September 19, 2012

The Taliban, Special Operations, and Strategy

One of the preemiment problems with the way that guerrilla warfare is discussed is the almost commonplace idea that it is a fundamentally different type of war, requiring fundamentally different interpretive and operational methods. Last weekend's spectacular assault on Camp Bastion should disabuse everyone of that notion. The assault on the heavily fortified airbase demonstrates an Taliban special operations capability that has yielded strategic effect. Since the 2008 Kabul Serena Hotel attack, the Taliban (likely guided by their Pakistani patrons) have developed a capability for complex, high-risk assaults that now seems to have taken center stage. The war of position has hardened, as swathes of the country remain in the hands of either Mullah Omar or the Haqqani Network and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) continues what has been a problematic effort to consolidate their gains in the south. The Taliban are now using special operations to bolster the political effect of their territorial holdings and make their mark on Afghanistan's new politics.

James Kiras, a historian of special operations, writes that special operations are "unconventional actions against enemy vulnerabilities in a sustained
campaign, undertaken by specially designated units, to enable
conventional operations and/or resolve economically politico-military
problems at the operational or strategic level that are difficult or
impossible to accomplish with conventional forces alone."  Special operations generate cumulative moral or material attrition on the opponent in conjunction with conventional forces. Both moral and material vectors are vulnerabilities for the United States and its Afghan ally. Seven percent of the Marine Corps' overall Harrier fleet went up in smoke, and each high-risk assault in a Afghan urban center and targeted killing of an Afghan official adds to the perception of Taliban will and capability. While the Taliban special operations community may not look much like the Anglo-American model of special operations honed in World War II, it is still capable of formidable feats. The raid on the heavily fortified and geographically remote Camp Bastion required solid operational planning skills and intelligence prepartion of the battlefield. As Jeffrey Dressler argues, the complexity of the operation suggests planning and direction from Pakistan's intelligence services.

Under Kiras' model, special operations and regular forces both produce effects to support a political end. That end, as the transition process nears, is political position in Afghanistan's new order. There is nothing particularly unique about that kind of warfare. In major conventional wars after World War II, operations frequently were designed to bolster an overall political position rather than lead to decisive victory. The ending phases of the Korean and Vietnam wars both were marked by intense battles to gain a favorable position before the cease-fire. North Korea has repeatedly utilized a range of conventional and unconventional military tools for brinksmanship over the last few decades, and seems to be expanding its special operations and information warfare capabilities. Special operations, which utilize specially trained and tasked men to undertake difficult missions, are ideal for achieving strategic effect under such political conditions.

The idea that the Taliban could field a special operations capability and deploy it in a manner consistent with historical campaigns is not shocking when one considers that they originally gained political power in Afghanistan through mobile warfare to seize territory in the mid-90s. This required combined arms coordination, operational logistics, and command--all helped by generous Pakistani support. They lost political control through the similarly successful Northern Alliance prosecution of maneuver operations, which leveraged combat power to convince both Taliban elites and rank-and-file to change sides. Force destruction and the seizing of territory certainly can certainly achieve strategic ends all on their own (think Napoleon's most glorious campaigns) but the political element of war is paramount in every mode of warfare. The problem is not that Afghanistan is a uniquely political kind of war--all wars are---but that we forget that strategy involves the use of battle to generate political currency. The opening gambit of the current civil war cycle was, after all, a Soviet direct action raid to decapitate and destroy the Hafizullah Amin regime.

The Taliban are unlikely to use special operations to achieve anything that dramatic. However threatening their recent exploits may be, one concrete lesson of special operations history is that pinpoint raids do not obviate the need to painstakingly eliminate the opponent's ability and will to resist. The culminating point will be reached if the Taliban's reliance on special operations gets too far removed from what their main forces achieve. There are many people in Afghanistan and the wider region with a vested interest in seeing that the Taliban do not return to power, and a hard force-on-force fight looms. But Camp Bastion has demonstrated that Taliban special operations are nonetheless an important threat.