We are pleased to publish copy of a classified internal document prepared by a special operations team of the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan.
What the Report Means
The report, “State of the Taliban: January 6, 2012,” is part of a regularly published series on the insurgency that’s based on the interrogations of thousands of detainees. It offers an unvarnished glimpse into the inner beliefs of the military establishment in Afghanistan for two reasons: First, as a classified document, it was intended solely for internal consumption, and second, it was put together by a special operations team working under the Joint Special Operations Command, which is responsible for the US military’s most secretive and demanding special forces missions, including the one that killed Osama bin Laden last year.
The special operations team that authored the report, known as Joint Task Force 3-10, allegedly helps oversee a “black site” prison at the largest US military base in the country, located at Bagram air base, just north of Kabul. In the introduction, the report describes how it was put together:
“Throughout the year, TF 3-10 conducted over 27,000 interrogations of over 4,000 Taliban, Al Qaeda, foreign fighters and civilians. As this document is derived directly from insurgents, it should be considered informational and not necessarily analytical.”
While, as the authors note, the report is intended to be a presentation of the information they’ve gathered from detainees, in certain passages it clearly includes their own views and analysis. And though the ‘black sites’ operated by the CIA and special forces in Afghanistan have in the past been associated with detainee abuse, overall the interrogators seem notably sympathetic to the detainees’ motivations and understanding of Afghan politics and culture.
1. Who are the Taliban?
The report is remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the insurgency, a far cry from the caricature that often features in military press releases. Rather than merciless fanatics, the Taliban are portrayed as a nuanced and complex phenomenon — one deeply involved in violence and criminality, but also pragmatic and evolving, with a deep base of support among ordinary Afghans. It portrays them as motivated both by nationalistic and religious grounds:
“[Afghan government] corruption, abuse of power and suspected lack of commitment to Islam continue to provoke significant anti-government sentiment. The Taliban will be hostile to any government which appears to act as an agent of foreign powers to instill Western values.”
The report makes clear the distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, whose influence is seen as dissipating under the pressure of military strikes and the loss of much of its core leadership:
“In most regions of Afghanistan, Taliban leaders have no interest in associating with Al Qaeda. Working with Al Qaeda invites targeting, and Al Qaeda personnel are no longer the adept and versatile fighters and commanders they once were. Even Taliban groups with historically close ties to Al Qaeda, such as the Haqqani Network, have had little or no interaction with them in the last two years.”
Regarding the Haqqani Network—which was accused by US officials of being behind the attack on the embassy—the report also tones down much of the hype about the Haqqanis being a distinct and uniquely dangerous force—the so-called “Sopranos of the Afghanistan war”—stating that the group is deeply linked with the rest of the Taliban:
“Though the Haqqani Network maintains its own identity and history, it remains an integral part of the Taliban. Haqqani Network personnel changes, areas of responsibility, funding, operations , and strategy are directed by the Taliban leadership in Quetta, Pakistan.”
As the report notes, the term ‘Haqqani Network’ is not even used by its members:
“The Haqqani Network will not independently reconcile, nor are they authorized to act as spokesmen for the Taliban as a whole. Haqqani Network members refer to themselves only as Taliban. The term Haqqani Network is unknown within the group.”
2. Who funds the Taliban?
The report puts to rest the oft-repeated idea of “ten-dollar Taliban,” that is, that the insurgency is largely composed of poor Afghan men who are bribed in order to fight. “The Taliban do not fight for financial gain,” it states. “Almost without exception, Taliban members do not receive salaries or other financial incentives for their work.”
The largest source of the insurgency’s funding, according to the report, comes from donations collected door-to-door in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as from wealthy Arab donors in the Gulf region. It downplays direct Taliban involvement in the narcotics trade, but notes that they do collect taxes from opium production in regions they control. It also states that corruption fed by international spending helps fund the insurgency.
3. Is the Taliban winning or losing?
The report’s authors do appear to believe that the US-led military strategy has been having an effect on the insurgency, pressuring many of them to downgrade their operations or go to ground in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, they see the kill-capture campaign as playing a key role:
“Unrelenting, pinpoint ISAF operations targeting specific command elements have had a demonstrable effect on the insurgents’ ability to conduct operations.”
At the same time however, there is a sense that, despite the vast number of insurgents who’ve been killed or captured, the Taliban’s momentum remains unchecked.
“Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding , and tactical proficiency remains intact. [...] Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset. [...] As opposed to years past, detainees have become more confident in not only their potential to win, but the virtue of their cause.”
Indeed, the report is far more pessimistic about the Afghan government:
“Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban. [The Afghan government] continues to declare its willingness to fight, yet many of its personnel have secretly reached out to insurgents, seeking long-term options in the event of a possible Taliban victory. The Taliban recognize this trend and formalized a reconciliation system of their own.”
4. How does Pakistan help the Taliban?
The report levels harsh accusations of Pakistani cooperation with the insurgency, specifically with the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, noting that “senior Taliban leaders meet regularly with ISI personnel who advise on strategy and relay any pertinent concerns of the Government of Pakistan.”
At the same time though, the report is more cautious when it comes to the nature of the link between the ISI and the Taliban:
“Despite widespread open-source reports to the contrary, detainees have provided little evidence of direct ISI funding of Taliban operations or training of Taliban personnel. Similarly, there have been no credible reports from detainees in 2011 of ISI directly providing weapons to the Taliban. Rather, the majority of ISI support appears to be through intermediaries.”
