Why Is the Taliban the Enemy?

I don’t claim to have deep knowledge about Afghanistan, but it seems to him that the current US approach is destined for failure.   Over the past year violence has gotten worse and the US continues to lose soldiers and waste money there.  But here’s my question:  Why is it important that we destroy the Taliban?  Why is the Taliban being treated as an inevitable enemy that has to be eliminated in order for security to be achieved? 

Afghanistan becomes a security threat to the US and its allies when it serves as  a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda types to use as a base to plan and launch attacks against the US.  For what other reason is Afghanistan important to the US?  The situation that existed in Afghanistan before 9/11 was clearly a security threat to the US as Al-Qaeda could do whatever they wanted, and as we well know, they did just that.  But why is the Taliban being lumped together with Al-Qaeda as an implaccable enemy that must be destroyed? 

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are not natural allies.  Al-Qaeda are Arabs from a far away land, who speak a different language and are seen by the locals as being arrogant and having a sense of superiority.  Although there is a shared religion, Islam, in some ways, Afghani Arabs are seen by the locals as foreign occupiers just as much as the Americans.  In the mid-late 1990s, Mullah Omar made a calculated decision that the money and material equipment that Bin Laden could supply made it worth the political and diplomatic costs that such a decision would cost.  Keep in mind, since the US was barely intersted in Al-Qaeda or Afghanistan at this point the price was very low.   But even at this pre-9/11 point, Omar seems to have had some doubts about the wisdom of such a decision.  According  to Lawrence_Wright, Mullah Omar made a verbal commitment to Prince Turki Al-Faisal to turn Bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia, which he later reneged on but this shows how this was an alliance of convenience.  Clearly, after 9/11 the Taliban had to be thinking the cost-benefit equation.  With the US suddenly attacking Afghanistan it became alot more costly.  And the Taliban’s leaders know this. 

The Taliban is a local movement which is stricly limited to Afghanistan whereas Al-Qaeda is a global movement.  Their interests clearly conflict.   Furthermore, there is a strong sense, both within the Taliban and within various Islamist movements, that the Taliban had founded the first modern truly Islamic state, but all of these gains were wiped out by Bin Laden’s recklessness.   Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US, especially 9/11, are considered strategically idiotic by many within the Islamists movements.   If given a second chance in Afghanistan, they would certainly be more careful about who they let into their country.   And from a counter-terrorism perspective, the Taliban’s fighters are local, uneducated tribesman who know little if anything about what goes on outside their borders.  Most could probaly not locate Afghanistan on a map.  They have neither the language skills or worldliness to make it past Kabul airport.  I am  not aware of one member of the Taliban or even an Afghani who has ever participated in a terrorist attack against the US. 

And does their political program for Afghanistan necessarily conflict with US interests?  If the Taliban wants to run an 8th century theocracy,  why does the US care, as long as they don’t also allow Al-Qaeda types to enter their country?   Certainly they are probaly a better bet to keep the country stable than the US-trained Afghan army.  I see no reason why some kind of unwritten understanding can be reached between the US and the Taliban:  We’ll leave you to govern Afghanistan as you wish, as long as you do everything possible to keep all Arab Al-Qaeda types out.  Oh and the second we find that you’re not doing that, we’ll attack.  Sure, this is an unlikely plan because it would mean selling out the pro-US Afghan government.  But is that such a bad thing?  Are we going to keep spending billions of dollars and have hundreds of soldiers die to fight against an enemy that doesn’t necessarily have to be our enemy?  Or are we going to adopt a better, albeit hard-core realist plan, that perhaps better takes into account local realities?  

