Talking to the Taliban

Reviewed By Razeshta Sethna

AS the US engagement in Afghanistan winds down — similar to the late 80s when the Soviet Union found it had exhausted its resources and political acumen — building an Afghan government (with diverse factions), making peace with the very Taliban forces that America has fought for over a decade, and leaving behind a sustainable infrastructure and economy seems near to impossible. The future configuration of the Qatar peace talks, expanding them beyond the US-Taliban channel, and the Chicago conference in May will further clarify Afghanistan’s position. But at present, with Hamid Karzai demanding Nato troops pull back to their main military posts and the Taliban refusing to engage in negotiations, all of this doesn’t bode well for the stakeholders.

And while the US government downplays its strained strategic relations with Kabul, saying they are committed to negotiations and working with Karzai’s government, it’s the political schisms that could cause a resurgence of violence. This is happening at a time when the military strategy — the capture-or-kill campaign — has strengthened new and younger elements and weakened the central command of the senior Taliban leadership. Though this growing fragmentation has not caused an overall decline in the insurgency, the older leadership’s loss of power runs the risk of parts of the group forging a new path, while limiting the possibility of a negotiated settlement and increasing interest in an internationalist agenda.

But even with the promise that a political solution will not allow the country to become a terrorist haven, there is rising skepticism that the current government — riddled with corruption and ineptitude — and the Afghan security forces are ill-equipped to curb the insurgency. Last week, women members of Afghanistan’s 70-member government-appointed High Peace Council, tasked with working toward reconciliation with the Taliban, said that they had been sidelined. Working to carve out a role in the negotiations since the assassination of its chief, Burhanuddin Rabbani, last year, the Council has nine women.

There is concern about certain recommendations that the Karzai administration has endorsed (permission for husbands to beat wives is one example) which amounts to giving away some of the gains made over the last decade.

Despite their traditional Islamist ideology and opaque al-Qaeda ‘associations’, it is now understood that the Quetta-based Taliban leadership are politically significant in the Afghan endgame. In An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010, authors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn give historical context to the association between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, using the nature of these ambiguous organisations as leverage to argue against any kind of nexus between the two groups.

Although both groups encounter one another for the first time in 1996, it is clear that Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden did not share the same ideological worldview about exporting terror internationally. The authors track the ideological and social background and the relationship between both groups, mapping out networks through key timelines to show how they might have merged, and at the same time, also conflicted in approach. There is sufficient understanding of this ‘merger’ (questioning if and when there was ever a ‘merger’ backed with factual evidence, extensive research and hundreds of interviews with Afghan Taliban sources, former Taliban and eye witnesses), especially when it came to the Taliban’s isolation before the 9/11 terror attacks and later when the US and its allies went to war in Afghanistan. Although several books (Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field edited by Antonio Giustozzi and Jonathan Steele’s Ghosts of Afghanistan: Hard Truths and Foreign Myths) have dealt with the Taliban’s rise and fall, their basic structure and why making peace with them is important, The Enemy We Created could be separated by virtue of its extensive interviews and ground-breaking research based on first-hand knowledge.

The Taliban leader is portrayed as elusive and courteous, and suspicious of bin Laden: “A Bone in the Throat [1998-2001]” traces the relationship and the meetings between Mullah Omar and bin Laden quoting the latter’s son Omar bin Laden: “The Taliban leader was displeased at my father’s militant activities. Concerned only with the internal affairs of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar has no desire to attract interference from the outside world… ‘The political situation is heated,’ Mullah Omar concluded. It is best if you and your men leave Afghanistan.’” Bin Laden had “no more than a basic smattering of Pashtu and that he always used Arab translators to communicate with the Taliban leader,” deconstructed the myth and showed that “the
oft-stated image of bin Laden sitting at Mullah Mohammad Omar’s side, whispering conspiracies into his ear, playing Iago to Omar’s Othello, seems to lack substance”. But the “two grew closer together during the final three years of the movement’s rule in Afghanistan.” Interviews with Taliban members reveal that the relationship was rocky (Mullah Omar is quoted as saying: “I am angry because Osama is making anti-American statements from our soil… He has broken his promise”) and based for a while (1998/1999) on money and weapons — “One of the most important ‘sweeteners’ between the two leaders, though, seems to have been money.”

That the Taliban leadership is being dragged out of isolation, gaining international acceptance because of its inevitable future role, is something if it had happened back in the late 90s might have discouraged substantial links (human resource or financial) with al-Qaeda, despite bin Laden’s presence at the time in the country and Mullah Omar’s reluctance to expel him for his “internationalist agenda”. Bin Laden was not the Taliban government’s only concern when it came to the international community in the late 90s. Diplomatic recognition, the Taliban argued, would help them deal with the social and political issues but they failed to realise that it was regressive social policies that earned them their pariah status. In 1997, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright explained that the US was opposed to the Taliban “because of their opposition to human rights and their despicable treatment of women and children.”

During the mid-90s, the Taliban did not share the same violent militant worldview with al-Qaeda, including mounting terror/suicide attacks with global targets. But what is missing in this account is an analysis of the transitory period of exile for the Taliban (and Arab/foreign fighters) in Pakistan when their government falls post 9/11 and when “a new generation of insurgents, a younger group with no recollection of an Afghanistan that was not at war, are less inclined to reach a political settlement” and are easily open to forging links with a more potent al-Qaeda. When support is borne “out of shared circumstances” (2003-09) and adjustments are made to survive along the way, it was obvious that both groups would come together in certain ways. Also the effect of a loose ‘merger’ drawing in elements of the Pakistani Taliban sharing a similar ideology escalated terror attacks within Pakistan and this is not mentioned, especially when the country’s tribal belt became a hub for al-Qaeda central. The ISI supporting various key Pakistani Taliban groups and al-Qaeda leaders, providing sanctuary and allegedly logistical assistance is not looked at in any detail. “The final verdict in the balance of power between Quetta and Waziristan is likely to be decided in the course of any future negotiations,” explain the authors.

The “Mullah Dadullah effect” makes for interesting analysis given the latter is credited with the Taliban’s resurgence as an insurgent movement using suicide bombers within Afghanistan, turning the organisation (with the consent of Mullah Omar) into supporting global jihad post-2006. In 2004 in Afghanistan there were three suicide bombings; in 2007, there were 137 attacks causing 1,730 casualties. In 2006, Dadullah told al-Jazeera that “cooperation between us [the Taliban] and al-Qaeda is very strong.”

The authors conclude with the argument that the Taliban’s younger, radicalised generation sees this conflict as a war between Islam and the West, to continue as long as American forces remain in Afghanistan. This coterie doesn’t support political reconciliation and has hugely changed the Taliban’s goals in the last decade. Can the older generation leadership be brought in to ensure that the future of Afghanistan is free of global terrorists or is this questionable after the recent suspension in peace talks and events in Afghanistan? Could the susceptibility to foreign jihadi groups mean a re-emergence of transnational terror groups taking advantage of any future power vacuum? For political negotiations to have a meaningful impact, the Afghan people, alienated from their current government, must be brought into the peace deal where rebuilding trust happens. The way forward it seems for now is that the fighting will continue alongside negotiations for peace and for more financial assistance and less foreign intervention.

The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald

An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 
By Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
Hurst & Company, London
ISBN 978-1849041547
538pp. Rs1,495


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