An Associated Press report in response to President Bush's recent State of the Union speech argues that while the president was accurate on his statements regarding Afghanistan, he is misleading about the resurgence of the Taliban. It provides a good catalyst for reviewing this "resurgent Taliban" claim which seems to be set in stone in the editorial offices in most major media outlets.
The problem is that these reports mistake the last desperate flailing of the jihad alliance with an actual offensive. In short, though the Taliban can still kick up some dust there is little chance of them rising to a level of influence over the political future of Afghanistan, unless and until they put down their guns and join the peace process.
In his article, Jason Straziuso makes a deft point which I have tried to get across for some time. It is central to understanding what has occurred since the coalition drove out the Taliban:
"With the Taliban evidently resurgent, it has also become obvious that their easy departure in 2001 was more of a strategic retreat than an actual military defeat," wrote Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office."
When we attacked the Taliban and kicked them out of Afghanistan in 2001, we didn't really defeat them; we just pushed them back into their own support base. Although we did take out some core al Qaeda leadership it wasn't destroyed either. Journalists have not made much of an effort to acknowledge (they should have) that the Taliban was mostly Pakistani in origin anyway with an Afghan face for popular support. The Taliban was formed (at a minimum) by the acquiescence of Benazeer Bhutto to protect Pakistani trade routes through Afghanistan and as a way for the Pakistani government to gain influence over the unstable and internecine warfare between Afghan warlords after they deposed the communist government.
Pushing them off their Afghan base was a tactical victory, but not a strategic one. It can be said that a strategic victory was impossible under the conditions at the time; that as long as they had Pakistan to retreat to, they could never be completely defeated.
This left an obvious way forward for US strategy in the war on terror. Either we went to war with Pakistan, a really bad idea, or we needed to carve the Taliban and al Qaeda into factions so they could render themselves ineffective by killing each other, the Achilles' heel of the jihad movement. I have been writing for months now about signs that the US government embarked upon the later course, noting open source indications of success. It's pretty much out in the open now that it has worked.
Here it is from the horse's mouth: ADNkronos:
Spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the Amarat Islami Afghanistan, or Afghan Taliban, had separated from the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan and its leader Baitullah Mehsud.
In an exclusive interview with Adnkronos International (AKI) from an unknown location, Zabihullah said when the Pakistani Taliban were fighting against the US, and other allied forces who occupied Afghanistan, the two Taliban groups were allies.
But he said since Baitullah and other tribal militants in the border region had started fighting Pakistan's armed forces, the Afghani Taliban had cut all ties and openly disowned them.
In other words, the al Qaeda affiliated Taliban of Pakistan which wants to overthrow Musharraf (and establish an Islamic government) is now split from the Afghanistan based Taliban. It makes sense when you look at it this way. The Afghan Taliban has probably become a more purely Afghan populated Taliban than it was before. This is because when al Qaeda shifted to Pakistan in 2001, the al Qaeda and Taliban core leadership no longer needed the Afghan tribes to secure themselves. So over time, the Pakistan Taliban has lost focus on Afghanistan, whereas the Afghan Taliban still sees it as a fight for their very homes. In Pakistan, the focus is now jihad to take over Pakistan, a political jihad unlike the "defensive jihad" in Afghanistan.
I have also written that al Qaeda, defeated in Iraq, and seeing the coming split of the Taliban support base they thrive in, had no choice but to try and take over the Taliban in Pakistan. They did this by redeploying al Qaeda fighters from Iraq to Pakistan and integrating them into sympathetic Taliban tribes and working with young chieftains to push the more aggressive ones into power over the older chieftains.
This, I wrote, would result in major clashes as al Qaeda started to fight the Pakistani government to take over the tribal areas to secure its' base. And, important political figures in Pakistan (of the MMA) that formerly worked with al Qaeda would not like giving up direct control over the Pakistani jihadis to al Qaeda. Especially after al Qaeda put an MMA leader on a hit-list.
Numerous theories have been put forward to explain Mansour Dadullah's dismissal, but his increasingly close relationship with Al-Qaeda was the real reason, according to a senior foreign official in Afghanistan who spoke to Jane's.
High and mid-level Taliban commanders contacted by Jane's had little respect for Dadullah. Some said he was only promoted in an attempt to safeguard his brother's networks and as a face-saving exercise to mitigate the psychological blow of Mullah Dadullah's death.
While the dismissal of an ineffective commander is unlikely to weaken the insurgency, it has highlighted divisions within the Taliban. The Taliban is increasingly split between those who follow the old leadership and those who take their cue from Al-Qaeda.
Not only has the Taliban separated into pro-al Qaeda and anti-al Qaeda factions, but it is splitting regionally. Despite Jane's claim that this may not weaken them, it weakens the very Taliban-al Qaeda alliance that attacked the United States on 9/11. And once they are crippled they are susceptible to fighting each other, inter-tribal warfare.
As these groups become isolated, they will fight even harder, fighting for self-preservation rather than ideology. But we should not mistake increased fighting for increased capability. In this case it is only a mark of desperation.
The Taliban is desperate to avoid the inevitable outcome, that once they are fully carved up into small factions fighting along tribal lines, they will have to acquiesce to the legal Afghanistan government. Soon al Qaeda leadership will have to rely on a Taliban with questionable loyalties which makes the environment ripe for a betrayal. Surely, one of these Taliban groups will come to consider al Qaeda leadership as a bargaining chip once their political situation deteriorates.