As British and American forces battle against the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand, it is worth considering, even if only for a moment, whether or not they are fighting in the right place.
I don't say this lightly, as many soldiers have already died and it is in no way a criticism of their bravery to point out that they may have died for little palpable gain.
Last month Gilles Dorronsoro, a French scholar working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published The Taliban's Winning Strategy in Afghanistan , which argues that military forces have little chance of making gains in the South and should therefore concentrate on holding and consolidating the North of the country. He says that while all military eyes have been on Helmand, the Taliban has been extending its influence in the North.
Dorronsoro makes the point that the Taliban, which he describes as "a revolutionary movement, deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system and focused on the rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate", has been under-estimated - a point that has often been made in this blog.
"They have made clever use of ethnic tensions, the rejection of foreign forces by the Afghan people, and the lack of local administration to gain support in the population. In so doing the Taliban have achieved their objectives in the South and East of the country, isolating the Coalition, marginalizing the local Afghan administration, and establishing a parallel administration (mainly to dispense Sharia justice and collect taxes)", he says.
Moreover, he notes, in recent months, a more professional Taliban has succeeded in making significant inroads by recruiting from non-Pashtun communities.
Dorronsoro argues that the current Coalition strategy of focusing its reinforcements in the South (Helmand and Kandahar) is risky to say the least. The lack of local Afghan institutions there will require a long term presence and therefore a need for even more reinforcements in the coming year.
Meanwhile, he says, the pace of Taliban progress in other provinces far outstrips the ability of the Coalition to stabilize the South. The Coalition should change the priorities of its current strategy, shifting resources to stop and reverse the Taliban’s progress in the North, while reinforcing and safeguarding the Kabul region or risk losing control of the entire country.
He makes some very pertinent points about the US strategy of killing Taliban commanders.
"Ironically, the International Coalition is unwittingly helping the Taliban maintain its cohesion by killing those commanders in the field most capable of opposing the central shura. Prime examples are Mullah Akhtar Osmani, killed in December 2006, Mullah Berader in August 2007, and Mullah Dadullah in May 2007. Evidence of the resilient character of the Taliban’s structure is the fact that the International Coalition’s killing of major leaders and its battlefield victories have not reversed the Taliban’s momentum."
The Taliban, says Dorronsoro, has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that "routinely outperforms the coalition in the contest to dominate public perceptions of the war in Afghanistan.” He says they build on the growing discontent of Afghans through a relatively sophisticated propaganda apparatus, which employs radio, video, and night letters to devastating effect. Videos, made in as-Sahab, the Taliban’s media center in Quetta, Pakistan, are readily available. This is certainly accurate, as I can attest myself. Last summer I came across Taliban videos being circulated by mobile phone around Kabul.
Backing up research by the Afghan organisation Cooperation for Peace and Unity (see my previous blogs on their research), Dorronsoro says that the main driver of the insurgency is not the political programme of the Islamist radicals, but local conflicts (many of which have an ethnic component) that have been allowed to flourish through government inaction, incompetence and corruption.
There is much to recommend Dorronsoro's analysis. Unfortunately, it would appear that battle lines have been drawn and that a re-emphasis on the North would now look like a defeat. We are reminded of one of the oldest laws of warfare - know your enemy.