February 6, 2011
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The new report from NYU's Center for International Cooperation is a damning description of the U.S. policies in Afghanistan since 2001, and a warning that the escalated military strategy blocks the road to peace while making the Taliban more dangerous.
Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan is the latest in a continuous string of statements from Afghanistan experts that the U.S. war policies that were launched a year ago aren't making us safer and aren't worth the substantial costs: $1 million per U.S. troop in Afghanistan per year, for a total of more than $375.5 billion wasted so far. The report is written by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, Kandahar-based researchers who've spent more than four years researching the Taliban and the recent history of southern Afghanistan.
George W. Bush's Leftovers: Mistaking Taliban for Al Qaeda
The main target of criticism in the report is the major conceit passed from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration on Afghanistan: the conflation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The authors warn that,
The claim that the link between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is stronger than ever, or unbreakable, is potentially a major intelligence failure that hinders the United States and the international community from achieving their core objectives. (p. 4)
Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn summarize a history of the Taliban/Al Qaeda relationship that is likely unfamiliar to most Westerners. As a movement, the Taliban rank-and-file grew out of a history almost totally isolated from the developments in political Islam that formed the experience of Al Qaeda's leadership, and the core leadership of both groups had little interaction in their organizations‚ early years. The Taliban's ambitions were and are plainly local, while Al Qaeda's are oriented toward the idea of an international jihad against "Zionists and crusaders." While we in the Western world may find the Taliban's program of social hyper-conservatism objectionable in its own right, they are not al-Qaeda.
We all know, however, that the mindset of George W. Bush and his administration lacked nuance. His "with us or against us "rhetoric conflated the Taliban with al Qaeda. That conflation effectively short-circuited early attempts to reintegrate Taliban elements willing to work with the new order in Afghanistan:
The counterterrorism policies of the United States at that time threatened the security of Taliban who might have been willing to join the process, and Afghan officials with whom the Taliban communicated said they could not protect them from detention by the United States. The strong interests of neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran also helped steer Taliban leaders towards taking up arms once again. By 2003 they had regrouped and put command structures in place, connecting to local groups inside Afghanistan to begin an insurgency.
In short, had the U.S. adopted a more nuanced approach in distinguishing Taliban from Al Qaeda, we might not be facing the insurgency that's continuing its march across Afghanistan.
President Obama may have a more intellectual way of conflating the threat, "Al Qaeda and their extremist allies" who may provide "safe haven" if they retake Afghanistan, but the essential counterproductive flaw in the thinking remains. U.S. policy talks a big game about reconciling with the "small t taliban," but our conflation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda blocks any serious attempt at a political settlement. Worse, U.S. military strategies are taking a group that's distinct from Al Qaeda and making it more vulnerable to Al Qaeda influence.
We're Making the Taliban More Al Qaeda-Like