Seeking Fissures Between Taliban and Al Qaeda

Experts debate whether Afghanistan could be saved if the groups were split

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American hopes in Afghanistan increasingly hinge on curbing Islamic radicalism both within the country and on its borders. The initial strategy of isolating Al Qaeda encountered short-term success, but it is clear that long-term strategy requires addressing the Taliban, a group thought to be less radical. Could the Taliban be reformed, or is eradicating the group the only real solution? This question rests at the heart of Obama's ongoing deliberation over whether to commit more troops to a long-term fight.

But there may be another solution. If the Taliban could be split from Al Qaeda and engaged with as a rational political actor, Obama's dilemma would be solved. The U.S. could focus on eliminating the terrorist group without dramatically increasing American commitment. After all, it was the political split between Iraqi insurgent groups that caused the "Sunni awakening" and allowed the U.S. to reverse its fortunes in Iraq.

Experts are split over whether this strategy would work in Afghanistan. At its core, it rests on a single question: is the Taliban an ideological organization akin to Al Qaeda or is it a political group capable of changing allegiances in pursuit of its political interests?

  • Taliban More Radical Than We Think David Rohde, the New York Times reporter held for 7 months by Taliban forces, suggests we underestimate the Taliban's radicalism.

    "Their hatred for the United States seemed boundless," Rohde writes, describing the Taliban's apparent mission of imposing extremist Islam and warring with the West.
    Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of 'Al Qaeda lite,' a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. Living side by side with the Haqqanis' followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
    Rohde contrasts two Taliban soldiers, the radical Qari and the more moderate Atiqullah, to explain the Taliban's shift to radicalism.
    Qari unnerved me. Earnestly reciting hugely inaccurate propaganda about the West I had seen on jihadi Web sites, Qari seemed utterly detached from reality. Other guards joked that he had mental problems. In my mind, Qari and Atiqullah personified polar ends of the Taliban. Qari represented a paranoid, intractable force. Atiqullah embodied the more reasonable faction: people who would compromise on our release and, perhaps, even on peace in Afghanistan. I did not know which one represented the majority. I wanted to believe that Atiqullah did. Yet each day I increasingly feared that Qari was the true Taliban.
  • 'The Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger' The New Republic's Peter Bergen makes the case that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are one group. "Today, at the leadership level, the Taliban and Al Qaeda function more or less as a single entity. The signs of this are everywhere," he writes, comparing everything from IED methodology to the style of videos produced. "Small numbers of Al Qaeda instructors embedded with much larger Taliban units have functioned something like U.S. Special Forces do--as trainers and force multipliers." Bergen believes a return to Taliban power would mean an Al Qaeda state. "Since [Sept. 11], the Taliban's leadership has grown more closely aligned with Al Qaeda's worldwide goals--not less. Today, the Taliban seems to view itself as the vanguard of a global movement that is waging God-sanctioned holy war against the infidels."
  • Taliban Not Just 'Qaeda Lite' The Spectator's James Forsyth extrapolates Rohde's account as proof that "Hard-line Taliban are not Al Qaeda lite." He writes, "If Nato was to move to a more purely counter-terrorist mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban would quickly expand its control over various areas. As Rohde's account show, it would be foolish to imagine that the Taliban's ambitions end in Afghanistan. Instead, we would have a Taliban region committed to exporting its ideology and extremist view of Islam."
  • Are There Two Talibans? Afghanistan-based journalist Anand Gopal splits them into the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. The former, Gopal says, focus locally and independently of Al Qaeda, while the latter has global aims and close ties to Al Qaeda. "The [Afghan] Taliban don't need AQ like they did eight years ago," Gopal says. "Moreover, the [Afghan] Taliban have shown themselves to be remarkably practical. The most recent Mullah Omar statement, for instance, goes out of its way to talk about how the Taliban are not a threat to the world. This is in marked contrast to, say, the Pakistani Taliban, whose leaders have directly threatened the West a number of times."
  • Taliban Aided By Pakistan Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell suspects that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligences (ISI) is working with the Haqqani network, the hard-line Taliban group that kidnapped Rohde. ISI collusion with the Taliban isn't anything new, but the incident Hounshell uncovers is especially brazen and troubling for American interests. "We'll see how long this relationship holds, but if you need any convincing that the ISI at least tacitly allows the Haqqani folks to do their thing unmolested, consider this: To get to South Waziristan, where the Pakistani Army is engaged in a fierce battle with the Pakistani Taliban around the Makin area, which is dominated by the Mehsud tribal grouping, some units had to drive through North Waziristan. In fact, they drove right through the center of Miram Shah, the regional capital and Haqqani stronghold where Rohde made his escape -- and there was just one isolated IED attack along the way."
  • Jihad Groups Split on Web Forums Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch notes an apparent fissure on jihadist web forums between philosophical disciples of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He compares them to a similar online dispute between Iraqi insurgent groups, a split that soon manifested on the battlefield as key groups joined the U.S. mission and turned around the deteriorating war. "Those tensions on the forums proved to be a crucial leading indicator of real splits on the ground which energized the 'Awakenings' movement. Like I said, I have no idea whether a similar eruption of such arguments on the forums today will have the same significance," he cautions. "How representative are these forums in the Afghan case? I don't know."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.