The Taliban at war: inside the Helmand insurgency, 2004–2012



    1. Professor of War in the Modern World in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, and Chair of the British International Studies Association.
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    1. Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College London.
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    • For feedback on earlier drafts of this article, we wish to thank Mark Beautement, Ryan Evans, Carter Malkasian, Mike Martin and the two anonymous reviewers, as well as audiences at presentations in 2012–13 in the ‘Changing character of war’ programme at Oxford University, the Afghan Studies Group at King's College London, and the Centre for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. We gratefully acknowledge funding of our field research by the UK Research Council's Global Uncertainties Programme (RES-071-27-0069), and thank Claudio Franco for co-managing of our field researchers.


In seeking to explain why and how the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, most analysis has focused on the western and Afghan government effort. In this article, we examine how the war looks from the perspective of the insurgency. Using Helmand province as a case-study, we draw on a large number of original interviews with Taliban field commanders and fighters to produce a uniquely detailed picture of the Taliban at war. In the first section, we explore how the Taliban returned to Helmand from 2004 to 2006, and show how the British made the situation far worse when they deployed forces to Helmand in 2006. In the second part of the article we examine the evolution of the Taliban insurgency in Helmand since 2006. We show how the Taliban has developed an increasingly centralized organizational structure, a more militarized shadow government and greater professionalism of field units. The overall picture that emerges is of a resilient insurgency that has adapted under immense military pressure. The Taliban have suffered very heavy attrition in Helmand, but they are far from defeated.