KABUL — In their missives to the world, the Taliban greeted Osama bin Laden’s death as a call to arms — a killing that would incite “waves of jihad.” Privately, many Taliban commanders are probably breathing a sigh of relief.
The ties that bound al-Qaeda and the Taliban were anchored by their two leaders — bin Laden and Mohammad Omar — but the relationship was never seamless. The two groups co-existed despite rivalries and divergent agendas: the Taliban, a largely Pashtun movement focused on grievances within Afghanistan; al-Qaeda, the cosmopolitan Arab visionaries of terrorism with eyes always to the West.
Bin Laden’s death could free up the Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaeda, as U.S. military officials have argued, and allow the group to pursue negotiations with the United States. At the same time, the Taliban could take inspiration from bin Laden’s killing and double down on a fight that appears closer to a conclusion as U.S. officials argue for a speedier American withdrawal after the al-Qaeda chief’s death.
In public statements since bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by Navy SEALs, the Taliban has showed no sign of a willingness to abandon its al-Qaeda partners. “The Afghans will not forget the sacrifices and struggle of Sheik Osama, this great patron of Islam,” one statement said.
But many have cast doubt on what actual benefit al-Qaeda brought to the Taliban, particularly in recent years. The number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan has consistently been estimated at 100 or fewer. There is a larger al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan, but still far fewer than the tens of thousands of Taliban fighters who operate on both sides of the border.
Although al-Qaeda and the Taliban have a common enemy in the United States, their differences remain stark. U.S. military officials say the vast majority of Taliban fighters operate a short distance from their homes — and are focused primarily on local grievances, rather than international terrorism.
“The Taliban have a whole different agenda. They’re concerned about what’s going on in their valley or their district or their province,” said Col. Joseph Felter, who was the head of Gen. David H. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency advisory team in Kabul and is now with Stanford University. “With bin Laden, there was a sense of connection to the broader jihadi movement. With him gone, the equilibrium will kind of default back.”
The current generation of young Taliban fighters, many of them boys when the Taliban government fell in late 2001, do not have “a memory of this close relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda that some of the older generation saw,” Felter said. “The current 19-year-old Taliban doesn’t have any real connection to al-Qaeda.”
The scope of al-Qaeda’s support for the Taliban or other local insurgent groups in Afghanistan is difficult to assess. Al-Qaeda has run training camps, provided technical expertise and has had the ability to attract fighters from across the broader Muslim world. But the amount of money al-Qaeda could have funneled to the Taliban — a CIA estimate in 2009 put the annual figure at $106 million — is probably outmatched by other sources such as extortion, kidnapping, opium trafficking, and the timber and gem trades.
“I’m hard-pressed to think that [al-Qaeda] carries much credibility with the Taliban now unless they are able to give the Taliban something that they don’t have, which probably is money, weapons, material or perhaps expertise,” said one U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. “If they’re not doing that, then it’s not clear what they bring.”
Within the Taliban’s leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura, there has been an ongoing debate about whether to renounce al-Qaeda, causing significant divides. Detainees in Afghanistan have told interrogators that they resent al-Qaeda for provoking the U.S. invasion that helped to overthrow the Taliban.
“I’m of the opinion that [al-Qaeda] has become more of a burden on [the Taliban] and the other networks,” Matt Sherman, a former adviser to Petraeus, said in an e-mail. “I question how much [al-Qaeda] really brings / brought to the fight, in terms of quality fighters, resources and money.”
A former head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, Gen. Ziauddin Butt, told a Pakistani newspaper last week that Omar had once told him that bin Laden had “become a bone in the throat that can neither be swallowed nor thrown out.” Omar claimed that he was unable to break ties with bin Laden, Butt said, because “he is considered a heroic figure by some people within Taliban.”
In the past decade, the relationship between bin Laden and Omar — and al-Qaeda and the Taliban — has been the subject of much speculation but little fact. During the Taliban’s reign from 1996 to 2001, the Saudi millionaire funded terrorist training camps, and Omar refused to give him up despite intense international pressure. The two men escaped U.S. bombardments by fleeing to Pakistan.
U.S. and Afghan officials said they thought bin Laden and Omar communicated during their years in hiding, most likely through messages passed by intermediaries.
“Our intelligence indicates the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda was between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, not the organizations,” said one U.S. military official in Kabul. “It’s too early to tell whether the groups will disassociate in the wake of bin Laden’s death.”
Afghan critics of the Taliban assert that it is just as ideologically rigid and supportive of international terrorism as al-Qaeda. One former senior Afghan official involved for years in the fight against the Taliban likened bin Laden’s relationship with Omar to that of then-President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. “Breaking Taliban ties with al-Qaeda is really like breaking the British and American ties. Is that possible?” he said.
Near the end of the Taliban’s reign, Abdul Salam Rocketi, a burly Taliban commander, went to lunch at a friend’s house outside Jalalabad, where he sat down to dine with bin Laden. As Rocketi recalls, their hour-long conversation went poorly, and he left in anger before the others gathered around a small television to watch propaganda videos of Palestinian fighters.
“I told him, ‘The whole world is against you and looking for you; one day you will become a headache for the Afghan people,’ ” Rocketi said. “He told me, ‘I am just here for jihad.’ ”
Rocketi, who has renounced his Taliban connections, held out little hope that his former comrades would give up the fight after bin Laden’s death.
“His killing will not stop fighting in this country,” Rocketi said. “It will go on.”