KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban were very clear about their strategy this year, declaring it for all to see on their Web site in March; more suicide bombs, isolating Kabul and hitting troop supply lines. So far they have not disappointed.
Given the firepower behind 70,000 foreign troops and 130,000 Afghan forces, long-haired bands of Taliban militants cannot be expected on the streets of the capital anytime soon. But the Taliban do not have to win, only wait for their enemies to lose.
“For besieging the Afghan and foreign forces in Kabul, we have begun the initial work on the main roads leading to Kabul from four directions,” senior Taliban leader Mullah Brother said in an interview posted on the militant Web site.
Three of the four main roads out of Kabul are no longer safe for government employees, aid workers and foreigners to travel.
The Taliban even declared they would launch large attacks in the area where 10 French troops were killed last week after one French general admitted “we were guilty of overconfidence”.
The Taliban may not be able to control territory in the face of better armed and trained NATO troops, but neither does NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have enough soldiers to hold all the ground and deny it to the insurgents.
U.S. calls for NATO allies to send more troops have, with the exception of the French, fallen on deaf ears.
An effective stalemate has now settled in on the ethnic Pashtun Taliban heartlands of the south and east where mainly U.S., British and Canadian troops have been engaged in cat-and-mouse warfare with Taliban bands for two years now.
Militants have already killed 42 foreign soldiers this month, putting August well on track to become the worst month yet for international troop casualties, passing the 45 killed in June.
Undaunted by their heavy losses, certainly numbering in the thousands, the Taliban have been slowly closing in on Kabul for more than a year, attempting to copy the successful stranglehold enforced by the mujahideen against Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Supply trucks have been torched by the dozen on roads into Kabul and foreign aid workers killed close by, then just last week militants scored their greatest success yet, killing the 10 French troops in Kabul province itself.
That was the biggest single loss for international forces in combat since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the September 11 attacks of 2001 and came only a month after several hundred Taliban fighters attempted to overrun an isolated base and killed nine U.S. troops in the northeast.
“Two events do not necessarily make a change or a shift in strategy, but it’s certainly something that we’re going to continue to watch,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
If not a new strategy, the attacks do seriously undermine NATO claims that the Taliban have to resort to suicide and roadside bombings as they are no longer capable of fighting ‘toe-to-toe’ with foreign or Afghan government troops.
While clashes edge close to the capital, there have actually been fewer suicide attacks in Kabul this year. They have hit higher profile targets, notably the July bombing of the Indian Embassy that killed 58 people, and that has instilled a greater sense of fear and foreboding in an already edgy populace.
With major roads through the city now blocked off and new concrete barriers springing up each week, Kabul is increasingly taking on the air of a city under siege.
“By erecting concrete blocks and putting up sandbags, they think they are doing a good job; on the contrary this creates fear and concern among people,” said analyst and Afghan former diplomat Ahmad Saeedi.
The Taliban’s goal is not to defeat NATO troops in battle, but to slowly bleed dry Western support for keeping soldiers in Afghanistan by inflicting a steady stream of casualties.
Secondly, the militants aim to weaken Afghan support for the government by relentlessly demonstrating President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers cannot bring security and that the only alternative is the Taliban’s ruthless brand of law and order.
In doing so, the Taliban are already making progress.
The deaths of the French troops has already led to Paris calling an extraordinary session of parliament to debate France’s presence in Afghanistan and opinion polls there and in most European countries consistently back pulling out troops.
Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, are caught in the middle. Faced with increasing insecurity, no or low levels of development and rampant official corruption, their loyalty to Karzai, democracy and the help from the West is being put severely to the test.
The Taliban, wrote Anthony Cordesman of the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “do not need to defeat the U.S., NATO/ISAF, and Afghan forces. They only have to outlast them.”