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Taliban Strategic Intentions, 2001 – 2011

February 2, 2012

Lessons learnt – Taliban strategic intentions, 2001 – 2011

There are quite a few interesting statements coming from the Taliban at the moment – their infrequent battle statistics are always interesting and even revealing.  I’ll try and look at them all and give a sense of what I think they are saying (or trying to say).  But first, this report caught my eye and it is definitely worth a look.  Alex Strick and Felix Kuhn have been based in, and writing from, Kandahar for some years now – no mean feat in itself.  They produced a fascinating book, in collaboration with a former senior Taleb, Mullah Abdul Zaeef (“My life with the Taliban”, C. Hurst and Co, Feb 2011), last year.  Shame on you if you haven’t already read it.

The paper “aims to answer the question of what the Taliban wants”.  In this respect, though no fault of its own, it doesn’t entirely succeed.  There is much useful historic (ie 2001 to 2011) context – looking at the evolution of Taliban strategic thinking; the shock and surprise of the initial 2001 defeat, tentative beginnings of military resistance and then growing (over?) confidence.  They begin to address “hearts and minds” issues and even, in the last few years, to talk sparingly about international relations, a multi-ethnic Afghanistan and basic political matters.

The paper doesn’t come up with as much detail about the Taliban internal leadership tensions as I had hoped.  It also struggles to give a strong idea of what the Taliban want, mainly because the Taliban have never been very good at providing specifics.  Strick and Kuhn conclude that the Taliban themselves do not really know what they want; tensions, factions and fluidity of position strongly influence the Taliban’s current deliberations and decision-making.  The Taliban need to keep a lot of people on board and, at this stage, they probably do not want to be seen as jumping firmly one way or the other without taking their jihadi credentials with them.

But there are some very useful and thought-provoking ideas from the paper:

  • The difficulty in gaining clarity regarding Taliban intentions:

“There is no single Taliban strategy or set of goals”

  • to highlight the increased fragmentations within Taliban command groupings (due in part to “kill-capture”):

“a deepening fragmentation within.”

  • a probable widening divide between political and military factions (and old and young) in the Taliban:

“Even though the statements of the political cadre among the older generation have been more consistent in recent years, the realities of internal group dynamics are spinning out of their control as each day passes.”

  • the (unhelpful) likelihood that Taliban wishes from talks are not clear and may only become so during the course of talks.  The political and military actions of the international community and the Afghan government can also dramatically reshape the playing field:

“…the Afghan Taliban find themselves in an environment with limited options for action from their perspective”

  • international timetables for withdrawal/transition increasing the prospects of civil war before talks resolve themselves.

“…it is the credible threat of civil war that looms over the issue of ‘talks’ and the international move towards ‘transition’.  The timetable is ambitious and it seems events often overtake the intentions of individuals…”

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