The Art of Asymmetric Warfare

Very briefly, an important article by Jason Burke in the Guardian’s comment section on the Taliban’s approach to holistic warfare that includes what our doctrine still sees as unconventional and yet is the dominant form of warfare today and into the future (irrespective of whether the F-22 should be kept).

A US military officer quoted in the excellent report by the International Crisis Group into Taliban propaganda operations released a few days ago says, "unfortunately, we tend to view information operations as supplementing kinetic [fighting] operations. For the Taliban, however, information objectives tend to drive kinetic operations … virtually every kinetic operation they undertake is specifically designed to influence attitudes or perceptions".

This is strategic thought of extreme novelty, and in no small way helps explain the relative success of the Taliban so far in Afghanistan. In terms of a communication strategy it certainly goes well beyond the clumsy international coalition efforts which have remained largely focused on the international audience. Western press officers’ ability to talk to the Afghan public is hindered by their minimal language skills and the cultural gaps that separate them, and remains very limited.

Equally, the idea that military operations should be decided primarily according to their effect on populations and thus should be determined to a significant degree by the exigencies of modern media technology and by journalists is anathema to most western soldiers, most of whom see the press as a necessary evil at best.

The Taliban by contrast are quite happy to shape their military strikes according to the media demand. They know that spectacular attacks such as that on Kabul’s Serena hotel or the repeated attempts on President Karzai’s life are effective.

Their day-to-day media operation targets four audiences – international western, international Islamic, local and regional – in at least five different languages. They are careful to avoid statements that play on Afghanistan’s complex identity politics – though support for the movement remains overwhelmingly drawn from the Sunni Pashtun tribes and the history of the Taliban is replete with examples of persecution of Shia or Afghanistan’s less numerous ethnic minorities.

The ICG report is here and below is part of the report’s Executive Summary:

The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement. Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.

Analysing the Taliban’s public statements has limits, since the insurgent group seeks to underscore successes – or imagined successes – and present itself as having the purest of aims, while disguising weaknesses and underplaying its brutality. However, the method still offers a window into what the movement considers effective in terms of recruitment and bolstering its legitimacy among both supporters and potential sympathisers.

The movement reveals itself in its communications as:

  • the product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed but not representative of indigenous strands of religious thought or traditional pre-conflict power structures;

  • a largely ethno-nationalist phenomenon, without popular grassroots appeal beyond its core of support in sections of the Pashtun community;

  • still reliant on sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though local support has grown;

  • linked with transnational extremist groups for mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally;

  • seeking to exploit local tribal disputes for recruitment and mainly appealing to the disgruntled and disenfranchised in specific locations, but lacking a wider tribal agenda; and

  • a difficult negotiating partner because it lacks a coherent agenda, includes allies with divergent agendas and has a leadership that refuses to talk before the withdrawal of foreign forces and without the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).

…A website in the name of the former regime – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – is used as an international distribution centre for leadership statements and inflated tales of battlefield exploits. While fairly rudimentary, this is not a small effort; updates appear several times a day in five languages. Magazines put out by the movement or its supporters provide a further source of information on leadership structures and issues considered to be of importance. But for the largely rural and illiterate population, great efforts are also put into conveying preaching and battle reports via DVDs, audio cassettes, shabnamah (night letters – pamphlets or leaflets usually containing threats) and traditional nationalist songs and poems. The Taliban also increasingly uses mobile phones to spread its message.