A new study by two European researchers argues that reaching a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war is becoming increasingly difficult, a problem it argues is partly due to the mistaken assumption that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are a united terrorist syndicate.
The study, based on extensive on-the-ground research, contains findings that could help steer policymakers onto the road toward peace. But the study opens many more questions about certain aspects of the Taliban's relationship with Al-Qaeda, Pakistani extremists, and elements in various neighboring countries.
The new study from New York University's Center on International Cooperation argues that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain two distinct groups, which can be clearly separated by a political process. The study, "Separating The Taliban from Al-Qaeda: The Core Of Success In Afghanistan," calls for engaging senior Taliban leaders before they become irrelevant.
The report's European authors, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, warn against indirectly handing over Talban leadership to younger, less experienced Taliban commanders in the ongoing military efforts to eliminate their elders. This, they argue, will only further cement the bonds between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda because the younger commanders tend to be more ideological.
Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn have been living in Kandahar for many years and have edited the best-selling biography of a former Taliban diplomat who remains a key source. Reflecting on their interviews with former Taliban leaders, Strick van Linschoten says that the history of the interaction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is a lot more conflicted than is commonly assumed. Such assumptions, he says, result in the current policies that systematically target Taliban leaders. And this, he concludes, could be driving them closer to Al-Qaeda.
"This doesn't necessarily need to be the case. There can be an opportunity for addressing the relationship between these two groups if we put in place the right initiatives and changed the way we thought about these two groups," Strick van Linschoten said.
Oath Of Loyalty
While the report documents the Taliban's dependence on Pakistani sanctuaries for safe haven, the report is unclear about whether the Taliban is capable of reaching an independent political deal without Islamabad's consent. This line was blurred when, amid reports that the Taliban was preparing for discussions with Kabul, key leaders were arrested inside Pakistan. While the Taliban and Al-Qaeda adhere to different sects within Sunni Islam, NATO's presence in Afghanistan -- which both call occupation -- unites them. The report fails to mention another aspect of Taliban and Al-Qaeda relations, which is that they are manipulated in part by Pakistani extremist Islamist networks that provide sanctuary and recruits to both groups.
Kabul-based Afghan analyst Waheed Mozhdah once served with the Afghan Foreign Ministry under the Taliban regime a decade ago. He says that during the Taliban's time in power Al-Qaeda was under the Taliban's influence and Osama Bin Laden pledged a personal oath of loyalty to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
He says that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan drove the Taliban further into the arms of Al-Qaeda and they also became part of its global jihad. But in recent years the Taliban distanced themselves from this jihad and now even keep a distance from Pakistani extremist networks who also call themselves the Taliban.
Mozhdah says that, unlike Iraqi insurgents, the Afghan Taliban did not allow Al-Qaeda to engage in large-scale destruction or foment a civil war among the Sunni and Shi'a sects, a development that wreaked havoc in Iraq. But their alliance has a strong religious flavor that needs to be addressed further.
"For the Taliban, Islam has always been central, while ethnicity and nationalism are secondary. This is their ideology. That is why the foreigners who were ideologically closer to them were preferred in comparison to the Afghans who were not educated in the madrasahs and didn't meet their ideological worldview," Mozdah said.
He says that while the Afghan Taliban are organizationally independent from global jihadist movements, they share key doctrinal similarities with them. Mozdah agrees with the NYU study's key finding that a lack of a political space inside Afghanistan pushes them to rely on sanctuaries in Pakistan.
However, he says that under the right political conditions, the Afghan Taliban can chart an independent future course.
"On various issues, particularly the issue of peace, undoubtedly they can adopt their own line of action. But it can only happen after considerable confidence building measures which will give them heart to talk about such issues," Mozdah said.