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 (.pdf) 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
Part of the new escalated military campaign in Afghanistan was a massive increase in the number of night raids and other killings of Taliban leadership. The problem is that when the older, more locally focused leaders are killed, they are replaced by a younger breed of commander who's typically much more radical, and their slow takeover of the insurgency is making it much more dangerous to the interests of the United States.
According to the report:
These newer generations are potentially a more serious threat. With little or no memory of Afghan society prior to the Soviet war in the 1980s, this new generation of commanders is more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations, and therefore less pragmatic. It is not interested in negotiations or compromise with foreigners. They have never lived in an Afghanistan that was at peace. Members of the youngest generation, often raised solely in refugee camps and madrasas in Pakistan, have no experience of traditional communities, productive economic activity, or citizenship in any state; they are citizens of jihad. Al-Qaeda operatives have been known to seek out direct contact with such younger Taliban field commanders inside Afghanistan.
In other words, the Taliban is not al Qaeda, but the U.S. military campaign is having the unintended consequence of making it more al Qaeda-like: decentralized, radicalized and predisposed towards jihad.
It's Time to Change Course
The Obama administration's wrong-headed conflation of the Taliban with the al Qaeda threat is an ugly relic of the "with us or against us" rhetoric from the Bush years, and it's time we got over it. This view of the conflict is what got us into this 100,000+ troop counterinsurgency that was launched almost exactly a year ago and that's brought us nothing but grief since. We've had record casualties, record civilian deaths, and record costs, all while the Taliban continued to spread across the country. Not only has the U.S. failed to reverse insurgent momentum, but we've managed to make the Taliban even more susceptible to al Qaeda overtures. If that's not a rank failure, we don't know what is.
Bottom line: If we are serious about wanting to protect American security and about reaching a political settlement that gets our troops home, we have to talk to the Taliban. However, that requires a major shift in the Obama administration's view of the players in the conflict. Right now, the administration's strategy is killing off the generation of leaders inside the Taliban that will be most willing to talk.
The president once talked about his opposition to "dumb wars." Well, this policy in Afghanistan is making this war dumber by the minute. Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn paint a picture of an insurgency that didn't have to happen and a policy that could lead to a deadlier insurgency with which it will be incredibly hard to reconcile. Our leaders should take a close look at this report, and then get serious about non-military solutions for the conflict. There is no reason for the war we're fighting anymore.