Afghanistan Conflict Extremism Security & Defense South Asia Terrorism United States and Canada
New Atlanticist August 15, 2021

How the Taliban did it: Inside the ‘operational art’ of its military victory

By Benjamin Jensen

The Taliban are in Kabul and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has left the country.

How exactly did the militant group do it? Understanding how the Taliban accomplished its lightning-fast encirclement of the capital, as well as the next phase of the conflict, requires understanding the group’s strategy in terms of “operational art.” The Taliban of 2021 is not the same as the Taliban of the 1990s. This Taliban is now adept at integrating military and non-military instruments of power in pursuit of its political objectives.

The Afghan government didn’t lose the fight because most US military forces withdrew from the country. Instead, the government’s troops were outmaneuvered by a more adaptive military organization. The Taliban delineated specific objectives and lines of effort to hollow out the Afghan security forces and conduct a strategic encirclement of Kabul designed to force the government to capitulate.

The concept of operational art forms the blueprint for military campaigns, translating political objectives and strategy into tactical actions on the battlefield. A group need not study Clausewitz and Western military history, or attend a modern military staff college, to develop such an art. As the Taliban has demonstrated, it need only rely on an overarching theory of victory to guide its actions.

Over time, the Taliban has evolved into a military group capable of advancing along multiple lines of effort. The shadowy insurgent network deft at executing rural ambushes and planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been replaced by a complex organization managing as many as 80,000 fighters who are even more skilled at using social media than AK-47s. Their operational art combines information operations, including appeals from tribal elders alongside text messages and Twitter, with decentralized orders that allow local commanders who know the terrain and politics in their areas to identify opportunities for taking the initiative. When Taliban forces achieve military success, they reinforce those advances with mobile reserve exploitation forces—hordes of commandos on motorcycles—allowing the group to maintain tempo on the battlefield.

The Taliban’s overarching objective has not changed for years: seize control of Afghanistan and re-establish an Islamic Emirate. During the current military campaign, the group was pragmatic about this objective. Success could come in the form of pure military victory or a more complex negotiated settlement that left the group in the seat of power and the administration in Kabul expats or prisoners. This pragmatism reflects the Taliban’s understanding that the group cannot govern Afghanistan the same way it did in the 1990s. The Taliban will be harsh and roll back human rights, but it will seek to keep the country connected to the world and the aid dollars flowing. The group likely wants to avoid repeating the governance failures of the 1990s by calling for many government officials to remain in technical positions and ensure that basic services and the economy continue functioning. Taliban fighters have seized key economic terrain such as border-crossing points, granting themselves enough funds to govern a country of almost forty million people.  

To achieve their objective, the Taliban’s military campaign relied on four lines of effort:

1. Isolating the Afghan military

The collapse of the Afghan security forces was a result of operational-level isolation. In US Army doctrine, isolation involves sealing off an enemy both physically and psychologically from its base of support—denying them freedom of movement and preventing reinforcement. The Taliban took a deliberate approach to isolating its foe at the operational level for more than eighteen months by taking advantage of fundamental weaknesses in the posture of Afghan security forces. 

Initially, the Afghan government focused on holding terrain through checkpoints and small outposts scattered across the country. From a political standpoint, this posture allowed Ghani, who struggled to win broad-based political support, to appeal to different political groups and say he was denying the Taliban terrain.

But the military reality was the opposite: The approach dispersed units across the country and rendered them unable to mutually reinforce one another. The Taliban exploited this vulnerability, disrupting ground lines of communication in an effort to further isolate the checkpoints and set the conditions for the defeat of Afghan forces. As the checkpoints became dependent on getting new supplies by air, resupply missions strained an already overstretched Afghan Air Force. As a result, maintenance issues grounded more aircraft than anti-aircraft fire did.

The net result was a series of outposts where Afghan forces were often without food, water, or ammunition, breeding discontent, disillusionment, and a broken air force to boot. 

2. Targeting cohesion through threats and texts

With Afghan security forces—which likely outnumbered the Taliban by three to one—isolated, the Taliban increased activities along a second line of effort: the use of tailored propaganda and information operations to undermine morale and cohesion. Morale and the will to fight are critical intangibles in war—as practitioners ranging from Sun Tzu to Napoleon have observed. The Taliban further sealed off physically isolated Afghan security forces through a sophisticated psychological-warfare campaign.

The insurgents flooded social media with images that offered surrounded Afghan security forces a Hobson’s choice: Surrender and live—or die and wonder if the Taliban will kill your family next. More than 70 percent of the Afghan population has access to cell phones, and the Taliban has adapted accordingly—using modern, Russian-style information warfare that deploys fake accounts and bots to spread its messages and undermine the Afghan government.

