Page last updated at 18:22 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 19:22 UK

Afghanistan: Taliban tactics

By Tom Housden
BBC News

International forces have been fighting the Taliban on and off for almost a decade since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

Taliban fighters
It's raw, instinctive local knowledge against forces of much greater number and firepower
Colonel Christopher Langton, IISS

Throughout that time, Afghan fighters have stuck doggedly to the same guiding principles of guerrilla warfare honed by the Mujahideen, the forerunners of the Taliban who fought the Soviet army to a standstill in the late 1980s.

Speed, surprise, mobility and flexibility are integral factors in such 'asymmetric' campaigns; where a smaller, irregular force faces a far larger, better-armed one.

History has shown that a smaller, local force will often fare better.

Favoured guerrilla methods include ambush, sabotage, roadside bombings and assassination.

Taliban manpower remains difficult to estimate, especially given the shifting and complicated network of tribal allegiances stretching across the porous border region with Pakistan.

Leading defence analyst Colonel Christopher Langton from the International Institute for Strategic Studies told BBC News:

See the effects of a large IED on the US version of the Mastiff armoured patrol vehicle.

"On a basic tactical level, nothing has changed.

"Some new technologies have been deployed, and the recent discovery of anti-aircraft guns has caused some nervousness because of the possible threat to helicopters.

"In Helmand, the Taliban have had time to develop detailed defensive networks with excellent lines of communication, which is why we're seeing IEDs [Improvised Explosive Device] appearing on roads which had been previously declared clear.

"But they're doing very much what the mujahideen did in terms of defence. It's raw instinctive local knowledge against forces of much greater number and firepower.


Mobility is a major factor in guerrilla warfare and Taliban fighters often operate as a 'pick-up truck cavalry' force in adapted four-wheel drive vehicles such as the Toyota Hi-Lux.

Nicknamed 'Ahu' (the deer), these trucks are renowned for their sturdy design and reliability, and offer good manoeuvrability across harsh terrain.

They can carry about a dozen guerrillas armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, who fight either from the back of the moving truck, or dismount and adopt ground positions.

Colonel Langton told the BBC: "The Toyota is not just a mainstay, they exist in large quantities across the country. They're a vehicle of convenience - they don't have to ride horses, camels or walk. And they go anywhere."

Mastiff and Toyota Hi-Lux
Mastiff II
Defences: Heavy armour and V-shaped hull to protect against roadside bombs and mines
Strengths: State-of-the-art, heavily armed, armoured patrol vehicle designed to carry 8 soldiers and 2 crew.
Weaknesses: Expensive, requires dedicated maintenance.
Cost: Approximately £1.2 million per vehicle.
Toyota Hi Lux
Defences: Some carry RPG launchers, heavy machine guns.
Strengths: Hard-wearing, fast, reliable off-road transport for up to 10 Taliban fighters.
Weaknesses: No armour, variable levels of mechanical support
Cost: Approximately $10,000 in local terms

Such a force can be quickly mustered into a surprise attack and equally quickly dispersed afterwards.

In isolation, Taliban vehicles often display no outward sign of their military purpose allowing them to blend into everyday scenery in towns and villages.

Motorbikes and push-bikes are also favoured as relatively quick, cheap and easy means of travelling distances over rough ground.

In contrast, international forces have turned to a series of increasingly heavyweight armoured vehicles to protect against the rising threat of Improvised Explosive Devices.


Fighting units of Taliban consist mainly of Afghans, though numbers of Arab and Uzbek fighters are also be involved. Groups of fighters are usually organised along local/tribal lines and led by a senior, experienced commander.

Taliban units are sometimes merged to form bigger contingents for more large-scale operations.

British soldier and Taliban fighter
British soldier
Main weapons: Standard issue SA-80 rifle, L1A1 12.7 mm Heavy Machine gun, 81mm Mortar
Strengths: Highly-trained, well-supported professional soldier with modern equipment. Air support available
Weaknesses: May struggle to adapt to fighting in the harsh Afghan environment. Lacks intimate knowledge of local landscape, may face hostility and distrust from civilians
Taliban fighter
Main weapons: Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, Rocket-Propelled Grenades
Strengths: Tenacious, well-supplied guerrilla force highly adapted to local climate and geography. Can blend in with local population when required
Weaknesses: Vulnerable to air attack. Few heavy weapons. Factional nature can mean shifting loyalties. Poor weapons-handling skills

Afghan fighters are renowned for their tenacity and ability to fight in high-temperatures and often at high-altitude.

Colonel Langton said: "If they have a weakness, it's that they're a very much traditional organisation and by looking at their fighting and cultural traditions, you can see some things that are predictable.

"They're not easy to combat though because their low-level fighting skills are highly developed."


The weapons used by the opposing forces in Afghanistan are the products of two very different eras.

The SA80, mainstay of British forces for around 20 years, has been dogged by problems involving its design and reliability but reports of battlefield problems have diminished since a multi-million pound re-fit.

By contrast the AK-47 has been in service in one form or another since the 1950s and, although the weapon of choice in many standing armies, has become a symbol of guerrilla struggle thanks to its reputation for ruggedness and simplicity of use.

SA80 (left) and AK47
Developed: 1970s/ 1980s
Calibre: 5.56mm
Magazine capacity: 30
Loaded weight: 5kg (11lbs)
Range: 500m (1,641ft)
First made: 1947
Calibre: 7.62mm
Magazine capacity: 30
Loaded weight: 3.6kg (7.9lbs)
Range: 300m (984ft)

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