On February 20, 2010, the Times of London published a major story entitled: “Taliban on Back Foot After a Series of Body Blows.” The article was more wishful thinking than fact. The Western press has superficially reported on and hyped the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (allegedly the Quetta Taliban’s military chief), while ignoring the circumstances and the underlying politics. Whether the arrest was intended or accidental as some sources claim, it appears that neither Pakistani nor Afghan government officials want Mullah Baradar turned over to the Americans. He is considered a Taliban moderate. His arrest does not necessarily signal any substantive change in Pakistani policy, nor is it necessarily a significant blow to the Taliban.
The real story has been taking place in Afghanistan during the past two months. Last month the Taliban began attacking large Afghan population centers in such locations as Kabul, Lashkar Gah and Khost and this month there were two attacks in Kandahar, the latest on February 7th which blew up a bridge killing four police officers. There have been other attacks which have not been reported in the mainstream media, including the February 11th attack inside a U.S. combat outpost near the Pakistan border in Paktia province which injured five American soldiers from the 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard and there was a February 12th suicide bomb attack in Kandahar that wounded six American soldiers. In the January 19, 2010, edition of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, British General David Richards announced that:
“The Taliban have given orders to their people to attack in as many
different places as they possibly can - in order to reinforce the impression
of being everywhere.”
This is the same type of strategy employed by the Viet Cong during the period of Tet, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in February 1968. It launched a month-long series of attacks across the length of South Vietnam targeting most of the country’s provincial capitals. The assaults were militarily unsuccessful, but they had a major psychological impact which changed the course of the war and began a slow withdrawal of American forces from that country.
NATO forces are seemingly oblivious to the implications of the Taliban’s mini-Tet attacks. The Taliban launched a rare winter offensive and it attacked some of the most protected locations in Afghanistan. Just as in 1968, military analysts are dismissing the attacks as desperation and military failures, yet many of these attacks dominated the news for days and even weeks.
NATO forces are also ignoring the suicide bomb statistics. According to the New York Times, there were 195 suicide attacks in Afghanistan in 2007, and 275 in 2009. That is two suicide attacks every three days. The New York Times’ Rod Nordland, in a February 15, 2010, story, dismissed the military significance of these suicide attacks. He overlooked the fact that the Taliban side has a growing number of followers who are willing to die for their cause. This coincides with NATO’s unpublicized assessment which now places overall Taliban troop strength in excess of 30,000, which is an increase from just six months ago. These metrics need to be more carefully analyzed.
America’s top counterinsurgency expert in the 1950’s and 1960’s was General Edward Lansdale. He once said of American President Kennedy that he was trying to win the war in South Vietnam, while the Viet Cong were trying to win the people. The war in Afghanistan is a war over the Afghan people. In that war, perceptions among the Afghan people about who has the initiative, can trump the realities.
What is also being overlooked is the reason for these Taliban attacks. The Taliban seem to sense weakness in NATO. This is reinforced by the retreat of American forces from isolated outposts in Kunar, Nuristan and other provinces, by the refusal of the West to open any consulates in Kandahar (out of fear of the Taliban), and by the already announced withdrawal of NATO forces, which will begin next year.
The massive NATO offensive currently underway in Marjah is another sign of weakness. NATO has deployed 15,000 troops against a few hundred Taliban. Why does NATO need three months of planning and a 50-1 superiority in ground forces in order to seize back one district town? NATO’s fear of casualties seems pervasive and may ultimately be debilitating. NATO may well be perceived by the Taliban as lacking “baraka.”
Baraka or Barakah بركة is an Arabic/Swahili term with several meanings. It can mean a spiritual force that surrounds a successful person. It can mean the protection bestowed by Allah. It can mean a blessing and to some it merely means good luck. It is the root for the name Barack. The term Baraka became popular during the 1954-1962 Algerian war. It was said that the French, with their humbling defeats by Germany during the Second World War and by the Viet Minh in Indochina, had lost their Baraka. That perception of weakness helped to launch the Algerian ALN (Armee de Liberation Nationale) and led it to eventual victory and to Algerian independence.
British forces in al-Basra, Iraq displayed some Baraka during 2007-2009, when they switched to soft hats rather than helmets and shunned body armor while on patrol in order to emphasize that safety was better and that security procedures were working. The risks of doing so were outweighed by the symbolic need to demonstrate confidence and success rather than merely talking about it. Speeches cannot change perceptions, only actions can. Changes in perceptions can then alter the reality on the ground.
NATO would have been better served to have attempted to recapture Marjah overnight with 500 troops inserted by helicopter. That would have displayed Baraka.
Without an elemental change in thinking, which NATO bureaucrats would probably never accept or even understand, NATO will not be able to regain what it has lost. NATO is limited in its ability to launch many more Marjah-style operations. If NATO fails to innovate and reform, the agenda at the next Loya Jirga may be a proposal of amnesty extended to President Hamid Karzai to join the Taliban’s Government.