The Taliban's War: The Other Side of the Afghan Conflict, 2001-2015

Lead Research Organisation: City, University of London
Department Name: Sch of Social Sciences


In a lightning war in 2001-02, the United States (with British support) invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power. Since then, the West has spent over a trillion dollars and well over a decade battling the Taliban and trying to rebuild the Afghan state. Despite this, the insurgency remains undefeated. In explaining this state of affairs, analysts have mostly focused on deficiencies in the international and Afghan effort. Lack of progress has been blamed on the failings of Western leadership and strategy, on the hubris and incoherence of the international community, on Afghan government corruption, and on flaws in the tactical conduct of operations.

This project will examine the Afghanistan War from the Taliban perspective. Through oral history, we will reconstruct how the Taliban planned, fought and experienced the war. We will examine the evolution in Taliban strategy, structures and tactics since 2001. We will explore how the Taliban re-established itself in the south and the east from 2004 on, and steadily expanded its presence in the north and the west of the country. Finally, we will assess the impact of the withdrawal of international combat forces on the Taliban military campaign. Overall, we will assess Taliban adaptability in the conflict and the roots of Taliban resilience.

The picture is an immensely complex one, with great local variation in the politics, pressures and personalities driving the conflict on the ground, and a dynamic interactions between various factions within the Taliban leadership and between the warring parties, international, Afghan and insurgent. The research team brings together three researchers with extensive in-country fieldwork experience and extensive expertise on Afghan and Western perspectives of the war. The project methodology has been tested in an ESRC-funded pilot study that reconstructed the Taliban campaign in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan from 2004-2012, using interviews with 53 Taliban commanders and 27 local elders.

This project will expand that study to eight more provinces, covering all the regions of Afghanistan. Provinces have been selected for their importance to the Taliban, and to enable assessment of variation in terms of the impact of local dynamics, clerical support, geographical location, and other armed groups on the Taliban campaign. Using experienced Afghan field researchers, this project will conduct 275 interviews; 195 with Taliban commanders and cadres and 80 with local elders. The project also draws on the research team's own extensive research on the international military campaign and on Taliban shadow government.

An innovative feature of this project is that in addition to studying the closing stages of the current conflict, it will also seek to positively shape the conflict endgame through engagement with senior Taliban leaders. This will build on two sets of ESRC funded talks with senior Taliban leaders; in July 2012 to explore Taliban perspectives on reconciliation and communicate these perspectives to Western policymakers, and in March 2013 to scope out the possibilities for ceasefires.

The project will result in four high-quality publications; a book, two scholarly papers in leading academic journals, and an essay in the leading US policy journal. Interim project findings will inform Western policy from mid 2014 onwards; this is a critical year with the withdrawal of Western forces and the Afghan Presidential elections opening up the potential for progress in peace talks but equally the potential for an intensification in the conflict. Final project findings will also inform the learning of lessons from this war by Western militaries for doctrine and capability development and military education, and by wider policy communities for future Western military interventions.

Planned Impact

ISAF Command
2014 will be an immensely challenging year for ISAF. The force drawdown is ever-reducing ISAF's ability to see and influence events on the ground. In this context, there will be increasing need to draw on all sources of information concerning the insurgent campaign. Our research will produce original insights into the disposition of the Taliban leadership and field commanders to negotiate versus intensify the military campaign. Farrell's previous research has been extensively briefed to ISAF commanders and so we anticipate that this project will likewise prove useful for ISAF Command.

British and US Policymakers
By December 2014, all Western combat forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Thus, Western policymakers perceive a closing window of opportunity to influence the conflict endgame. Previous research by Farrell and Semple on Taliban perspectives on reconciliation has been briefed to British and US policymakers at the most senior level - with written briefs to Director CIA, Commander of ISAF, Chief of the UK General Staff, and briefs in person to senior officials in the White House, Cabinet Office and ISAF HQ. We anticipate that the follow-on series of meetings with Taliban leaders and commanders proposed in this project will likewise prove useful for senior British and US officials.