23 Responses

  1. […] Anyone familiar with Socrates knows his favorite question was why. Those who regularly converse and argue with others, especially about political topics, knows a strategically placed “why” can halt your opponent in his tracks. This simple, yet crucial question is asked far too rarely by both individuals inside and outside the government. Arab Media Shack, a favorite blog of mine, has a fantastic piece which I feel compelled to link to asking: Why is the Taliban the Enemy? […]

  2. I agree with you on this, I’ve argued before that in Afghanistan, we need to take Pakistan’s interests into account in understanding the ISI’s continued support for the Taliban. The current Afghan government, as seen from Islamabad, is too close to both India and Iran, who traditionally ally against Islamabad and Riyad. That’s been one of the failures in addressing the insurgency in Afghanistan by this administration.

    The Afghan government for its part, has at times made this more difficult by refusing to allow former Taliban elements into the government, which would go a long way toward bringing them into the political process. Given the political realities on the ground, that neither Iran nor India would allow the fall of the current Afghan government, and hence heavy fighting would ensue as it did prior to the ascendancy of the Taliban. The closest we can come to having the Taliban control all of the country, is to push the Karzai administration toward reconciliation with the Taliban, while continuing our strikes against al Qaeda, thereby dividing the alliance of convenience by giving the Taliban a way out.

  3. Furthermore, there is a strong sense, both within the Taliban and within various Islamist movements…

    There was? Any sources/refs?

    Thanks.

  4. Yes,
    In English the best book making that case would have to be Fawaz Gerges Why Jihad Went Global (see MediaShack bookshelf). Dan Byman touches on this in his book The Five Front War. Also, see Wright’s The Looming Tower. Also, see Peter Bergen Bin Laden As I Knew Him as well as anything written by Giles Kepel.

    I am mostly basing this on the fact that I almost never come across anyone or any signifigant Islamist group in the Arabic press that argues that 9/11 helped their cause.

    I just posted on Sayyid Imam and put up a link to a translation of an interview he gave which takes up this topic. The sentiment he expresses about Bin Laden’s recklessness being responsible for the end of Taliban rule is fairly common.

  5. “We’ll leave you to govern Afghanistan as you wish, as long as you do everything possible to keep all Arab Al-Qaeda types out. Oh and the second we find that you’re not doing that, we’ll attack.”

    You mean kind of like the 90s? We tried this. It didn’t work. We tried it again after 9/11. It didn’t work. Right now, the Taliban is reliant on al-Qaeda’s network for weapons and transport funding — a network that can’t be easily broken, since they’ll need it to rule the country should we allow them to govern.

    Basically, consenting to Taliban governance is admitting an enormous counterterrorism failure. I’m really surprised this seems like such a good idea.

  6. Nyker thanks for your comments and your analysis of the larger regional interests which I havent really considered in my post.

    Joshua, Thanks for your comments. No, we never tried that in the 1990s. In the 1990s the US government didnt care at all about Al-Qaeda or Afghanistan. As a result, the Taliban leadership, fighting a Civil War, felt that inviting Al-Qaeda types such as Bin Laden into the country (with the material aid they could provide) was worth it because there werent any serious consequences for this type of behavior.

    Obviously, now the Taliban knows that there are new strategic realities. And the Taliban is a local Afghani organization that is solely concerned with Islamic rule in Afghanistan. In their eyes, they had the first real modern Islamic government from 1996-2001. This they lost after the US invaded and sponsored a new pro-American gov. That, and not any special loyalty to Al-Qaeda is why they are fighting an insurgency against the US.

    I disagree that the Taliban would be reliant on Al-Qaeda for the weapons it needs to rule the country should we allow them to govern. Simply let Pakistan arm them as they were doing before 9/11.

    How is consenting to Taliban governance a counter-terrorism failure? When has the Taliban ever participated in terrorism? Has a member of the Taliban or even an Afghani ever attacked the US outside of Afghanistan?

  7. Grandmasta, I truly do hate to pull this card, but your admission at the beginning of your post that you don’t have deep knowledge of Afghanistan is informing this argument.

