Taliban Shift to Suicide Bombings Equals Defeat?

The editors of StrategyPage believe the Taliban is on the road to extinction:

The Taliban has admitted defeat, in their own unique way. In recent media interviews, Taliban spokesmen announced a shift in emphasis to suicide bombings. The Taliban also admitted that the Americans had infiltrated their high command, which led to the death or capture of several senior Taliban officials, and the capture of many lower ranking ones as well. There have also been some prominent defections recently, which the Taliban spokesmen did not want to talk about.

[…]

Terrorism is a step back for the Taliban, and an admission that they have failed, in the last two years, in their effort to march into Afghanistan and take over. Suicide bombing is suicidal in more ways than one. Most of the victims, so far, have been Afghans, and this has turned many likeminded (Islamic conservative) Afghans against the Taliban. But at this point, the Taliban have no choice. They must either step back, or step aside. By choosing to proceed with a terror campaign, they are also selecting extinction.

One hopes. Certainly, suicide bombings are a sign of desperation and no way to win consensus for returning to power. On the other hand, suicide bombings are an incredibly effective way to achieve smaller political goals, like breaking the will of foreign powers to sustain operations in one’s country and preventing the national government from interfering in the drug trade.

If mere chaos is their goal, then, the Taliban is not close to defeat. If, however, they aspire to governance, this assessment is right on the money.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Suicide bombings are tacit admission that there is no way to achieve a military victory. It constitutes a shift of focus to the political, by way of the “If it bleeds it leads” US media. The ultimate purpose, is as you state , breaking the well of their opposition.

    Of course, it doesn’t help when the success or failure of our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, are measured by our own Democratic party, in terms of how many suicide bombers have attacked within the last month.

  2. Matt T says:

    Of course, it doesn’t help when the success or failure of our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, are measured by our own Democratic party, in terms of how many suicide bombers have attacked within the last month.

    Judging success or failure by the relative level of violence in these conflicts is not just an attempt to frame debate by Democrats–metrics measuring violence are the logical means of tracking the military’s stated purpose.

    When the mission changed from “toppling the government(s)” to “defeating the insurgents,” America itself modified its definition of victory. As long as the insurgents still have the will and the means to attack, the mission is incomplete, and total victory can not be claimed.

    No matter how much anyone would like to blame the media or the Democrat(ic) Party for treason, measuring and reporting the frequency and intensity of insurgent attacks is probably essential for determining whether or not progress is being made toward winning the GWOT.

  3. Bithead says:

    It’s doubtful to me that that measurement can be quite so direct as you make it. As James seems to suggest, the increased activity in suicide bombing, can be taken as an indication that they’re losing.

  4. Michael says:

    Of course, it doesn’t help when the success or failure of our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, are measured by our own Democratic party, in terms of how many suicide bombers have attacked within the last month.

    When it comes to our success of failure to provide safety and security in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think the number of suicide bombers and civilian deaths is about the only measure you have. The number of enemy killed tells you nothing in this regard.

  5. Matt T says:

    Bit,

    While I understand your point, I must say that I find it to be a logical stretch.

    Increased attacks, in any form, whether suicide bombings, IEDs, RPGs, or even conventional firefights, to me do not seem to indicate success. As I stated above, America has defined success as extinguishing either the will or means for the insurgency to continue to fight. Therefore, increased attacks show that the will/means of the insurgency is increasing, or at the very least, has not yet been entirely eliminated.

    Suicide bombings in particular appear to show that the will of the insurgents to fight is growing in intensity, rather than diminishing. After all, it takes a lot more devotion to the cause to strap bombs to oneself rather than firing a rocket or planting a remote-controlled bomb.

  6. Jim Henley says:

    Suicide bombings are very cost-effective frustration tactics, the political equivalent of “area denial” munitions like persistent chem weapons. And they’re a poor man’s air force/artillery. They’re not an effective means of establishing your authority over a patch of ground, though. You can keep others from ruling an area effectively using suicide bombing, but you can’t rule it yourself. That’s true of all Robb’s “brave new war” tactics. They’re the irregular-warfare equivalent of burning the crops before you retreat.

  7. Bithead says:

    I think the amount of suicide bombers, is simply an indication of “Arab outrage”, which I discuss here.

