In Afghanistan the Taliban is losing by NATO standards and winning according to the Afghan way of calculating such things. It’s all about cultural differences and the reason why Afghanistan is still the poorest country in Eurasia. The Afghans are very adaptable, despite culturally conservative and inept when it comes to creating a culture that is capable of economic growth. Despite their warrior ethos, Afghans cannot handle professional soldiers. But the Afghans can adapt to such disadvantages, which is exactly what they have been doing.
The Taliban cannot survive when fighting the NATO forces directly and fell back on a campaign using IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Most of these were roadside bombs or locally made mines and booby traps. The Taliban spend most of their money on this, to buy the materials (explosives, detonators, and trigger mechanisms like wireless devices or electrical wire) and pay Afghans to build and plant the devices. For all this, the IEDs killed 102 U.S. troops last year using 15,222 IEDs. Only about 2,100 of these bombs actually detonated, killing or wounding about 1,900 U.S. troops. Thus the Taliban had to pay for about 150 IEDs to kill one American. Put another way, it took eight IEDs to hurt an American (usually minor injuries).
For the Taliban and the drug gangs (who finance the Taliban), this is all working for them. The drug gangs are getting rich producing and exporting heroin, opium, and hashish. While NATO troops destroy a lot of these drugs, and the Taliban costs over $100 million a year to subsidize, that’s just a cost of doing business. The drug trade is still profitable with these losses. When nearly all the foreign troops are gone, by the end of next year, the drug gangs can use the money they threw at largely ineffective IED attacks to bribe the Afghan police and army, which is cheaper. There’s always been some of that going on but with all those foreign troops around, you could not always rely on the bribes to work. With the foreign troops no longer around to interfere, the bribes will make it much easier to do business.
The Taliban have always presented themselves as the solution to the crime and disorder that is, actually, quite normal in Afghanistan. When the Taliban were running most of the country in the late 1990s, their idea of law and order was to declare Taliban misbehavior (taxation in the form of extortion and theft) legal and acceptable. Women were abducted (to provide “wives” for young Taliban gunmen) and people killed (for unIslamic behavior) and most Afghans saw it for what it was. With the foreign troops gone Afghanistan will revert to its usual coalition of tribal and warlord militias providing security in return for a license to steal. Afghans have long learned to cope by either joining in, getting out of the country, or just making the best of a bad situation.
The Western aid workers point out that the country could be rich with law and order and education. But the forces of tradition and the culture of violence and tribalism are difficult to overcome. Anyone with education and skills finds it more practical to just get out. Those who remain keep the ancient culture of poverty and violence going.