The group combined the new with the old as well, using appeals from tribal elders alongside text messages to compel Afghan security forces to surrender. As outposts crumbled, the Taliban sustained its momentum on the battlefield using captured military equipment not only to resupply its forces but also to exploit images of the surrender for additional propaganda. 

Put yourself in the shoes of an Afghan soldier: You are in a combat outpost, running out of food and ammunition, fighting for an unpopular government, and forced to pay bribes due to endemic corruption. As you look at your cell phone, all you see are images of fellow soldiers surrendering. Even if you opt to fight, your morale and will to fight have been undermined.

3. Practicing a new form of terror: kill and compel

The Taliban used terror to further undermine confidence in the government and degrade Kabul’s ability to fight. Whereas the insurgents once relied on high-value attacks using vehicle-borne IEDs to terrorize the population and strike at the government, in the lead-up to this latest campaign they shifted their tactics to a war in the shadows that proved more effective in undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government. 

Over the last two years, the Taliban has employed a covert assassination campaign to target civil-society leaders and key military personnel such as pilots. The intermediate military objective was twofold. First, it amplified the Taliban’s strategic messaging that Ghani’s regime could not secure Afghanistan. Everyone knew the Taliban was behind most of the assassinations, but the fact that it didn’t take credit for them made the killings seem more insidious. Second, the best way to destroy an air force is on the ground. Lacking sophisticated air-defense weapons, the Taliban opted to undermine the Afghan Air Force by killing pilots in their homes—a crude but effective variant of the practice of high-value individual targeting. These attacks were designed to compel other Afghan pilots to abandon their posts.

4. Negotiating to buy time and constrain military power

The Taliban integrated diplomacy with its military campaign in a way that both Afghan security forces and the United States struggled to replicate. War is a continuation of politics. Any battlefield activity in which the operational logic isn’t connected to clearly defined political objectives will prove self-defeating. 

The Taliban took advantage of the peace deal negotiated largely bilaterally between its representatives and the United States under former President Donald Trump. In excluding the Afghan government, the agreement undermined the Ghani administration politically and made it difficult to maintain unity of effort between partners in the counterinsurgency campaign. The Taliban used the cover of the peace deal to move into position across the country, surrounding key districts and provincial centers, while also using the negotiation process to limit US military power. Each round of diplomatic talks constrained America’s ability to attack Taliban targets. 

If there was a critical turning point in the conflict, it was the peace deal signed under Trump: Without it, the Taliban would have struggled to isolate the Afghan military and set the conditions for its rapid advance on Kabul. Likewise, the deal signaled to regional actors that they needed to hedge their bets and start making provisions for the end of the Ghani regime in Afghanistan.

The next phase

All wars must end. But how they end matters and can determine the character of future conflicts and their ability to spread beyond borders.

The complete collapse of the Afghan security forces increases the likelihood that regional actors will engage the Taliban, shifting from proxy support to open political relations with the group. These interactions will be transactional exchanges, as states like Iran and Pakistan secure their borders and security interests while countries such as Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors advance their economic interests and try to limit refugee flows and what could prove to be a complex humanitarian emergency.

In the transition period, regional states and great powers will determine whether or not to fund rival centers of power in Afghanistan to balance the Taliban—an unlikely prospect in the short-term given the success of the Taliban campaign. More immediately, regional actors will increasingly view Afghanistan through a counterterrorism lens and shift their attention to groups such as ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), a mutual enemy of states in the region and the Taliban.

In this environment, US policy will need to focus on averting a humanitarian catastrophe and developing viable options for pursuing American counterterrorism goals. The war in Afghanistan is displacing hundreds of thousands of people in the middle of a pandemic and a severe drought affecting the region. Humanitarian concerns and terrorism are not mutually exclusive. Groups such as ISIS-K will prey on the post-conflict security crisis to radicalize a new generation of followers who feel abandoned by Western institutions. Other actors, such as Russia and Belarus, will take advantage of refugee flows to further polarize politics in Europe. The United States and its partners will need to shift from supporting a fallen regime to preventing the Taliban’s military victory from fueling unrest in new forms.

Benjamin Jensen is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He holds a dual appointment as a professor at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfare, where he runs its Future War research program, and as a scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service. Outside of academia, he is a reserve officer in the US Army who recently returned from supporting the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect official government policy.

Image: Taliban forces patrol a street in Herat, Afghanistan, on August 14, 2021. Photo by a Reuters stringer.