The Taliban’s Morale

The Taliban and Islamist forces in Afghanistan have had their momentum reversed, their will to fight sapped — or so our policymakers would have us believe. But is that an accurate assessment? A new report from NATO, leaked to the New York Times, tells a far different story.

The State of the Taliban” draws on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 Taliban and other fighters, and it “portrays a Taliban insurgency that is far from vanquished or demoralized even as the United States and its allies enter what they hope will be the final phase of the war.” Yes, very far from it: although more Islamist fighters are being killed or captured, many of those captured and interrogated “remain convinced that they are winning the war.”

The report, dated Jan. 6, provided little evidence to believe that this strategy or the increase in the number of troops during the Obama administration had helped spur the nascent peace talks. “Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable,” the report said. “Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.”

It added of the insurgents: “While they are weary of war, they see little hope for a negotiated peace. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mind-set. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable courses of action.”

Recruits and donations for the Taliban increased over the past year, the report said, citing insurgents’ accounts.

What’s most alarming about the report, if it’s accurate, is that the enemy, though materially weak, demonstrates far greater confidence than any enemy deserves to have after a decade of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful military force. For a long time, and particularly in Winning the Unwinnable WarI’ve argued that to win a war, it’s necessary to crush the enemy’s will to fight, to leave the enemy feeling demoralized, convinced that its cause is lost. That’s hardly what our campaign has accomplished. Why?  A significant part of the answer lies in the way our own foreign policy has crippled our ability to defeat the enemy — and how we’ve boxed ourselves in so that we have few if any good options for how to proceed.

Is the report accurate? Obviously the captured fighters may be spouting propaganda that’s been drilled into them. Even if that’s what they’re doing, that so many of them (some 4,000) have the confidence and morale to stay on message during interrogations is itself telling.