Forecasting Taliban Strategy: 2012-2014

by Micah Peckarsky

As the U.S. begins to wind down its military operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban is likely to adopt a multi-pronged strategy for 2012–2014 to ensure its continued survival and future relevance. While the Taliban ideally aims to pressure the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into a rapid and complete departure, overthrow the Karzai government, and reinstall itself as the dominant actor in the country, most high-ranking officials within the organization likely hold more pragmatic short-term objectives. In the 2012–2014 period, during which ISAF will remove the vast majority of its troops and shift its focus from combat missions to training Afghan personnel, the Taliban will likely concentrate on minimizing risks to its core operational capabilities and disrupting the ISAF withdrawal. By complicating NATO plans for a smooth transition to Afghan government control of the entire country, the Taliban likely seeks to compete with the Karzai regime in the post-2014 era as the strongest domestic power and maintain dominance within its traditional strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Expect persistent Taliban attacks in Kabul and other major urban centers against high-profile Afghan and international targets in the next two-year period. The Taliban has a history of such operations, most recently carrying out the April 2012 attacksagainst foreign embassies, ISAF installations, Afghan government and security buildings, hotels, and other targets. While Afghan security forces have demonstrated increased effectiveness in responding to and minimizing damage from such attacks, the Taliban will likely continue to carry out operations against prominent targets in a bid to demonstrate the weakness of the Afghan government, erode Karzai’s public support, and combat ISAF security objectives.

Despite the Taliban’s frequent assaults in Kabul, the organization has largely shied away from engaging ISAF forces in major armed hostilities, instead employing insurgent-style tactics. Facing a more capable adversary and attempting to preserve its manpower, the Taliban will likely continue to avoid large-scale military confrontations, which are extremely costly in terms of personnel and materiel. Instead, Taliban militants prefer to allow ISAF and its Afghan allies to take territory, then disrupt their presence through suicide attacks, roadside bombings, surprise raids, and improvised explosive devices.

Close tactical coordination with the Haqqani network is also an important component of Taliban strategy. Based in Pakistan along the Afghan border, the Haqqani network is a well-financed and trained militant organization supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and played a crucial role in the September 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The Haqqani network conducts extensive smuggling operations across the Afghan-Pakistani border and has helped facilitate and execute Taliban attacks. Despite this alliance, the group maintains its own command and control structure and is believed to be more motivated by a desire for future influence in eastern Afghanistan, particularly within Khost province, rather than an ideological agenda.

The Taliban will also likely continue its propaganda effort through a variety of print, online, and telecommunications media to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government and its ISAF partners. This initiative aims to denounce the international presence in Afghanistan as an occupying, anti-Islamic force and the Karzai government as its puppet. Recently, the Taliban has highlighted the January 2012 video of U.S. troops urinating on dead Taliban fighters, the February 2012 Quran burnings, and the March 2012 alleged killings of Afghan civilians by U.S. soldier Robert Bales as prime examples of U.S. hostility and nefarious objectives in its efforts to gain further support among the Afghan populace.

Green-on-blue attacks, in which Afghan security force members attack ISAF personnel, are the final component of Taliban strategy. As of February 1, 2012, ISAF documented 42 green-on-blue attacks since May 2007, resulting in 70 coalition member deaths. While many of these attacks are driven by personal motives, some are executed through Taliban co-option and infiltration. These incidents further erode the credibility of the Afghan security forces and strengthen the narrative of the Taliban’s power.

Several factors will impact Taliban strategy in the next two years. Factional differences within the organization, particularly over whether and how to pursue a political agreement with the Afghan government and the U.S., will likely become more apparent. Substantial progress toward a comprehensive reconciliation deal, which thus far has been minimal, would likely drastically alter Taliban strategy by moving the group away from militancy. Within this context, U.S.–Pakistani relations and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan are key drivers of future Taliban decision-making. The effectiveness and professionalism of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are also important variables in limiting the Taliban insurgency and its ability to carry out high-profile attacks. Finally, the size and scope of future ISAF and international commitments to provide military and economic assistance to the Afghan government will factor into the Taliban’s strategic approach.

About the Author

Micah Peckarsky is a second year student at the Fletcher School concentrating in International Security Studies and Southwest Asia & Islamic Civilization. Prior to Fletcher, Micah worked as an analyst for a U.S. government contractor on security issues in the Middle East and South Asia.

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