Know Thine Enemy

why the taliban cannot be flipped -  Published on Foreign Affairs, by Barbara Elias, November 2, 2009.

Summary – Beyond the current debate about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan lie more fundamental questions of who the Taliban are, how they are organized, what they want, and whether they can be separated from al Qaeda.

… The Taliban who governed Afghanistan from 1996–2001 had strong ties to Pakistan, both official and unofficial: they formed their identity in Pakistani schools and refugee camps, received funding and support from Islamabad that enabled their rise, and had close bilateral relations with their patrons after they seized power. Their agenda, however, was primarily a national one, and it remained so even after they were toppled and driven into the wilderness by the United States in 2001–2. Taliban spokesmen claim Mullah Omar has no involvement in militant activities in Pakistan, and that his main goal is to expel American and allied forces from Afghanistan and to reestablish a national Islamic regime. He and his forces aim to outwit, outlast, and outplay yet another alien superpower, replicating the mujahideen’s victory against the Soviets.  

The Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, are largely operationally independent of Mullah Omar and less structured and unified than their Afghan counterparts. Divided among various fiefdoms throughout Pakistan’s restive tribal regions, in recent years they have been loosely connected under umbrella organizations such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, TTP’s commander, was killed by a U.S. Predator strike on August 5, but just how much of an impact his death will have on the effectiveness of the Pakistani Taliban is unclear. Mehsud himself rose to prominence after a Predator strike killed South Waziristan’s rising Taliban commander, Nek Mohammed, in 2004, and Mehsud has already been replaced by a deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud (no relation). The targeted killing is thus likely to undermine the Pakistani Taliban’s recent tentative cohesion, but no individual leader is as important to this movement as Mullah Omar is to the Afghan one …

… The core of the Taliban, in short, will not flip against its al Qaeda allies. Moreover, even if some elements gave indications of being willing to do so, they would probably not follow through: the Taliban’s history is littered with promises to adversaries that remain unfulfilled. And there is little reason not to expect flipped Taliban to flip back when it suits their purposes.

Understanding the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban for what they are means recognizing that they will likely continue to protect al Qaeda, whether in exile or in power. The Afghan Taliban will probably remain united against U.S. forces. The Pakistani Taliban are a looser collection of affiliated groups and individuals, and so it might be possible to create or exploit divisions, as the killing of Baitullah Mehsud may already have done. (In fact, Islamabad and the United States are probably pursuing just such a strategy now.) But promoting civil war among militant factions in Pakistan’s tribal regions could lead to even more trouble: after all, it was the chaos and civil war in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, that led the Afghan public into the arms of the Taliban in the first place. And in order to divide Taliban factions, Islamabad would have to give concessions to some militant elements, undermining its resolve to break completely with Islamist groups.

Since the Taliban won’t give al Qaeda up, the United States has little choice but to destroy al Qaeda, and since the Taliban cannot be meaningfully split or co-opted, Washington, unfortunately, has no real option but to prepare itself for a long struggle in the region. Yet there is no reason why it has to be waged by military means alone. In addition to standard counterterrorism and counterinsurgency measures, the Obama administration should do what it can to support a viable alternative to the Taliban, its sources of legitimacy and brand of political Islam. Progress in building effective states and healthy nationalisms in Afghanistan and Pakistan is bound to be maddeningly elusive. Without it, however, it will be difficult to eradicate perceptions that the conflict is one between local heroes (the Taliban) and American puppets (the Afghan and Pakistani national governments). For better or worse, the Afghan and Pakistani states are the critical actors in the battles over their territory and authority.

(full long text 3 pages text).

Link: Know Thine Enemy: Why The Taliban Cannot Be Flipped,
by Barbara Elias, November 2, 2009.

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