Taliban Strategy in Afghanistan is Smart Politics, So U.S. Needs to Wise Up

In Logar province, it is too quiet, which should worry Obama and U.S. military leaders

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Gilles Dorronsoro is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Afghanistan's Logar province, just south of the capital Kabul, has seen relatively little fighting between coalition forces and the Taliban. Criminal activities there have decreased in recent months, so one could conclude that it makes more sense for President Barack Obama to deploy the 17,000 additional U.S. troops he has called for into the more restive southern and eastern territories. But the truth is that the military map in Afghanistan was never as important as the political map. The real story of Logar is more telling—and more worrying—about the trajectory of the war.

Criminal activities have declined in Logar because the Taliban are actually in control of the population, and are building a parallel judiciary which is more efficient than the corrupt administration that is officially in charge. As in other provinces, a low level of violence often shows only that the insurgency is in power. The Taliban has no need to fight in these places because the Afghan government and international coalition forces don't even operate in them.

A better indicator of the real state of a region is the ability or inability to travel freely in it. Employees of the Afghan government limit their private travels to Logar, which widens the growing political gap between Kabul and the surrounding areas. The Taliban have been circulating in the villages of Logar for three years, speaking with the population, and capitalizing on resentment for the coalition and the government. So there is naturally a lapse between the Taliban's political infiltrations and its military activities. At best, the military map is yesterday's map: it indicates the expansion of the insurgency after the Taliban have already become entrenched in local communities.

U.S. strategic planners must recognize that the places where the Taliban are in control, but not fighting, are essential logistical bases for the insurgency. Logar enables insurgents to enter the country from Pakistan, and conduct intelligence and strike preparations against targets in Kabul.

The political map in Afghanistan indicates that the Taliban strategy is much better planned and more homogenous than is generally thought. The insurgents are more than local groups fighting for economic interests. They have strategic aims: to pressure Kabul and its surroundings, and perhaps bomb the capital.

This analysis suggests general guidance in deciding where the United States should send reinforcements. A major argument for sending more troops south and east has been the fact that most of the fighting happens there, in 10 percent of the districts (the military map). The presumptive U.S. strategy would be to secure these areas with added troops on the ground, to marginalize the Taliban progressively, and ideally to split the insurgency.

A more realistic political assessment shows that this strategy will suffer from two major flaws. First, since the social and political base of the Taliban is much larger than the fighting indicates, securing some districts might lead only to a shift of fighting to neighboring districts: a game of whack-a-mole. Since the coalition doesn't (and won't) have enough troops to secure large areas, the net result will not be positive. Like certain opium eradication programs in Afghanistan, which succeed at a local level but fail nationwide, it will just move the problem somewhere else.

Second, if U.S. reinforcements are sent south and east, the Taliban will be able to deepen their political penetration in the north and west, increasing pressure on the coalition, which cannot fight on all fronts. This introduces the risk of losing the strategic initiative to the Taliban or, more to the point, not regaining it from them.

As they decide where to concentrate their efforts in the next few years, American policymakers must think in political terms rather than strictly military ones. The political progress of the insurgency is just as important if not more so than the actual level of fighting in a province. As U.N. maps show, a large part of Afghanistan is increasingly off-limits to foreigners and Afghan government employees alike. This trend cannot simply be explained by banditry or local grievances. It reflects the spreading momentum of the insurgency, and the Taliban's steady approach to the capital.