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SWOT analysis: the Taliban in 2012 from their own perspective

May 4, 2012

C3I and ISTARS the Al Qaeda way

By Tim Foxley

Thinking after the release of some Bin Laden papers and analytical work looking at where he and AQ were before his death in 2011, it seems clear that Osama was frustrated and undergoing real difficulties in getting Al Qaeda focused and moving.  It was hard to exert control over diverse groups and, with painful irony, he was also worrying about the hearts and minds impact of killing civilians.

There is perhaps a natural human tendency to imbue a potentially dangerous force that you either don’t understand, or you don’t have too much information about, with exaggerated powers.  In turn, you often tend to see your own problems as insurmountable.  In the context of areas where there is limited information in Afghanistan, I am thinking not just about the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but also the ISI, HIG, Haqqani Network and the workings of President Karzai’s brain.  I haven’t come over all “ISAF spokesman” on you, but it is probably a good time to remind ourselves, that, although the Taliban appear resilient, the fighters and leadership are likely to be suffering some significant frustrations, dilemmas and uncertainties.  They may be suffering similar difficulties to AQ.  I had a go at a basic SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) brainstorming breakdown of where the Taliban might see themselves in 2012.  For this breakdown, I have defined the SWOT categories as follows:

Mullah Omar. Probably.

Strengths (current issues that the Taliban can influence and should look to develop)

Weaknesses (current issues that the Taliban can influence and should look to remove)

Opportunities (future issues that the Taliban cannot control but should look to exploit when they occur)

Threats (future issues that the Taliban cannot control but should look to avoid when they occur)


I wasn’t sure whether to look at the Taliban in 2012 from their own perspective or from a generic western analytical stance – er, me in other words.  What I mean is there may be areas – weaknesses, for example – that the Taliban may be unaware of, or reject, that a western analyst might see differently.  And vice versa.  I have tried to keep it purely from a Taliban perspective, but have highlighted areas that might conflict.

Strengths (current issues that the Taliban can influence and should look to develop)

  • Military capabilities still potent (IEDs, suicide attacks, complex attacks)
  • Able to target key locations and individuals
  • Ability to inflict casualties across the country
  • Morale still reasonably high (ISAF leaving)
  • Resilience
  • Insurgency experience/expertise
  • Able to influence districts and provinces – shadow govt
  • Media messaging strong – propaganda of the deed – small attacks can have big impact
  • Safe haven in Pakistan still broadly unchallenged
  • Some popular support/acquiescence, particularly in the south and east.  (I think the Taliban probably greatly overstate this)

Weaknesses (current issues that the Taliban can influence and should look to remove)

  • Fragmentation of forces due to Kill/Capture
  • Concept of peace talks is divisive and difficult for the Taliban leaders and fighters
  • Reintegration initiatives causing some uncertainty
  • Command and control is weak
  • Unpopular – suicide and other indiscriminate attacks, only winning minds, not hearts
  • Believe their own propaganda – particularly about battlefield results?
  • Divisions/rivalry between political and  military factions in the leadership
  • Lack of political, social and economic plans for Afghanistan (comment: not sure the Taliban recognise this as a problem)
  • Risk of over-confidence – belief they are winning can lead to over-reaching themselves or poor military/political choices (not sure Taliban are aware of this)
  • Leadership vulnerable to drone strikes
  • Safe haven: hampers co-ordination, dependent on Pakistan

Opportunities (future issues that the Taliban cannot control but should look to exploit when they occur)

  • ISAF suffer a major casualty incident
  • Afghan government suffer a major casualty incident
  • ISAF ever decreasing in size and strength
  • Collateral damage by ISAF/ANSF
  • ISAF actions against Afghan culture or religion
  • ANSF weaknesses – not as capable as ISAF
  • Hardening of Pakistani attitudes towards US/international community
  • Afghan popular uncertainty regarding post-2014
  • Increasing “desperation” of IC/Karzai/US for a peace deal
  • International media undermine, attack, criticise IC actions and presence
  • Fragmentation in views between ethnic groups
  • Shift in position of key warlords/powerbrokers (i.e. re-align with Taliban, strike deal or reject Kabul rule)
  • Western governments get distracted by other world events – Iran, Middle East…
  • International community loses resolve
  • Weak/corrupt Afghan government, justice system
  • Weak, ineffectual Afghan political parties
  • Friction between Afghan government and ISAF and International Community)

Threats (future issues that the Taliban cannot control but should look to avoid when they occur)

  • US bases and international military presence in Afghanistan post-2014 (SF, drones, intelligence, training, mentoring…)
  • “Surge”/boost in strength of IC involvement – pol/mil/economic/governance
  • Death of Mullah Omar
  • Death of other senior leader
  • Major casualties from battle
  • Taliban actions cause major Afghan civilian casualties
  • Other ethnic groups re-arming for civil war – neighbouring countries assisting
  • US drone strikes and kill-capture
  • Shift in Pakistan attitude/policy towards the Taliban
  • Other insurgent groups rebel, defect or strike deal (HIG, Haqqani)
  • Large defection of local Taliban group or groups
  • Internal power struggle/internal fighting as a result of strategic differences, personal rivalry

A few thoughts:

This is quite a rough and ready post, so I welcome anyone’s views.  The Taliban do not appear to have much in the way of strengths beyond their military capability, they have many weaknesses and there are a whole range of important factors (US, international community, Pakistan) that they do not have any real control over.  Arguably, Pakistan and the safe haven issue occurs as a strength, a weakness, an opportunity and a threat.  Similarly the role, actions and support to Afghanistan from the international community are both opportunity and threat to the Taliban.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2012 5:14 pm

    SWOT analyses are always good to do. I wonder if those in charge of things are doing this.

  2. El Snarkistani permalink
    May 5, 2012 1:24 pm

    The Taliban’s biggest strength is the perception among rural Afghans that government under the Taliban was more responsive to their needs.

    Over the last several years, the ABC poll that asks whether people would rather have the Taliban in control? That number has steadily risen (last data in 2010: 10% of respondents said yes).

    Given that these polls are often conducted in areas of the lowest levels of Taliban influence (for security reasons), that’s a troubling statistic in itself. Still in the minority, but climbing every year.

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