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The Taliban Is Not al-Qaeda, and It's Very Dangerous for the U.S. to Confuse the Two

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2014-06-05-Berghdal.pngThe recent release of Taliban prisoners of war from the Guantanamo base in Cuba has whipped up hysteria among the media and politicians alike, both of whom have been all too quick, once again, to equate the Taliban with al-Qaeda.

"LOOK AT THE EVIL SCUM," screamed a New York Post headline, referring to the five Taliban prisoners released in return for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner of war. "They will kill again," the story went on to say.

Such a casually manufactured confusion between al-Qaeda and other extremist groups that may not be a danger to the U.S. is what led the U.S. to invade Iraq, resulting in thousands of American deaths and more than 600,000 civilian deaths in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was not at war with us.

In fact, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was at war with the U.S., was also at war with Saddam Hussein, seeking to overthrow him. And Hussein was trying to exterminate al-Qaeda as well. Nevertheless, the majority of the American people, spurred by a frenzied media bent on revenge, was convinced that Iraq and Hussein were behind a worldwide conspiracy that had resulted in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Taliban was, and is, primarily a nationalistic movement and is fundamentally committed to building an Islamist state in Afghanistan. Ironically, in the '80s, when the Taliban was fighting the Soviet Union, the U.S. supplied the group with stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other military supplies.

Al-Qaeda, formed by Osama Bin Laden, is a worldwide terrorist group that wants to spread mayhem and murder everywhere, especially against Israel and its military suppliers -- principally the U.S. -- and was willing to bomb civilians and blow up embassies and airplanes anywhere.

According to Felix Kuehn, a journalist who lived in Kandahar and studied the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the two organizations adhere to different strains of Islamist thought. The Taliban is more influenced by Saudi Wahhabi-style Hanafi beliefs, while al-Qaeda sides with the more radical Hanbali school.

Al-Qaeda is mostly made of educated Arabs, many Egyptians, and very few if any Afghans. Members of the Taliban are all from Afghanistan, and many of them are unschooled and from rural areas. In spite of periodic alliances, the two groups resented each other and kept apart with a great deal of animosity. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's founder, opposed the international activities of Osama bin Laden.

In many ways, the split between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is reminiscent of the split between Stalin and Trotsky in the 1920s. Stalin wanted communism in one country, Russia, and Trotsky wanted a worldwide movement of workers in all countries. Stalin thought that Russian communism was doomed if it aligned itself with trying to overthrow foreign governments, and Trotsky, conversely, believed that Russian communism was doomed if it tried to contain itself in one country. Stalin ended the historical feud by exiling Trotsky and later sending his agents to Mexico to put a pickaxe in Trotsky's skull.

As the U.S. moves out of Afghanistan, we are going to have to negotiate with the Taliban, no doubt a nasty and brutal group of thugs. But no one can deny that they are a legitimate stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan -- especially if they agree to give up their guns. If we don't recognize this, the bloody war will continue for decades to come, and our young men will be collateral damage. In fact, more than a year ago the State Department argued before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the proposed swap of the five Taliban officials for Bowe Bergdahl would really be a first move in the service of a larger peace deal with the Taliban.

The five Taliban prisoners released from Guantanamo were certainly not terrorists in the traditional sense of the word, like al-Qaeda fighters are.

Indeed, if they had refused to fight the American invaders, their home country would have considered them traitors. Four were former high-level public officials of the government of Afghanistan at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2001. Mohammad Fazl was deputy defense minister; Mullah Norullah Noori, governor of Balkh province; Khairullah Khairkhwa, governor of Herat province; and Abdul Haq Wasiq, deputy minister of intelligence. Mohammed Nabi Omari, the fifth prisoner, was the military commander in the Haqqani network, formed and armed by the CIA to fight Soviet forces in the '80s.

After a 12-year imprisonment in harsh conditions, the five high officials released last week are not likely to kill Americans in the next year while under house arrest in Qatar. After that, they will most likely try to fight against American soldiers remaining in their country.

Hopefully, the new Afghan government and the U.S. will try to work out some kind of deal with major elements of the Taliban. These former government officials will be critical to any deal to be worked out in the future.

Such manufactured and blown-up conspiracies are certainly not without precedent in recent history. Sixty years ago the U.S. government sucked us into a useless war in Vietnam under the pretext that we were up against a worldwide communist conspiracy, when in actuality we were fighting a nationalist movement started against French imperialism that was being supported by communists.

President Obama's recent commencement speech at West Point showed a sophisticated understanding of when, and when not, to endanger the lives of American soldiers.

I guess this is what the president means when he says that the U.S. should stop doing "stupid shit."

Write to Blake Fleetwood at

Photo credit: U.S. Army via Getty Images