Middle East


The Taliban's Counter Strategy

U.S. Marines search for improvised explosive devices in Mian Poshteh, Helmand Province, in Afghanistan on Nov. 27. (Photo: Manpreet Romana/ AFP-Getty Images)

Now that we know the administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan, what is the Taliban strategy against the United States? Such a question is warranted to be able to project the clash between the two strategies and assess the accuracy of present U.S. policies in the confrontation with the forces it is fighting against in that part of the world. How might the Taliban/al-Qaeda war room counter NATO and the Afghan government based on the Obama administration’s battle plan?

Strategic perceptions

The jihadi war room is now aware that the administration has narrowed its scope to defeat the al-Qaeda organization while limiting its goal to depriving the Taliban from achieving full victory, i.e. depriving them “from the momentum.” In strategic wording this means that the administration won’t give the time and the means, let alone the necessary long-term commitment to fully defeat the Taliban as a militia and militant network.

The jihadist strategists now understand that Washington’s advisers still recommend talking to the Taliban, the entire Taliban, but only after the latter would feel weak and pushed back enough to seek such talks. Underneath this perception, the Salafi Islamists’ analysts realize that present American analysis concludes that al-Qaida and the Taliban are two different things, and that it is possible to defeat the first and eventually engage the second.

Such a jihadist understanding of U.S. defective perceptions will give the Taliban and al-Qaida a first advantage: knowing that your enemy, the United States, isn’t seeing you as you really are.

Strategic engagement

The United States has reconfirmed that the goal of the mission in Afghanistan is to destroy al-Qaida, train the Afghan armed forces but not to engage in nation building. Unlike previous American commitments, which weren’t very successful, the current strategy officially ignores the ideological battle.

The Taliban understands that their lifeline to further recruitment based on madrasa graduations is wide open. Washington’s efforts and dollars won’t touch the ideological factory of jihadism, which is the strategic depth of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Hence the jihadi network in Afghanistan will continue and further develop its indoctrination structures, untouched and un-bothered by American military escalation. The Marines and other NATO allies will be fighting today’s Taliban, while tomorrow’s jihadists will be receiving their instruction in full tranquility.

By the time the U.S. deadline to withdraw would be reached, in 2011, 2012 or even beyond, the future forces of the enemy will be ready to be deployed. One wave of terrorists will be weakened by the action of the U.S. and NATO armed forces, while the next wave will be prepared to take over later.

Deadly deadline

The administration’s plan included a timeline for withdrawal from the central Asian country (although reinterpreted as beginning of withdrawal). Basing their assessment on the notion of “no open-ended engagement,” the shapers of the new Afghanistan strategy have told the enemy’s war room on camera that America’s time in Afghanistan is until 2013 maximum, after which it will be Taliban time again.

As many analysts have concluded, all the jihadist war planners have to do is wait out the hurricane of escalation. The deadly deadline proposed in the strategy has no precedent in the history of confrontation with totalitarian forces. The Taliban waited out eight years; what are two, three or eight more years if the U.S.-led coalition’s action is not qualitatively (not just quantitatively) different?

A surge to exit

As presented to the Afghan people, the administration’s new plan for the battlefield is seen as a last surge before the general exit of the country. The Taliban’s war room has understood the equation. Thirty thousand more U.S. troops will deploy with their heavy equipment, backed by another 5,000 to 10,000 allied forces. Offensives will take place in Helmund and other areas. Special forces will move to multiple places, and shelling will harass the Islamist militias as long as two years or more.

The Taliban will incur losses, and al-Qaida’s operatives will be put under heavier pressure. All that is noted in Mullah Umar’s book and saved on Zawahiri’s laptop. Then what?

Then the time for exit is up and U.S. and NATO forces begin their withdrawal. When that happens, the surviving Taliban, plus the new wave just graduating from madrasas, or the jihadi volunteers sent from the four corners of the virtual “Caliphate,” will have a choice to make: Either they will accept the U.S. negotiators’ offer to join the Afghan government or—depending on their assessment then—will reject the offer and shell the “infidel troops” as they pull out.

In a nutshell, the new strategy is convenient to that Taliban war room: They now can figure it all out until the Mayan year of 2012—and way beyond.

All that it takes for democracies to offer the totalitarians victories is to not understand the latter’s long-term goals. And so far, we’ve done just that.

Dr. Walid Phares is director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of “The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad.”