The Skeptics

Debunking the Taliban-al Qaeda Nexus

Wonks will only have to wait 14 more days until the publication of the much-anticipated book An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010. Written by regional experts Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the book reexamines the widespread belief that the Taliban and al Qaeda are objectively and ideologically synonymous. Drawing on years of field experience in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland, and based on interviews with Taliban decision-makers, field commanders, and ordinary fighters, the authors reveal that the two militant groups diverge as much as they coalesce.

For years Western observers conflated bin Laden’s network—a transnational jihadist organization—with the Taliban—an indigenous Pashtun-dominated movement. This is one of many unshakable, yet spurious, beliefs that has compelled policymakers and pundits to advocate an indefinite, large-scale military presence in the region. The reality, however, as argued by another Afghan expert, Carnegie’s Gilles Dorronsoro, is that “The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban.” The defeat of al Qaeda does not depend upon the defeat of the Taliban, leaving aside whether “defeat” of either is realistically achievable. But more importantly, as Linschoten and Kuehn highlight in their book, their marriage of convenience is not unbreakable.

Some experts might use the empirical findings expounded in this book to argue for substantive steps to reintegrate the Taliban into a power-sharing government in Kabul. After all, one of the main obstacles to talking with the Taliban was Washington’s political rhetoric, demonizing the movement by claiming it was attached to bin Laden’s hip. Indeed, the authors themselves also explore why engaging the Taliban—sooner rather than later—would be more prudent than a prolonged campaign of night raids and decapitation strikes that pushes the groups to unite.

With the acknowledgment that parochial fighters with no global mission can be separated from those that attacked America on 9/11, it seems that the avenue to negotiations may have finally opened.

Diplomatic engagement with the Taliban would certainly be wise, but the mechanics of negotiation may run into problems.

The first obstacle is the structure of the Taliban itself. As Afghan expert Antonio Giustozzi writes in a recently released Century Foundation report “Negotiating with the Taliban: Issues and Prospects”:

The Taliban can be described as a decentralized organization (as opposed to a fragmented one). The predominant mode of organization used by the Taliban is personal networks, formed around charismatic leaders. At the lowest level, the networks consist of a local commander with a few fighters gathered around him, usually recruited personally by him on the basis of his reputation as a leader. A variable number of these small groups are networked together around a larger figure, for example a district-level Taliban leader. In turn, this network would be linked to a larger network through its leader, who would pay obedience to some greater figure, for example a province-level leader. The figures at the center of these larger networks might well be nationally renowned Taliban leaders; they might or might not be further networked around some of the top Taliban leaders.

The Taliban is fluid and decentralized, yet discernible and quite robust. Is the power of high-level militants adequately strong enough to enforce the terms of a negotiated settlement? Since the administration likes to say that we cannot fight our way out of this war, yet insist that we must weaken the insurgency’s momentum before we engage in negotiations, the question becomes: Can the coalition peel away enough low-level militants from the senior leadership to compel higher ups to negotiate? If we succeed in doing so, will the senior leadership still want to talk to us?

A second problem is that there is no way to prove that negotiations will resolve the complex blend of other intangible motives that spur many to fight. An issue rarely discussed is the extent to which factionalism, tribal vendettas, and group exclusion from power are powerful motivators for taking up arms. For example, in Helmand province, writes The Economist ‘s Afghanistan correspondent Tom Coghlan, President Karzai rewarded sub-tribes within his dominant Durrani Pashtun confederation (including Alokozai, Popalzai, and Barakzai) with district governor positions, police chief posts, and appointments in the intelligence service, and other critical government departments. Because of Kabul’s systematic exclusion of the Ishaqzai and some smaller tribes—who were influential during the Taliban period—much of the local conflict is driven by group disempowerment. In Kandahar, much like in neighboring Helmand, many fighters also come from communities systematically excluded from the Karzai-appointed local government. Would engaging fighters also involve changing the policies and structure of the very government we helped to create?

A third problem is that any steps toward a meaningful settlement must involve Pakistan, which raises its own set of issues too long to discuss in full here.