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The Taliban's Northern Problem: Tactics and Strategies
As war between the Taliban and Afghan resistance groups spreads across northern Afghanistan, an examination of basic tactics and overall strategies is key to understanding how the conflict is shaping up.
CONTEXT: After nearly two months of frequent and deadly combat activity, all but the most obstinate Afghanistan observers have been forced to admit that there is an ongoing resistance, and they are taking the fight to the Taliban on multiple fronts.
But how effective are the Resistance forces?
The Resistance forces are primarily comprised of northerners, whereas the Taliban are primarily southerners. Terrain familiarity and a mostly sympathetic civilian population have been tremendous assets for the Resistance forces launching operations in the north and west, substantively contributing to the limited success of their operations over the past few weeks.
To date, the Resistance has been able to use these advantages to negate the Taliban’s advantages of air mobility and has proven adept at keeping the Taliban off-balance by identifying and striking weak points. However, as combat continues, these clear advantages will diminish somewhat as the Taliban become more familiar with the terrain in the north and begin to cultivate their own sources among the locals.
Notably, the Resistance has benefited from its cordial relations with at least two of the neighboring countries in the North in several ways, in addition to being permitted a base in Tajikistan. Most strikingly, numerous reports have come in regarding weapons and ammunition transiting into the North from at least one of these countries, though no conclusive evidence exists yet.
The Resistance seems to be operating from a few mountain strongholds and have successfully defended against Taliban attempts to take them so far. They deploy small- and medium-sized teams to aggress the Taliban, skillfully choosing limited objectives that are vulnerable. Their ability to ambush troop convoys and logistical columns has proven to be problematic for the Taliban, and the Resistance appears to be taking far fewer casualties in engagements so far.
For their part, the Taliban are clearly taking things slowly in the North. Their preferred tactics seem to be centered on responding to Resistance actions with overwhelming force. The resulting delay in marshaling sufficient forces has prevented them from claiming a decisive victory. In the few instances when the Taliban have prevailed, they were unable to hold the terrain they had taken as their forces were quickly recalled to be utilized elsewhere.
They have yet to effectively employ air assault forces across the full battlefield. Their bellicose relations with locals, recently further aggravated by their ongoing atrocities against minority non-combatants in the region, are steadily eroding trust and sympathy for their cause. In particular, the deployment of Pakistani Taliban recruits to the north seems to have seriously undermined Kabul’s efforts to calm local populations. While no large-scale partisan activity has been reported yet, it will likely manifest as the situation grinds on.
The dominant Resistance group is the National Resistance Front. The co-leaders of the group, founder Ahmad Massoud and declared acting president Amrullah Saleh, have stated they intend to liberate 12 provinces from the Taliban. Some believe this strategy reflects a hope to form an autonomous state with the goal of dividing the country and establishing a new nation. If this is accurate, it represents a much more realistic and achievable goal than attempting to dislodge the government in Kabul and re-establish a semblance of the previous regime. With a clearly stated goal coupled with a well-defined limited objective, the Resistance has created a powerful and historical rallying cry for those opposed to the Taliban.
A purported desire to establish a breakaway country could also be a ruse. By threatening to break away, they may succeed in bringing the Taliban back to the negotiating table to discuss an inclusive power-sharing arrangement.
Others believe their focus on the 12 provinces is just an initial strategy to reclaim the most vulnerable and sympathetic provinces before broadening their efforts across Afghanistan. The NRF does not currently have the capability to retake and/or hold Kabul, let alone the entirety of Afghanistan. However, the 12 provinces they are currently attempting to conquer would provide a strong base from which they could launch larger operations. Their limited victories could inspire even more of the population to join the Resistance.
The Taliban strategy seems to be focused on regional pacification through military actions and terror tactics. They operate almost exclusively along roadways and villages in the valleys. They are reluctant to venture into the mountains, which has forced them into a defensive strategy along several extended axes of advance in overwhelmingly hostile territory. This strategy invites continued raids, ambushes, and night attacks against stationary targets that will favor the Resistance and bleed Taliban forces over the coming year. Their extended supply lines continues to leave them in danger of significant disruptions. Even if they employ their air assets effectively, their strategy has historically not been a recipe for success. The Vietnam War is a classic example of the perils of an over-reliance on air power and focusing too heavily on road networks and cities vs. the mountains.
Furthermore, the Taliban do not currently appear capable of engaging the Resistance, then attacking a vulnerable flank of their forces. Although Taliban units stationed at northern border crossings into neighboring countries theoretically leave the Resistance surrounded by Taliban forces, they do not have sufficient strength to mount any kind of enveloping maneuver and attack from the rear.
The Taliban can’t afford to lose in the North. They are “all in” to put down the Resistance quickly and have expended significant diplomatic and propaganda efforts to attempt to hide the extent of the conflict from regional partners and the international community. While they enjoy numerical superiority and advantages in equipment and arms, they are understandably struggling with managing the entire country, dealing with sometimes hostile neighbors, and trying to counter a resurgent ISIS-K, all while facing a severe economic crisis. Undoubtedly, they will find it difficult to bring all their forces to bear on the Northern problem.
The Taliban are losing the “opinion war”, both internationally and domestically. The continued implementation of regressive policies has placed them back into the role of international pariahs. Their forces’ recently documented atrocities (likely to be considered war crimes) are terror tactics that a modern state seeking equal footing on the global stage simply cannot allow to happen. While diplomats and governments will dance around the term, the Taliban have been forced into a war of ethnic pacification that may soon lead to cleansing or genocide.
While they are not currently losing the war with the Resistance, they are certainly not winning it either.