Daylight between the Demons

by Joe Harlan on 11/4/2009 · 7 comments

Eight years after the routing of the Taliban and the real pursuit of al Qaeda, but with both still alive and dangerous, is a distinction between the two groups operationally relevant?

Coupled with the the debate on whether to commit more forces to a full-on counterinsurgency, there has been a side discussion as of late over a basic assumption: whether there is any longer any substantial difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda. The significance should be obvious: as ISAF and the U.S. prosecute the war against one, can the other be handled separately? And if so, can we just pick them off from 15,000 feet, like we do in Pakistan?

On the one hand, it is easy to see that they are, to some extent, quite distinct. Al Qaeda serves as an symbolic figurehead for several extreme fundamentalist organizations, from the Caucuses through Central Asia and the Middle East and to the Horn of Africa. The Taliban, by comparison, is a parochial and inward looking religious-political movement that at first blush has little meaning outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Pashtun areas.

Aside from theoretical questions of identity, this distinction may point to an exploitable rift. A bit better job is done over at Jihadica, which provides some internal chatter to back up such a claim. Stephen Walt at FP comes right out and prescribes a way forward when he says that “if there is considerable potential for division among both the leaders and even more among their followers, then a strategy of divide-and-conquer makes more sense than a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign that gives them every reason to stay united.” Somehow, I remain doubtful that they’ll ever be divided quite so much.

On the other hand, and to my own view, is that the revolutionary nature of the Taliban means it won’t really stop even should it succeed in Afghanistan. It expanded beyond traditional Pashtun territory, attempting (and largely succeeding) to subdue the Tajik north, the Hazara middle, and Aimaq and Farsiwan west. It has already advanced toward Islamabad, turning on its once and present patrons.

Indeed, Peter Bergen suggests a Taliban-al Qaeda merger. Brian Glyn Williams has noted more than once, most recently on Charlie Rose, that the Taliban of 2009 is not what the Taliban was in 2001; it’s now more dangerous and more transnational. And if we are to trust the words of al Qaeda’s brain itself, Afghanistan was “an incubator” where the global movement would start; it would be naive to think that the Taliban wouldn’t spread with it.

Perhaps, then, the argument is purely academic. Of course there is a distinction between the two; ultimately, al Qaeda simply sees Afghanistan as a convenient battleground state, but could gladly otherwise write them off (sort of like how American politicos see New Hampshire). The Taliban is intensely focused on Afghanistan, because as a Pashtun phenomenon it sort of ceases to exist outside of that context. However, the two are so conveniently symbiotic they can be treated as one: Al Qaeda could scarcely find a more appropriate home, and the Taliban has overwhelmingly benefited from the international attention, fundraising, and support from Islamist fellow travelers.

How should ISAF and/or U.S. policy proceed? Certainly a counterterrorism-only strategy will do little to the Taliban, as they are not “just terrorists”. And a counterinsurgency strategy is a painfully slow, if not outright ineffective, way to pursue al Qaeda. Apart from just a safe haven, allowing the Taliban to continue while fantasizing that al Qaeda won’t be able to use the mechanics of both an actual state and a revolutionary movement to further its agenda is pure folly. The mini-state described by David Rohde would become a real state — again — and everything that goes along with that, like a claim to territorial integrity, police authority within one’s borders, and a monopoly on legitimate violence, would all come rushing back. Imagine a global terrorist group with those advantages.

The answer is not easy, and I don’t claim to have it. But using the argument that “the Taliban isn’t our enemy” is not a basis for formulating our strategy.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Historian by training and Analyst/Cultural Advisor by trade, Joe is an American working for ISAF mostly in and around Kabul. As an insider at the U.S. Department of Defense for almost the past decade, he has ample experience when it comes to the functions and dysfunctions of the U.S. Government and its adventures in the dusty corners of the world -- especially the ones where Persian is spoken. Armed with an MA from a modest state school, a working knowledge of Dari, and about a quarter of the country under his heels, Joe imagines he can speak intelligently about what might be right and wrong with the Western presence in Afghanistan in general and U.S. DoD policy in particular. An avid runner, triathlete, skier, mountaineer and climber, Joe thinks Afghanistan would be great if it weren't for all the land mines and men with Kalashnikovs.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


anan November 4, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Relevant to this discussion is a 5 minute clip from Omar about a Pakistani suicide bomber talking about how Pakistani children killed in terrorist attacks are not innocent and that killing them is justified.
Its in Urdu (with english subtitles) so some of us can understand parts of it; it is chilling. Is this person Taliban or Al Qaeda or something else?

