Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Taliban: Afghanistan’s Most Lethal Insurgent

For Westerners, Afghanistan has always been distant, exotic, and periodically threatening. In the Occident, the Afghan warrior tradition enjoys well-earned respect. Many countries have invaded Afghanistan, but few have controlled it for long. In the 19th century, the British conquered, then were defeated, then conquered again, and then left Afghanistan. The Soviets had an equally checkered relationship with Afghanistan and, like the British before them, were defeated.  

Afghans, too, suffered the wages of war. In the late 20th century, the Soviets carpet bombed villages and valleys, killing over 1 million Afghans and dispersing many millions more into squalid, disease-ridden refugee shanties. After the Soviet invasion, the always-fragile traditional economy collapsed, plunging Afghans into destitution, fatalism, and despair.

For more than 12 years, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan. Events surrounding that country provoke controversy. An American soldier captured by the Taliban under questionable circumstances was recently traded for elite Afghan insurgents. Will this prolong the insurgency, will it shorten it, or will it have no consequence? This is uncertain. But what is certain is that Afghanistan serves as a grand laboratory of military and economic developmental polices. Lessons drawn from counterinsurgency successes and failures guide American policies in some of the most desperately poor nations of the world. This is a battle of wills.The Taliban’s goal of reestablishing Islamic law, or Sharia, is common to many Islamic organizations, both militant as well as those who proclaim themselves peaceful. The use of insurgency is one tactic to achieve the world domination of Islam. Militant Islam is expressed through different means and media. For this reason, it is a battle of ideas, as well as bullets. It is being waged through the Internet, in mosques, and in religious schools, or madrassas, as well as on the fields of battle in Afghanistan.

The Taliban offer an unrelenting dedication to conquer Afghanistan, an unconstrained use of terror, and solidarity with important fragments of global Islam. The Taliban leverage deeply ingrained Afghan skepticism of Western promises for a better future. Foreign men have come and gone from Afghanistan, and, despite promises, only the poverty remains. Taliban leaders boast that Afghans are armed with the religious fervor, honor, and resolve. “Such weapons are neither available in the arsenal of America nor in the warehouse of her allies.”[1] In January 2013, the Taliban crowed, “No sooner will the foreigners quit than the Afghans will start living under the cover of an Islamic government and in the environment of Islamic brotherhood.” 

The American-led Coalition is determined to prevent the Taliban’s triumph. Today’s soldiers on both sides of the struggle have lived only in wartime. The sons of Taliban fighters, who were 10 when the group was scattered into Pakistan, are now in their early 20s. Many are hardened fighters and will, undoubtedly, face the sons of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban are tough, but so are many other Afghans.

As the book The Taliban: Afghanistan’s Most Lethal Insurgents comes to publication, U.S. forces are scheduled to leave, and the Taliban will certainly try to fill the security vacuum. Thirteen years of building a civil service, army, police, and health and educational system will be put to the test. The extent to which Afghanistan’s fortunes are intertwined with or independent of American military will be decided. Will the Taliban’s power-sharing negotiations become a viper’s embrace of the still-struggling Karzai regime? Can the Karzai regime stand on its own to meet the Taliban challenge? The stakes are survival for the new Afghan state.

Mark Silinsky is a 30-year veteran of the defense intelligence community. He has served as a senior counterinsurgency advisor and counterintelligence analyst in the United States and in Afghanistan. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Southern California; earned a master's degree from Oxford University; and is a graduate of the Naval War College, the National Defense University, and the National Intelligence University.

[1] Statement of the Islamic Emirate on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11, Afghan Forums, Accessed July 1, 2014,

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