By Radha Vinod Raju
Two scholars of the New York University, Alex Strick van Linshoten and Felix Kuehn, who have spent years in Afghanistan, have come out with a report that the Taliban has been wrongly perceived as ideological allies of al-Qaeda, and that the guerrilla group can be persuaded to renounce al Qaeda. The report claims that there was substantial friction between the groups’ leaders before 9/11, and the hostility has only intensified. The authors argue that intensified operations against the Taliban may make it harder to reach a settlement, and that attacks on Taliban field commanders and provincial leaders will leave the movement open to younger and more radical elements. This will result in the al Qaeda getting more influence over the Taliban. The report suggests that the United States government should engage older Taliban leaders before they lose control of the movement.
Osama bin Laden had settled in Afghanistan in early 1996, after he was compelled to leave Sudan due to international pressure on that government. This was just before the Taliban took control of Kabul. It is reported that bin Laden helped the Taliban monetarily in getting control of Kabul. SteveColl, in his magnificent work Ghost Wars haswritten about the lavish construction projects and generous donations that bin Laden made to the Taliban’s coffers when it was struggling to establish itself in Afghanistan. This fostered an intimate relationship between bin Laden and the Taliban leadership.
It is now known that from the time of President Clinton, the United States has been putting pressure on Pakistan to convince the Taliban to handover Osama bin Laden to the Americans to stand trial for the attacks on American targets. According to Steve Coll the Pakistan army itself could not put pressure on the Taliban on several issues, though they were the biggest supporters of the Taliban. Though the Taliban government was not recognized by the United States, through informal contacts with the Taliban in Kabul, the US also tried to get custody of bin Laden at this stage, but the Taliban just ignored the request. It is reported that the Pakistan government, which was keen to develop good relations with the new Bush administration, found little influence with the Taliban on matters like handing over of bin Laden or saving the statues of the BamiyanBuddhas, which the Taliban destroyed. It is also known that even after the 9/11 attacks on the twin World Trade Centre Towers, the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden to the United States despite attempts by Pakistan to convince them of the threat of war by an enraged United States.
There are also reports that the al Qaeda and the Taliban are ideologically very close. According to SajjanGohel, Director of International Security, Asia Pacific Foundation, “the Taliban remained loyal to al Qaeda. There is an ideological connection: al Qaeda adopts a very strict interpretation of the Quran that is Wahabi/Salafi-esque; the Taliban is Deobandi. The relationship is close ideologically, and it is that relationship that binds them together. The Taliban is a number of different factions–whether you’re looking at the Haqqani network [based in the city of Khost and led by a popular warlord, JalaluddinHaqqani], or the Quetta Council [led by Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar] but they are based in Pakistan. In addition, they receive support from the Pakistan Taliban, [which is] already ideologically intertwined with groups like al Qaeda; and that is why al Qaeda Central, the Islamic Jihad Union, Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, and a whole plethora of groups are based in the tribal areas–because of the Taliban code of allowing these groups to be based there in providing sanctuary, in supporting them. That is not going to change.”
According to Ronald E. Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, “This idea that if the Taliban comes back, al Qaeda either doesn’t come with them–or is controllable or isn’t a threat–is a very speculative theoretical foundation. This seems to me a very speculative basis, which has no real solid evidence to support it, on which to take a very large national security risk. And if you have a Taliban return with al Qaeda, you then have effectively the strategic rear of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan. Just as you say you can’t deal with Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan, so it is absolutely impossible to say that you are going to deal with extremism in Pakistan while you lose the fight in Afghanistan.”
In an interview to Al Arabia TV, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the former Ambassador of the Taliban to Pakistan, said that the Americans had only one demand, to handover Osama bin Laden to them. He said they offered to try bin Laden in Afghanistan, if the Americans provided evidence. According to Zaeef, the Americans refused to understand Afghan traditions and culture, and that the Taliban had to defend the country’s independence, as a religious responsibility.
According to Ahmed Rashid, the respected Pakistani columnist, the Taliban leadership is sheltered by Pakistan in safe houses. Though they are grateful to Pakistan for the shelter provided to them, they are resentful of the constant Pakistani meddling in their internal affairs. The fact that the Taliban resented Pakistani interference in their affairs is also mentioned by Zaeef in his book “My life with the Taliban.”
There is enough indication that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are ideologically close to each other, and therefore there is no certainty that they can be made to renounce the al Qaeda. There is evidence that the Taliban have withstood pressure from Pakistan on crucial matters of importance to them. There is evidence that they resented interference from Pakistan in their internal affairs. Before 9/11, Pakistan sold the line to the United States that the Taliban can be brought round, and that the United States should engage with the Taliban. The same line is being sold now. There is indication that Pakistan cannot guarantee what the Taliban would do once in power. In this scenario, it would be a huge risk to base any major decision on the premise that the Taliban can be convinced to renounce the al Qaeda.
Radha Vinod Raju
Former Director General, NIA