Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

AAN Reads: The Great Talqaida Myth

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

Al-Qaida and the Taleban are basically the same, they are fanatical Islamist extremists who hate the West and are an imminent danger for all of us. This, at least, is what one influential school of terrorism experts says – which informs the latest US policy on Afghanistan which, on paper, concentrates on ‘disrupting’ al-Qaida while, in fact, pursuing the Taleban. This is challenged by a new paper (out today), foreshadowing a much more detailed book which for the first time gathers evidence to the contrary: that there are clear distinctions between both organizations and that the current US policy is ill-informed. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig has read the paper (and has borrowed the neologism in the title from the forthcoming book.)

‘Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan’ – this is the promising title of a new paper of the young, Kandahar-based analysts duo Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (read it here). Like how it is often with such titles, this author would strongly agree with its first part while he is rather doubtful about part 2. (To put it short: The core of success does not lie in better analysis of the ‘other side’, although it would help considerably, but to find a successful way of tackling the root causes of the insurgency which lie, almost 50/50, in Afghanistan’s badly governing elite of nouveau riches & powerful and in Pakistan’s save havens.) But this is not the issue here.
The issue that is tackled by this (pre-)paper – a full book is announced for April(*) – is that often the Taleban insurgents – their backgrounds, motives and political aims – are analytically not separated from those of al-Qaida. Take Bruce Riedel, for example, one of the most influential terrorism analysts in the US. He likes to talk about a ‘terrorism syndicate’, a kind of Jihadi palau, with everybody from the Afghan Taleban to their Pakistani sons, Lashkar-e Tayba and, finally, the big nemesis, al-Qaida as its ingredients, and all not much different from each other. And Riedel has the ear of Barack Obama’s top people and the President himself who made him preside over the influential first Afghan policy review in early 2010 which was, as Riedel admitted himself in a speech in Washington in December that year, sewn together with a hot needle – as we say in German –, i.e. in a very short time and possibly mainly as a desk study or extended version of a previously published book.

If you look at what is being written publicly about this subject, you find a lot more assumptions and strong opinions on al-Qaida, how it operates in general and in the Afghan-Pakistani arena in particular today, and about the exact character of its relationship with the Afghan Taleban. The information to which this is based often goes back to anonymous sources. It is reinforced by the wide-spread tendency of Afghans, both official and ‘on the street’, to lump everyone Arab or even from outside their area of reference under ‘al-Qaida’.

But you need differentiated analysis when you want to develop an effective policy that tackles different actors in their individual ways. Instead we got that neo-Bushist war on terrorists, now labeled as ‘disrupting al-Qaida’ while killing & capturing Afghan Taleban, designed by Petraeus and presided over by Obama, out of that Jihadi palau theory.

Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn swim against this influential current, and they are powered by a lot of good facts. Unfortunately, we only get a relatively narrow selection of them in today’s report. Most of it is to follow in the above mentioned book in April.

Here, some of their key findings [italics all mine]:

Yes, ‘the the Afghan Taliban collaborate in some ways with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups’ but this is more a ‘marriage of convenience’(**) than result of ideological or, even more, programmatic closeness between both groups. ‘The core leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda came from different ideological, social, and cultural backgrounds and were of different nationalities and generations. The trajectories of the lives of al-Qaeda’s leaders, none of them Afghans, can be traced back to political developments in the Middle East. [… T]hose who later became the core Taliban leadership had little contact with them’. (They mainly worked with the Haqqanis.)
‘Mullah Mohammad Omar and bin Laden grew close – although the extent and details of their association remain somewhat unclear’ – a reference to widespread but not really substantiated story of a marriage between a Mulla Omar and a daughter of Bin Laden(***).

Not every argument the authors use are new but the some are absolutely worth repeating: that ‘[t]he relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban during the second half of the 1990s was complicated and often tense‘, that ‘bin Laden pursued an independent agenda, often to the detriment of the Taliban‘ and that ‘Bin Laden’s calls for an international jihad and his attempts to mobilize support for attacks for what he saw as a jihad against crusaders and Zionists’ created a ‘rift’ in the Taleban leadership.

Strick and Kuehn conclude that ‘[a]l-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban remain two distinct groups, with different membership, agendas, ideologies, and objectives‘ and that ‘Afghans [including the Afghan Taleban] have not been involved in international terrorism, nor have the Afghan Taliban adopted the internationalist jihadi rhetoric of affiliates of al-Qaeda. […] The leaders of the Afghan Taliban do not see themselves in a conflict that extends beyond the borders of Afghanistan’ and ‘are not implacably opposed to the U.S. or West in general but to specific actions or policies in Afghanistan’. They point to the ‘many public [Taleban] statements [in which they] implicitly distance themselves from al-Qaeda’. Yes, these statements are still untested – but they need to be tested.

One reason why this has not happened yet, the authors point out, is the ‘undifferentiated’ position of the United States ‘as expressed in the Bush doctrine that one was “with us or against us” [which] promoted the perception that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were integrated into one group’.

From their differentiated view, the authors argue that political dialogue with the Taleban is possible and that it ‘is highly likely is that engagement on a political level will create opportunities that do not yet exist’. They say that, however, ‘it cannot be expected that the Taliban renounce or denounce al-Qaeda prior to the start of a dialogue’.

The strength of the author’s argument is its plenty of detail and their long-term exposure to the environment in which the Taleban grew. They simply do know better than those who just read reports and wire taps in Washington or behind hesco walls in Afghanistan. The only downside of this relatively short paper is that it does not contain much of that detail which is in the forthcoming book (this author had the opportunity to review a draft already). But it already points to the urgent need to start rethinking that powerful but misleading ‘terrorist syndicate’ theory.

(*) The paper: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, February 2011.

The forthcoming book: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010, Hurst (UK), April 2011.

(**) This term has already been used frequently to describe this relationship, amongst them by Anne Stenersen in her paper ‘Blood Brothers or a Marriage of Convenience? The Ideological Relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban’, paper presented at ISA’s 50th Annual Convention, “Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future” in New York City, NY, USA, February 15-18, 2009, read it here.

(***) Anne Stenersen, again, writes that this story can be ‘discarded’.


al-Qaeda Taleban