The growing territorial reach exercised by the Taliban poses a notable threat to the stability of the Afghan government. The insurgents’ persistence and adaptability points to an underappreciated trend. While guerrilla warfare has been consistently identified as a way for less powerful actors to counter much stronger fighting forces, treating the tactic as a “primitive’” weapon of the weak underestimates the complexity involved in fighting guerrilla wars, let alone transitioning into movement warfare. Guerrilla warfare requires reliable small units that can fire and maneuver to retain the tactical offensive against much stronger foes.
Beyond the role of social networks or material resources such as weapons, my research points to the importance of well-designed training programs in crafting such insurgent military power. While some have begun to probe the role of training in re-socializing insurgent fighters, training also plays a fundamental role in developing military skill. What is more, insurgents with explicit training regimens are positioned to adapt and transition to new methods of warfare. As discussed below, there is evidence that the Taliban is already beginning to take the steps necessary to re-orient the group’s forces for the type of movement warfare they employed in the 1990s to take Afghanistan in a military storm.
Militarily successful insurgents engage in complex operations. For example, ambushes require careful planning to identify vulnerable targets or chokepoints and then a well-staged division of labor that allows an attacking element to move forward and quickly withdraw, with the assistance of suppressing fire from other squads and sometimes the use of explosives as a diversionary tactic or as part of the assault. This demands dispersed small units that are well trained and prepared for the challenges—and instability—of combat. This need will come as no surprise to US military combat planners and trainers. As S.L.A. Marshall identified in Men Against Fire, the transition from close-order formations to dispersion of units and a reliance on fire and maneuver means that “the mechanisms of the new warfare . . . are ever at the mercy of training methods which will stimulate the solider to express his intelligence and spirit.” Despite the similar requirements for small-unit skill and dynamism among insurgents, reporting and analysis on these actors—which tends to treat all insurgent or terrorist groups as “like” entities—rarely recognizes variation in training regimens and preparation.
What does successful insurgent training entail? Building on the same basic principles of many Western militaries, my research, focusing on organizations in Iraq (2003–present) and Vietnam (1940–1975), finds that successful insurgent training is (1) consistent, (2) realistic, and (3) focused on generating capable small-unit leaders. Consistent training means that at least a core program is required for all new recruits. This provides soldiers with skills, such as weapons handling and camouflage, and builds physical and mental fitness that prepares them to endure intense physical and emotional stress. This ensures that soldiers have a shared vocabulary, set of operational concepts, and competencies, and understanding of the chain of command. While this training may be carried out in as little as weeks, often it is on the order of months.
Beyond consistency, successful training is realistic. Such training includes repetitive collective exercises across teams and units, making the tasks that fighters will be ordered to execute in the field second nature. It includes real-world conditions such as nighttime movements, movement under exhaustion, and adverse weather. This prepares soldiers to fall back on their training during periods of stress and confusion. As a Viet Cong cadre told US interrogators: “Hard field training saved blood in combat.”
Finally, successful training focuses on generating capable small-unit leaders who motivate soldiers during combat and in its aftermath. As US combat thinkers have emphasized, such leaders “master the fundamental skills they are developing in soldiers,” preparing them to plan and manage effective operations. This sustained role for leaders is important because much combat learning happens “on the job” as new recruits join seasoned units.
