Phantom Taliban soldiers

  • Britain's most brilliant military tactician created the Taliban's battle strategy

    By Neil Faulkner

    Friday, 17 September 2010

    The aim of Operation Moshtarak in February was to capture the city of Marjah in Afghanistan's war-torn Helmand province. Fifteen thousand troops, mainly American, British and Afghan, were to take on between 400 and 1,000 Taliban insurgents holed up in a city of 80,000 people.

    Commanders talked of a "new model war". An Afghan administration and police force would move into Marjah behind the soldiers. Engineers would maintain power and water supplies. "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in," said the then-US General Stanley McChrystal.

    But as the offensive unfolded, Marjah turned out not to exist.

    Faithfully reported by news media, it was in fact invented by US military officials.

    As The Washington Post reported, the decision to launch the offensive was intended to influence US public opinion on the effectiveness of military action in Afghanistan by showing it could win a "large and loud victory".

    In reality, Marjah is a vaguely-defined area of villages, markets and family compounds. If there are tens of thousands of people, they are spread across 125 sq miles.

    Marjah was invented because a military operation has to have a clear-cut goal to be deemed a victory.

    Obama had doubled the total US troop deployment, but public support was waning. The generals needed a victory, so they created Marjah and planned Operation Moshtarak to capture it.

    A phantom city was needed because the enemy is a phantom.

    A task force is assembled and motors into bandit country.

    If it is too small, it risks annihilation. If it is too big, it finds itself punching the air.

    A golden rule of guerrilla warfare is that you fight only if you are certain to win.

    So the invaders of Afghanistan are waging a war against an enemy who is never there.

    "Suppose we were wrote T E Lawrence, "an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head.

    We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed...

    Ours should be a war of detachment.

    We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast, unknown desert ..."

    The Ottoman Empire, still controlled a vast territory from south-eastern Europe to the Caucasus, the Tigris, the Yemen, and the Suez Canal.

    The Arab Revolt, led by the Emir of Mecca, had been encouraged by secret British diplomacy as a source of military and ideological support for the Allied cause. But after momentary success – principally the capture of Mecca itself, along with the Red Sea ports of Jidda and Rabegh – the Revolt stalled. Medina remained in Ottoman hands, and the city's 10,000-strong garrison was receiving reinforcement. When the Turks went on to the offensive, the Arabs fell back, and the tribal irregulars forming the army began to melt away. In late 1916, the Revolt hung by a thread.

    Lawrence, was witness to this looming disaster.

    His response appears to have been a radical re-conceptualisation of the war.

    He turned conventional military thinking on its head and created a new theory of modern guerrilla warfare.

    What if the Arabs ignored the Turks?

    What if they simply marched away from them into the desert?

    What if they constituted themselves as a "silent threat" and waged a "war of detachment"?

    This they did. In fact, even before Lawrence had worked it out, they had made a start by marching 200 miles north – away from the Turks threatening them around Medina – and establishing a new base at Wejh.

    So instead of a concentration of force at the decisive point – at Medina, from which a thrust towards Mecca might have snuffed out the rebellion – the Turks were forced to plant 100, 200 or 300 men every few kilometres.

    Then, in June 1917, Faisal's Northern Army, inspired by its brilliant British military adviser, leapt forwards again, some 250 miles to Aqaba. But they did not go direct: following a 500-mile route through the desert, a small commando group appeared north-east of Aqaba, raised the local tribes in revolt, and rolled up the Ottoman positions all the way to the coast.

    With a new forward base, the insurgency could be supplied as it spread into Syria. British intelligence reports from 1918 reveal its success. The Arab armies comprised about 5,000 regulars and a fluctuating force of up to 20,000 tribal irregulars.

    In fact, given that most of the serious fighting was done by Faisal's Northern Army, which was never more than 8,000-strong, often as low as 3,000, the imbalance was extreme. The raw statistics imply that one of Faisal's guerrillas was 35 times more effective in tying down Turkish troops than one of Allenby's Tommies.

    Lawrence's ideas on guerrilla warfare were touched upon in his "Twenty-seven Articles", which appeared in an internal British intelligence bulletin in 1917. They were then developed in three post-war treatises. Reading closely, one can identify 15 distinct principles of guerrilla warfare (see box). They are extraordinary. They invert many principles of conventional military theory, such as concentration of force, and the centrality of pitched battle to destroy the enemy's main forces and will to fight. In this sense, they are the work of a brilliant maverick – an unconventional intellectual who had not even undergone the military training given to volunteer wartime officers (though he probably learnt something as a member of the Oxford University Officers' Training Corps).