    As I suggest in the piece, I think to accept such indicators as the sole measurement is misleading at least, and in truth, counterproductive to the end of solving the larger problem, because it misidentifies the problem .

    I would also suggest, that you’re not taking into account the cultural and religious angles, here. The 72 virgin thing, may be laughable to you and I , but they take it quite seriously. It’s not a measure of devotion to the cause of winning the battle here on earth, but rather that of personal gain, in that they get a ticket to what passes for heaven.

    Which is why, in the past, I have encouraged our people to hasten their arrival there. Seems only fair.

  8. Jim Henley says:

    James, it’s possible to imagine suicide bombings and other GG (global guerrilla) tactics as part of a successful “combined arms” operation with “offensive” goals. If Taliban suicide/GG attacks can successfully limit the range of the official authority – in this case NATO and the Karzai government – while other Taliban elements fill the authority vacuum created thereby, then what you have is not desperation but strategy. It comes down to the factual question of whether suicide tactics are the last arrow left in the Taliban quiver. I see conflicting claims about how well or poorly the Taliban are doing, though I’ve been tending to discount the most pessimistic “Taliban R about 2 take over!!!1!! ZOMG!!!” ones on the grounds that last year the Taliban announced a big spring offensive and this year they didn’t.

    Strategy Page seems to exist to announce that we’re winning or about to win in Iraq and Afghanistan and anywhere else pretty much every day, whether we are or not.

  9. James Joyner says:

    They’re not an effective means of establishing your authority over a patch of ground, though. You can keep others from ruling an area effectively using suicide bombing, but you can’t rule it yourself. That’s true of all Robb’s “brave new war” tactics.

    Right. His thesis, though, is that’s all the guerrillas want. They specifically eschew attempts to take over the government. By sewing chaos at the local level, they can essentially be left alone to do as they please under tribal governance.

  10. Jim Henley says:

    Right. His thesis, though, is that’s all the guerrillas want.

    Oh indeed. I think that’s the part of his book – I’ve read it now – we can charitably call “undemonstrated.”

  11. James Joyner says:

    we can charitably call “undemonstrated.”

    True enough. I strikes me as plausible, though. It’s been my contention during the whole “Is it a civil war?” debate that this is the case, so it rung true to me.

    Also, Don Snow made a similar argument in his 1995ish book UNCIVIL WARS, dealing with narco-terrorists and others who used terrorism simply to get the government off their back so they could engage in very profitable criminal activities.

  12. Jim Henley says:

    This is a big issue, and complicated by the question of what should go in a comment here, what should go on UO and what belongs in the review I’m writing, but let’s take the Taliban themselves for a minute. The Taliban in fact used to be the state of Afghanistan. I think the presumption has to be that they would like to be the state of Afghanistan again. Esp since, not unlike the IRA in its heyday, they seem to try to perform government functions sub rosa wherever they can. (The IRA was big on having “trials” for people it considered malefactors, for instance. The Taliban does something of this with its attempts to force women out of certain occupations in Pashtun Afghanistan.)

    For that matter, I can’t help but note that some Takfirist groups or other have already proclaimed an “Islamic State of Iraq.”

    Now, I don’t think all of Robb’s GGs want to be the government someplace, no. I think some Iraqi insurgents just want the US gone. I think others are essentially trying to coax a bigger piece of the action out of what passes for the existing political structure of Iraq. I think others want to rule or, in the case of the Baathists, rule again. But Robb tends to conflate present capacities for action with ultimate aims of action, IMHO wrongly. It’s dangerously close to the popular “al-Qaeda is merely nihilist” fairy story American foreign policy elites told each other after 9/11.

  13. Bithead says:

    I think what we’re dancing around here, is the difference between “winning” and “not losing”.

    AS I suggested earlier, in this thread, shifting to such a tactic is an admission that a military victory in the strictest sense, cannot be won.

    What you’re doing, tactically, is playing a “keep away” defense.

    Keep it up long enough, and eventually you end up with a significant amount of sympathy on your side.

    It worked in Vietnam, after all. Ironically, that aspect of the comparison between the two situations is the only one that makes the comments of such as John Murtha and John Kerry, valid. Not that they would see it that way.

    And Jim; actually, the Taliban would like to be the state of (insert place here). Anywhere would do, as a springboard for the remainder of the region.

