Small Wars Journal

A Strategic Perspective on Taliban Warfare

A Strategic Perspective on Taliban Warfare

by Lieutenant Colonel Ehsan Mehmood Khan

Download the full article: A Strategic Perspective on Taliban Warfare

Taliban Warfare has occupied news headlines in the global information expanse for over a decade. It is also a topic of choice for academics and scholars. However, the subject is often viewed and analyzed in a subjective rather than objective manner. It is mostly looked at across the prism of terrorism - atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by a group of non-state, though not stateless, bandits. Seldom has a theorist or practitioner picked up the pen to draw on the military aspects of the war so as to reach correct conclusions as to how could this war come to an acceptable-by-all end. This line of thought and reasoning might hold good for a given category of politicians but the students of military strategy and those involved in kinetic operations in a counterinsurgency campaign remain bewildered on the nature of the war. There is a need to understand Taliban as people, not monster, and as warriors not gangsters. Likewise, Taliban Warfare is required to be understood in correct military perspective rather than a mere act of crime, terrorism or banditry.

Download the full article: A Strategic Perspective on Taliban Warfare

Lieutenant Colonel Ehsan Mehmood Khan hails from Pakistan and is pursuing a Masters in Strategic Security Studies at National Defense University, Washington D.C. He has served in the low intensity conflict zone bordering Afghanistan. His research papers and op-eds frequently appear in prestigious military magazines and national newspapers. He writes on current affairs, security issues and military strategy.

About the Author(s)


Tariq Babur (not verified)

Thu, 12/30/2010 - 4:54am

Hi Jason Thomas,

Sorry for such long absence on my part as I had been busy in the real life and indeed away from my laptop.

I have thoroughly read your valuable comments and really appreciate your style of expression. Kindly look in to the following impartially as I expect impartiality from a literate citizen of the great nation of Australia.

1. Wasn't it the USA who had CREATED the Islamic militant groups in the poor country of Afghanistan in late 70s and 80s to counter invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union's (late) forces? Do you know what these Islamic Militant Groups were termed at that time? They were called Mujahideen (fighters of a Holy war) by all international media including BBC, CNN and others. They were used in the American war against Soviet Union that led to disintegration of the latter. Later, they were called Militants and now Terrorists. Their country has again been invaded but now by the UN/NATO forces (US & others). So, "Might is Right" and we define the yesterday's Mujahideen as today's Terrorists. It is the American definition.

2. Can you tell us (again impartially) as to why USA/NATO invaded Iraq and killed about millions of peaceful Iraqi citizens under a pretext that the said country was possessing weapons of mass destruction. At the end of the bloody war that claimed precious lives of millions of peaceful Iraqis, it was told by the Bush that the so-called weapons did not recover during the recourse. But it was too late. We can't bring back millions of those killed in the war by the mighty US/NATO.

3. Who is responsible for killing about 2.5 millions of Afghanis and for serious human rights violations in the said country? Why there is a war in Afghanistan? No inch of this Globe is away from the sight of American settalites then where is Usama Bin Laden? May be somewhere in USA itself. What is justification of Afghan war when at the end we are (approximately) going to listen the same statement that "Usama was not found" like it happened in Iraq where "weapons were not found".

Tariq Babur


Sat, 10/30/2010 - 11:45am

Jason, My apologies for the flippant tone. I get frustrated sometimes, but I look forward to hearing his reply.
If you want to see the full worldview for yourself you can also check out or


I have no idea what your paragraph means so I am left to quote TE Lawrence:

"All men dream. But not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it is vanity;

But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they act their dreams with open eyes to make it possible." (T.E. Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom 1922)

Irrespective of one's worldview or exploding heads or bodies, Tariq Babur has made a number of serious inferences that require explanation based on facts and not emotion or conjecture.

Given the sincere effort I and many of us are trying to make to better understand different worldviews and the seriousness in which we take this pursuit, Im not sure hilarious answers are the mature approach from which to establish meaningful and constructive dialogue to ensure better understanding.

Even if it is to better educate pupils like myself.