How to stop these Takfiri extremists (I think this is a better name for them than “Al Qaeda” or “Taliban”)? I am not sure that different Takfiri extremist groups around the world are really all that different from one another. I find offensive, the widely held notion among many Europeans (and even Americans) that Takfiri extremists mass murdering fellow muslims for being “unfaithful” is no concern of ours, as long as they don’t kill “westerners.” This is the kind of western ethnocentric self centered uncaring nonsense that so angers the muslim and developing world.

In my view terrorism against everyone in every country is wrong, period. And unless extreme Takfiri networks that attack every country in the world are dismantled, no country and no people (nonmuslim or muslim) is safe.

Joe Harlan, it is difficult to answer the question you pose about Taliban/AQ connections in generalities. Perhaps break down the different Taliban militias and discuss how extreme each of them are (how committed they are to regional and global ambitions)? Specifically:
-Lashkar al Zil (a coalition of pro ISI and anti ISI Taliban)
-Different components of Quetta Shura Taliban
-Lashkar e Janvi/Sipah e Sahaba/Jundullah (Punjabi Taliban)
-Lashkar e Taiba/Jaish e Mohammed (Punjabi Taliban)
-Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or Islamic Jihad Union (IJU)
-Chechan groups
-Arab groups in South and Central Asia

Sailani November 5, 2009 at 3:36 am

Useful post Joe. One that deserves a thesis-length answer no doubt, but in the interest of brevity I will keep it very short.

Where I do my work, in Haqqani’s backyard, there is at least one potential issue that complicates the relationship between local and foreign fighters (local being Af-Pak ones and foreign being most others). That is the attitude of the conservative local Pasthuns. Turns out they have little patience for the foreigners (they have less flattering terms of which I am not yet a master). This means that Haqqani is not able to use his foreign fighters in any operations which involve contact with the locals, or which take place in populated areas. A minor concern perhaps, but one that signals some potential negative future costs of Haqqani’s alliance – costs that might be exploited be clever adversaries.

Dafydd November 5, 2009 at 5:03 am

I think it is beyond doubt that Pashtun culture is deeply suspicious of foreigners. That includes us, Arab mercenaries and probably Punjabi and Uzbek fighters too.

The problem we have is while I think it would be possible to sow the seeds of misturst between Pashtuns and foreign fighters, I don’t think it can happen while the West has boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

Pashtuns are likely to view Uzbeks and Punjabis as somewhat less foreign than westerners, therefore using them to help get rid of us before pondering whether they want those foreign fighters to stay.

Sailani November 5, 2009 at 5:59 am

They’re quite welcoming next to the Nuristanis I hear though! I think this is not a binary proposition – i.e. either us or the foreign jihadis. This is a war of security and governance primarily, but impressions do matter and I do see signs that a widespread use of foreign fighters can drive a wedge between the insurgents and the locals.

anan November 5, 2009 at 9:51 am

“Pashtuns are likely to view Uzbeks and Punjabis as somewhat less foreign than westerners, therefore using them to help get rid of us before pondering whether they want those foreign fighters to stay.” I guess this depends on where in the Pashtun belt you are. There is strong anti Pakistan sentiment among most Afghan Pashtun. {In the 02.09.09 public opinion poll, 91% of all Afghans had an unfavorable view of Pakistan, 91% had an unfavorable view of Taliban, 92% had an unfavorable view of Osama Bin Laden} An ANA advisor from Kandahar recently said that the ANA and ANP do not admit that they are fighting Afghans, but insist that the people they are fighting are ISI backed trouble makers.

Anti Pakistan sentiment works powerfully against non Pashtun Taliban. It even works against many Pakistani Pathan Pashtuns.

Sailani 11/5/2009 at 5:59 am, I agree with that. But I worry about overt anti Pakistani sentiment among ANSF and Afghans. This is a major factor behind why so many Pakistanis and Pakistani based extremist groups back the Taliban. However, whatever ISAF does, the ANP and ANA play the anti Pakistan card all the way.

Turgai Sangar November 5, 2009 at 10:17 am

“In the 02.09.09 public opinion poll,” Which one do you quote: that by The Asia Foundation?

anan November 5, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Previous post:

Next post: