David Rohde’s series “Held by the Taliban,” which began running in the New York Times on Sunday makes gripping reading. (You can read Part I here and Part II here.) But so far, at least, it seems that Rohde isn’t clear on what the Taliban is. And his confusion is important, because one’s view of the Taliban is critical for US policy going forward. If the Taliban is one and the same with Al Qaeda, religious fanatics dedicated to a global jihad against the West above all, with no willingness to compromise, then that’s one thing. But if the Taliban is a compex social organism whose leaders are separate and distinct from Al Qaeda, and if it’s possible to persuade some or most of the Taliban’s leadership and commanders to sit down and talk, then that’s something else.
At first, Rohde seems to imply that his view that the Taliban was not as militant and vicious as Al Qaeda was foolish:
“I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of ‘Al Qaeda lite,’ a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
“Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.”
What exactly is Rohde getting at here? He says that he was wrong to believe that the Taliban was aimed at “controlling Afghanistan,” then he notes that he is being held by “Haqqanis’ followers” — who are not the same as the Taliban, which is based in Quetta, Pakistan — and then he mentions “hard-line Taliban,” implying that there is a softer version.
Then Rohde muddies the picture even further. Later in Part I, he says:
“I saw the Haqqanis as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed.”
Wait a minute! Earlier he told us that the Taliban are religious fanatics who want to create a worldwide emirate of Islam — and now the Haqqanis are portrayed as “masquerading” as pious. Which is it?
Still later, still in Part I, he says:
“I still did not know which Taliban faction had abducted us.”
Okay, so the Taliban has “factions.” To me, that means that some of it — perhaps most of it? — might be willing to negotiate, rather than slit the throats of all foreigners and less-than-pious Muslims.
Toward the end of Part I, Rohde adds:
“In my mind, Qari and Atiqullah [two of his captors] personified polar ends of the Taliban. Qari represented a paranoid, intractable force. Atiqullah embodied the more reasonable faction: people who would compromise on our release and, perhaps, even on peace in Afghanistan.”
That makes sense, and it reinforces the idea of Taliban factions. So it seems that Rohde believes that some of the Taliban are amenable to the idea of a peace settlement.
Truth is, the Afghan insurgency is a volatile and highly complex phenomenon, involving three interlinked insurgent groups, the Taliban itself (based in Quetta and run by Mullah Omar and his council, or shura), the Haqqani group, and the Hizb-e Islami group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.The three are partners of sorts, but they are different entities with their own ties to supporters, including links to the Pakistani ISI. Alongside them, and working with them, are various criminal gangs, drug organizations, timber and diamond smugglers, tribal chieftains and warlords, the shattered remnants of Al Qaeda, Uzbek militants, and more.
The counterinsurgency devotees in Washington and at Centcom want to peel away faction by faction, village by village, tribe by tribe, those who might opt to pledge fealty to the regime in Kabul. Even assuming that President Karzai’s de-legitimized government could ever command the support of such rebels, getting them to go along would take many, many years of patient persuasion, bribes, and threats, along with years of heavy fighting to “clear, hold, and build” those areas.
Alternately, the United States, NATO, and (hopefully) a new Afghan government can seek a deal with the top- and mid-ranking Taliban leaders, in part by getting Pakistan’s army and the ISI on board. That’s the political solution that doesn’t require General McChrystal’s Thirty Years’ War-style COIN approach.