Thu, 10/28/2010 - 3:09pm

Jason, your questions to Tariq have the potential to elicit some interesting (and potentially even hilarious) replies..

About the army and ISI, I think you must understand that Jihadism is a real movement with its own history and it taps into very broad (but not very deep) currents of pan-Islamism in the Muslim world. The change in worldview your message implies is so radical that some people will explode, literally AND metaphorically, before they change the story in their heads....a psychiatrist friend once told me: "their heads exploded long before their bodies do"; actually I dont think that applies to the foot soldiers, but exploding heads are definitely a problem at the "think tank" level. Its going to take a while to turn things around...and the US may or may not be the best option for doing so, but who knows, they may well be Allah's chosen instrument for this purpose.

Tariq Barbur

Not sure if we have just experienced a clash of cultures and therefore a misundestanding of your interpretation of terrorism. A definition of terrorism does not come with fairness or justice as a caveat. Similarly, it is not framed in regard to any religious or ethnic group.

There is no such thing as an American war on Muslims. By that rational all US allies, including Australia where I live, are engaged in this war, which is simply preposterous.

Can you please explain what you mean by "self-staged drama of 9/11"? I hope I have misunderstood your inference.

Not sure if there is anyone apart from the then Taliban Government who could claim that government was peaceful.

Most contributors to SWJ understand the "local" population being fiercely protective of a way of life. At the same time we also recognise the direct and indirect influence on the "local" population from the Pakistan based insurgents who have been directly responsible for fueling the acts of violence on Afghan citizens. The Pakistan ISI has been encouraging the Pakistan insurgents to attack US and Coalition forces.

The Pakistan Army's long standing support of Islamic extremists is one factor (among many) in how long this conflict has been going.

The Pakistan government, ruled by the Army and the ISI have always been clever at describing their justification for supporting the foreign elements of the Taliban who have no interest in Afghanistan.

Tariq Babur (not verified)

Wed, 07/07/2010 - 3:44am

Colonel & Babar Malik, we'll have to correctly define the term "terrorism." A joint army hailing from nearly 43 or more countries (mostly from Europe) under the command of US /NATO and flag of so-called UN (which has practically become US after promulgation of Bush senior's New World Order) with miles-long rows of military and support vehicles carrying huge quantities of arms, amunition and luxury items for NATO forces, passing through the "front line state" under security cover of the 5th largest army (always available on rent) invaded Afghanistant and smashed the peaceful Taliban Government in consequence of self-staged dramma of 9/11. Since then, the Talibans are committing the acts of TERRORISM i.e. fighting against the aggressors for freedom of their homeland. According to the American, Juish and Indian definition, such fight for freedom is termed as TERRORISM. Will dear Colonel like to give us some just and fair definition of TERRORISM lest it comes the turn of some other peaceful Muslim state to face the music of "international war against terrorism" (indeed American war on Muslims)???

Well its a great effort to present the methodology of Taliban, where there ICOS report concern I think admiral mullen has already reject it by admiting taliban are still functional in Afghanistan.they are still ruling almost 70 percent area in afghanistan so we could to start negotiation. We actually need to understand wot is the way they rule and why public still support them, it shows they are not monsters nor allian, they are a part of this world so negotiation isn't bad to stop killing some more innocent lives in Afghanistan. NATO forces are creating hate in general public, in this situation its not easy to win, for victory in afghanistan they should bring justice for the people lost their beloved ones. I dunt know someone is agreed or not but 90 percent afghan people dunt like present dummy govt just limited in kabul.

EMK (not verified)

Fri, 04/02/2010 - 3:50am

Patrick; I think, we should come out of ICOS report for a while and consider NATO's Unclassified briefing for a while which is available at…

It clearly shows that Taliban have shadow governance in 33 out of 34 province in Afghanistan.

In a recent JFQ, Admiral Mullen said, "Got a governance problem? The
Taliban is getting pretty effective at it.
Theyve set up functional courts in some
locations, assess and collect taxes, and
even allow people to file formal complaints
against local Talib leaders. Part of the
Taliban plan to win over the people in Swat
was to help the poor or displaced own land.
Their utter brutality has not waned, nor
has their disregard for human life. But with
each such transaction, they chip away at the
legitimacy of the Afghan government, saying
in effect: "We can give you the stability the
government cannot."
Hence, let us face the realities in order to perform desirably.

