Photo Credit: Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
“We see this fight as worship,” said Mawlawi Mohammed Qais, the head of the Taliban’s military commission in Laghman Province. “So if a brother is killed, the second brother won’t disappoint God’s wish — he’ll step into the brother’s shoes.” Qais made these remarks in March 2020, briefly after the Taliban had signed a peace agreement with the United States. Now, the group is close to one of their main goals of the complete withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan. The agreement follows 19 years of continuous conflict in the country which began with the overthrow of the Taliban by U.S. Special Forces and members of the CIA following the attacks of 9/11. The United States entered a country it didn’t understand, with no clear long term strategy and tried to fight a conventional war against an unconventional, vastly outgunned adversary.
The difficulty with asymmetric warfare is that your enemy is able to “move among the people like a fish in water”, as described by Mao Zedong in the 1920s. The quick solution counter-insurgency offers is to “separate the fish from the water” or the insurgent from the people. However, as the U.S. has experienced over the last two decades, this is easier said than done.
Firstly, insurgents have a chameleon-like ability to shift back and forth across the divide from combatant to civilian; realizing when it is best to fight and when to avoid confrontation.
Secondly, insurgents have the advantage of propaganda. When well managed, an insurgent group can portray itself as “freedom fighters”, make casualties into martyrs for recruiting, and discredit their opponent at home.
Thirdly, insurgents fight on terrain well known to them, and how to make best use of the ground. The Taliban utilizes bunkers the Mujahideen had used against the Soviet army, but also constructs new ones, selects its ambushes, and either coerces or forces the local population into supporting them.
Finally, insurgents have the advantage of time. They can outwait and outlast any invading force.