Such training supports so-called Combat Darwinism—well-trained units survive, gaining greater skill and experience that helps to sustain morale in the face of challenging conditions. Moreover, it is a core component of “force generation” whereby insurgents are able to make up for battlefield losses by turning new recruits into combat-capable fighters. Such force generation separates rebel groups that might have access to similar weaponry and resources. While many of the Sunni insurgents in post-2003 Iraq drew upon vast weapons caches left behind by the Iraqi army, only some translated these resources into successful action on the battlefield that could be sustained over time. I find evidence that the training regimes, and cadre they produced, played a major role in separating successful groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic Army in Iraq, and Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, from their Sunni competitors.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s military training been a central component of its increasingly robust military power. Drawing on its experience in the 1990s and the need for tactical adaptation after 2006, it has relied on military training to generate force and respond to battlefield developments. Multiple reports underscore the range of Taliban training camps and the importance they place upon them, with nearly all new recruits consistently funneled through training programs. At least sixteen camps have been mentioned in Taliban social media (though the full number is more likely in the dozens), with some supposedly having the capacity to train upwards of 2,000 fighters. These camps, along with mobile training teams, provide training to most new recruits and support the re-training of deployed units—interviews with Taliban fighters in Helmand indicate that such re-training may occur as often as every four months and last 15–20 days. This is a marked change from the post-2006 period when Afghan national security forces’ weaknesses required less of a focus on military proficiency.
This consistent training regimen is realistic. It covers small-arms proficiency, the use of mortars and other explosives, military grammar, and guerrilla tactics, including the employment of IEDs, small-arms fire, use of explosives in support of ambushes, and firing from moving vehicles. In other words, it focuses on honing the skills that are actually employed by the Taliban in combat.
Finally, there is a focus on training and deploying cadre who can lead units and maintain professionalism among fighting units that mix new recruits and veterans. As a Taliban cadre relayed to Antonio Giustozzi, he and his fellow cadre recognize that “training is very important. We spend most of our time training new Taliban. It wasn’t like this before, anyone could join without any proper training.” There is evidence that cadre have been successful in imparting the importance of military proficiency. In interviews with thirty-nine Taliban fighters in Helmand, Giustozzi and Theo Farrell found that two-thirds saw training as very important and only a “handful” did not see an important role for training.
The results have been stark. After action reports from Helmand in 2011 reported that Taliban units were conducting complex ambushes that demonstrated “fire control,” “fire discipline,” “interlocking fields of fire,” “combined arms,” “fire and maneuver,” “anti-armor tactics,” “cover and concealment,” and “defense in depth.” More recently, well-trained Taliban special operations “Red Units” have demonstrated even greater tactical capability, and are often being used in concert with regular troops as a force multiplier. Their capability is demonstrated by coordinated nighttime operations that threaten the extent to which United States and Afghan Special Forces “own the night.”
Beyond helping us to understand increasing Taliban capabilities, this tactical adaptation, implemented through training, underscores the potential for the Taliban to employ new forms of combat. What separated the Taliban from other mujahedeen in the 1990s was its ability to consistently conduct large-unit operations by moving quickly and combining arms with the use of “technicals”—essentially pickups with machine guns or heavy weapons bolted onto the back. This was supported by a required two months of small- and large-unit training, often led by Pakistani advisors. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan with the employment of “blitzkrieg” conventional tactics, with the use of technicals in place of armor. In these operations, the Taliban demonstrated military skill that notably outmatched their competitors. As an analyst noted at the time, it was an “avowedly military affair.”
Indeed, the Taliban today have massed in increasingly large formations, often as a part of combined arms attacks. As of 2010, this was already apparent to some US military observers. Noting the limited utility of artillery in countering some Taliban movements, Maj. Joseph Jackson observed that “insurgent tactics now include firing volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, and missiles from the back of trucks to allow insurgent groups to maneuver to disrupt coalition forces and seize key objectives such as remote outposts and towns.” As they gain greater territorial sanctuary and can harden large training camps, they will be able to transition to larger-unit training. The main check on such large-scale operations, as was the case in countering the Islamic State in Iraq, will continue to be US air power.
These lessons can be applied to counterinsurgency operations as well. When the United States and others attempt to strengthen proxy forces in locations such as Syria and Yemen, weapons and resources must always be matched by dedicated training. Iran’s careful support of organizations in Lebanon and Iraq highly values the role of intense, and realistic, military training, often provided to cadre in a train-the-trainers fashion. Thus, while insurgency is a mix of the political and kinetic, a focus on training regimens would more fully shape our understanding of the military capabilities of violent movements.
Image credit: Balazs Gardi