[News] The Taliban Rope-a-Dope

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jul 14 11:32:08 EDT 2009

July 14, 2009

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

The Taliban Rope-a-Dope



On July 7, the Times [UK] carried 
remarkable report describing the trials and tribulations of the Welsh 
Guards, who are now engaged in the ongoing offensive against the 
Taliban in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It described in riveting 
detail how accumulating mental and physical stress are grinding down 
the bodies and minds of what are clearly highly-motivated, 
well-trained, and competently-led troops. My aim is to elaborate on 
the Times report by examining its information from a different 
perspective. My hope is that this will provide a better appreciation 
of the Taliban's game.

With the exception of the last sentence in the penultimate paragraph 
(i.e., "The Taliban fight not to win but to outlast"), which is 
silly, the Times provides a graphic description of the pressures on 
the individual British soldiers, and it is an excellent window into 
the effects of the Taliban's military art. The information suggests 
the Taliban's strategic aim is to wear down their adversaries by 
keeping them under continual strain and by working on their 
psychology, or as the late American strategist John Boyd would say, 
by getting inside, slowing down, and disorienting their adversary's 
Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) loops. Moreover, 
the Taliban's operational art seems particularly focused on the 
mental and moral levels of conflict. Outlasting, by running away to 
fight another day whenever faced with superior forces, is a central 
part of any winning strategy directed toward achieving this aim. 
(Interested readers can find a brief introduction to OODA loops in 
the last section of my remembrance of Boyd in the Proceedings of the 
Naval Institute, <http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/comments/c199.htm>Genghis 
John. And for an example of an implicit application at the mental and 
moral levels of conflict, see my essay in CounterPunch, 
<http://www.counterpunch.org/spinney11052008.html>How Obama Won).

The Times report also contains information describing NATO's 
operational art. It suggests that NATO's operational focus is aimed 
at occupying or cutting lines of communication (LOCs) by occupying 
checkpoints or outposts. This operational level aim reflects NATO's 
belief that control of checkpoints along the LOCs will make it 
possible to control movement of the Taliban, and thereby make it 
easier to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban. By 
definition, if successful, this outcome would slow down and 
physically disconnect the Taliban's OODA loops from the political 
environment, thus establishing the blanket of military security 
needed for achieving the strategic aim of winning the hearts and 
minds of the people through political action. But we will see that 
this is more an exercise in self-referencing than in strategy.

The differences between the Taliban's art of war and NATO's art of 
war raise the question of who has and will maintain the initiative, 
or in the context of Boyd's strategic theory, whose OODA loops are 
really being slowed down, disoriented, and made more predictable in 
what is an emerging war over the Afghan LOCs?

The Times report does not address this question, but it contains some 
very suggestive information in this regard.

The Taliban live off the land and have weapons/supply caches 
throughout Helmand province and Afghanistan. They can and indeed have 
been ordered by their leader in Helmand, Mullah Naim Barach, to 
concentrate and disperse at will. The Taliban can do this easily, 
because they can blend seamlessly into the local culture, should they 
choose to do so.

The deployed NATO units, on the other hand, are highly-visible alien 
conventional military forces. Moreover, the NATO foreigners are 
deployed in easily discerned, static positions: checkpoints, 
outposts, and base camps. The geographic distribution of the NATO 
forces in a large number of small outposts makes them vulnerable to a 
welter of float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee attacks and 
ambushes, made at times and places of the Taliban's choosing. The 
Times report makes it clear that Taliban attacks are aimed at 
isolating and stressing individual checkpoints and, perhaps, also at 
triggering a flow of reinforcements to these checkpoints, which could 
then be ambushed by the Taliban along the long, vulnerable LOCs.

Not mentioned in the Times report is a closely-related, important 
asymmetry: Conventional NATO forces can not live off the land and are 
entirely dependent on a massive thru-put of food, fuel, water, 
ammunition, and spare parts. In this regard, the report does describe 
a land resupply route along the canal. It says that British forces 
are forced to move at a snail's pace, because of the uncertain menace 
posed Taliban's ever-present mine threat.

Cheap mines and simple booby traps, which the Pentagon 
euphemistically labels as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, as 
if they represented something new and unexpected, have long proven 
themselves to be one of the most effective ways to slow down, 
distract, and disrupt the OODA loops of an attacking adversary. That 
is because they directly attack the attacker's mind and slow down or 
paralyze his decision cycle. Any soldier who has experienced the 
overwhelming sense of freezing fear created by the mental effect of 
finding himself ensnared in a minefield during a firefight knows how 
the known presence of mines can wreck even the best OODA loop.

