorly trained.  This is not the case in Afghanistan.  The enemy combatants here will exploit any mistake made by coalition forces with catastrophic results.  Complacency and laziness will result in mass causalities.”

Over at, Joshua Foust continues his series of reports from Bagram Air Base with a post fretting about how U.S. reluctance to take casualties has been institutionalised to the point where failing in a mission is less important than losing a soldier.  “As of late, I’ve been fighting this nagging feeling that, from command on down, there is no concerted desire to accomplish the mission, just a desire to finish one’s tour and head home and screw whoever has to pick up the pieces later,” he writes.

As discussed before on this blog, this reluctance to take casualties undermines any counter-insurgency strategy which would require troops to try to win hearts and minds by getting out of large bases and spreading out into the villages (the argument being that the more you protect your troops, the less secure you are in the long run).

Do look at both posts if you want to understand the extent of the military challenges faced in bringing stability to Afghanistan.

(Reuters photos in Semkar village in eastern Afghanistan/Oleg Popov)


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I liked the collage of articles that you have presented which explain the military complexities in Afghanistan. To succeed in Afghanistan we need sustained efforts in counter-insurgency and development, simultaneously. In my view, Afghanistan not only needs more troops on the ground – despite all difficulties – but also a peace core to drastically improve civic governance. Afghans hate the Taliban but they also deserve better alternative in a less corrupt government.

I’d like to draw your attention to excellent discussion by Sarah Chayes on PBS. Sarah lives in Afghanistan and talks about the military challenges, Karzai’s poor government and Pakistan’s notoriety. Sarah Chayes was born in Washington D.C. She has lived in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, near the southern border with Pakistan, since the weeks following 9/11. She soon left a journalism to live and work as a private citizen in Afghanistan. She now runs a company in Kandahar offering local employment.

Here are the links. If you cannot run the video please check out the transcript. 08/watch2.html

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


In the spirit of the title of the blog, here are some of the excerpts from the interview with Sarah Chayes, an American, who is now a private citizen in Afghanistan for over 5 years.

1) Pakistan’s notoriety in Taliban insurgency:

Sarah: We’re paying a billion dollars a year to Pakistan, which is orchestrating the Taliban insurgency. So, it’s actually US-taxpayer money that is paying for the insurgents, who are then killing, at the moment, Canadian troops. Now if I were the government of Germany or France, I’d have a hard time putting my troops in that kind of equation. Has anybody done very strict accounting on where that money is going? It’s been very clear to me, watching since 2002, that Pakistan has been buying us off, by a well-timed delivery of an Al Qaeda operative, which has then caused us to look the other way about the Taliban.

2) The Ordinary Afghani dilemma:

Sarah: Ordinary Afghanis are just so disaffected with the (Karzai)government that we put in power. I have people telling me, “We get shaking down by the government in the daytime, and shaken down by the Taliban at night. What are we supposed to do?” The average person is totally perplexed. They assume that this degree of corruption, which is everywhere.

3) Resolve to fight in Afghanistan:
Sarah: I don’t think that hope is relevant. I think determination is all that counts. You just have to try. It doesn’t matter if you hope you’re going succeed or not. You have to keep trying.

4) The Opium Economy:

Sarah: Opium is a normal aspect of the economy. And it’s totally integrated into the economy. They’re just businessmen. They happen to traffic opium rather than trafficking cars or televisions. And it’s a slightly complicated buying and selling. But, in fact, they’ve got some really excellent business practices. Like they provide credit to farmers. The way to attack opium is to compete with it. What exists down there is very valuable crops; fruit crops mostly. Why isn’t there a fruit juice factory in Kandahar? It’s the pomegranate capital of the world.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive

5) Do we need more troops in Afghanistan:

Sarah: We do need more troops. And let me just remind you that the number of troops on the ground per population is pretty much the lowest of any U.S. post-conflict involvement since World War II. And at this point the Taliban kind of military campaign plan is effective enough that, you know, you do need troops to prevent them from making military encroachments that are really dangerous. So you need to be able to protect people from that kind of an intimidation campaign, and that takes troops.

6) Is Pakistan supporting Taliban in Afghanistan:

Sarah: Yes! US ally, the Pakistan military, is supporting the Taliban. we need to get the knots out of our foreign policy here. It’s very perplexing to Afghans to understand that we are providing $1 billion a year to the Pakistani military which is creating the Taliban. And that really had us fooled for a number of years until incontrovertible intelligence demonstrated that the ISI was behind the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul a few months ago. And then it was, uh-oh, they really are doing this. And this is after years of U.S. military officers watching.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


Thanks for posting that PBS link and she certainly seems like a very impressive and determined woman. I’ll look out for more articles about her.

