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In Afghanistan, Taliban surpasses al-Qaeda
Shifting power dynamic could influence where U.S. focuses firepower

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.

"We assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible force, will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others," Omar said in a written statement in September.

The messages from the Taliban leadership since the spring amount to something of a "revolution," said Wahid Mujda, a political analyst who was a Foreign Ministry official under the Taliban government. "Al-Qaeda's path is now different from the Taliban's path, and they are growing more separated."

Other, closer ties

Although that may be true of Omar's faction, observers here say that other segments of the Taliban have become more closely entwined with al-Qaeda than ever.

The Haqqani-led faction, which is blamed for many of the deadliest attacks on U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, works so closely with al-Qaeda that distinctions between the groups may be irrelevant, officials said.

In the lawless border town of Miran Shah in Pakistan's North Waziristan region, where insurgents hold sway and experience little interference from the Pakistani army, Haqqani's Taliban works side by side with al-Qaeda. Haqqani developed close ties with Arab fighters during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, during which he received funding from the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. One of his wives is Arab. When bin Laden fled the U.S. invasion in 2001, he took refuge with Haqqani in a safe house between the Afghan city of Khost and Miran Shah, according to Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid.

Haqqani's network, which experts say maintains links with Pakistani authorities, fights in eastern Afghanistan. But the group is also blamed for much of the violence in Kabul. After an attack on a U.N. guesthouse last month that killed eight people, Afghan officials said Haqqani's fighters planned the assault with the help of an al-Qaeda operative.

On the battlefield, insurgents from al-Qaeda and a broad spectrum of Taliban factions still communicate and coordinate attacks, officials said. United by a common enemy, they share explosives and use the same suicide-bomber networks. A foreign fighter who travels to the Pakistani tribal lands to join al-Qaeda may end up working with the Taliban.

"Al-Qaeda is the teacher of the Taliban. They're still very close partners," said Maj. Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, director general of the Afghan Interior Ministry's anti-terrorism department. "It's very clear, the ideological connection they have."

Despite its weakened state, there is little doubt that al-Qaeda remains a potent international force, and there is reason to believe that cooperation with Pakistani Taliban groups is deepening.

As the world's premier terrorist brand, al-Qaeda "still has an iconic value, an emulation value," a senior U.S. military official said.

And yet, Omar's Taliban, at least, may not want to repeat recent history, when his group's loyalty to al-Qaeda spoiled the Taliban's opportunity to defeat rival Afghan factions and rule the entire country.

"If you debrief senior Taliban guys, they'll tell you that al-Qaeda stole the victory, because they were going to win prior to the World Trade Center attacks," the U.S. military intelligence official said. "The more they connect themselves to al-Qaeda, the less the population's going to welcome them back."

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