  14. Jim Henley says:

    bithead, I don’t find it productive to engage you on where and how I think you’re wrong, nor on the places where you’re perilously close to finding a nut. But I formally acknowledge that you posted to the thread.

  15. Bithead says:

    I suppose that depends on your exact definition of “productive”.

    If, for example, you consider that “productive” means to reinforce the opinions you already hold, (As I presume by way of the remainder of your comments), your position is understandable. If, on the other hand, “productive” means a constructive conversation the purpose of which is arriving at or somewhere near the truth, your position seems a little shaky at best.

    You have a great many qualities. Most of them good. Please don’t force me to conclude that a closed mind is one of them.

  16. Jim Henley says:

    Let’s see. You think people like me are traitors. In so many words. But I’m supposed to have so little self-respect as to consider you just the sort of person I should be having policy discussions with. I’ll pass.

  17. Bithead says:

    OK, you’ve convinced me.

    Meantime, You tell me; what am I supposed to call it when I see somebody advocating positions which directly or indirectly provide aid and comfort to a sworn enemy? Is that supposed to be a position of pride?

    Sorry, Welcome to “words mean things”.

  18. Jim Henley says:

    That’s your lookout, kid.

  19. Michael says:

    You tell me; what am I supposed to call it when I see somebody advocating positions which directly or indirectly provide aid and comfort to a sworn enemy?

    Advocating a position that either directly or indirectly provides aid and comfort to a sworn enemy is not treason. _PROVIDING_ aid and comfort to the enemy is treason, taking an action for some other reason that may or may not directly or indirectly provide aid and comfort to the enemy is NOT, and I’ll repeat this because it seems to be the point you’re missing, is _NOT_ treason.

    Giving money to Al Qaeda would be treason, not giving money to the USA to fight Al Qaeda is NOT, again _NOT_, included in the definition of treason. Supporting Al Qaeda’s efforts in Iraq is treason, not supporting the USA’s efforts in Iraq is _NOT_ treason. Working to end the USA’s efforts in Iraq is _NOT_ treason. Saying the USA’s action in Iraq are wrong is _NOT_ treason.

    Get the difference?

  20. Bithead says:

    Consider the words “aid”, as in “Giving aid and comfort to the enemy”

    1. to provide support for or relief to; help: to aid the homeless victims of the fire.
    2. to promote the progress or accomplishment of; facilitate.
    —verb (used without object)
    3. to give help or assistance.
    —noun
    4. help or support; assistance.

    Are we really going to say those advocating we cut and run from the field of battle, are not speaking the wishes of the enemy, and aiding him in that cause?

    Or consider the Antonyms:

    hinder, frustrate

    …Which is certainly what those arguing against their own country in time of war are doing to their own country.

    Advocating for the enemy, IS in fact providing aid to the enemy, however you slice it. The action you’re defending is the literal definition of the word I’m using; treason. You may wish to discuss with Noah Webster the ramifications of that.

    This is not to say that Republicans are not guilty of the redefinition of words, either. As James has noted in another thread, President Bush actually called the amnesty bill what it was today in a possible Freudian slip.He doesn’t like it being called “amnesty” . But that’s precisely what it is.

    Another such redefinition example would be “illegal immigrants” . There is no such animal; they’re either illegals or their immigrants. If the they are immigrants, they came here legally. Otherwise they are illegals.

    In those cases, (And many more) I see no purpose but confusion of the issue, to be served by trying to redefine the content of the dictionary… Confusion that results in someone’s personal or political gain. Unless perhaps it’s to throw a sop at one’s conscience. I am concerned of a number of the century definitions of, and our political discourse over the last several years. These are but a few.

    Personally, I never figured I’d be on the defensive for using the English language properly… Lord knows I’ve abused it enough over the years…. but …(Shrug)

    By the way, You’re to be commended for actually responding.

  21. Michael says:

    Are we really going to say those advocating we cut and run from the field of battle, are not speaking the wishes of the enemy, and aiding him in that cause?

    Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. By your reasoning, EVER leaving Iraq, even if we completely removed Al Qaeda and created a stable democracy, would be treason so long as it is still Al Qaeda’s wish that we leave. If Al Qaeda wished we wouldn’t club baby seals, would it be treason to say we shouldn’t club baby seals? Treason takes more than simply advocating an action that your enemy is also advocating.

    hinder, frustrate…Which is certainly what those arguing against their own country in time of war are doing to their own country.

