For the past several years, Felix Kuehn has lived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, one of the few non-Afghans living as civilians in that war-plagued city, the country’s second largest and the city in which the Taliban was founded. Only about a hundred foreigners live in Kandahar, including a handful of diplomats from the Iranian and Pakistani consulates and a small number of workers with NGOs. But last week, Kuehn came to Washington to talk about the complicated relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Speaking at a forum organized by the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for International Policy, Kuehn had an important message for policymakers in Washington trying to understand what Osama bin Laden’s death means for Afghanistan, and what to think about opening a political dialogue with the Taliban.
His central point: that although the two organizations have ties, they are separate and distinct groups with different constituencies and different goals. And while it’s not possible to talk to Al Qaeda, talking and negotiating with the Taliban is eminently possible. Unfortunately, he says, despite increasing reports that both the United States and the Afghan government want to open a dialogue with the Taliban, Kuehn says, “I do not see a serious approach by either the Afghan government or the international community.”
For at least three years, Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten have lived and worked in Kandahar, where they’ve studied the two organizations, lived with Kandahar citizens, and met people of all political persuasions there, including Taliban commanders. Kuehn points out that the Taliban and Al Qaeda adhere to different strains of Islamic thought, the Taliban associated with Saudi-influenced, Wahhabi-style Hanafi beliefs, and Al Qaeda associated with the more radical, more rigid Hanbali school. The Taliban, of course, are Afghans, and Al Qaeda mostly Arab and almost entirely non-Afghan. Generationally, they are different, too, with most Al Qaeda leaders older than the young commanders of the Taliban, and whereas many Al Qaeda people are professionals and well educated, the Taliban are rural, unschooled, and grew up in places like Kandahar where newspapers were nonexistent and even radios were in the hands of only a privileged few.
When Al Qaeda arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan around 1996, says Kuehn, its membership was not more than 30. Al Qaeda fighters, and the growing number of recruits who came to Afghanistan from elsewhere, kept apart from Taliban fighters, who resented Al Qaeda, and there was a great deal of animosity between the two. Osama bin Laden insisted that international actions against the United States and other countries was crucial to his strategy, while Mullah Omar opposed such actions, says Kuehn.
“Osama bin Laden’s death will have zero impact on the Afghan Taliban,” says Kuehn. In part, that’s because they “didn’t have much a relationship to begin with.” Still, he says, it’s foolish to expect the Taliban to denounce Al Qaeda or to formally break with the organization, in part because bin Laden and Al Qaeda were Mullah Omar’s bridge to the Arab world. Yet when bin Laden was killed, the Taliban’s reaction was muted, and its statement—released via the Taliban’s semi-official web site—was mild and restrained. (If you haven't spent time reading the Taliban in its own words, its web site is the place to start.)
Today in Kandahar, he says, the lines between supporters of the Taliban and others, including supporters of the government, are blurred. Often, when he visits friends who are prominent Kandaharis, he’ll suddenly find himself sitting with a passel of Taliban commanders.
In response to a questioner who asked about the relationship between the Taliban and the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kuehn said that the Taliban “always saw itself as nonaligned, as an Islamist movement, not a Pashtun movement.” Although many analysts conflate the Taliban and Pashtuns, Kuehn said that’s wrong. In fact, he said, “The Taliban has been making huge inroads into ethnic groups in the north,” gaining support among Uzbeks and Tajiks who resent the presence of foreign forces.
In the north, where anti-Taliban forces among the old Northern Alliance are rallying behind Afghan leaders opposed to the Taliban, there are war preparations being made for outright civil war between a reconstituted Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and in some cases commanders in the north are actually drawing lines on maps to represent where they expect the front lines might be. Even among these circles, however, Kuehn says that there are compromise-minded people who’d be willing to accept a division of power between Taliban and non-Taliban forces.
Kuehn said that another division is emerging between what he called the “old guard” Taliban and the new commanders who are moving in to replace those captured or killed by the American counterinsurgency effort in the south. It is, he said, the old guard who are more susceptible to talks with the United States and its allies, including the Afghan government. “There is still a chance to engage the senior leadership of the old-generation Taliban,” he said. But the more they are replaced by younger militants, the more difficult it will be. Pakistan, too, has less influence over the new Taliban youth than it does over Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura leadership, and the more time that passes the harder it will be for Pakistan to help deliver the Taliban to the bargaining table.
In fact, Kuehn said, he actually has heard discussion from a member of the Quetta Shura that the Taliban would be willing to conduct joint counterterrorism operations with the United States against foreign fighters.