    They draw on the traditional tactics of the "eastern way of war" – as embodied in Bedouin tribal raiding – yet elevate this into a strategy for what would later be called a "national liberation struggle". The Arab leaders' emphasis was on creating a regular army, not on guerrilla warfare. Again, just as Lawrence was not hidebound by British military tradition, nor was he constrained by Arab political ambition.

    The third striking thing about the 15 principles is how seminal they are. Guerrilla warfare is as old as human conflict, but Lawrence's treatises represent the first systematic conceptualisation of its strategy. And this conceptualisation is remarkably comprehensive. Later theorists of guerrilla warfare – notably Mao, Nguyen Giap and Che Guevara – have added little of substance. Lawrence is the real teacher of the guerrilla fighter.

    Leading counterinsurgency specialist Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002). His point – "to make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife" – encapsulates the challenge of foreign invaders fighting guerrillas.

    But Seven Pillars of Wisdom, however carefully read by US officers, is likely to be the book of their defeat in Afghanistan.

    The counterinsurgent regular cannot replicate the tactics of the insurgent guerrilla.

    The former is an invader.

    The guerrilla is embedded in local society.

    This basic dichotomy manifests itself in a dozen practical, and potentially deadly, ways. The regular is imposed on the military landscape and is dependent on heavy equipment, modern communications, and external supply. Intelligence depends on observation posts, patrols, and interrogation, and security entails the full panoply of fortified posts, armoured vehicles, and firepower.

    The invaders are therefore highly visible, relatively immobile, and poorly informed.

    Compare the guerrilla.

    He is largely self-sufficient, highly mobile, with superb intelligence from his social network, and indistinguishable from the civilian population of which he is part. He is almost invisible, yet has the capacity to strike anywhere, anytime.

    The regular strives to dominate landscape by visible threat and heavy firepower. But wherever he is, the guerrilla is not.

    The guerrilla dominates the landscape, for his embeddedness makes him an invisible, secure, and ineradicable presence. He is powerful because he is a phantom.

    Let the last word go to Lawrence.

    He could be describing Operation Moshtarak – 15,000 men chasing phantoms out of a non-existent city in Afghanistan.

    But, of course, it is the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. "It [the rebellion] had a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts...

    The active rebels had the virtues of secrecy and self-control, and the qualities of speed, endurance, and independence of arteries of supply...

    The presence of the enemy was secondary. Final victory seemed certain, if the war lasted long enough for us to work it out."

    Military mastermind: Lawrence of Arabia's 15 principles of modern guerrilla warfare

    1. Strive above all to win hearts and minds

    2. Establish an unassailable base

    3. Remain strategically dispersed

    4. Make maximum use of mobility

    5. Operate mainly in small, local groups

    6. Remain largely detached from the enemy

    7. Do not attempt to hold ground

    8. Operate in depth rather than en face (i.e. not in lines)

    9. Aim for perfect intelligence about the enemy

    10. Concentrate only for momentary tactical superiority

    11. Strike only when the enemy can be taken by surprise

    12. Never engage in sustained combat

    13. Always have lines of retreat open

    14. Make war on matériel rather than on men

    15. Make a virtue of the individuality, irregularity, and unpredictability of guerrillas

  • assalamualaikum wa rehmatullahi wa barakatuhu

    well we can expect anything from americans as they came up with a story of wmd in iraq and the reason they made up to invade afghanis.

  • gora hartay huway bhi apnay hee sathi ko credit de gaa... abb sara kamal lawrence sahib ka ho gaya :)

  • @Shimatoree

    Speaking of the irregular Arab resistance to Turkish occupation of the Middle East, Lawrence asks: “… suppose they were an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head.” In such circumstances, to control the land they occupied, the Turks “would have need of a fortified post every four square miles, and a post could not be less than 20 men. The Turks would need 600,000 men to meet the combined ill wills of all the local Arab people. They had 100,000 men available.”

