Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Afghan Taliban: "Symbiotic" with, or sick of, al Qaeda?

Not to pretend to any great insight here, but this gives me vertigo:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said bin Laden's killing near Pakistan's capital vindicated his government's growing opposition to U.S.-led combat operations in the Afghan countryside.

"Osama was not in Afghanistan: they found him in Pakistan," Mr. Karzai said. "The war on terror is not in Afghan villages…but in the safe havens of terrorism outside Afghanistan." 

That has been true for many years. Woodward's Obama's Wars begins with Mike McConnell briefing President-elect Obama on the 150 terrorist havens strung through Pakistan's tribal areas -- a network far outstripping that available to bin Laden before 9/11.   It's hard not to wonder: If Karzai is itching to get the troops out and strike a deal with the Taliban, by what Kafkaesque logic would we persist in working against his will to transform his government into something it will never be and clear out adversaries he regards as compatriots? And how can we drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan when they're so comfortably ensconced across the border?

Two apparently contradictory memes have floated through coverage of the AfPak conundrum for some time. One of them is central to the case for continued military intervention. The notion is, as Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke put it in late 2009, that the Taliban and al Qaeda are "symbiotic":

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.
Holbrooke: (via George Packer):
“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. 
 On the other hand, here's Ahmed Rashid in the FT today:
bin Laden’s death will make it easier for peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government and the Americans. The Taliban do not owe al-Qaeda anything now bin Laden is dead.

Al-Qaeda continued funding and training the Taliban after their collapse in 2001. But the older generation of Taliban leaders had long ago become fed up with the arrogance of Arab jihadists. The Taliban want to return home to their country free of foreigners including Americans but they don’t want, for example, to bomb supermarkets or embassies in western capitals. It is worth noting that no Afghan Talib has been involved in global jihad.

Renouncing their links with al-Qaeda and negotiating as Afghans rather than as members of an international jihad has just become much easier for the Taliban. Nato and Afghanistan’s neighbours have swiftly to take military and political measures that will help President Hamid Karzai negotiate with the Taliban to end 33 years of war.
Literally on the same page today by Gideon Rachman and Philip Stephens. The FT cabinet is unanimous.

An admittedly suspect source, jihadist and former Taliban propagandist Abu Walid al Masri, made this argument in more detail in an email exchange with Australian counter-terror scholar Leah Farrall - also in December '09:
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.
There are of course many strands of the Taliban, and one answer to this riddle is that it's the Pakistani Taliban that has partially oriented itself toward global jihad.  Perhaps Karzai, so incompetent at governing according to western notions, would prove himself well equipped to navigate this labyrinth of fellow tribesmen.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan sees a fresh opening for negotiations:
In and around Afghanistan, it's a near-certain bet that officials and commanders are re-opening lines of contact with various Taliban factions to test whether they might now be more amenable to cutting their ties to al-Qaida. The timing for such probing is ripe, according to David Kilcullen, a prominent counterinsurgency consultant. Some of those ties (for instance, Mullah Omar's) have been based on personal relationships with Bin Laden—and may not be transferrable to others in an organization full of what many followers see as Arab interlopers.

1 comment:

  1. A Republican candidate comes up with the right idea, one that's been around for about seven years, and it makes headlines.