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Posted on Sep 13, 2011 in War College

Savvy Strike in Kabul: Underestimating the Taliban – Again – by Ralph Peters

By Ralph Peters

Dust rises after firing by Taliban militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Taliban insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles at the U.S. Embassy, NATO headquarters and other buildings in the heart of the Afghan capital Tuesday in a brazen attack two days after the United States marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (AP Photo/Ahmad Nazar)

As I write, Tuesday, September 13, 2011, U. S. and Afghan forces are still rooting out the last two of a handful of terrorists who kept the U. S. embassy and NATO headquarters under fire all day and into the night. A half-dozen attackers ready to die and a pair of suicide bombers have managed to paralyze Kabul — again.

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Even as the last shots echo, U. S. and NATO spokesmen have rushed to belittle the Taliban strike, emphasizing that there were no American casualties. Once again, we’ve completely missed the point, refusing to view events through the Taliban’s eyes.

The Taliban’s fighters are brutal, backward, ill-equipped, often illiterate and repugnant to civilized values. But their senior leaders can be brilliant planners, and the hardcore insurgents are brave unto death. In Tuesday’s assault, the Taliban fighters’ mission had three goals:

  1. Embarrass U. S. generals and the Karzai government after the ballyhooed handover of Kabul’s security to the Afghans.
  2. Keep the population in doubt as to who will win in the end.
  3. Grab global headlines.

The Taliban won the Triple Crown. And the insurgent leadership did it with an impressive economy of force. The world watched live video feeds of embattled U. S. troops and security guards taking cover behind a cement parapet and blowing off more rounds than most of us will fire in our lifetimes. It wasn’t a serious firefight in classic terms, but it sure looked like one on TV. Our forces appeared embattled, besieged—and the security contractors, wearing uniforms similar to those of our troops, moved as if terrified to find themselves under fire from a couple of Kalashnikovs several hundred meters away. Guess who had the moral firepower?

The cost to the Taliban appears to be around eight personnel (including two suicide bombers who staged diversionary strikes elsewhere in Kabul), and a stockpile of 7.62mm ammo and rocket-propelled grenades. Talk about low investment, huge returns …

Even if it emerges that there were a dozen or more attackers, this was economy of force at its finest. Two potent symbols—our embassy and NATO headquarters—were under fire all day and into the night. Casualties and physical damage are irrelevant. The images broadcast around the world to an audience of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of viewers, sent the message that the Taliban is still powerfully in the game. You literally cannot buy that level of publicity.

Kudos to the Taliban for planning, too. The insurgents not only managed to infiltrate their fighters deep into the city (not that hard), but appear to have surreptitiously pre-positioned bulk ammunition in a building under construction whose upper floors look down into our compounds (not sure where our security officers were when that blueprint was approved). This means they had a network of local supporters “preparing the battlefield.” Minor bribes were probably paid to gain access to the construction site … or sympathizers had been planted on the building crew. This was anything but a slapdash operation.

We belittle the Taliban again and again, claiming ad nauseum that they’re on the verge of defeat, or have already been defeated, that they don’t have competitive combat skills, and so on. But they have different skills that suit their mission. That’s yet another asymmetry in conflicts of this kind. And they wage their form of warfare on a less-than-shoestring budget, while we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to defeat an enemy whose greatest strength is that he believes he’s on a mission for his god and that death is a promotion.

After ten years, we need to look reality in the face. The insurgents certainly lack our combat training and sophistication, and they always will. They’ll certainly never have our arsenal. They’ll never beat us in the field. Yet, they remain more effective in their environment and in terms of their self-imposed mission than do the Afghan soldiers we have trained at enormous expense. The insurgents don’t expect to best us in individual firefights. They’re running a marathon, not sprints.

From Sun Tzu down through the centuries, a fundamental military maxim has been “Never underestimate your enemy.” Yet, we do so enthusiastically. A few years ago, a fighting general just back from Afghanistan told me, “You wouldn’t believe how stupid the Taliban are.” He was focused on the insurgents’ abysmal tactical performances when they do stumble into firefights with our Soldiers and Marines. But he could not explain why the Taliban won’t quit.