    For one, yes we did try that in the 90’s. Read Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: we tried not only arming and funding the Northern Alliance and some domestic Pakistani cells to counter al-Qaeda in 1995, 1996, and 1999, but Bill Clinton also launched several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at Bin Laden’s training camps in Khost in 1998. Sitting back and striking from afar or working through proxies has a proven record of failure in Afghanistan.

    As for the details of the Taliban-al-Qeada collaboration, the nature of the alliance is fundamentally different than it was in the 1990s. I suggest reading Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban for that history, where he also makes an impassioned argument that countering the Taliban was vital to Western interests in the region, but more recently, Giustozzi’s Koran Kalashnikov & Laptop (as well as Frontline Pakistan by Zahid HUssein) does an excellent job at explaining the multinational nature of the current Taliban, its international funding sources, and the ways hydra-headed Taliban activities are threatening to destabilize all of South Asia—i.e. their interest is not solely focused on Afghanistan as it was in 1996, but on Pakistan and India as well.

    In other words, the problem faced by the Taliban being given free reign to rape Afghanistan as they did in the 1990s is not only just as bad an idea as it was then, I would argue that now it is an even worse idea.

    I agree that the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is an opportunistic, and not and intrinsic one. But that would make their takeover of Afghanistan all the more devastating: not only would we have no guarantees (except potentially on paper, which with them are useless) that al-Qaeda would not be given free reign again, but we also would have no way of countering their destabilizing presence in Pakistan (which we barely have now), or in India (most of the militancy along the Kashmir front, as well as several high-profile bombings in India proper, were performed by Taliban groups).

    So please, and I’m being serious about this. Read more about this. The Taliban are a serious threat not to Afghanistan, but to the entire region of South Asia.

  8. 1) Can seriously you say that the US government considered Afghanistan a priority during the 1990s? More importantly, did Mullah Omar believe that the US government considered Afghanistan a priority?

    “but Bill Clinton also launched several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at Bin Laden’s training camps in Khost in 1998. ”

    This supports my point that the US government did not. What are a dozen cruize missiles at Al-Qaeda training camps? Nothing. Did that have any serious effect on the Taliban? No. By doing nothing but launch cruise missiles at Al-Qaeda training camps, Mullah Omar got the message that the US didn’t care or at wasnt willing to do enough that would make the relationship with Bin Laden not worthwile.

    I’m suggesting that if the Taliban were given the chance to rule, with the clear understanding that they would be hit and hit hard if they did anything but run their local fundamentalist religous state , it would be more than enough incentive for them to keep Arab Sunni fanatics out of the their country. And that wouldn’t be such a bad deal for the US considering all the money and lives that are being wasted in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban down and prop up a puppet government.

    2) I’m not convinced with your arguement that the Taliban, whose militia consists of what 10-30k fighters, is a “serious threat to the entire region of South Asia.” But as I said I dont have deep knowledge of Afghanistan so I’ll stop there.

    But you still didn’t answer my question from before:
    How is consenting to Taliban governance a counter-terrorism failure? When has the Taliban ever participated in terrorism? Has a member of the Taliban or even an Afghani ever attacked the US outside of Afghanistan?

  9. Yes, I can. Again: read your history. The CIA set up an entire division solely devoted to tracking and capturing Bin Laden, focused on Afghanistan and Sudan, and he first entered their radar screen before the 1993 WTC bombing. Mullah Omar did not think we considered his country a priority, and that’s partly why we kicked his ass out of the country.

    Again: read your history. Our options were limited in Afghanistan. In 1998, how would you have launched a strike at terrorist camps? Invade through Pakistan? Naqaz Sharif was barely even on speaking terms with the U.S. You can’t go through Iran. You could maybe go through Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, if you could negotiate access to their airbases (at the time, Tajikistan was solidly leased out to Russia, and Uzbekistan had only just signed the Air Transport Agreement, and weren’t at all ready for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan aside from meeting with Northern Alliance representatives).

    So, how else would you have attacked those camps, aside from cruise missiles?

