Fresh reports surface of Taliban-al Qaeda rift
According to the Los Angeles Times, a growing number of Taliban militants in the Pakistani border region are refusing to collaborate with Al Qaeda fighters, declining to provide shelter or assist in attacks in Afghanistan even in return for payment. It quotes U.S. military and counter-terrorism officials as saying that threats to the militants’ long-term survival from Pakistani, Afghan and foreign military action are driving some Afghan Taliban away from Al Qaeda.
“U.S. officials remain unsure whether the alliance between Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban is splintering for good, and some regard the possibility as little more than wishful thinking. A complete rupture is unlikely, some analysts say, because Al Qaeda members have married into many tribes and formed other connections in years of hiding in Pakistan’s remote regions,” the newspaper says. “But the tension has led to a debate within the U.S. government about whether there are ways to exploit any fissures. One idea under consideration, an official said, is to reduce drone airstrikes against Taliban factions whose members are shunning contacts with Al Qaeda.”
It quotes a senior U.S. official as saying that tactics such as drone strikes and a stepped-up campaign of targeted killings by U.S. Special Operations troops and an intensified military campaign in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have raised the risks to Taliban fighters who assist Al Qaeda. “The arrest in recent months of several top Afghan Taliban leaders may also be leading some Taliban to reassess their ties to Al Qaeda in hopes of easing pressure from the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency, which long allowed the Afghan Taliban to operate relatively unbothered.”
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper followed up the report in a Washington-datelined article which quotes a senior diplomatic source as confirming the LA Times assessment. “There is a sizeable shift away from al Qaeda,” it quotes its diplomatic source as saying. “Very few are left who still support Al Qaeda. The vast majority is distancing itself from them.” The militants, he said, would ultimately be forced to give up fighting or be eradicated. “They have nowhere to go.”
The reports are obviously impossible to verify and only time will tell if there is a lasting rift between the Taliban and al Qaeda. But some quick observations on this:
1) These reports need to be framed within the context of the arrest by Pakistan of Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other Taliban leaders. Pakistan’s motivation for doing this is highly contested, but among the arguments I have heard is that it will put the so-called Quetta shura Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar under pressure and convince them to “be reasonable” about breaking ties with al Qaeda. Is this now happening?
2) The arrest of an al Qaeda operative in Karachi this month gave a hint — albeit a very inconclusive one — that al Qaeda may be finding Pakistan’s tribal areas less hospitable than before and starting to move out.
3) If — and that is a very big if — al Qaeda hard-core members move out of Pakistan, where do they go? Yemen and Somalia are possible destinations. Egypt, where the group has its ideological roots and where its Arab members could blend in more easily to the local population, is another.
4) If al Qaeda members move out, what routes do they take? Via Karachi? The Pakistani port city may be becoming a less safe transit point, given that both Mullah Baradar and the al Qaeda operative were arrested there. An alternative would be to go via Iran, raising the intriguing possibility that Tehran would then hold the key to American interests, by arresting them en route.
5) Where does Mullah Omar stand in all this? Some say his loyalties to Osama bin Laden run too deep for him to break them now. Others have argued — most recently here — that the relationship between Mullah Omar and bin Laden was far less close than assumed, even around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef, also argues in his recently published book that the Taliban were willing to hand over bin Laden to a third Islamic country for trial, while refusing to give him up to the Americans. Recent statements on the Taliban website have also quoted Mullah Omar as saying the group will not allow Afghan territory to be used to harm any other country — seen by some as an indication of a willingness to deny sanctuary to al Qaeda.
6) If the Quetta shura Taliban are convinced to turn against al Qaeda, what about other groups fighting in Afghanistan, including the Haqqani network and that of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? What also of the Pakistani Taliban and the many Islamist militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province, some of whom have close links to al Qaeda? And, for the sake of completeness, given how decentralised al Qaeda has become, and the dispersal of its ideology throughout the world, how significant would a shift be of its members from one place to another? As discussed here, long before the Sept. 11 attacks European counter-terrorism officials had noticed a change in the nature of international terrorism, roughly dated to an attempt by Algerian militants to hijack a plane and allegedly attempt to crash it into Paris in 1994. And as the failed Christmas Day attack on Detroit showed, threats can reappear out of nowhere, even if the space for al Qaeda to operate is steadily degraded on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.