Afghan peacemakers
This project aims to support those Afghans on both sides - Taliban and government - that are seeking a negotiated end to the conflict. It will do this through two confidential meetings with Afghan stakeholders. One meeting with senior Taliban figures will explore views within the Taliban leadership on the prospects for peaceful reconciliation, in the context of the 2014 Presidential elections and withdrawal of Western combat forces. The other meeting involving senior Taliban field commanders and pro-government Afghan stakeholders, will seek to develop understandings within the Taliban, Afghan government and Western policy communities of the various opportunities to build on local de facto ceasefires towards formal ceasefire agreements and possibly peace talks. These meetings with Taliban build on similar meetings held in 2012 and 2013, funded by the ESRC, the findings of which attracted very wide policy and public interest.

British and US Militaries
Our project findings and outputs will be received by the British Army's Land Warfare Centre (LWC) and the US Army's Center for Military History (CMH). LWC will shortly begin a large lessons learned exercise to draw out tactical lessons from Afghanistan for doctrine and capability development. LWC also prepares British commanders and units for operational deployment. The paper published from our pilot study (Farrell and Giustozzi 2013) has been incorporated in the pre-deployment study pack for British units going to Afghanistan. CMH is a repository of key resources that are drawn on by the Combat Studies Institute in producing the campaign histories, the Center for Army Lessons Learned, and the Army War College and Command and General Staff College in their education of military officers. CMH has already widely disseminated our pilot study (Farrell and Giustozzi) to CSI, CALL, AWC and CGSC.

UK Parliament and wider policy communities
In the coming years, there will be various studies by policy communities to draw out broader lessons for future interventions. Widely expected is a parliamenary inquiry into British involvement in the conflict. Farrell has testified to three previous Commons enquiries on Afghanistan, and we would expect that our project would similarly inform other future parliamentary inquiries.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/L008041/1 14/07/2014 10/08/2016 £328,096
ES/L008041/2 Transfer ES/L008041/1 11/08/2016 11/01/2017 £42,552
Description Our project seeks to produce a history of the war in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective, based on a large number of original interviews with Afghans. We trialed our methods and Afghan research team in a pilot study of Helmand province. This project aimed to conduct interviews with 140 Taliban commanders, 55 Taliban cadres, and 80 non-Taliban Afghans in eight other provinces, as well as Kabul, Pakistan, and Dubai. Our Afghan researchers conducted multiple interviews in all of these locations. The final tally of interviews was: Taliban commanders 98; Taliban cadres 90; non-Taliban Afghans 70; others (women, security officials) 10. Included in this were a number of high value interviews with very senior Taliban leaders (e.g., one member of the Quetta Shura, three former deputy ministers, two former provincial governors, and a former northern front commander).
The project aims to chart the evolution of the Taliban from the collapse of the Emirate in late 2001, following the US invasion, up to the first fighting session in 2015 following the end of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in December 2014. We seek to understand how the Taliban have adapted their command structure and fighting techniques, and evolved their insurgent governance, under military pressure from ISAF and Afghan security forces. Our research has resulted in four significant findings, that offer a wholly new picture of the Taliban at war from 2001 to 2015.

1. The fragmentation of the Taliban - It was commonly recognized that from 2003 onwards, the Taliban re-organised the Emirate as an insurgent government, and from 2006 onwards, the Quetta Shura (the central Taliban ruling body) undertook a number of measuers to improve command and control over over Taliban fronts (networks of fighting groups) in Afghanistan. In July 2015, it was revealed that the Emir of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, had been dead for two years, and this triggered a succession struggle, leading to the appointment of Omar's deputy, Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, who was himself killed in a US drone strike a year later, leading to the appointment of the current Emir, Maulawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. This period from mid 2015 on, is commonly recognized as one where the Taliban begins to fragment.

Our research reveals that the process of internal fragmentation of the Taliban started far earlier, and no later than 2010. The arrest of the then deputy to Omar, Abdul Ghani Baradar, by Pakistan authorities in February 2010 was the unleashing factor. Our research shows how, in the years that follow, the Peshawar Shura asserts its autonomy from the Quetta Shura, and how it gains more influence across the whole of Afghanistan by channeling resources to Taliban fronts. The open leadership struggle in results in the emergence of the Rasool Shura in November 2015, as an alternative leadership shura challenging the Quetta Shura. This group losses much influence following the subsequent arrest of its leader, Muhammed Rasool, by Pakistan authorities. Our research highlights instead the growing influence of the Mashhad Office with Iranian support, and the Mansour network based in Helmand.

