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.)