Yes, The Taliban Are Worse Than Ever

In 2015, the Taliban are more dangerous. And it’s pretty much our fault.

Somewhere in Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, a drone’s picked up a bunch of pickup trucks. They’re Hiluxes, as ubiquitous as AK-47s in insurgent circles. The Toyotas are standard equipment for the Taliban for the same reason as Kalashnikov’s enduring contribution to history: they’re nearly indestructible.

For once it’s not a wedding or a funeral. For once there’s little doubt in the rooms where all eyes are glued to the video screens about who’s on the ground. For once they’re looking at really bad guys who’ve done really bad things.

This wasn’t a signature strike. Thanks to a rare intelligence asset on the ground, the drone team knew exactly who was in the last Hilux to arrive, a silver one. It was a target the Americans had been chasing for years. Thanks to him, a lot of people had died in Kabul the week before.

But their orders were clear: do not engage. The man in the silver Hilux wasn’t a target anymore. Because he wasn’t a terrorist: he was Taliban.

That’s the Afghanistan described last week in a piece in Foreign Policy, “Insurgent Bombings Rise as U.S. Eases off the Taliban.” Its author makes the case that the reason the Taliban have picked up the pace of awful in Afghanistan is because at the beginning of 2015 the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was told to “revert to a purely counterterrorist focus,” and that meant, according to a US military official, “‘The Taliban came off the list.’”

At first that doesn’t seem like it’s a problem. The article even states that the military said “it was impossible to gauge how much the policy change has impacted the overall level of Taliban violence,” and told Foreign Policy that Taliban attacks through July 2015 are down about 9 percent compared to the first seven months of 2014.

For a brief, shining moment there’s hope that this could be a reasoned dissertation on why the Taliban aren’t designated as a terrorist organization. Instead the rest of the article takes the Real Housewives approach. That looks like this.

I'm Just Sayin'

Even though there’s little evidence that there’s a causal correlation between the policy and Taliban violence, it’s full speed ahead into unsubstantiated premise. The article makes three basic assertions that bear a closer look:

  • The Taliban aren’t a terrorist group, which is a temporary thing
  • “Kill/capture” fixed all the insurgency things
  • As much as we’d like to ignore Omar, we can’t

To be or not to be a terrorist organization

The question the article poses is whether the Taliban “should be considered a terrorist organization,” and of course “the answer, for the moment, is no”.

Except that’s not a momentary thing. The Taliban have never been designated a terrorist organization. That’s been the case all along.

At a press conference in January, the White House made it clear that it viewed the Taliban as “not terrorists”, and while it’s tempting to think that’s just because combat operations ended in December, they’re not on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. That’s not a recent development, since the US always wanted to keep negotiations as a possibility with the Taliban, and labeling them “terrorists” takes that off the table.

Where this gets confusing is that the Taliban are listed as part of the US Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, authorized under Executive Order 13224, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). But they don’t show up on the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations. The way the executive order regarding the Treasury list is worded, people on that list could be associated with terrorism, but if they’re not listed by State as an organization, then that leaves the door open for negotiations.

You can’t shoot your way out

The war in Afghanistan used to be all about Al Qaeda. Until, according to Foreign Policy, in 2006 “that target set expanded to include the Taliban, allowing JSOC to fit its lethal efforts into the wider framework of the coalition’s counterinsurgency campaign.” From then on US special operations forces “relentlessly hammered the Taliban, killing hundreds of militants, though never eradicating the insurgent group as a fighting force”. (emphasis added)

The FP piece describes the heyday of the counterinsurgency, when the surge was up, and killing everything that may or may not have been a military aged male with bad intentions was the climb to COINerific glory. Except that this “high value target” approach based on the premise that if you killed the big bad guy, all the little guys would go home? Never worked.

It was a strategy borrowed from the air force, that if you kill off the centralized command node, the rest of the subordinate forces would fold. That works…if you’re waving a cowboy hat and riding an atomic bomb into Mother Russia.

Dr. Strangelove

We tried this with a whole lot of non-success for the first time during the drug war.. In 1994, a former fighter pilot with the Institute for Defense Analysis named Rex Rivolo started looking at DEA statistics that were supposed to show that this approach was fixing the drug problem.