Patrick (not verified)

Thu, 04/01/2010 - 5:47am

Outlaw - I am not confirming or denying anything. I am merely pointing out several serious problems with the ICOS report. If you feel that I am mistaken and that the ICOS report is sound then please elaborate.

However, as for the specific issue of 'shaow governments', as opposed to the vague ICOS term of 'permanent presence', I am aware of Adm Mullen's remarks on this matter, to name but one example. I would nonetheless be keen to hear what you mean by a "fully functioning" shadow government. What criteria do you apply here?

I gave some examples of criteria that would demonstrate the control exerted by Kabul and/or ISAF. I have yet to see anyone name criteria that would demonstrate to what extent the Taliban control a particular area. If you are able to do that then I'd be grateful.

In so doing you will explain just how "effective" their challenge to the central government is. I don't doubt it is indeed effective in certain areas but, as I tried to point out in my post, this is not country-wide and certainly not to the extent depicted by ICOS.

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Thu, 04/01/2010 - 12:35am

Patrick--hoping you are not denying the fact that the Taliban are confirmed to have in most of the regions in Afghanistan fully functioning "shadow goverments". Meaning they are effectively challenging the very existence of any central Afghan government daily.

I find this to be an extremely interesting concept and I would be interested to compare current US and NATO approaches to COIN - both in doctrine and in practice (ie. in Afghanistan) - with those of Clausewitz, Mao Zedong et al.

In the meantime, one aspect of Khan's report has set off some alarm bells, namely its reference to the ICOS report.

The methodology used by ICOS is extremely dubious. In their own words, they define "a heavy Taliban presence" as provinces seeing one or more average attack (lethal or non-lethal) per week.

By the same rationale, if there is at least one vehicle accident (lethal or non-lethal) per week in each of the 50 States that comprise the USA, are we supposed to conclude that America is populated entirely by bad drivers? Of course not - we would merely conclude that there is a permanent presence of bad drivers in the US.

Therefore, ICOS have shown that there are Taliban in Afghanistan. Nothing more. Personally, I don't consider that news.

Yet through their flawed analysis of a flawed methodology, they have simply shaded 80% of the Afghan map in dark red and reached a flawed conclusion - that the Taliban dominate almost the whole of Afghanistan.

In reality, even a cursory examination of their methodology casts serious doubt on their conclusion.

Firstly, an Afghan province can cover a rather large area so using provinces as a measuring gauge (instead of districts) leads to sweeping generalisations. For example, Taliban activity in Helmand province is heavily focused in the centre of the province in the districts of Nad Ali, Marjah, Sangin and Musa Qala. Yet by ICOS methods the whole of Helmand (even the uninhabited parts) is under Taliban domination. If their method looks dubious even in Helmand, where there is undoubtedly a heavy Taliban presence, then imagine how dubious it looks elsewhere. For example, in Badghis province insurgent activity is almost entirely in a pocket of one district - Bala Murghab - and yet were supposed to believe that the entire province is heavily dominated by the Taliban.

The NATO figures are much more precise: 72% of kinetic activity takes place in 10% of the DISTRICTS with 6% of the population.

In fact, NATO have moved away from using those figures for the simple reason that statistics can very easily become misleading. However, for the purpose of providing an alternative yardstick with which to measure Taliban activity, this seems far more credible to me.

To illustrate this, simply take a look at the map of kinetic activity provided on Flynns slides. Do the red dots cover 80% of Afghanistan? Not even close.

Having said that, I do not believe that an absence of kinetic incidents shows that ISAF - or more importantly the government of Afghanistan - dominates a particular district. If bazaars are open, if children are going to school, if people can move freely on the roads, those are the real criteria (and ICOS mentions none of them) indicating ISAF or Kabuls control.