    It’s also worth noting that during their first several years, the U.S. State Department had tried to establish ties with the Taliban, but they rejected those entreaties. Unocal courted them, to no effect. And once their relationship with Bin Laden solidified in 1997 — three years after turning away U.S. envoys — they were added to the list of terrorism-supporting regimes.

    As for Afghans attacking the U.S., you mean aside from Mir Aimal Kasi, right?

  10. Grandmasta and Josh,

    Given Josh’s post, I think I need to clarify what I meant. I’ve posted this clarified and expanded comment at Registan as well.

    Remarkably, very smart people, like NYkrinDC, voiced their agreement, saying that the Taliban is a local movement and al-Qaeda is a global movement, so they’re not really good allies so why can’t we support one while opposing the other?I guess I deserve that. I think here I should clarify that what I was referring to in my comment at Arab Media Shack, was the recognition of Pakistan’s interests in the country, which the ISI can be seen as pursuing through their continuing support of the Taliban. With that in mind my comment perhaps should have been edited and expanded as follows:I agree with you on this, I’ve argued before that in Afghanistan, we need to take Pakistan’s interests into account in understanding the ISI’s continued support for the Taliban. The current Afghan government, as seen from Islamabad, is too close to both India and Iran, who traditionally ally against Islamabad and Riyadh. That’s been one of the failures in addressing the insurgency in Afghanistan by this administration.The Afghan government for its part, has at times made this more difficult by refusing to allow former Taliban elements into the government, which would go a long way toward bringing them into the political process;hence, addressing Pakistan’s concern and ultimately moving to reduce support for the insurgency in Pakistan and within the Pashto majority. Given the political realities on the ground, that neither Iran nor India would allow the fall of the current Afghan government, and hence heavy fighting would ensue as it did prior to the ascendancy of the Taliban in the 1990’s. That being the case, to reintegrate the Pashto into power structure of the country, the Karzai administration must be pushed toward deeper reconciliation with the those elements of the Taliban that can be reconciled, while continuing our strikes against al Qaeda and irreconcilable Taliban elements, thereby dividing the alliance of convenience by giving at least some Taliban a way out. This is another one of the things that has made the Taliban stronger, the failure to recognize the fact that the Pashto do not like being ruled by what used to be the Northern Alliance.

    Hope that clarifies this.

  11. The question should be, why should nationalistic Pashtuns be our enemy. Is there a way to co-opt the Taliban with an alternative call to Pastun nationality.

  12. Again we come back to missed windows of opportunity, I think. If the US had instigated a regional solution in the aftermath of the invasion instead of relying on the northern alliance of warlords to such an extent, the argument might have been relevant, or at least more relevant. After 6 years of warfare I have small hopes of seeing any way politically that the US could pull off a stunt like this. One thing is that youve built the ANA as a anti-taleban force, another that the logistic-chains of foodsupplies etc. are now firmly in the hands of said war/drug lords. And so on.

    The salient fact and the deep problem is that the west has built a house of sand in Afghan, through our inability and unwillingness to spend money on the problem we have messed up. As kip over at abumuqawama points out, in 7 years we have spent half of what the olympics cost. Now it may be too late, and we may be *kicked* out of afghanistan. The mujahedin (of wich taleban are but a minor force) are approaching a position of winning. I doubt they feel the need to negotiate truly at this point.

  13. 1) Joshua, first, let me clarify my not having deep knowledge comment. There are many people who follow Afghanistan closely and I am not one of them. But Im not writing this post as someone who has never opened a book on Afghanistan or doesnt follow it at all.

    2) “Again: read your history. The CIA set up an entire division solely devoted to tracking and capturing Bin Laden, focused on Afghanistan and Sudan, and he first entered their radar screen before the 1993 WTC bombing. Mullah Omar did not think we considered his country a priority, and that’s partly why we kicked his ass out of the country.”