It wasn’t. In fact the node-centric targeting approach had the opposite effect, since when the “big cartels disappeared, the business reverted to smaller and even more ruthless groups that managed to maintain production and distribution quite satisfactorily, especially as they were closely linked either to Colombia’s Marxist FARC guerrillas or to the fascist anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups allied with the government and tacitly supported by the United States.”

By 2007 Rivolo was working in an intelligence cell in Baghdad, evaluating the effectiveness of targeting so-called “High Value Individuals” (HVIs). His findings then were just as stark: violence went up after an HVI was taken out. After the successful targeting of an HVI, Rivolo found that “within three kilometers of the target’s base of operation, attacks over the following 30 days shot up by 40%. Within a radius of five kilometers, a typical area of operations for an insurgent cell, they were still up 20%.”

That’s because all the other little insurgents wanted to prove that they were ready to be the big insurgent. It’s kind of like the worst game ever of “king of the mountain,” except that instead of a mountain it’s just a huge pile of bad theory and awful tactics.

What that’s led to is a shattered Taliban leadership, negating any opportunity for a coherent body that could sit across from the Kabul government and negotiate an end to hostilities. It’s also meant a steep increase in violence over the years as various de-centralized factions tried to prove they were the only ones on the path of true jihad.

You say his name was “Omar”?

Despite the best efforts of the Americans to go after terrorist targets, the “war has been coming to the Afghan capital all the same.” Attacks against the city are up 40% over the last three months, “punctuated by a series of major insurgent attacks this past week, including a truck bomb that exploded in the Shah Shahid neighborhood, a suicide bomber who struck at the police academy, and, on Monday, an assault on Kabul’s airport. Dozens died, and hundreds more were wounded.”

Foreign Policy lays this at the feet of the politicians. It’s a common refrain among spec ops fanboys: if we’d just turn them loose, they’d be able to fix everything. The increase in violence has little to do with the non-focus on the Taliban, and a lot more to do with chaos among their leadership at the moment. See previous about people trying to prove they should be the HJIC (Head Jihadi and never mind).

What the article doesn’t mention is that the revelation at the end of last month that Mullah Omar’s been deader than James Franco’s sense of shame for at least two years. That sparked a variety of responses from those wanting a piece of the terror throne in Afghanistan, all of them violent. The bombing in Shah Shahid, given the size, was likely done by the Haqqani Network, a group known for larger scale killings than their Taliban brethren.

Other than that, good read

Besides missing that the Taliban have always been off the global terrorist list, that US strategy has created the vacuum that will be filled with more violence, and ignoring the upheaveal caused by the announced death of the insurgency’s figurehead leader, spot on.

Despite staking out a certain ad hominem niche in the blogosphere, pointing out how a publication got it wrong on Afghanistan isn’t the point. This is me taking a look at what’s being published by a magazine that’s got more readers than I ever will and calling bullshit. Because we should be better than that.

It’s not about getting it wrong, it’s about the long form gizmogasm that’s so often passed off as special operations reporting. It’s that involuntary shudder keeping us from looking beyond the combat beards to ask whether night raids by JSOC ninjas might be doing more harm than good. The scent of freedom so strong in our nostrils that we forget to ask what’s behind SOCOM’s latest press release.

JSOC does one thing really well: kill and capture bad guys. That works if you’re ready to fight all the war forever. If you’re prepared to follow the night raids with an overwhelming troop presence until such time as the local district governor can be swapped out for someone more literate and less prone to pedophilia.

Kinetic operations (military jargon for “shoot everyone in the face”) only breed more kinetic operations. The idea that we can drive a monolithic enemy to some kind of USS Missouri moment is as outdated as battleship warfare itself. That enemy doesn’t exist, and whatever version of him there was probably got killed by a drone anyway.

Of course the SOCOM spox is going to tell us that if only we’d turn JSOC loose, everything would be fine. In a fairy tale world where the answer to everything is special ops, everyone’s probably an HVI. But that’s not what’s happened in Afghanistan.

As the drawdown continues, the Americans are leaving the Afghans to deal with a fragmented enemy with no incentive for peace. An enemy that’s even more dangerous now than it was in 2006. The US started this war, and now they’re just hoping the Afghans can finish it.

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Also published on Medium.