The Taliban Rope-a-Dope


On July 7, the Times [UK] carried a 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, Genghis John. And for an example of an implicit application at the mental and moral levels of conflict, see my essay in CounterPunch, 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 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









Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at