Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Are the Taliban and al Qaeda "symbiotic"? A famed jihadist says no

What's all this about "symbiosis" between the Taliban and al Qaeda?

Robert Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 3:
While Al Qaeda is under great pressure now and dependent on the Taliban and other extremist groups for sustainment, the success of the Taliban would vastly strengthen Al Qaeda’s message to the Muslim world: that violent extremists are on the winning side of history. Put simply, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have become symbiotic, each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other. Al Qaeda leaders have stated this explicitly and repeatedly.

Richard Holbrooke made substantially the same point to the Counsel on Foreign Relations on December 15 (George Packer reports):
Holbrooke called the nine weeks of recent White House meetings on the war “the most careful, detailed, methodical policy review I’ve ever been involved in.” The basic conclusion: “You can’t separate the Taliban from Al Qaeda at this point. Our judgment is that if the Taliban succeed in Afghanistan, they will bring back Al Qaeda with them,” as well as score an enormous psychological victory for extremists worldwide.

According to a legendary Jihadist, counselor and confidante to Mullah Omar and at times to Osama bin Laden, they're completely wrong.

The jihadist is Abu Walid al Masri, is a legendary strategist and a prolific author, keenly aware (he writes) of the strategic limitations of al Qaeda (he writes that their "chronic deficit" is "an inability to make long term plans") and the weak communications skills of the Taliban, for whom he served as a propagandist while they were in power. He is a longstanding adviser and friend to senior leadership of both the Taliban and al Qaeda, though he has been a harsh critic of al Qaeda since 9/11 (which he insists does not preclude friendship).

In recent weeks, al Masri took up an invitation to dialogue from  a former intelligence analyst for the Australian federal police and current Ph.D. student and blogger on intelligence matters, Leah Farrall -- much to Farrall's own surprise. al Masri began responding on his blog first to Farrall's published writings and then to her blog posts. He is a charmer. He flirts with Farrall, acknowledges their probably implacable mutual enmity, but also credits her with implicitly with being able to absorb his logic and recognize their common humanity.  Recently, Farrall reports, the theses he's been advancing in his responses to her have turned up in Taliban-sanctioned publications -- so it appears that voicing these strategic pronouncements, if not following them, is current Taliban policy. 

Tactically, al Masri is urging the Taliban to take U.S. hostages -- a strategy that perhaps harks back to his first combat experience, fighting Israel from South Lebanon in the late 1970s.  Strategically, his main message directly contradicts what Holbrooke and Gates both present as the main takeaway of the U.S. strategic review. He claims that the Taliban's interests diverge strongly from al Qaeda's, and that if they take power (or rather, to the extent they take power, since they already control much of Afghanistan and Pakistan), they will hold al Qaeda at arms length. Here is his upshot (as translated by Farrall on her blog) :
The return of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan will make matters more complicated for the Taliban movement and the Islamic Emirate. Because the majority of the population is against al Qaeda for several fundamental reasons… Including:
  1. The traditional hostility between the Hanafi and Salafi “Wahhabi”
  2. The conviction of the Afghani people that bin Laden ignited the recent war and caused all of the devastation that occurred.
  3. Even inside the Taliban itself, bin Laden will not find only the rejection, but he will find some support from very limited numbers of Taliban (Trans comment: means here will only find limited support).  The reason is understood because bin Laden is the first convicted in the destruction of the Islamic Emirate.
  4. It might not be easy for Mullah Omar to expel bin Laden from Afghanistan (only if there is someone who is willing to host him outside of Afghanistan even in an informal way and with the implicit agreement with the Americans).But the Afghan hosting will be conditional and very limited, in the sense that he will be placed in a kind of house arrest.
  5. Mullah Omar may not be able to justify to his people a repetition of bin Laden’s hosting in Afghanistan without submission to an Islamic court for trial on charges such as:
    (Breaking bayah without a legitimate Shariah excuse and compromising the security of Afghanistan and igniting a bitter war that caused the death of thousands of people, and widespread destruction of property, disobeying the orders of Commander of the Faithful, the violation which led to the starting of the war). Even if Mullah Omar does not personally demand this trial, many people will do so and from the Taliban itself, and even from the Arabs who used to live in Afghanistan before the war who were never supporters of bin Laden’s recklessness.
So it is in the interest of the Taliban movement and also the general interest of the Afghan people for “Al Qaeda” not to return to Afghanistan, and that bin Laden does not return only if absolutely necessary and under the conditions mentioned above.

But it is also in the public interest that none of the Arab or Islamic organizations return in the form that they existed in the past –before the chaos and indiscriminate destruction and anarchy on the best assumptions, and with great optimism, it is possible to accept the limited return of individuals living under the laws of the emirate and without any independent political or military activity.

However the training camps of old will not come back again. And the  training work will be subject to the authority of the Ministry of Defense of the Islamic Emirate, according to defense policy.

Farrall's formal analysis of the exchange in The Australian is also well worth reading. Links to further analysis on her blog are in this post.

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