    I have never met anyone related to the US gov who really thought that Afghanistan was a serious priority, especially in the late 1990s, when Al-Qaeda move in. You interpret the above quote as saying that the US gov considered Afghanistan a priority in the 1990s. I see it as the opposite. So I guess well have to agree to disagree.

    3) Joshua, p2 on the cruise missiles. I didnt say there was an easy solution to attacking the camps other than through cruise missiles. What I am saying is that the attacks were nothing but a minor dent to Al-Qaeda and had little effect on the Taliban. The US had no other options at that point. But the only lesson the Taliban could draw was ” we can get support from AQ and the worst that will happen is that the US will throw cruise missiles at rural AQ camps but not us.” Obviously now, the Talibian understands that the whole equation changed.

    4) Have you read the Looming Tower by Robin Wright because his account doesnt suggest the relationship b/w AQ and the Taliban was as deep as you are suggesting.

    5) Fnord, thanks for your comments, agreed. I’m not saying this “stunt” is likely to work. The post was partially intended to be provacative.

    But if in fact the US is on the verge of “losing” or getting kicked out of Afghanistan, how do we deal with this? Do we keep doing what we are doing, spending billions of dollars, losing lots of soldiers? Or do we say maybe it just aint worth it and get the hell out of Aghanistan? I say option two is not such a bad idea, and with some cunning diplomacy and perhaps covert activity the Taliban could be influenced/compelled/convinced to do what suits the US’s needs: keep the Sunni fanatics out of Afghanistan and focus solely on their project of the Islamicization of Afganistan.

  14. Dr. Hair Gel’s background on American involvement in Afghanistan rests largely on Coll’s Ghost Wars. Anyone interested in Afghanistan or the notion of blowback must read it. This was an interesting back-and-forth here. The Doc has just one point to add. Removing American/NATO troops and turning our back on Hamid Karzai’s government would be the same path followed in the late 1980s after Ahmed Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance gained control of Kabul.

    To slightly shift the subject, it seems that the crux of the problem facing American involvement in Afghanistan remains: how do we balance intelligence sharing with the ISI (a component of counter-terrorism efforts) while clamping down on sources that allow the Taliban to thrive (corruption, lack of troops, Pakistani compliance). This tension is unlikely to change, but what can be done to mitigate it?

  15. I am mostly basing this on the fact that I almost never come across anyone or any signifigant Islamist group in the Arabic press that argues that 9/11 helped their cause.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I have some of those books.

    It strikes me as odd, given the parochial nature of the Taliban during those years, that they would have any considerable positive impact on Islamists movements, especially those in Arab countries.

    Also, isn’t there a much wider angle to Afghanistan than simply fighting Taliban? Iran? Russia? Central Asia?

    cheers

  16. […] a couple weeks ago I had a  post  asking the quesion Why is the Taliban the enemy?  Some disagreed with my arguement that the […]

  17. […] The Taliban is Splitting From Al-Qaeda Posted on October 6, 2008 by Rob On August 31st I suggested that  the only way to emerge from Afghanistan was to try and split the Taliban from Al-Qaeda.   […]

  18. […] said all along, the Taliban is not_a_natural_and_permanent enemy of the US.  They are an unsophisticated group of local Afghan Islamists who care first and […]

  19. […] a Taliban split from Al-Qaeda.   I’ve said this before many times, the Taliban is not a  natural_enemyof the US.    Maybe some people are reading this and saying “what are you smoking?”  […]

  20. […] is exactly_what_I’ve_been_calling_on_for_months…. […]

  21. […] are being asked now in (some segments) of the mainstream media were being asked here way back in August. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The sky is not falling….Democracy is not the […]

  22. […] where is this terrorism threat coming from?  It’s not from the Taliban, which is  not_a_natural_enemy_of_the_US, and had nothing to do with 9/11.  Mullah Omar even ordered Bin Laden not to plan attacks against […]

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