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Strategic communication, Taliban-Style

4 febbraio 2010

After months of hyping the latest Helmand surge, ISAF officials are launching one last PR blitz before Operation Moshtarak, a large assault on the town of Marja. Al-Jazeera reports that it will be the largest offensive since the 2001 invasion, led by more than 1,700 Afghan soldiers. The New York Times has been hyping the Helmand offensive all week. And a well-publicized overnight operation in Nad Ali killed roughly 30 Taliban fighters (of course!).

If news reports are any indication, this latest Helmand offensive will be about as successful as the last four. Al-Jazeera suggests that the real target of the Helmand surge is the opium trade, and repeats the canard that opium provides the Taliban with “most of their funding” (if you don’t believe the Afghanistan experts who say that’s a myth, then believe Richard Holbrooke, who knocked it down last month during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee).

And for CJ Chivers, writing in the NYT, everything old is new again:

Mixing modern weapons with ancient signaling techniques, the Taliban have developed the habits and tactics to evade capture and to disrupt American and Afghan operations, all while containing risks to their ranks.

Seven months after the Marines began flowing forces into Helmand Province, clearing territory and trying to establish local Afghan government, such tactics have helped the Taliban transform themselves from the primary provincial power to a canny but mostly unseen force.

These tactics would be surprising — if the Taliban didn’t use them every single time NATO launches a “Helmand surge.” They don’t fight conventionally, because they’ll lose. They use guerrilla tactcs, and they slink away from the battlefield.

So ISAF doesn’t seem to have learned much from past Helmand offensives. This isn’t shocking.

I was a bit surprised, though, to see the Taliban hyping the Marja offensive. Here’s a quote from Rod Nordland’s NYT piece this morning:

A local Taliban commander in Marja reached by cellphone said they were aware that the town was the target, and he sought to signal that they would not be intimidated. “We will definitely defend Marja,” said the commander, who goes by the name Ishaq. “It’s the only place left for us. We have all of our fighters assembled here to fight against Afghan and foreign forces.”

Marja is pretty clearly not “the only place left for us.” Sparsely-populated southern Afghanistan is full of potential Taliban hideouts, and the group has a foothold in many other parts of the country — Badghis, for example, and Kunduz. The Taliban can afford to abandon one outpost in Helmand (one of questionable strategic importance, no less).

Why is the Taliban hyping Marja, then? Here’s one theory. ISAF has telegraphed this operation for months. The Taliban has had months to reinforce its positions and lace the area with IEDs — to make Marja cheap to defend and expensive to capture. A handful of fighters can stay behind and harass ISAF and the ANA, and the rest can get the hell out of Dodge.

So talking up the Marja offensive is actually a canny bit of strategic communications by the Taliban. ISAF already believes Marja will be the mother of all battles; by reinforcing that bias, the Taliban draws ISAF further into a battle that’s likely to be expensive and unlikely to be an important strategic victory. And it diverts ISAF’s limited resources from other parts of Afghanistan, where they could be put to better use — and where the Taliban can continue to dig in.


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