2. External support for the Taliban - Our research reveals the extend of continued Pakistan support for the Taliban throughout the war, including military supplies and training. We also show how the Taliban enjoyed more and wider external support than commonly assumed, beyond the usually accepted Pakistani involvement; China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran were all involved to various degrees. The financial resources of the Taliban as a whole probably exceeded $1 billion a year at its peak. This allowed for the massive expansion of the Taliban's rank and file, but also made the Taliban dependent on external patrons.

3. Taliban military organization - Our earlier published work showed how the Taliban leadership sought to professionalise their fighting groups, with support from Pakistan, and that the Peshawar Shura was driving this effort from 2009 onwards. The project research reveals the evolution of the Taliban's military organisation to be far more contentious than previously realised, with attempts to 'modernise' and centralise being widely resisted by Taliban fronts, often successfully. Moreover, the introduction of some new tactics - especially the use of suicide bombers - has been resisted by many Taliban commanders, who consider such tactics to be unIslamic. The further militarisation of the movement during the war has created deep friction between military leaders and political leaders, adding another layer of fragmentation.

4. The prospects for reconciliation - Since 2010, the United States and other western states have been attempting to engage in direct talks with the senior leadership of the Taliban, to facilitate reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government. US talks with the Taliban office in Doha collapsed in 2013. The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, attempted to work with Pakistan to re-start peace talks, resulting in talks between Taliban and Afghan government officials in China and Pakistan in 2015. However, these talks have also stalled, and relations between Ghani and the Pakistan government have broken down. The dominant view among western analysts is that the Taliban have no incentive to engage in peace talks because they are enjoying growing success on the battlefield, following the withdrawal of western combat forces in 2014. Our research reveals the extent of disenchantment within the Taliban towards the war, especially as with relatively few western forces left in Afghanistan, it has turned into a war pitting Afghan against Afghan. Moreover, Taliban gains on the battlefield have come at great cost in Afghan lives, and the Taliban recognize that even if they capture major urban centres (such as the city of Kunduz, as they did in 2015 and 2016), they are unable to hold such areas for long. This leads many in the Taliban to question the political utility of such major operations. Added to this is widespread disillusionment within the Taliban towards the new Emir, Haibatullah, who is seen as weak and ineffective, and towards a leadership that is seen as divided and largely out for self-gain. Thus, few Taliban have confidence that their leaders have a plan to end the war on successful terms. In this context, our research reveals scope to develop an alternative peace-process, one that circumvents the top leadership of the Taliban that is currently opposed to peace, and instead involves the mid-level leadership of the Taliban.
Exploitation Route Our research provides key insights for policymakers and scholars on (1) the trajectory of the armed conflict in Afghanistan, and potential for conflict termination and (2) insurgency and counter-insurgency - in particular, the sources of insurgent resilience and how insurgencies adapt.
Sectors Security and Diplomacy

Description Our research findings were briefed to the US, UK, and Afghan governments at the highest level. A written brief with our key research findings was sent directly to the US Deputy National Security Advisor, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, UK Foreign Secretary, UK Deputy National Security Advisor, and Afghan Foreign Minister, Afghan National Security Advisor, and Commander of US/NATO Forces in Afghanistan. Semple also gave a verbal briefing to senior staff on US National Security Council and in the US State Department in Washington DC in December 2017. Farrell gave a verbal briefing to senior staff on the UK National Security Council and FCO in Whitehall in December 2017, and to senior staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defence and from US Defence Intelligence in the Pentagon in February 2017. Our research concerns matters of ongoing concern in a highly classified area of foreign and national security policy. Accordingly, it is not possible to get confirmation from officials of how our research has impacted on policy. We have grounds for believing that our research has had some significant impact however. British officials expressed a strong interest in the new approach to negotiations with the Taliban identified by our research. We understand that this opportunity was explored by the FCO in 2017. We briefed our research to senior officials in Washington DC, as the new Trump administration was undertaking a review of US strategy for Afghanistan. We understand from US officials that our research findings informed this policy review.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Policy & public services