Secondly, the definition of an attack is very loose. "One lethal or non-lethal attack per week". Again, in practice this could mean that a single shot fired per week would shade an entire province dark red. Of course, in reality an "average attack" consists of much more than a single shot but the fact remains that this methodology fails to take into account a myriad of crucial factors - scale and effectiveness of attacks, numbers of insurgents, logistics and supply networks etc etc. To me, those are the real criteria for establishing the extent of the Taliban presence in a given area.

Finally, the report fails to distinguish between the Taliban and other insurgent and/or criminal groups. Even if the 80% figure were correct (and I hope I have conclusively shown that it is not), then it would still be inaccurate to say that one organisation dominates almost the whole country.

Had the ICOS report been written in an academic context, I seriously doubt it would have seen the light of day as the methodology is not at all scientific. In short, their report is simply not credible.


Wed, 03/24/2010 - 5:28pm

Indeed, they have a method. And Colonel sahib has presented it well. But a few questions remain: what is to be done? Is there a negotiated settlement in sight or is this war to the end (in which case, colonel sahib seems to imply that the taliban will win)? IF the taliban do win (not a negotiated settlement, but a victory), what happens to TTP and Pakistan? Will the Pak army switch sides again? What about civil society? Will the US give green cards to all the afghans and pakistanis who chose the losing side (execution in Kabul stadium being on the cards for most of them in that situation)? And so on.
Btw, I happened to write a somewhat tongue-in-cheek history of this glorious war in a comment to a friend today and I will share it here so that readers can catch up on the background. Kindly excuse the flippant tone...
It would be more accurate to look at recent history as:
1. CIA arms and trains mujahideen to fight Soviets, Saudis pitch in with dreams of salafist empire, Pakistan army accepts contract in exchange for money, lots of money, chance to rule Pakistan forever, salafist empire dreams of its own.
2. CIA finishes its "task", lots of Afghans dead, Soviet Union humiliated, end of story.
3. Pakistan expands CIA initiated jihadi machine and points it East towards India. Thinks its proxies also occupy Afghanistan now (but the tail is actually wagging the dog; but the general staff is too moronic and blind to notice). Dreams of Central Asian empire. Dreams of humiliating India. Dreams of lots of cash. CIA joins in with pipeline dreams. Saudis contribute like crazy to the new Islamic wonderland being built by their students.
4. Saudis and CIA SLOWLY (painfully slowly) figure out that their students have ideas of their own. Pak army (bless the general staff's IQ) still clueless, still dreaming of Srinagar, Red fort, Samarqand and Bokhara....
5. Students go berserk, bomb New York. CIA involved? probably not, but its a fun conspiracy theory and it will grow and grow....
6. Pak army switches sides. Does it REALLY switch sides? who knows. General staff wargames 5 years of American presence, lots of cash...
7. General staff wrong as usual. CIA still around after 8 years. India not conquered yet. Samarqand and Bokhara pretty much out of reach. But of course, lots of cash. Also lots of dead Afghans and random Pakhtuns (especially poor khasadars, poorest and most upright and honorable soldiers in the country). To the army's dismay, also a few dead brigadiers and colonels....
8. Kiyani sahib becomes chief. Probably the highest IQ person to ever do so (not saying much, this is the army...just kidding, just kidding). Army will now fight its creations, maybe even allow civilian rule. Maybe stop playing "regional power' and start building country. then again, maybe not. ...
9. Obama is president. Wants to stop wasting money in Afghanistan. Willing to pay Pak army in exchange for services rendered. Who knows what the hell is going on behind the scenes....Unfortunately, more dead people in Afpak.
10. Pak army declares total victory. Giant celebrations to be held in Minar e pakistan, OOPS, moved to Alhamra hall 2, double OOPS: end in fiasco (
11. unfortuntely, more dead people in the days to come. fortunately for some, also more cash....kasb e kamal kun, key aziz e jahaan shwi (Achieve excellence and you will be the beloved of the world)

meher omar khan (not verified)

Tue, 03/23/2010 - 10:40am

Great piece, Colonel. You have done well to establish that Taliban do have a method to their apparent madness. Godspeed!