    Thanks! Well we can see how good they are doing with principle number one ;-)

    BTW: On a side note. Do you think Lawrence was here in Miranshah just recovering from nervous strain by writing books (among them translating Homer's Odyssey) plus "working in the RAF as a lowly clerk and messenger boy, keeping records on engines, repair logs and the such" OR was he in fact "Lawrence of Afghanistan"/"Karam Shah", "employed in a black propaganda operation as part of a classic Great Game gambit to preserve British influence"??? (I am tilted towards the latter as I feel it cannot be by chance that a man of his caliber got stationed where he was.)


    Your comment reminded me of this one (so a real 'gora' is not even needed) :-P

  • Of course important factor in taliban winning is strong support from ISI and army quarters. The same army, ISI funded by CIA, so it comes full circle.

    The NATO supply convoy companies are paid millions each year by America and CIA to shinwari, afridia, and they in turn use some of that money to buy their way in taliban land. So, again we see the money comes full circle.

    It's job security for some.

  • that is quite logical :)

  • (Is the same at play in the MNA from FATA managing to multiply his assets times 42 in just the past year?)

  • Salam, you seem skeptical, yet you have much to learn about how much money is being made and what big names are involved and how many are playing both sides of this game of death.

    Why do you think there are only pin pick attacks now and again on supply convoys which travel through heart of pakhtun land. Only a fool would believe that money would not corrupt even the most incorruptible.

  • An article based on assumptions and no substantial evidence. Does the author think that all the nations in the whole world are so naïve that they would invest in a war where the enemy doesn’t even exist on ground and exists only in papers? What a sad waste of time indeed.

  • rashidsaleem

    why u are dis hurt on the victories of Taliban. Why u show ur loyalty to cross lovers.

  • i ask to every body who against taliban, pl quote any one or more reasons why you are against taliban,taliban of afghanistan.

  • haroon, just one?

    • Massacre of hazaras in mazar-i-sharif. Usually explained away by supporters as "other side did it too".

    • Ban of education, movement of woman depriving half the population of Islamic and human rights

    • Allowing sectarian groups to take shelter under their rule

  • how well mr saqib i thing you are belongs to shia family great, kindly read and get knowledge about mazar i sharif, some little difference between talban fiqa and mazar people fiqa, also mazar shariff under control by abdul rashid dostom. this is little about mazar but discuss is so long therefore mr saqib see histroy people and ground realty of mazar. hazarat ali shrine in mazar how why its possible shrine known as blue mosque. also you disagreed with woman rights.

    kindly share islamic laws and rules about woman possible i dont know you know better than us. if you dont know kindly read quran hadidh sunnah and other islamic living rules issued by ALLAH.

    you say about human rights kindly quote here any one violetion of human rights by taliban, but also keep in mind current human rights situation by afghan goverment us allied nato and others, and how you see dron attack in pakistan and what you say about human rights

    you have rights in your city

  • Marjah, the city that never was

    By Gareth Porter

    For weeks, the United States public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan war against what it was told was a "city of 80,000 people" as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marjah was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centers in Helmand.

    It turns out, however, that the picture of Marjah presented by military officials and reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as an historic turning point in the conflict.

    Marjah is not a city or even a real town, but a few clusters of farmers' homes amid a large agricultural area that covers much of the southern Helmand River Valley.

    "It's not urban at all," an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, admitted to Inter Press Service (IPS) on Sunday. He called Marjah a "rural community".

    "It's a collection of village farms, with typical family compounds," said the official, adding that the homes were reasonably prosperous by Afghan standards.

    Richard B Scott, who worked in Marjah as an adviser on irrigation for the US Agency for International Development as recently as 2005, agrees that Marjah has nothing that could be mistaken as being urban. It is an "agricultural district" with a "scattered series of farmers' markets", Scott told IPS in a telephone interview.

  • nota-

    Regarding as to what Lawrence was doing in Miram Shah-

    You are correct on both counts.

    He was recovering ( physically and psychologically) from his sojurn against the Turks and after he came to know that he was USED by his Govt which promised him( Faisal) one things while they were doing something else-

    ( Sikes- Picot agreement) to create a Jewish homeland.

    He was obviously also involved in intelligence operations against Afghanistan- of Amanullah Khan and Bacha Saqao which finally resulted in Nadir Shah becoming the British Imposed King of Afghanistan whose son Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan till 1974.

    The interesting part is that Miram Shah is located in North Waziristan and twice in that short period the govt of Afghanistan was toppled by the Mehsud-Wazeer tribal alliance.