The world will mark the 15th anniversary of its military operations in Afghanistan under a dark cloud. After all the efforts of a coalition of 40 powerful countries, over US$1 trillion spent and thousands of uniformed lives lost, the primary objective of the mission undertaken in 2001 has not been met – and war has become the seemingly insurmountable status quo for Afghanistan.
And as the UK announced it was deploying personnel to help try and save the troubled Helmand province and the town of Sangin, one cannot but accept the fact that the dreaded Taliban is back with a bang – and that the rest of the world is nowhere near defeating it. The Taliban would appear to be in a resurgent mode across the country, and many Afghans now believe it’s winning. How did we get it so horribly wrong? Who screwed it up?
A chorus of events has helped the Taliban’s consolidation in recent years. While the end of NATO-led combat operations in 2014 removed any large strategic challenges, it is the fact that Afghanistan is a dysfunctional state, which has proved to be the biggest boon to the Taliban’s revival.
Afghanistan is governed by a fractious government with inept leaders. A disputed election in mid-2014 and a precarious power-sharing arrangement has led to the emergence of a government that is anything but powerful. The political elites and the governing structure remains far removed from the realities on the ground. To some extent, the absence of a consensual leader capable of providing a stable strategic vision for their citizenry has floundered the post-conflict space. Parliament is unable to appoint a full-time Defence minister; large parts of the country are still out of the government’s control.
Afghanistan’s admittedly robust National Security Force has done very little to wrest territories from the Taliban. Overall it is guided by a defensive position, simply keeping vigil on a given territory until Taliban forces push it out of its camps and bastions. While the government forces maintain a defensive posture, the Taliban operates in a hybrid offensive-defense mode that’s won it significant territorial gains across the country.
Simply put, the Taliban’s expansion is as much due to its offensive drive as it is due to the government’s incompetent strategic vision.
At another level, the Taliban resurgence is aided by the question of leadership of a different kind. Currently the Taliban lacks a centralised unifying leadership. This has been so since the acknowledgement of the death of its elusive leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in July 2015. Even though the deputy of the dead leader, going by the name of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, has stepped in as the head of the Taliban, various disgruntled groups within its ranks refuse to accept his supreme leadership.
This has a direct bearing on various Taliban military offensives. The prevailing leadership dispute has provided fillip to several regional field commanders and warlords to push private battle initiatives aimed at consolidating their own military preeminence.
Winter is not a good time for ground offensives, and in Afghanistan victory belongs to those who can tough it out in the season’s harsh conditions. The Taliban combines just that sort of resilience with a true mastery of strategy. It has simply been lying low, waiting for the opportune moment to begin a new offensive.
The success of the Taliban’s winter offensive for total control of Helmand, in more ways than one, holds the key to its future ascent. At the moment, the Taliban insurgents control about 65% of Helmand province. To consolidate its position and sustain its war efforts, the Taliban not only needs a resolute fighting cadre but also plenty of cash – and Helmand happens to produce most of the world’s opium. Should it succeed in gaining total control of this restive province, the Taliban will also gain access to a potentially game-changing revenue stream.
As Doug Beattie, a former British officer who served in the troubled province put it: “If it (Helmand) falls district by district, Afghanistan will fall province by province.” In the meantime, if the Taliban does succeed in gaining Helmand, it might end up establishing an alternative administration there.
This would lead to another waiting game for the Taliban until they are ready for an all-out armed offensive against the central government in Kabul.