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Are Theological Tensions Distancing Taliban From Al-Qaeda?

Taliban fighters in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, in September
Taliban fighters in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, in September
Is this end of a beautiful friendship?

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda have enjoyed a long alliance in Afghanistan. Their relationship, based on a seemingly shared brand of severe and militant Islam, even survived the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban in 2001, which came after leader Mullah Omar famously refused to turn over to the Americans his Al-Qaeda ally, Osama bin Laden.

To this day, that relationship endures. But will it last? Rifts and tensions between the Taliban and Arab Al-Qaeda, as well as vastly different Islamic traditions, suggest that a basis for separation exists. Whether it occurs could determine whether peace negotiations between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Taliban foes ever get off the ground.

Afghan Muslim traditions, including the Taliban, are culturally and historically distinct from Al-Qaeda's Saudi-rooted Salafist Islam, says Francesco Zannini, an expert on modern Islam. In that sense, the two Sunni movements have always been awkward bedfellows.
A sea of cultural and historical differences between the austere and puritanical Islam that developed in Saudi Arabia and an Islam rooted in much different local cultural traditions that grew up in South Central Asia

"The whole Indian subcontinent, including Afghanistan, still lives an Islam that is profoundly rooted in local customs," says Zannini, author of the recently published "Islam In The Heart Of Asia: From The Caucasus To Thailand." "So they have always found themselves ill at ease with the strictly Arab Wahhabist doctrine and the entire Salafist movement."

With the Afghan war worsening, NATO officers and political leaders have made it clear that the seven-year conflict won't be resolved militarily.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that reconciliation among Afghan warring parties is not only necessary but constitutes NATO's "obvious exit strategy." And last month, in a first sign that reconciliation efforts may be afoot, Saudi officials hosted an encounter in Mecca between Taliban allies and envoys of Karzai.

While both sides have played down the Mecca meeting, insisting that no peace talks took place, sources who attended the gathering told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that it might have served as a prelude to future peace negotiations.

However, the Afghan government says it will not engage in talks with people who maintain ties to Al-Qaeda. That has led some Islamists to fret about the Taliban ditching Al-Qaeda for a place in the government. The BBC on October 24 quoted one militant as saying on an Islamist Internet forum: "The Taliban are not the kind of people who would sell out Al-Qaeda in exchange for political power."

Differing Ambitions

But tensions and differences have long existed between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They came into view in 2005 when Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, criticized the Taliban in a letter to a fellow Islamist.

Zawahiri lamented that after the U.S.-led invasion, Taliban members retreated to their tribes and villages and showed little attachment to the global Islamist struggle. He unfavorably compared that behavior to Arab Sunni resistance to U.S. attacks on the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Al-Ramadi.

That letter, which was sent to Iraqi Al-Qaeda chief Abu al-Zarqawi and intercepted by the U.S. military, pointed out a key ideological difference between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda: their ambitions.

Al-Qaeda is a pan-Islamist group that does not recognize the borders that separate Muslim countries. The Taliban, partly the creation of the Pakistani intelligence services, has always been focused on Afghanistan and largely eschews pan-Islamism.

Beyond that lies of a sea of cultural and historical differences between the austere and puritanical Islam that developed in Saudi Arabia and an Islam rooted in much different local cultural traditions that grew up in South Central Asia.
Afghan men look at posters of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters at a poster shop in Spin Boldak

Islam's traditions in Afghanistan include mystical sects such as Sufism and the generally more open disposition of Hanafi Islam on the Indian subcontinent. That stands in contrast with the more severe Arabic Wahhabist traditions that Al-Qaeda has sought to impose in Afghanistan.

"I often tell my students that in Afghanistan, there's not just one Shari'a -- there are several different Shari'as tied to the traditions of the various ethnic and tribal groups present in Afghanistan," says Zannini, who is a professor at the Pontifical Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies in Rome. "This makes it easy to understand the difficulty of a dialogue with Al-Qaeda, which has reduced Shari'a to a few fixed norms that are clear for its political militants. But this goes against everything represented by the Islamic traditions of the Indian subcontinent."

Taliban's Spiritual Influences

The Taliban, in part, is said to follow Deoband Islam, a revivalist movement that started in the Uttar Pradesh region of India. Last February, the Deoband madrasah, in a gathering in India, announced a total rejection of "all forms of terrorism."

While the Taliban has made no such pledge, the Deoband's announcement has already triggered changes in Pakistan. There, the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam party, an important Islamic political force, split up in Baluchistan Province precisely over the issue of terrorism after the Deoband statement.

The Taliban have also since been engaged in a reported internal debate about their own tactics. Some members, possibly including Omar, have come out against targeting civilians, aid workers, and key infrastructure. Some reports also claim that Omar has severed all his ties with Al-Qaeda.

Complicating things in Afghanistan is that the insurgency is far from monolithic. Within it, two groups appear to enjoy closer ties to Al-Qaeda than the Taliban: One in the east led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a longtime Al-Qaeda ally and rival of Omar; the other led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran commander who is seen as strongly pan-Islamist.

For any peace talks to succeed, however, it would seem necessary to include all insurgents. But how that might happen, given the Afghan government's precondition that militants sever all ties to Al-Qaeda, remains far from clear.

Indeed, few commentators have expressed optimism that such talks could get off the ground, let alone succeed. But the participation of Saudi Arabia, a symbolic seat of Muslim moral authority as well as a former Taliban paymaster, has at least inspired hope that progress can be made. Saudi backing is seen as partly motivated by concerns about stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda-allied Taliban groups have emerged as a major threat.

Significantly, there has also been encouragement from other authoritative Muslim voices. Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, the grand imam of Cairo's important Al-Azhar Mosque, added his influential voice last week to the call for Afghan peace talks.

"The job of Islamic associations, led by Al-Azar, is to help the [Afghan) government in the peace process and help that nation develop peacefully," Tantawi, who is acknowledged as the highest spiritual authority for the world's nearly 1 billion Sunni Muslims, said in an address in Cairo.

RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique and Afghan Service correspondent Hashem Mohmand contributed to this report.

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