    Welcome to democracy my friend. Like it or leave. The day it becomes wrong to question or criticize my government is the day I denounce my citizenship.

    Advocating for the enemy, IS in fact providing aid to the enemy, however you slice it.

    During the cold war, the Russians didn’t want us to nuke them. Was it treason back then for someone to advocate not nuking them? No, back then we called it sanity. Nowadays you calling it treason.

    Another such redefinition example would be “illegal immigrants” . There is no such animal; they’re either illegals or their immigrants. If the they are immigrants, they came here legally. Otherwise they are illegals.

    I think you should consult a dictionary then come back to that claim.

    By the way, You’re to be commended for actually responding.

    If you have something to say to Jim, say it to him not me. Pretending to compliment me as a means to attack him is disrespectful.

  22. Bithead says:

    Are we really going to say those advocating we cut and run from the field of battle, are not speaking the wishes of the enemy, and aiding him in that cause?

    Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. By your reasoning, EVER leaving Iraq, even if we completely removed Al Qaeda and created a stable democracy, would be treason so long as it is still Al Qaeda’s wish that we leave.

    “Winning the war” just isn’t in your vocabulary, is it? The consequence of having won the war would be the doubt and a peer say would no longer exist.

    In looking at the remainder of your comments, you appear to have skipped right over one of the definitions that I posted along to you: to promote the progress or accomplishment of; facilitate.

    I had actually written a paragraph specifically to that point, which after writing, I decided was a little too aggressive for the conversation, and removed it from yesterday’s posting. I did that assuming you’d pick up on the point yourself, but apparently was incorrect about that. But here it is;

    The arguments that the left has given us against our involvement in Iraq do precisely that. They promote the progress of our enemy the aid the accomplishments of our enemy, they facilitate their attaining those goals. I recognize that you don’t like it, and that’s understandable, but the fact of the matter is that’s the definition. The actions you’re arguing for fall directly under that definition. Your problem I fear, isn’t with me, but with the dictionary.

    Another such redefinition example would be “illegal immigrants” . There is no such animal; they’re either illegals or their immigrants. If the they are immigrants, they came here legally. Otherwise they are illegals.

    I think you should consult a dictionary then come back to that claim.

    Seems a simple enough matter.. had you bothered to look, you’d have found:

    # A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another.

    Or, from another source:

    a person who comes to a country where they were not born in order to settle there

    That’s not the situation under discussion, on two levels; For one thing, permanent residency appears to be a requirement to fall under the term. Second; Logistically, to achieve that, one would have to go through the legal process.

    If you have something to say to Jim, say it to him not me. Pretending to compliment me as a means to attack him is disrespectful

    .

    Why would I say such to him? You were the one who actually had the courage to have your point of view challenged. Thus, rightfully, you are where the comment was directed. And in any event, why would I engage in a conversation, which he has already publicly decreed would be one sided?

    interestingly, some of the leftists I’ve argued over the years, have tried redefinitions of words, to the point of making any meaningful conversation impossible. Which, of course, I would view as another level of protection against having your views challenged. Seems to me, that the most flagrant use of that where conversation became impossible was the word “taxes” being twisted into “invest in America”.

    And Michael, let’s get it straight, shall we? Respect is earned.

  23. Jim Henley says:

    Michael, bithead has successfully derailed a potentially interesting discussion about James’ actual topic into yet another war skeptics are traitors flamefest. There’s no reason to try to convince him that he’s wrong and evil, and doing so only feeds the delusion that he actually has any standing to judge your patriotism or mine or anyone else’s. The way to give people like bithead a fighting chance to become fit citizens is to refuse to validate their slice of alternate reality.

    IMHO.

  24. Bithead says:

    There’s YOUR outlook, Bucko.
    To coin a phrase.

    After listening to you preach on for a couple of days about how I was not to judge you as being a traitor or evil or (insert charge here)… you go ahead and do precisely what you told me not to do.

    Amusing. But in the end, rather typical.

    Tell me; do you react this way to anybody that challenges your worldview?

  25. Jim Henley says:

    Tell me; do you react this way to anybody that challenges your worldview?

    Nah.