With this background in mind, let us now place these observations and 
thoughts in a somewhat different context.

Every conflict, be it conventional or unconventional, embodies an 
amalgam of physical, mental, and moral effects. The great battlefield 
commanders have long recognized that strengths and weaknesses in 
moral and mental effects can be far more influential in shaping 
outcomes than physical effects. Napoleon, for example, pithily 
encapsulated this view by saying "the moral is to the material as 
three to one." Viewed through a moral and mental lens, the Times 
report contains information that is strongly suggestive of an 
asymmetry in the opposing strategies that reflects long standing 
differences the eastern and western approaches to making war.

Without explicitly saying so, the Times report makes it clear that 
the Taliban's strategic target is the mind of their adversary. Its 
operational schwerpunkt (i.e., main military effort to which all 
other efforts are subordinated) is also directly aimed at the mind of 
their adversaries, both in the field or in London and Washington. It 
is also pretty clear, that the Taliban's operational schwerpunckt is 
to use an omnipresent physical menace (manifesting itself through a 
welter of large and small attacks, and when faced with opposition, 
running away to fight another day, as well as mine warfare, terror, 
etc.) is to undermine mental and moral stability of their 
adversaries. This focus on the mind is a way of war that is entirely 
consistent with the thinking expressed in the first book ever written 
on the art war by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, as well as their 
modern incarnation in the guerrilla theories of Mao Zedong.

Like the Taliban, the strategic aim of the British operation is also 
directed toward the mental and moral levels of conflict -- namely 
winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. But in sharp 
contrast to that of the Taliban, the operational-level schwerpunkt of 
the NATO forces is entirely physical. It is aimed directly at 
controlling checkpoints and lines of communication.

The theory behind NATO's operational schwerpunckt -- and remember, it 
is only a theory -- is that through this physical control, NATO 
forces (i.e., alien outsiders) will provide the means to win at the 
mental and moral levels of conflict. Borrowing terminology from Mao 
and applying it to the culture of Afghanistan, NATO forces would do 
this by physically isolating the Taliban fish from a sea of a people 
supporting them -- people who, in this case, have been conditioned by 
30 years of violent civil war in what is perhaps the most xenophobic 
culture in the world. Once the Taliban are isolated, the NATO 
military forces would then be able to play the mental and moral game 
of winning the hearts and minds of the people by providing greater 
protection, economic aid, and the construction of economic and 
democratic political infrastructures.

This new strategy, named Clear, Hold, Build by the Americans, is 
actually the resurrection of a famous old colonialist strategy 
evolved by Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934) who eventually became a 
Marshall in the French army and ended his days as a virulent fascist. 
Lyautey's theory, named Tache d'huile, a buzz word to connote the 
idea of spreading oil spots, posited that counterinsurgent forces 
should aim to secure an ever expanding geographic zone of security, 
like a spreading oil spot, and then use that security to win over the 
colonized people (presumably, so the French colonialists could 
continue to exploit the people and their resources). Each new area 
secured would provide a basis for further spreading, and so on, 
clearing and holding ever larger regions. Tache d'huile was tried by 
the French in Morocco, Vietnam and Algeria and by the Americans in 
Vietnam with the notorious Strategic Hamlets program. Although it 
worked sometimes in the short term, the long term results speak for 
themselves. (Some contemporary counterinsurgency specialists like to 
point to the case of Malaya as a successful counter-example of 
clearing and holding, but one must remember that the guerilla 
fighters in this case were ethnic Chinese who were hated by the 
ethnic Malayans.)

The problem is that to succeed in the moral and mental game in 
Afghanistan, NATO's tache d'huile strategy must establish a blanket 
physical security so pervasive that highly visible alien aid 
providers and reformers spread thinly throughout a traumatized, 
xenophobic, clan-based population will not be picked off one by one 
by the Taliban, warlords, criminal gangs, or any others who feel 
threatened by their presence.

