Thursday, October 28, 2010

Separating the Taliban from Al Qaeeda

I'm in Baltimore to attend the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR). I will try to post about some of the talks at the meeting. Our panel is tomorrow (Friday) - on Creationism in Europe. I will update soon.

In the mean time, here is a reliably interesting article by our friend, Scott Atran, How to turn the Taliban against Al-Qaeeda from yesterday's NYT. (Also see Scott Atran's Science & Religion lecture video: For Friends and Faith) Perhaps, the most interesting part of the article suggests that, because of the recent troops surge, many of the traditional Taliban leaders have been killed and replaced by very young, and far-more unpredictable commanders. In fact, this has even disrupted the traditional tribal code that binds many of the Taliban groups:

The United States claims to have killed thousands of Taliban in recent months, mostly foot soldiers and midlevel commanders. But those 25-year-old foot soldiers are being replaced by teenage fighters, and the 35-year-old midlevel commanders by 20-something students straight out of the religious schools called madrasas, which are the only form of education available in many rural areas.
These younger commanders and their fiercely loyal fighters are increasingly removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage, or qawm, and especially of friendship born of common experiences, or andiwali, that bind together the top figures in the established insurgent groups like the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network. Indeed, it is primarily through andiwali — overlapping bonds of family, schooling, years together in camps, combat service, business partnership — that talks between the adversaries, including representatives of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, and Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s ultimate leader, have continued over the years.
These new Taliban warriors, however, are increasingly independent, ruthless and unwilling to compromise with foreign infidels and their associates. They yearn to fight, and describe battle as going on vacation from the long, boring interludes of training and waiting between engagements. They claim they will fight to the death as long as any foreign soldiers remain, even if only in military bases.
AS with the older Taliban, their ideology — a peculiar blend of pan-Islamic Shariah law and Pashtun customs — is “not for sale,” as one leader told a Times reporter. But the new cohort increasingly decides how these beliefs are imposed on the ground: recently the Quetta Shura sent a Muslim scholar to chastise a group of youthful commanders in Paktia Province who were not following Mullah Omar’s directives; they promptly killed him.
It is hard to imagine that things can be worse for Afghanistan than the civil war that ensued after the Soviet forces withdrew from the region. To a certain degree it is almost surreal that we are talking about the old order of the Taliban as the more stable one and are dreading the new fragmented Taliban (please note that the term Taliban already denotes multiple groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border). So Atran's main message is to hold talks and drive a wedge between the traditional Taliban factions (Mullah Omar, the Haqqani group) and Al Qaeeda. This is actually quite possible - partly because the number of Al Qaeeda operatives has decreased significantly and the fact that Mullah Omar was never happy with Bin Laden (this has been actually documented by several people). Here is Atran addressing the latter part:

So why hold talks at all? Because there is a good chance that the Taliban can be persuaded to cut ties with Al Qaeda and offer some sort of guarantee that President Karzai won’t be left hanging from a lamppost when the Americans leave (as President Muhammad Najibullah, the puppet Afghan leader of the 1980s, was after the Soviets fled). The veteran correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave recently told me that when he met with Mullah Omar shortly before 9/11, he was “stunned by the hostility” the mullah expressed for Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, there is strong evidence that in the late 1990s Mullah Omar tried to crack down on Mr. bin Laden’s activities — confiscating his cellphone, putting him under house arrest and forbidding him to talk to the press or issue fatwas. But then, as the Taliban were deliberating about how to “disinvite” their troublesome guest after 9/11, the United States invaded, bombing them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda.
Likewise, it should be possible to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and the Haqqanis. The group’s leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was once called “goodness personified” by Representative Charlie Wilson, the great patron of the Afghan mujahedeen. During the Soviet occupation, he was a principal conduit of funds between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Islamic rebels, and remains a key link between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
But instead of waiting, Atran believes that the time for negotiations is right now:
The smarter move would be to turn the current shadow-play about talks into serious negotiations right now. The older Taliban leaders might well drop their support for Osama bin Laden if Western troops were no longer there to unite them. The Haqqanis, too, are exclusively interested in their homeland, not global jihad, and will discard anyone who interferes in their lives. No Haqqanis joined Al Qaeda before 9/11, because they couldn’t stand Arabs telling them how to pray and fight.
The problem now, for the Taliban leaders, the Afghan government, its Western backers and Pakistan, is that the main “success” of the recent surge — killing thousands of Taliban foot soldiers and midlevel commanders — may create a whirlwind that no one will be able to control.
Read the full article here. Also, read this earlier post, Atran on Afghanistan-Pakistan Problem.

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