The fact is that these militant groups have an existence independent of the Pakistani government in the border areas, where in many cases they enjoy deep sympathy among and roots within the local population. Nor would substantial logistical from an outside party support be necessary to maintain their low-intensity guerilla operations and occasional high-profile attacks.
5. Why is Pakistan helping the Taliban?
The report offers the common refrain that Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan is largely driven by its longstanding rivalry with its neighbor to the east, India. It therefore seeks to ensure that Afghanistan’s government is friendly to itself and hostile to India—criteria that make the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai unsatisfactory:
“Hamid Karzai is perceived as deeply influenced by India, Iran and the West, and therefore a potential strategic threat to Pakistani security. Most detainees believe that Pakistan will continue to overlook any concerns with Afghan-focused insurgent groups, in order to undermine [the Afghan government.]”
At the same time, however, the report acknowledges that Pakistan has its own legitimate interests in the current conflict. The Pakistani state is deeply threatened by insurgent groups within its borders, particularly the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan, which has declared war on the government. In order to subdue the trouble in its border areas—which has been inflamed in part by US drone strikes and the war in Afghanistan—it has attempted to co-opt militant groups and direct their energies outwards:
“The Government of Pakistan has developed an innovative strategy for subduing the TTP through a combination of clandestine diplomacy and intense military action. ISI has directed much of its effort toward undermining the TTP from within, and subsequently redirecting insurgent efforts away from Pakistan.”
6. What about Iran?
Iran has long been alleged to be playing both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan, which the report makes clear:
“The Iranians have provided moderate support to what coalition forces refer to as the Herat Insurgent Faction, or “Mujahedin of Martyr Akbari”, which is a smaller insurgent group operating primarily in Herat and Badghis Provinces. However, Iran has offered far more support to Farsi-speaking groups, many of which currently support [the government of Afghanistan], rather than pro-Taliban elements.”
PART II: The Annotated Excerpts from the Report
The US and NATO have suffered from a long series of damaging and embarrassing leaks over the years in Afghanistan, from the massive Wikileaks cache, to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s infamous 2008 memo, to, most recently, a top-secret cable supposedly so sensitive that Ambassador Ryan Crocker sent it via the CIA rather than normal diplomatic channels to the US (where its contents were soon leaked to the Washington Post by military sources hoping to make the case for prolonging the troop deployments.)
There have been rumors that the military has instituted a form of leak-tracing technology that embeds a unique, invisible code in each copy of a document. There is reason to believe that this might be the case with the State of the Taliban Report, so we’ve copied out certain passages, and re-created key images, in order to give you a direct look without potentially compromising our source. (The New York Times copied out the full text here, out of the same concerns.) We’ve also redacted certain information that might compromise sensitive military details or the privacy of individual detainees.
The report includes several satellite images that are meant to illustrate the nature of cooperation between Pakistani security forces and the Taliban. Using the grid coordinates provided in the report, we were able to find open-source satellite imagery of the same areas. We’ve also reprinted the captions from the report, but we’ve redacted the coordinates.
One image shows a Pakistani Army border checkpoint on the border between the Afghan province of Khost and the Pakistan agency of North Waziristan (note how the Pakistani border post is shown on the Afghan side of the border.) The caption describes a common complaint that’s been voiced both by US military brass and soldiers alike — that they’ve observed first-hand a cordial relationship between the Pakistani Army and militants. In many cases, Pakistan’s Frontier Corp and the Taliban are drawn from the same Pashtun tribal groups that straddle the border, so certainly they will share cultural, if not political, affinities with one another. If, as the US has alleged, attackers on the US embassy came from the Haqqani Network, which is based in North Waziristan, they might very well have used this route, or one like it, to enter Afghanistan.
Familial Residence and Meeting Location for Haqqani Network Senior Leadership, North Waziristan Agency, PK (exact coordinates redacted)
The Haqqani family madrassa has a long pedigree going back to the war against the Soviet Union, when it was a locus of mujehadin resistance in the area. Today, the Haqqani Network is alleged to remains closely associated with Pakistan’s intelligence service, and the two share an uneasy coexistence in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, where the madrassa is located.
Sprinkled throughout the report are boxes with photos of detainees, along with a snippet from their interrogations. (Again, these are reproductions of the images.):
This hapless detainee’s tale of woe is increasingly typical of the foreigners who smuggle themselves to Afghanistan with the intent of doing jihad against the US forces there. Al Qaeda’s central leadership has been decimated and fractured by US military pressure, and they have little operational ability to field forces in Afghanistan, like they once did. Instead, individuals like this Moroccan-German are more likely to end up with one of the ad-hoc foreign fighter groups that are associated with a small number of Taliban fronts. This individual was picked up in Zabul Province, which is one of the only areas in southern Afghanistan where foreign fighters are active.
This is strange because Burhannudin Rabbani is the former leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated by a turban-bomb wearing militant last year—in other words, a staunch opponent of the Taliban.
That being said, in Afghanistan there are almost always a multiplicity of clandestine and confusing ties between ostensible enemies—given the number of different factions, and the constantly shifting alliances, you never know when you may need each other. It’s possible that this guy got picked up by the US for being in communication with the insurgency.
In any case, while it may be a little hyperbolic, his warnings about a civil war and a split along regional lines point towards a gloomy possible future for Afghanistan—a repeat of what happened after the Soviets left. We know how that turned out.
Please click on the link below to read the full report (minus some images redacted)
Acknowledgements: GQ Magazine, New York Times, Guardian