Did you read this post on the Captain’s Journal: 3/nato-and-poppy-the-war-over-revenue-pa rt-2/

His argument that even if the United States tackled opium production, the Taliban could earn money from pomegranates or any other business, and that in the end nothing will work unless U.S. and NATO troops are willing to get out on the ground. Here’s the final three graphs:

“So what is the solution to the evolving pomegranate problem? How will we prevent it from becoming a revenue stream for the Taliban? Will we shoot pomegranate dealers on sight?

“The problem is that we have tried everything – from special operations and air raids on high value targets, and now to poppy eradication – instead of classical counterinsurgency with enough troops to accomplish the mission.

“The problem isn’t poppy any more than it is marble quarries, small businesses, wheat seed or pomegranate farmers. There is no solution to the problem of the revenue stream except to kill or capture the Taliban. Why is this so hard for strategists and staff level officers to understand?”

Let me know what you think.


Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive

“also deserve better alternative in a less corrupt government.”
—Is corruption unique to Afghanistan? & Karzai’s gov. is a democratically elected one, so let the people vote them out in the nearing elections, why are these ‘alternatives’ being seek by outsiders, whom do they desire to replace him with? A puppet? Wasn’t the Taliban regime corruption free? Why not have them back?

“There is no solution to the problem of the revenue stream except to kill or capture the Taliban. Why is this so hard for strategists and staff level officers to understand?”

— Why is it so hard to understand that the Afghan drama is being enacted exactly as the strategists and staff level officers are instructed to design & implement? Why is the revenue stream so zealously being tracked & the obvious i.e. the expenditure towards the arms supply chain being blissfully ignored?

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Taliban has been the root-cause for all the problem. It has to be destroyed–BEHEADED. I am serious, no joke, Taliban has to be eliminated by using the medicine they give. On the gound, no body cares about human right. Everything else can be controlled. All these alternatives to economy is not going to choke Taliban/militants enought to kill them. It will be posible when US absolutely rules out the possibility of any old cold-war style (but unsuccessful) means of tackling Taliban–saving some militant faction against them.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive


The Taliban and its support system – logistical, financial and military – must be eliminated at any cost. The Taliban will tap in to any revenue stream that they can find. The challenge for NATO troops is to do the pest control without hurting the Afghans. Which means they have to overpower the Taliban and do the policing after the territory is sanitized. The additional responsibility of policing, especially in rural Afghanistan, is perhaps wearing the NATO troops down.


It’s not a matter of corruption but also a violent abuse of power. If you hear the interview you’ll see that the public officials who are presently running the municipalities, electricity boards and development projects in Afghanistan were appointed – not elected. These thugs, who were once most wanted, have overnight became sheriffs. The Afghans see them as propped up in to power by the west. They wonder if this how the system works in the presence of western powers what would happen after the NATO forces leave? Consequently, the disillusion.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


—reply blocked – couldn’t post a befitting reply to your arbitrary comments.

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

I think if US comes out clear without any hidden agenda (oil/opium etc) and also probably US must not limit itself to NATO or Pakistan, instead if they keep all their differences aside and seek the help of all the
Nations’ with single agenda to ‘Eliminate Taliban’, then mostly we can see a successful elimination of Taliban roots.

However, whatever the outcome from the current situation in Afghanistan, be it a change in Kazrai Govt. or NATO forces, I don’t see the world will ever be terror free, there are lots of Osamas waiting for destruction.

This is not like one Hitler and many Nazis, this is one Osama many Talibans becoming the next Osama.

— People who talk about Kazrai, do they have a eminent leader to lead.
US does not want another Iraq to happen, therefore I think they are supporting Kazrai until they see some good results.

Posted by Raghav | Report as abusive


If your reply was blocked there has to be a reason, isn’t it? I’m not interested in mud slinging matches on the blog which often turn in to plain abuse and one-upmanship.


Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


—You’re jumpin to conclusions – & the block could be tech. cause there’s no need for me to be abusive to you – but your mindset is telling…

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Disgusting!!! Just saw the news that Pakistan army is surrendering to Taliban in SWAT. They call it ceasefire!!! How can the whole army surrender to few talibans. If they capture the top 10 guys, problem almost solved. But the army preferred to surrender. What next? – Peshawar, Karachi, Islamabad, Kabul, New Delhi? Where is the line drawn? How can we fight with Taliban in Afghanistan whereas neighboring Pakistan surrenders to Taliban and gives them legality!! Pakistan is taking US, IMF aid to fight Taliban and surrenders to Taliban. What good is the aid for? US ends up spending double in Afghanistan. Is there any better solution than NATO entering Pakistan?

Posted by Amy | Report as abusive

Just saw another news article – Chinese engineer was freed by Taliban. Good news definitely! But the background scares me! All this happened just before Mr Zardari visits China and begs for more aid. Seems like Pakistan just did whatever Taliban was asking for in return for the release. May be freeing 200-300 Talibans from jail or signing the surrender agreement!! Why were American (UN envoy) or Polish citizen not freed in similar deals? Is it because (a) UN or Poland doesn’t have similar access as China does to ISI, which controls Taliban or (b) UN or Poland doesn’t offer similar aid, arms and support like China or (c) Pakistan agreed to surrender to all Tailban demands to please Chinese before Mr Zardari visits China for more aid? Taliban never kidnaps someone, feeds and hides him for a year and releases him for nothing!!! Who in ISI decides who is to be freed and who is to be beheaded?

Posted by Amy | Report as abusive


I am glad that you can see the background processes in Talib-Pak saga

Posted by chirkut | Report as abusive

I think the biggest mistake NATO/US made in afghanistan was that they moved in with very few friends.Pak is a ally allright, but a double dealer at the same time.

US/ NATO must win cooperation of other Afghan neighbors to win this war. Russia is a good beginning. I would also like Iran to be involved in Afghan development. Currently through Pakistan is the sole route to sea port. Opening up the Iraninan part for Afghanistan will remove that dependency. India is already building a road from Afghanistan to Iran. An alternate trade route will do a lot of good to Afghan farmers. India is and always been a big market for Afghan fruits and dry fruits and a alternate trade route will provide access to Afghans and Indian business without going through Pakistan. This would certainly help in resolving poppy problem.

Corruption is a malice everywhere. We can only minimize it but can never remove it. What we need is to provide development opportunities that surpass level of corruption. Removing Karzai will be a big mistake. His govt may be corrupt but does provide some sort of leadership to Afghans. His departure will be a kind of deja-vu of early 1990s.

Posted by chirkut | Report as abusive


If it were not for Pakistan, US/NATO would not have entered Afghanistan and dislodged them from power.

Pakistan may be accused of being a double-dealer but so is US/NATO, who fail in their efforts in Afghanistan and then just blame Pakistan instead.


You want NATO to enter Pakistan? Sure if NATO countries can cough up the troops for it. They don’t even want to send any more to Afghanistan.

Posted by Aamir Ali | Report as abusive

America faces the same tune evey where. Goes to help (not always, atleast not this time)and then people turn against her. Well it is the same old story. Help people but do not try to take over their house. Whether its Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, its the same blunder repeated all over again. No change of plan. Exactly the same old plan. And when you stay in a place for ever, you get bored, people in States get fed up, and the people you have gone to help get fed up. Also by staying there for ever, you start taking sides. Like the corrupt regeime of President Karzai is being helped. His corrupt brother, who the media reports deals in opium,is also in power because of the Americans. So with so much corruption around, no wonder the Talibans are prospering.Same is the case with Pakistan. Billions went there to help the Army but instead it was spent on running a defaulting govt . Ofcourse the Americans knew about it. If not, then get hold of those dozens of CIA guys who roam about in Black bullet proof Toyota Landcruisers all over Islamabad and Peshawar.Quite a few got damaged in the Mariot Hotel blast. Hey but what the heck. America is a rich country. It can look after its blue eyed boys in a posh manner while its low paid boys and girls face the HEAT in Iraq and Afghanistan.

America, get serious now. Increase your troops presence in Afghanistan. Stop siding with the corrupt regeimes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fund them properly and monitor where the billions are going. Apprise your citizens and the world of what is the truth. No WMD (like in Iraq) mumbo jumbo.Remember, to claim that you are policing the world, you need to be honest and sincere in your goal. Half hearted attempt where you do not hold the high moral ground gets you nothing. Your monster (Taliban) is out of control. Remember, you created it to defeat the USSR and later abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Posted by Sadiq | Report as abusive