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The Taliban ‘Advance’: No Time To Wobble

Commentary, 22 August 2008
The ambush and the loss of French soldiers in Afghanistan may well be described as a tactical setback if not defeat, but at a strategic level, the insurgents are nowhere near victorious.

The ambush and the loss of French soldiers in Afghanistan may well be described as a tactical setback if not defeat, but at a strategic level, the insurgents are nowhere near victorious.

By Paul Smyth, Head, Operational Studies, Military Sciences Department, RUSI

This week’s violent encounter in Afghanistan’s Surobi district is a timely example of how a tactical event can have strategic impact. In this case, it brought a Head of State rushing to Kabul and it generated some unscheduled messages of France’s clear determination to support the ISAF mission, an outcome which some may say, cannot be seen as a Taliban victory.

For the families, friends and colleagues of the ten dead and twenty-one wounded French soldiers, the incident was an obvious tragedy of enduring effect. Every casualty in Afghanistan causes personal suffering and, in an expeditionary intervention that is based on choice not national survival, major losses inevitably raise questions which cast doubt on the purpose, validity and future of the endeavour. But without wishing to dismiss the reality of bereavement, when making strategic decisions of international importance, government leaders and military commanders must be beware of placing undue emphasis on the genuine heartbreak that can accompany their policy choices. For although it is true that some tactical events have strategic impact, it is a gross error to assume that all tactical incidents hold strategic relevance.

The UN-mandated, NATO-led international intervention in Afghanistan will stand or fall depending on what happens at the strategic level. Battles are fought in the tactical arena, wars in the strategic. Pundit commentary, media reporting and political observations routinely lose sight of, or choose to ignore, that axiom. Patently, the cumulative effect of numerous tactical defeats in a theatre of operations can dictate that a strategic decision is taken in a capital to surrender or sue for peace, and no actual war has been won without a tactical victory. But it is the very existence of a strategic context to tactical events that provides the essential resilience and capacity to absorb tactical reversals and to eradicate unnecessary ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to such events.

There is no dispute that 2008 has seen a marked increase in violence in Afghanistan, especially in the eastern areas bordering Pakistan, and it is over-simplistic to merely attribute that rise to ISAF offensive manoeuvres. Although ISAF and Afghan army advances into hitherto secure insurgent areas have contributed significantly to the level of violence, a substantial portion of it remains insurgent initiated. The debate is therefore over what the increase in violence means: does it indicate that the insurgency is intensifying, or that it is diluting? On one hand, the incidence of attacks might suggest the former, but alternatively, the increasingly terrorist nature of the attacks might suggest the latter.

Ultimately, a judgment on the state of the insurgency should consider its effect at the strategic level. Here, it can be argued that despite the present iteration of tactical incidents, the violence in 2008 lacks the power and potential affect of that seen in 2006 and 2007. In those years the insurgents had a realistic opportunity to defeat ISAF militarily, to bring down the Karzai regime in Kabul and to force the retreat of the international community from Afghanistan. That window of opportunity has closed. With very few exceptions, the ISAF nations are maintaining or expanding their contributions to the coalition, the Afghan army is developing at an encouraging pace, and the insurgents are incapable of defending even vital ground from coalition offensives. Conditions exist to allow planning for Presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 2009, the licit economy is expanding and the imminent 2008 UN Report on Afghan poppy cultivation may also bring some better news. The international coalition and its Afghan partners still have an enormous number of complex challenges to overcome, and it is still possible that the insurgents could succeed. But responsibility for failure in Afghanistan now rests squarely with the ‘good guys’ and not the insurgents. Victory can be given away, not taken. One way that the coalition can ease its grip on success would be to place inappropriate (i.e., strategic) emphasis on tactical events. The danger to the mission in doing so is possibly greater than any potential tactical reverse.

By travelling post-haste to Kabul, President Sarkozy swiftly elevated the Surobi ambush (which may prove to differ somewhat from initial reports) to the strategic arena. He may place other national leaders in a future quandary should their forces suffer similar hurt, but by emphatically declaring France’s determination to stay in Afghanistan the decision has probably reinforced and not weakened the coalition. In the face of what may prove to be an insurgent summer offensive, it is perhaps useful to recall Margaret Thatcher’s alleged advice to President George Bush senior on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War – ‘this is no time to wobble’, and one way of keeping steady is to focus on the (strategic) horizon.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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