Friday, November 27, 2009



President Barack Obama is expected to announce on December 1,2009, a mid-course correction in his strategy to win the campaign against the Taliban in the Af-Pak region. One has been promised a comprehensive strategy which would focus equally on the military and non-military components of the fight with the objective of winning it in a foreseeable time-frame.

2. The campaign, launched in October,2001, by the previous Administration of George Bush under the code-name Operation Enduring Freedom, has already lasted eight years. No end is in sight. In the meanwhile, there are indications of a growing fatigue in public opinion over a campaign that seems to be leading nowhere.

3.Battle fatigue of the NATO forces is what the Taliban and Al Qaeda want. There are signs in plenty of such fatigue. The fatigue is presently confined to sections of the civil society. If it spreads to the security forces, the campaign will be unwinnable.

4. While Obama has promised a comprehensive strategy and is taking his time to formulate it without being hustled by critics and detractors, much of the discussion and speculation in the US is focussed on one aspect---- the likely surge in the troop strength.

5. If a surge alone can win the campaign, a decision ought to be easy.Unfortunately, neither surges nor body counts determine the course of a campaign and its ultimate outcome. Without better tactics and better understanding of the adversary's tactics, no war or military campaign can be won whatever be the number of troops at one's disposal.

6. The question of the appropriateness of the tactics currently followed by the US troops in the Af-Pak region has hardly figured in the various reports submitted by the US military commanders on the ground to the Pentagon and in the discussions preceding a decision by the President.

7. While the Taliban in Afghanistan has been following a variable modus operandi in respect of its terrorist attacks through suicide bombers, its MO in relation to its insurgent attacks has shown hardly any variation. The MO of its insurgent attacks can be described as follows: avoid a frontal confrontation with a superior enemy on the offensive, withdraw, bide your time, regroup and attack by surprise. Territorial control is an objective of only variable importance. Where territorial control could mean large casualties and a large commitment of insurgent forces to safeguard territorial control, there is no hesitation in abandoning it.

8. This a much tried and often successful MO of many insurgent organisations from the days of the Vietcong in Vietnam and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. The US troops have been countering this MO in the same way as they did in Vietnam and the Soviet troops did in Afghanistan.

9. Is there an unconventional response to the conventional insurgent tactics of the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan? How to create battle fatigue in the Taliban and Al Qaeda? How to deny them sanctuaries and opportunities for re-grouping? What will be more effective---a large number of troops with advantages of numbers and better equipment centrally commanded and controlled or a large number of small groups of special forces such as the Green Berets operating autonomously of each other and enjoying operational flexibility? How to modify the current centralised command and control to suit such operational autonomy and flexibility?

10. To win the campaign against the Taliban in its territory where the US forces are strangers, the surprise element is important. The frequent Drone strikes from the air provide one such surprise element which has been effective time and again, but there is hardly any surprise element on the ground because of the continuing emphasis on large forces fighting set-piece battles.

11. The Af-Pak region is not the place for set-piece, predictable battle tactics. What is required is battle tactics of growing unpredictability to the Taliban that will confuse it, impose on it a high rate of attrition and ultimately lead to battle fatigue in its ranks.

12. One cannot expect Obama and his advisers to discuss battle tactics in public, but greater attention needs to be paid to it than seems to be the case till now. (27-11-09)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )


Unknown said...

Two points:

First, the appointment of McChrystal in itself is an attempt to change approaches in Afghanistan. He is a special ops guy, having at one point been the commander of US special operations forces. He is a protege of General Petraus. Most US and NATO forces have been placed under him. Tactics are a lot more his responsibility than they are the responsibility of President Obama.

Second, the US has only recently started to react to the insurgency in Afghanistan. Bush thought he conquered the conquer and for the first year or two there was a fair amount of evidence that he was right. Things went to hell in Afghanistan, but they went to hell faster in Iraq, and by the time things turned around in Iraq Bush's presidency was essentially over. While everyone was worried about Iraq, there basically wasn't any thought at all given to Afghanistan. So, while the war is eight years old, in a lot of ways we only started to worry about it after Iraq stabilized in 2007.

Third, the US is starting to organize and train a satellite Afghan army to fight the Taliban when we're gone, or our presence is much reduced. India might find it in India's interest to help with this.

So on the surface, the US authorities are aware of the problem and starting to deal with it.

That said I am one of the war weary American people who are wondering how long our army can stand it. Afghanistan had a better record against the Brits than India did, as well as beating the Russians. Basically, we're fighting to deny AQ a base while the Afghai Taliban is fighting to throw the infidel out of their country. So their morale in a long war should be higher than ours. Looks like a pretty tough war to me, and I'm inclined to favor pulling out now rather than waiting to be defeated.

That said, this has been going on for a while. If you're still reading and want to read more from me, I have a blog at:

Thanks for reading this,


shaan said...

You people in the West believe in the myth that the Afghans can never be beaten simply because the British failed to control Afghanistan. For your information, NWFP and FATA which were part of Afghanistan were annexed by Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab in the 19th century. It became part of British empire (and now Pakistan) when the British defeated the Sikhs and annexed Punjab. Even in the case of India, the British controlled only 60% of India and the rest were under native rulers with whom the British entered into treaties.

Unknown said...

Hi Shaan,

Point taken.

India did much better in the 19th century against the Brits than I implied. Also, a fair number of the battles they lost were lost to the Duke of Wellington, and Indians weren't the only ones who lost battles to him.

That said, the fact that a Sikh managed to conquer part of Afghanistan in the nineteenth century may not have much relevance to the question of whether the US can win in Afghanistan in the twenty first. After all, we want to transform Afghan society, at least to the limited extent necessary to prevent them from hiding Osama bin Laden. The Sikh ruler probably just wanted them to acknowledge him as King and pay a certain amount of tribute.