Separating the Taliban from al Qaeda

February 8, 2011

strong chopperThe Afghan Taliban would be ready to break with al Qaeda in order to reach a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war, and to ensure Afghanistan is not used as a base for international terrorism, according to a report by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, released by New York University.

It says that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda was strained both before and after the September 11 2001 attacks, partly because of their very different ideological roots. Al Qaeda grew out of militant Islamism in the Middle East, notably in Egypt, which — when fused with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan — created its own view of global jihad. Taliban leaders grew up in rural southern Afghanistan, isolated from world events. Many were too young to play a big role in the Afghan jihad, and had no close ties to al Qaeda until after they took power in 1996.

“Many Taliban leaders of the older generation are still potential partners for a negotiated settlement. They are not implacably opposed to the U.S. or West in general but to specific actions or policies in Afghanistan. These figures now understand the position of the international community much better than they did before 2001. They are not seeking a return to the failed interactions between the Taliban and the international community of the 1990s. At present they still represent the movement,” the report concludes.

“Could the older-generation leadership be relied on to keep Afghanistan terror-free? The reaction of the insurgents depends in part on how their opponents choose to engage them. There would be support for a break with al-Qaeda within the senior leadership, but how this is addressed will determine how effective the break is to be. What is highly likely is that engagement on a political level will create opportunities that do not yet exist.”

You can see my story here while the full report (pdf) is here.

The report should help remove one of the more pernicious arguments sometimes made against the idea of engaging with the Taliban — that the movement does not want to talk and therefore there is no point in trying. The authors edited the memoirs of former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef and have a new book due out in April on the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda. So they are better placed than many to understand the thinking of the Taliban.  And while the Taliban publicly say they will not talk until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, the report’s conclusions also tally with those made from the Pakistan side of the border.

What is subject to debate, however, is why they would be willing to talk. The United States and Britain argue that the intensified military campaign in Afghanistan is forcing the Taliban to consider talks.  A senior British foreign office official said last month that leaders in the insurgency had been showing increased interest in reconciliation in Afghanistan.  She attributed this to increased troop strength in Afghanistan and said that, “we would see military pressure as needing to continue.”

The NYU report argues, however, that military operations designed to fragment the Taliban may be making talks harder rather than easier by creating younger, more radicalised fighters less open to a peace deal.   It says the U.S. policy of targeting mid-level commanders, along with arrests in Pakistan of senior leaders, is undercutting the old leadership and paving the way for a younger generation more open to al Qaeda. “The new and younger generation of Afghan Taliban is more susceptible to advances by foreign jihadist groups, including al Qaeda.”

“Fighting and negotiating are not mutually exclusive; these can and will happen in parallel. But the way the conflict is conducted is important. If a political settlement is indeed being sought, there is little sense in trying to destroy the organisations one wants to talk to,” it says.

The contention that the intensified military pressure of 2010 is the main driver in convincing the Taliban to talk is also somewhat open to question given that some sources argued they were willing to negotiate before  that campaign got underway.  Indeed back in 2009, Taliban statements were already  indicating evidence of a rift with al Qaeda.  Some time when the history books are written, we will have to ask why that rift was not seized upon at the time, and indeed whether a negotiated settlement could have been achieved without the intensified fighting of 2010. 

 The report does not go into much detail about what the Taliban would expect of any negotiated settlement. How, for example, would their demand that foreign troops leave Afghanistan be reconciled with a U.S. trend of building increasingly large military bases there

The report includes an intriguing suggestion that the Taliban might eventually be ready to cooperate with the United States on international terrorism. ”One such vision recently suggested in private by a senior Taliban political strategist is that Taliban forces could conduct counterterrorism operations, including joint operations together with U.S. Special Forces, against al Qaeda and possibly its affiliates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” it says. Such an idea “signifies considerable flexibility within the senior Taliban leadership.”

The idea of a negotiated settlement under which the Taliban accepted a share of power in return for agreeing to the presence of U.S. troops to help them keep the peace in Afghanistan would be such an extraordinary reversal of the logic of the war that it has not gained much traction so far.  I’ve been asking people about that possibility for months now, and it is usually dismissed either as ridiculous or impossible to sell to the domestic constituencies of  both the United States and the Taliban.  But then again, we seem to be living through extraordinary times, as Egypt’s uprising has shown, so everything is possible.

While focusing on the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, the report does not go into the mechanics of how the Afghan movement might break with an ally still needed as long as it is fighting in Afghanistan.  Handing al Qaeda leaders over to the Americans would be political suicide for any Islamic movment, even one which renounced violence. And simply encouraging them to leave the region raises a whole new set of questions about where they might go.  Washington would not want to see them regrouping in Yemen, neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia; nor for some of them to filter back to Egypt where al Qaeda has its ideological roots.  In fact, right now, it must be unusually determined to keep al Qaeda well away from Egypt and the rest of the Arab world to ensure it does not try to exploit the unrest which started in Tunisia and has sent shock waves across the Middle East.

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