I recently attended a two-day conference in Budapest on hybrid war entitled “The Role and Missions of Armed Forces in Below-Threshold Conflicts.” Hosted by the Hungarian Defense Forces (HDF) Transformation Command, a military think tank with the authority and responsibility to chart the modernization and innovation of the country’s military forces.

Contemporary security challenges include the significant, yet elusive, concept of hybrid war. Its ambiguity is illustrated by the fact that the strategic experts and high-ranking military officers who spoke at the conference could not quite agree on a suitable definition.

I, however, define hybrid warfare as the strategy deliberately pursued by a state, substate, or non-state actor which pursues optimal political objectives with the least possible violence, while maintaining some level of plausible deniability for its actions. In my keynote presentation at the conference, I illustrated this analytical framework by citing the strategies pursued in Afghanistan by the Taliban as a substate entity, and more importantly, by its indispensable abettor and state actor par excellence, Pakistan. 

I contended that the endgame in Afghanistan in 2021 was the climax of a long-drawn-out exercise in hybrid warfare by the Taliban—and even more so by its Pakistani protectors. The Taliban strategy, since early 2015, provides us with a textbook exercise of Sun Tzu’s ideal of “winning a war without fighting,” which is an early definition of hybrid warfare. It is remarkable that a numerically inferior irregular force without advanced weaponry managed to survive two decades of the U.S.-led and financed Operation Enduring Freedom.

The Taliban suddenly launched a bid for total dominance in May 2021. Within three months, its actions had resulted in complete victory. The Taliban first captured border crossings to the former Soviet Central Asian countries, then to Iran and Pakistan. What followed was the challenge of securing the ethnically diverse north and west of the country, and finally marching unopposed to the south and east,into the Pashtun heartland. By that point, Kabul was doomed.

The Taliban adopted a hybrid warfare strategy by aiming to win by not losing: to outlast the “infidel” enemy politically and psychologically. The Taliban sought:

•      to maintain the coherence of the group’s core cadre,
•      to undermine political stabilization of any part of Afghanistan,
•      to safeguard its base of support in the Pashtun heartland in the south,
•      to gradually expand its influence and control northbound,
•      to establish secret communication with the government officials and commanders in Kabul,
•      to avoid battle with U.S. forces, especially after early 2015.

The U.S. military had no winning strategy, and no political guidance for developing one. Upon arrival in Afghanistan, brigade and battalion commanders were generally given the same mission: to protect the population and defeat the enemy in their sector. “So they all went in for whatever their rotation was, nine months or six months… and executed that mission,” according to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan.

Then they all said, when they left, they accomplished that mission. Every single commander. Not one commander is going to leave Afghanistan and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accomplish our mission’ … So the next guy that shows up finds it [their area] screwed up… and then they come back and go, ‘Man this is really bad.’

Flynn’s testimony explains how to lose a war by winning missions. At the same time, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police became operationally ineffective because of their inability to control territory from their fortified but isolated outposts and checkpoints. Although inferior in numbers and weaponry, the Taliban cut off garrisons from their bases of support and prevented supplies and additional forces from coming through. When the Taliban started its final push six months ago, it easily blocked the roads, and airlifted supplies were too little too late to reinforce isolated garrisons. Demoralized by hunger, lack of pay, ammunition shortages, and no prospect of relief, ANA personnel refused to fight. At the same time, the Taliban’s tailored propaganda campaign further undermined morale.

By contrast, a new generation of Afghan youths—many of them indoctrinated in Pakistan’s madrassas, or Islamic educational centers—provided  highly motivated fresh recruits to the Taliban. The focus was on quality rather than quantity: wholehearted acceptance of the Caliphate narrative and readiness to die for Islamic dominance. These indoctrinated youth created a countrywide network of sleeper cells and working village-level authorities, even in areas formally under government control.

The Taliban strategy was facilitated by the absence of clear-cut U.S. goals, by intelligence failures, by the ineptitude of government forces, and by corrupt Afghan officials. Nobody wanted to die for President Ashraf Ghani or his kleptocratic form of “democracy.” It is worth noting that when South Vietnam fell in 1975, dozens of senior officers killed themselves in despair. None did so in Afghanistan.

The key to the Taliban success was the continuous, barely concealed military, technical, logistical, and intelligence assistance of Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. This aid included vital provision of safe havens in Pakistan’s Northwest Province, out of reach of the U.S. and allied forces, and covert diplomatic support abroad, notably in Beijing. Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan is a striking example of a complex, long, and eminently successful hybrid warfare operation. It was aimed directly against the U.S. and indirectly against India, on behalf of Pakistan’s geostrategic interests. All along, a pretense of partnership with the U.S. was successfully maintained due to the willingness of American personnel to pretend that all was well.

Among major state actors, Pakistan is the biggest winner of the US’s Afghan fiasco. The new Taliban government is arguably a client regime of Islamabad. It provides a welcome northwestern strategic depth to Pakistan’s narrow corridor to the Chinese border in the Himalayas. It increases the value of Pakistan to China’s geostrategic designs, including a safe link to the port of Gwadar. It is Pakistan, rather than the Taliban, that provides an excellent case study of hybrid warfare campaign that Pakistan has waged since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Not “knowing thyself” was the failure which made the victory of hybrid warfare possible. Two decades after 9/11, and three months after the jihadist triumph in Kabul, America is still struggling to find itself. Defeating the forces of wokeness at home may be the precondition for containing jihad abroad.