It bears repeating: Never underestimate your enemy. It’s fine to exploit his weaknesses, but don’t dismiss his strengths.

By our narrow military standards, the Taliban are incompetent. But on their own turf, pursuing their own strategic goals, they’re canny, ruthless survivors. And in the end, surviving is all they have to do (while I’m not a believer in our nation-building mission, I don’t think that public announcements about our departure date are wise, either). We’ll be long gone, whether it’s in three years or thirty, and something like the Taliban will still be there. The insurgents are the home team.

As a former Intelligence officer, it just infuriates me that we cripple ourselves by refusing to see the strategic battlefield through the Taliban’s eyes. That’s Intel 101. What does the enemy want to achieve? How does he expect to achieve it? What price will he pay? What does he see as our vulnerabilities? The list goes on, but the point is that we have never tried to understand the Taliban on its own terms and in the local context, insisting on seeing it in isolation and through our hi-tech lenses.

It doesn’t matter if there weren’t any U. S. casualties. On Tuesday, those raggle-taggle insurgents handed us our strategic backsides.

And the most infuriating aspect of all is that they’re beating us at information warfare. We’re the world’s information superpower, for Heaven’s sake, yet the Taliban routinely out-message us. Tuesday’s strike was, above all, a publicity stunt. In today’s hyper-connected world, publicity is heavy-caliber ammo. We don’t even know how to get any traction with the fact that the Taliban (and al Qaeda) kills far more Muslims than “infidels.” We fund elaborate media schemes to bring Spongebob Squarepants (or his turbaned counterpart) to television screens where most locals have access only to radios, but no end of Afghan Oprahs and C-grade soap operas in veils will ever have the impact of a half-dozen ready-to-die fighters humiliating the greatest power in history and its local client on a billion television screens around the world.

Counterinsurgency? On Tuesday, the Taliban’s daring and cleverness won more hearts and minds than we have in years of dispensing taxpayer dollars to tribesmen we refuse to understand.

We measure the world differently. We Americans carefully tally the physical debits and credits. No U. S. casualties? The Taliban must have failed. (Behind closed doors, though, you can bet there are a lot of furious, red-faced generals in Kabul tonight.) But the Taliban are waging a spiritual struggle that just happens to have a savage flesh-and-blood component. And their spirits, if not their bodies, are out of the range of our weapons.

Clausewitz and plenty of others emphasized that the irreducible point of warfare is to impress your will upon the enemy. We have had no impact, whatsoever, on the Taliban’s will, on its determination to continue the struggle. By contrast, the Taliban force us to react again and again. We’re over-confident Redcoats marching, under General Braddock, into yet another wilderness.

The problem isn’t that our Soldiers can’t fight. It’s that our leaders refuse to think.

About the Author
Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the Armchair General team, a former enlisted man and retired U.S. Army officer, a journalist, and the author of 27 books, including LINES OF FIRE, a collection of his most-enduring and useful military writing from the past two decades (in stores on Sept. 19).

5 Comments

  1. Dear Ralph,

    My thoughts exactly. Maybe someone needs to read the USAF study “Soviet Partisans in World War II”.

    Sincerely,

    Curt

    • Dear Curt,

      Excellent point, excellent study. Thanks for recommending that one for readers (and yeah, it would be great if our GOs read serious studies, instead of pop management books or the pop philosophy of “Three Cups of (fake) Tea.”

      Stay mission focused!

      –Ralph

  2. Excellent article. The parallel to the media coverage of this attack, and the attack by the North Vietnamese on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive is striking.

  3. You have a point, and a good one to boot, but I believe you are overstating it when your write things like:

    “It doesn’t matter if there weren’t any U. S. casualties. On Tuesday, those raggle-taggle insurgents handed us our strategic backsides.”

    I believe it does matter that there were no US casualties I believe that was a significant disappointment for the Taliban.

    Sensemaker

  4. I don’t think the problem is so much leadership as the fact war these days is more a public relations struggle than a struggle of arms. The war is prosecuted the way it is because that is the way the voters, looking through the lens of the media, insists it be fought. Consider how the NVA’s military defeat in the Tet offensive was turned into a strategic victory by the American press, or how Auchinleck’s defeat of the Africa Korp was rewarded by his sacking…

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