In Afghanistan, Taliban leaving al-Qaeda behind

An Afghan vehicle clears a checkpoint set up outside a combat outpost in the Surobi district, near Kabul.
An Afghan vehicle clears a checkpoint set up outside a combat outpost in the Surobi district, near Kabul. (Jerome Delay/associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

KABUL -- As violence rises in Afghanistan, the power balance between insurgent groups has shifted, with a weakened al-Qaeda relying increasingly on the emboldened Taliban for protection and the manpower to carry out deadly attacks, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.

The ascendancy of the Taliban and the relative decline of al-Qaeda have broad implications for the Obama administration as it seeks to define its enemy in Afghanistan and debates deploying tens of thousands of additional troops.

Although the war in Afghanistan began as a response to al-Qaeda terrorism, there are perhaps fewer than 100 members of the group left in the country, according to a senior U.S. military intelligence official in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official estimated that there are 300 al-Qaeda members in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the group is based, compared with tens of thousands of Taliban insurgents on either side of the border.

Yet officials and observers here differ over whether the inversion of the groups' traditional power dynamic has led to better or worse relations. Indeed, it may be bringing al-Qaeda closer to certain Taliban factions -- most notably, forces loyal to former Taliban cabinet minister Jalaluddin Haqqani -- and driving it apart from others, including leader Mohammad Omar's Pakistan-based group. The shifting alliances, analysts say, could have significant bearing on where the U.S. military chooses to focus its firepower.

Although President Obama has said the United States must remain in Afghanistan because a Taliban victory here would mean a rapid proliferation of al-Qaeda fighters as they return to their pre-2001 sanctuary, Omar's faction seems to have distanced itself from al-Qaeda in recent months.

The shift appears to reflect Omar's growing confidence that his group can operate on its own, without al-Qaeda as its patron. "The Taliban have got the expertise, they have got the resources, they have got the momentum," said Richard Barrett, coordinator of the U.N. Taliban and al-Qaeda Monitoring Team.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The Taliban, composed primarily of ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan and Pakistan, has offered haven to the Arab-led al-Qaeda in exchange for money, weapons and training. When Omar ruled nearly all of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, he sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and refused to turn him over to the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan forced Omar and bin Laden to flee to Pakistan.

Agendas diverge

Omar's mission is to force U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan and to recapture the country. His group is particularly active in attacking U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, his home base.

This year, Omar's military committee published a rule book for followers, calling on them to protect the population and avoid civilian casualties -- much like U.S. counterinsurgency principles. He has railed against the corruption of President Hamid Karzai's government, an issue that resonates with Afghans. He has also solicited support from other Muslim countries. But al-Qaeda's agenda of global holy war and taste for mass-casualty attacks, no matter how many Muslim civilians are killed, complicate that goal.

In a February interview with al-Samoud magazine, Taliban political committee leader Agha Jan Mutassim praised the Saudi Arabian government, called for Muslim unity and said the Taliban "respects all different Islamic schools and branches without any discrimination" in Afghanistan.

Such positions may put Omar's Taliban at odds with al-Qaeda's extremist Sunni agenda of overthrowing what it sees as corrupt Muslim governments and targeting Shiites. Analysts said that Omar, who leads a council of Taliban commanders based in or around the Pakistani city of Quetta, wants such countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government if it regains power and that he has little interest in fomenting war elsewhere.

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