KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Despite all the political hand-wringing in Washington over the war in Afghanistan, it's the Taliban who are now on the defensive on the military battlefield. Indeed, there is a growing recognition among senior Taliban leaders that they are losing momentum in parts of southern Afghanistan, their longtime stronghold. This is more than the normal winter lull of senior Taliban fighters migrating to Pakistan: The Taliban have definitively lost territorial control in parts of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, and other southern provinces.
According to a growing body of Afghan, NATO, and even Taliban reports, Taliban leaders held a secret meeting last month near Quetta, Pakistan, to discuss concerns that they had lost territory in parts of Helmand province and other areas in southern Afghanistan. According to one Taliban commander with direct knowledge of the meeting, they concluded that local forces allied to the Afghan government "are in control of a growing number of areas in the province and will likely continue to expand since local families and the government have encouraged their sons to participate."
Assessing progress in a counterinsurgency is more art than science. Body counts tend not to be helpful in measuring insurgent progress. Nor do levels of violence. Neither captures the combatants' primary goal: control over the population.
The Taliban have been remarkably transparent about their objectives and tactics. As the group announced in 2010 when it kicked off Operation al-Fath, or "conquest," it aims to conduct a range of targeted assassinations in urban and rural areas to seize control of Afghanistan. "May Allah help the mujahideen establish an Islamic government, keep the trenches of war hot against the aggressive infidels, and carry out their jihad," the Taliban announced. But after years of gains, the Taliban's progress has stalled -- and even reversed -- in southern Afghanistan this year.
A recent NATO assessment indicated that Taliban control of territory had decreased since last year, with many of the Taliban's losses coming in the south, their most important sanctuary. Since late 2010, Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior official in the Haqqani network, have acknowledged mounting losses, though they have vowed to retaliate.
There appear to be several reasons for the Taliban's diminished ability to wage war.
One is the decision among Afghan and NATO leaders to establish a "bottom-up" component of the campaign plan that allows Afghan communities to stand up for themselves. The Afghan Local Police program, which was established in August by President Hamid Karzai, has undermined Taliban control in Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, and other provinces by helping villagers protect their communities and better connecting them to district and provincial government.
The Afghan government and NATO forces have been fairly meticulous in choosing locations where locals have already resisted the Taliban, vetting candidates with biometrics and available intelligence, and training and mentoring local villagers. In some cases, the Afghan government has provided basic weapons and equipment to local communities for self-protection. The government and NATO forces have also helped ensure Afghan Local Police are small, defensive entities under the supervision of local shuras and control of the Interior Ministry.
The Taliban have taken notice. "We must crush these efforts," another Taliban commander, who has been with the organization since 2002, told me in Kandahar province in February. "And we must do it now." Taliban and other insurgent commanders are listening. Insurgent attacks against the Afghan government and NATO forces have nearly doubled from levels at the beginning of 2010, though so have civilian casualties caused by the Taliban.
A second reason for the decline in Taliban control appears to be the surge in conventional military forces, especially in eastern and southern Afghanistan. There are currently nearly 70,000 NATO forces in the south, up from 20,000 in April 2009. In Helmand province, for example, U.S. Marine Corps and Afghan National Army forces have conducted a range of dismounted patrols, targeting insurgent sanctuaries and working closely with tribal and other community leaders. One of the most notable successes has been the recent agreement with the Alikozai tribe in Sangin district, an insurgent stronghold, to halt insurgent attacks on coalition forces and expel Taliban fighters.
These factors have placed the Taliban in a difficult position. When asked who they would rather have ruling Afghanistan today, 86 percent of Afghans said the Karzai government and only 9 percent the Taliban, according to a December poll by ABC News, BBC, ARD, and the Washington Post. When asked who posed the biggest danger in the country, 64 percent of respondents said the Taliban, up from 41 percent in 2005.
It's not difficult to see why the Taliban are unpopular. In the 1990s, the Taliban closed cinemas and banned music, along with almost every other conceivable kind of entertainment. Most Afghans don't subscribe to their religious zealotry. Indeed, most Muslims elsewhere in the world would also disavow the severity of the Taliban's puritanism.
But despite the Taliban's struggles this winter, they will surely continue to fight. The Taliban retain a robust sanctuary in Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan province, where its senior leaders and their families reside. The Taliban have also demonstrated an uncanny ability to regenerate, by taking advantage of local grievances against the Afghan central government. For the Taliban, the spring fighting season can't come soon enough.