But there is more. Not only is the operational focus of the NATO 
forces physical, it is clearly reflective of and consistent with the 
interdiction theories of modern western conventional war, 
particularly those of Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, a very influential 
19th century French theoretician who tried to systematize Napoleon's 
art of war. These theories reflect the incontestable fact that 
western combatant forces are heavily dependent on lines of 
communication (LOCs) for flows of supplies and reinforcements, and 
therefore, are highly vulnerable to physical disruption of LOCs. 
NATO's heavy dependency raises the ominous question of whether the 
fallacy of mirror imaging -- i.e., assuming the Taliban is vulnerable 
to something NATO is vulnerable to -- is again creating the same 
mistake it did for the Americans in Vietnam.

History has shown repeatedly that conventionally-inspired military 
action (especially interdiction operations aimed at choking off the 
supplies and reinforcements and destroying the so-called safe havens 
of the adversary) aimed at achieving an unconventional end (winning 
hearts and minds of the people in a guerilla war) can easily 
degenerate into a mindless, fire-power centric war driven by 
conventional military thinking.

The Soviets, for example, tried to win the hearts and minds of the 
Afghan people, but lost sight of their goal and eventually became 
ensnared in a struggle for control of Afghan LOCs. This degenerated 
into a firepower intensive bloodbath in which the Soviets inflicted 
horrendous damage; but, in the end, they had to leave Afghanistan 
with their tail between their legs. Readers interested in the Soviet 
experience should 
<http://amconmag.com/article/2009/aug/01/00030/>click here for a 
stunning lessons-learned analysis of how nation building Soviet-style 
failed in Afghanistan. The same kind of degeneration into a mindless 
applications of firepower happened to US forces in Vietnam. In both 
cases, all the noble sounding rhetoric about winning hearts and minds 
of the locals was drowned and forgotten in a sea of mindless body 
counts and wanton destruction.

As in Vietnam, the tempting response to the welter of Taliban attacks 
on NATO's LOCs, checkpoints, and outposts in this war will be to 
increase NATO's dependence on high speed reinforcements. But, as the 
Times report shows, the Brits are learning to their dismay that 
guerrilla surprise attacks and mine laying activities force ground 
reinforcements to move at a snail's pace. The natural response by 
NATO will be toward a greater reliance on rapid-response 
reinforcements moved via air to threatened areas by helicopters and 
Marine V-22s, together with an increase in supporting firepower of 
air and artillery.

Such an evolution on a large scale would mean that costs to fight the 
most recent Afghan war will escalate ever more rapidly. Operating 
these aircraft in high mountain ranges or in the dusty high desert 
plateaus entails a host of very expensive logistics and operational 
problems. Moreover, by concentrating the troop reinforcement packages 
in vulnerable helos and V-22s, NATO will run the risk of far greater 
troop casualties, when the Taliban learn how to shoot down these 
reinforcing aircraft as they approach their landing zones, as they 
surely will. Counter insurgency strategists would do well to remember 
that the United States lost over 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam, mostly 
to small arms and machine gun fire as they approached hot landing 
zones. The Soviets relied more on ground reinforcements (which 
resulted in a large number of very bloody ambushes), but their helos 
also got plastered in Afghanistan. NATO strategists would also do 
well to remember how the "strategists" in both of these earlier wars 
insensibly became obsessed with bombing lines of communication. In 
the end, frustration, coupled with the insensible seduction of 
firepower and conventional dogma, led to attrition and destruction 
becoming ends in themselves, memorably encapsulated by the American 
officer who told a reporter, "we had to destroy the village to save 
it," and thereby pushed the hearts and minds of the people into the 
welcoming arms of the insurgents.

No one knows if this kind of ruin is to be our future, but the Times 
report suggests many of the fatally flawed building blocks are now 
falling into place.

One unrelated final point: The Times report contains some very 
interesting information that should be of specific interest to those 
American officers who have a Haig-like affinity for the comfort of 
rear echelon command posts. Of the five battle deaths suffered by the 
Welsh Guards, the Times says three were commanding officers: one a 
platoon commander, another a company commander, and last, the 
regimental commander. The British officers at the pointy end of the 
spear seem to be setting high moral examples by sharing the risks and 
burdens of the grunts they are leading. It also would not be 
surprising if the Taliban are targeting commanding officers, but this 
high percentage of total losses (admittedly 60% of a tiny specific 
sample makes it impossible to extrapolate) makes one wonder if they 
are also receiving the requisite intelligence information to do so.

Franklin "Chuck" Spinney is a former military analyst for the 
Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and 
can be reached at <mailto:chuck_spinney at mac.com>chuck_spinney at mac.com

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