19 October 2009

The relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban: Friends with benefits?

A few days ago, karaka pend asked me whether or not it was worth the $35 to purchase War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age. I thought it was a great book, don't get me wrong, but I hate spending $35 for e-books, so I recommended not buying it. Another reader disagreed with me, stating that the book was well worth the money--but caveatted their response with the fact that some of the material in the book might already be common knowledge to some people.

Now, I'll agree that much of the book reiterated information that I felt that I was already familiar with. Yes, I'm well aware that there are bloggers in the military. I know that Soldiers use Facebook to connect with the outside world, share life experiences, post pictures of cats who desire "cheezburgers", etc. I also know quite well that there's this site called Small Wars Journal where people discuss counterinsurgency....and while it's not The Best Page in the Universe, it's still good enough to make the Rolling Stone Hot List.

That being said, War 2.0 (along with another book I've been into recently, In the Graveyard of Empires) does tackle a very important issue which has, until recently, been overlooked in the debate on Afghanistan: the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Fortunately, a number of pundits have been able to examine this issue recently, most notably Perter Bergen, who penned an article which appeared in The New Republic recently (h/t Afpak Channel on Twitter).

Bergen--one of the few Western journalists who has actually been able to interview Osama bin Laden--begins his article by summing up the arguments of those who support the "offshore balancing" strategy, which he opposes:

And yet, as President Obama weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the connection between the region and Al Qaeda has suddenly become a matter of hot dispute in Washington. We are told that September 11 was as much a product of plotting in Hamburg as in Afghanistan; that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are quite distinct groups, and that we can therefore defeat the former while tolerating the latter; that flushing jihadists out of one failing state will merely cause them to pop up in another anarchic corner of the globe; that, in the age of the Internet, denying terrorists a physical safe haven isn't all it's cracked up to be.

These arguments point toward one conclusion: The effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest. But those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism-and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.

Mr. Bergen is one of the first people to actually take on many of the valid points of the "offshore balancing" camp--after that camp has run circles around the "comprehensive COIN" camp for the last few weeks. (Read the article--why is General McChrystal not using Bergen's speaking points?)

Bergen brings up an important point which was mentoned in both War 2.0 and Graveyard regarding the Taliban--they've evolved since their ousting in 2002, and they've done so with the help of al Qaeda. The relationship between these two organizations has been a strained one since the 1990s--al Qaeda leadership looked down on the Afghan movement, according to both sources. Nevertheless, in recent years, they have been able to train the Taliban in a number of insurgent tactics--namely, the construction of improvised explosive devices, suicide bombings, and most importantly, the value of information operations. (As War 2.0 notes very astutely, the Taliban--which had originally banned almost all forms of media--soon came to realize the value of such forms of communication and propaganda).

Now, some of the claims Bergen makes seem a little far-fetched. For example, the fact that one Taliban-allied terrorist attempted a bomb plot in the West is used as an example that the Taliban actually have global aspirations. Nevertheless, it hardly sounds like Taliban policy. Bergen is also one of the few who tackles some of the key issues regarding the Af/Pak safe haven (can al Qaeda move to Somalia, Yemen or the Sudan effectively?), as well as the "internet safe haven" argument (I'd argue that there is, in fact, some value in using these forums).

All in all, Bergen produces an interesting argument, and one of the first well-written arguments I've heard from the "continue the war" camp. Although I still remain somewhat skeptical on some points, the fact of the matter remains that the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban (or "little t" taliban) might be significantly more complex than originally thought. I think it's naive to claim that there is no connection at this point, and that it's equally unrealistic to claim that they are one and the same. For the time being, they have many agenda points which, for the moment, seem to be mutually beneficial. In a way, we might call these organizations friends, with benefits conferred upon the alliance. (Hehehe, I said "friends with benefits")

Edit: I'm not the only one who is confused as to the actual relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, based on this article from the Los Angeles Times this morning:

Ten years later, could Al Qaeda return to Afghanistan and use it again as a launching pad for terrorist strikes?

The question has taken on heightened urgency as the Obama administration searches for a new war strategy, and Pakistan carries out its first major military offensive in the tribal region that Al Qaeda has called home since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The issue is also a source of surprising disagreement within the counter-terrorism community.

Some are skeptical that Al Qaeda would return to Afghanistan, even in the event of a substantial U.S. military drawdown. Doing so would mean leaving a sanctuary in Pakistan that has afforded significant protection for eight years, despite a barrage of U.S. Predator drone strikes.

Others argue that Al Qaeda is under mounting pressure in Pakistan, and that a return to Afghanistan is all but inevitable if President Obama endorses anything other than a full-scale, counterinsurgency campaign there.

There is broad agreement among U.S. intelligence officials that Al Qaeda has a minimal presence in Afghanistan and would probably like to return there if it had the chance....

...One senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said the number of Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is in the "dozens," and that most function as low-level fighters with no significant leadership presence.

"Al Qaeda brings very little to the fight in Afghanistan," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Militarily, he said, "if you removed Al Qaeda from the equation in Afghanistan, it wouldn't matter."

That may be by design. Over the last eight years, Al Qaeda has burrowed deep into Pakistan's tribal belt, and fostered a closer relationship with local Taliban elements that are focused on carrying out attacks against the Pakistani government.

The Afghan Taliban, by contrast, has sought to distance itself from Al Qaeda, and to portray its insurgent campaign as a local fight.

A statement last month attributed to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar urged the West "not to be deceived" by Obama's assertions that the Afghanistan war is necessary because of the Al Qaeda threat. "The West does not have to wage this war," Omar said....

...U.S. intelligence officials said there is little sign of an active relationship at the top of the organizations, and probably no contact whatsoever between Bin Laden and Omar...

Still, they point to ongoing coordination at lower levels. And in his recent military assessment, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said Al Qaeda aids the insurgency with "ideological motivation, training and financial support."

There are reasons that Al Qaeda might be reluctant to relocate. The protective, rugged terrain of Pakistan's Waziristan region and the group's ties with the tribes there offer advantages the terrorist network would struggle to replicate in other places such as Somalia or Yemen.

Pakistan has served as such an effective haven that after eight years, the trail for Bin Laden "is not just cold, it's frozen over," Riedel said.

Moving across the border would expose Al Qaeda operatives to risks of detection by satellites, CIA drones or spies on the ground. And even if the U.S. was to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, America is likely to have a substantial military presence there -- and freedom to operate, unlike in Pakistan -- for years to come.

Edit #2 (Courtesy of Pat O): Seems that Nathan Hodge at Wired's Danger Room has also noticed an ideological shift in the Taliban, based on contact with al Qaeda. Well worth the read.

Focus: This is the crux of the whole Afghanistan debate--What is the relationship between these two organizations?


Anonymous said...

Damn, I think my comment got eaten. oh well. I just wanted to direct you to Bergen's senate testimony from earlier this month, where he makes some points about the relationship of al-Qaeda to the Taliban. And there was something else, but I've forgotten it now.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/20/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.