The enemy with three heads

The U.S. is waging war against both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida warriors. Are they all the same?

Can the US win this war?
(Image credit: Corbis)

Who is the primary U.S. enemy?

It’s still al Qaida, but because of the complex web of relationships among Islamic extremists in the region, the U.S. has been unable to isolate al Qaida from its allies. In the wake of 9/11, U.S. and allied forces overran the Taliban, who had created a refuge for al Qaida in Afghanistan, and al Qaida operatives took up residence in remote areas of Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. As the attempted “underwear” airline bombing on Christmas Day proved, though, al Qaida still has global reach, operating underground in places as diverse as Yemen (where the underwear bomber trained), Somalia, and Europe. But al Qaida has been weakened by the war in Afghanistan and by a relentless worldwide dragnet. There may be fewer than 100 al Qaida members operating in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. military official recently estimated, and perhaps another 300 over the border in Pakistan. By contrast, the Afghan Taliban has some 25,000 fighters waging guerrilla war against U.S. and Afghan forces. In effect, to keep a few hundred al Qaida operatives from regaining a haven in Afghanistan, the U.S. is battling thousands of Taliban in two countries.

Does al Qaida control the Taliban?

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No, but the Taliban’s goal of a fundamentalist Sunni state in Afghanistan nicely complements al Qaida’s vision of a fundamentalist Sunni caliphate governing the entire Muslim world. By hosting Osama bin Laden, the Taliban won respect among Sunni extremists; the worldly bin Laden lavished praise on Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a semiliterate former village preacher, addressing him as “emir” and pledging fealty to his rule. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently initiated a program to pay Taliban mercenaries to switch sides in the fight. But no one expects hard-core Taliban to easily betray al Qaida. “We’ve been trying for 13 years to get the Taliban to break with al Qaida,” says Bruce Riedel, an administration advisor on Afghanistan. “Whatever the bond is between them, it’s stood the test of time.”

What is their relationship?

While some fighters associated with al Qaida affiliates have traveled to Afghanistan to assist the Taliban, al Qaida mostly provides technical assistance, sharing expertise in suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices. “Al Qaida is the teacher of the Taliban,” says Maj. Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, an Afghan anti-terrorism expert. Business deals, especially those involving the massive opium trade, have strengthened ties between the groups, as has intermarriage; bin Laden’s chief deputy, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, is believed to have married into an Afghan Pashtun clan. “Rolling back the Taliban is now necessary, even if not sufficient, to the ultimate defeat of al Qaida,” says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. That goal, though, has been greatly complicated by the flight of several al Qaida and Taliban leaders across the border into Pakistan, which in many ways has become the epicenter of the battle.

Why is Pakistan so important?

Al Qaida, which was founded in Pakistan in 1988, has now largely relocated there, hiding out in the northwest provinces and even in Pakistani cities, where some al Qaida operatives, including 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, have been captured. Moreover, two of the three major Afghan Taliban factions, which maintain close ties to al Qaida, are now run out of Pakistan’s northwest region. The third, led by Mullah Omar, is believed to be headquartered in Quetta, in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. (See below.) “Quetta is absolutely crucial to the Taliban today,” says Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. “From there they get recruits, fuel, fertilizer for explosives, weapons, and food. Suicide bombers are trained on that side.” This ad hoc network of Pakistani militants is now known by a single name: the Pakistani Taliban.

What is their agenda?

To overthrow the Pakistani government and end the country’s uneasy alliance with the U.S. These Islamic extremists—some with ties to Pakistan’s own security apparatus—signaled a bloody new era by assassinating Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and triggering a wave of suicide bombings that continues. Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the largest Pakistani Taliban faction, recently pledged to cooperate with bin Laden and Mullah Omar in waging jihad and transforming both Afghanistan and Pakistan into Sunni fundamentalist states. And Mehsud has delivered—claiming responsibility for December’s devastating suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans.

Has the U.S. responded?

Yes, but quietly. U.S. drone strikes in the past year have killed several Pakistani Taliban leaders, and Mehsud himself is reported to have died of injuries suffered in a missile attack. The U.S. also has provided intelligence assistance to Pakistan’s military, which last year launched offensives against Taliban and al Qaida fighters in Pakistan’s northwest. Yet Pakistan remains conflicted about battling its extremists, who have retaliated with a vicious bombing campaign against civilians. In Pakistan, al Qaida and the Taliban are organizations with deep local roots and large constituencies. “To paraphrase Tip O’Neill,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism analyst at the RAND Corp., “all politics in this region is primarily local.”

Welcome to ‘Pashtunistan’

The region known unofficially as “Pashtunistan” straddles 1,000 miles of the 1,600-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are some 12 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and more than double that in Pakistan. The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, Pashtuns are also the dominant component of both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban. The Pashtun region has its own code of honor, Pashtunwali, with a heavy emphasis on grievance and revenge, and its own language, Pashto. Islamic extremist groups are largely in control there, and have organized and formed alliances to launch terrorist attacks on Pakistani Shiites and to expand their fight into India. This largely lawless region also is fertile ground for smuggling and coordination between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters, who flow back and forth in response to their own agendas. The Pashtuns “don’t recognize the border,” says analyst Shuja Nawaz. “They never have. They never will.”

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