From the outset of my command in Afghanistan, two or three times each week, accompanied by a few aides and often my Afghan counterparts, I would leave the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul and travel across Afghanistan -- from critical cities like Kandahar to the most remote outposts in violent border regions. Ideally, we left early, traveling light and small, normally using a combination of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, to meet with Afghans and their leaders and to connect with our troops on the ground: Brits and Marines rolling back the enemy in Helmand, Afghan National Army troops training in Mazar-e-Sharif, French Foreign Legionnaires patrolling in Kapisa.
But I was not alone: There were other combatants circling the battlefield. Mirroring our movements, competing with us, were insurgent leaders. Connected to, and often directly dispatched by, the Taliban's leadership in Pakistan, they moved through the same areas of Afghanistan. They made shows of public support for Taliban shadow governors, motivated tattered ranks, recruited new troops, distributed funds, reviewed tactics, and updated strategy. And when the sky above became too thick with our drones, their leaders used cell phones and the Internet to issue orders and rally their fighters. They aimed to keep dispersed insurgent cells motivated, strategically wired, and continually informed, all without a rigid -- or targetable -- chain of command.
While a deeply flawed insurgent force in many ways, the Taliban is a uniquely 21st-century threat. Enjoying the traditional insurgent advantage of living amid a population closely tied to them by history and culture, they also leverage sophisticated technology that connects remote valleys and severe mountains instantaneously -- and allows them to project their message worldwide, unhindered by time or filters. They are both deeply embedded in Afghanistan's complex society and impressively agile. And just like their allies in al Qaeda, this new Taliban is more network than army, more a community of interest than a corporate structure.
For the U.S. military that I spent my life in, this was not an easy insight to come by. It was only over the course of years, and with considerable frustrations, that we came to understand how the emerging networks of Islamist insurgents and terrorists are fundamentally different from any enemy the United States has previously known or faced.
In bitter, bloody fights in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it became clear to me and to many others that to defeat a networked enemy we had to become a network ourselves. We had to figure out a way to retain our traditional capabilities of professionalism, technology, and, when needed, overwhelming force, while achieving levels of knowledge, speed, precision, and unity of effort that only a network could provide. We needed to orchestrate a nuanced, population-centric campaign that comprised the ability to almost instantaneously swing a devastating hammer blow against an infiltrating insurgent force or wield a deft scalpel to capture or kill an enemy leader.