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World: Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- Provincial vs. Global

  • Ron Synovitz

There are important distinctions between the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan until late 2001 and the Al-Qaeda network that carried out the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. RFE/RL spoke with two experts who explain why those differences remain significant nearly three years after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Prague, 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As one of America's preeminent scholars on Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin understands the differences between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda very well.

But Rubin -- the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University -- says many others do not.

"Since 9-11 there has been an unfortunate confusion between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the minds of people who were previously unfamiliar with this region -- to the point where a U.S. member of Congress once expressed great surprise when I said the Taliban were not the people who [attacked] the World Trade Center," Rubin says.

In fact, it was Al-Qaeda that planned and carried out the 11 September attacks in the United States. The terrorist network had its roots in Afghanistan fighting against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. But it is composed mostly of Arabs or Islamic militants from countries other than Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaeda...is a kind of globalized anti-imperialist movement with Islam as its ideology."


"[Al-Qaeda] has a global agenda which goes beyond any particular country and is aimed at a kind of globalized Islamic jihad -- a very new kind of jihad -- against the United States as a superpower. It's a kind of globalized anti-imperialist movement with Islam as its ideology," Rubin says.

By comparison, much of the Taliban leadership comprised ethnic Pashtun Afghans who grew up in refugee camps or religious boarding schools in Pakistan -- called madrassas -- during the Soviet occupation of their homeland. Rubin says their outlook has always been more provincial.

"The Taliban, of course, are an indigenous Afghan, or Afghan-Pakistani, organization which really grew up during the 20 years that there were millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan -- where the only education available for them was in madrassas, often in the [autonomous] tribal territories [along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan]. And it recruited from those people. They have an agenda about Afghanistan. They did not have a global terrorist agenda. So it's a completely different type of organization and problem [than Al-Qaeda]," Rubin says.

Rubin says the differences between the two groups reflect the fundamental differences in the outlook of their leadership.

"Mullah Omar, the leader of the Tailban, had never actually been to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, [before it came under Taliban control in 1996]. In fact, he has never stayed overnight in Kabul even though he was the head of state of the country. He is a very parochial, local-minded figure. Whereas, Osama bin Laden -- the head of Al-Qaeda -- grew up very wealthy in Saudi Arabia, speaks several languages, and traveled around the world, including to the West. His aides were all educated at universities. Most of the bombers on September 11th had been living in Europe and had university educations," Rubin said.

Rahul Bedi is a specialist on terrorism in South Asia for the London-based publication "Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor."

"Al-Qaeda were a highly specialized group of people who were drawn from all over the Islamic world. Some of the people who were in Al-Qaeda, in a sense, belong to the 'class of the 1980s' who operated in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They were drawn from various Muslim countries, including Pakistan, but also a lot of the Arab countries. And they also had a very close connection with the Saudi Arabian Wahabbi sect -- which is an esoteric sect of Islam," Bedi says.

Like many military experts in South Asia and the United States, Bedi believes the Taliban movement was initially fostered by Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies in an attempt to influence events within Afghanistan.

"The Taliban actually grew from within Pakistan itself. Most of the cadres of the Taliban were youngsters who had been brought up in the various Islamic seminaries in principally two provinces of Pakistan -- Baluchistan and the neighboring Northwestern Frontier Province. These were the people who were then installed in Kabul -- with the help of [Pakistan's] military and Inter Services Intelligence in terms of supply lines, information, and finance," Bedi says.

After 11 September, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced that Pakistan was severing all ties with the Taliban and was joining the United States in the war against terror. But both Bedi and Rubin note that much of Pakistan's effort in the antiterrorism campaign has focused on Al-Qaeda fighters rather than Taliban hard-liners who fled into Pakistan.

In recent months, Afghan Transitional Administration Hamid Karzai and the U.S. military have indicated their willingness to work with former members of the Taliban who were not among its hard-line membership and who are not carrying out attacks aimed at derailing Afghanistan's transition to democracy.

Bedi is critical of making any distinction between what the U.S. military refers to as "hard Taliban" and "soft Taliban."

"By letting the Taliban survive, the Western countries -- and especially the United States, in a sense, is conceding its fight against terrorism. Initially, the fight was not only directed against Al-Qaeda, but also against the Tailban [for] the removal of the Taliban [regime from Afghanistan]. But I think as happened subsequently in Iraq, the Americans thought very little about how to wage the peace rather than waging the war. With hindsight, the Americans and the British did not anticipate what would come afterwards. And that's why there is this deal-making going on with the Taliban -- which, in a sense, is quite hypocritical," Bedi says.

But it is on that point that Bedi and Rubin disagree. "You cannot classify people and eliminate them from politics forever because in the course of this extraordinarily difficult, painful and complex series of wars over the last 25 years, at some point or another, they joined an organization that we have labeled as being an enemy of the United States," Rubin says.

Rubin concludes the label "Taliban" is now being used in a political way by people who are trying to monopolize power in Afghanistan by excluding large portions of the Pashtun population. He says the only people who should be excluded from politics in Afghanistan are those who have committed war crimes or continue to fight against the new internationally backed constitutional order.
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