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Tolerating the Taliban

October 9, 2009

After months of consideration on how to deal with our escalating engagement in the AF-Pak region, Obama’s administration has decided:

“the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement”

An article in the Washington Post today cites the administrations re-vamped goal of mitigating a Taliban capacity to interfere in the establishment of a stable Afghan government while assuring us that Al Qaeda is the primary threat, and our strategy will focus squarely on eradicating them.

It seemed news on Pakistan in the past year revolved around Islamabad not doing enough to eradicate the Taliban; equating the group to Al Qaeda in terms of importance in the War on Terror. But today marks a clear departure from such criticism. Distinguishing Al Qaeda from the Taliban is a huge step forward for the United States. Because connecting our goals to eliminate both immediate security threats and major elements of Afghan society that are unpalatable to our values, has proven counter productive. Having lived in Pakistan to experience the ill effects of hyper conservative religious factions, I know we mean well in trying to uproot extremism, but it just hasn’t worked in tandem with our military offensive. And I’ve mentioned the importance of a distinction between these groups previously:

The Taliban is historically distinct from militant groups like Al Qaeda. Unlike the Taliban, Al Qaeda is directly responsible for 9/11. Simply put, the Taliban was an ideologically fundamental group, while Al Qaeda is a militant, terrorist group. Both are dangerous as such, but the Taliban has national interests in controlling Afghanistan under strict ideological rules while Al Qaeda is a militant organization with international ambitions.

It’s not a novel contention, but only just being reflected in policy, and I think it has potential for success. As an ideological force, the Taliban foster an ultra conservative brand of Islam, but are not necessarily a threat to our security interests. Plus, if General McChrystal’s goal is defined as establishing a sustainable, democratic Afghan government, in order for it to be considered legitimate, it must be rooted in Afghan values and according to Afghan preferences. Such preferences might seem backward, or entirely unpleasant to us, but so long as our interests are being protected, impressing our brand of democratic values should take a back seat for the time being. I think the Obama administration has taken a wise step in revamping the Af-Pak strategy and hope it yields lasting success.

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7 comments

  1. I see your point. However, there is another side to the coin. The fact that Taliban in Afghanistan are able to assert their value to an Afghan democracy in the eyes of the American state dept., means that the Taliban in Pakistan and Central Asia can take heart for their own futures in their lands. Don’t mistake this to be a minor success for Taliban in Afghanistan. It may be tempting to think that Taliban in Afghanistan or localized and this way we can isolate them in Afghanistan, however, for the region as a whole, including Pakistan and central asia, this will be a problem. It also is an indication to the Pakistan Army that has fostered groups of this nature in the past, that they can continue to patronize people and groups like Taliban and as long as they are able to withstand American attacks long enough, and are able to re-group after a burst, they will get rewarded.

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  2. “for the region as a whole, including Pakistan and central asia, this will be a problem”

    Shahab, you’re absolutely right. I mentioned I believe our forces meant well to try and deal with the Taliban and i’ll be the first to vouch for moderate religious groups to become the most vocal and influential in Pakistan….however, from a U.S. perspective, in light of OBama’s recent troops surge and the Af-Pak quagmire we’re now in: attempting to deal with both the Taliban and Al Qaeda is inflaming, rather than mitigating the situation, for all sides, including Pakistan.

    THe Taliban started shifting into a militant fold…and spilled over into Pakistan since 2001. That’s dangerous. I think this policy is trying to revert what’s happened by giving them back their isolated pockets of power and confining them to their original locales.

    The key is differentiation: we’re right in re-defining our immediate security interests before addressing ideological concerns. Because ultimately what’s needed are large scale, long term reconstructive efforts. Meaning more than just economic, but ideological reconstructive efforts in terms of nation building to deal with the Taliban.

    But the point remains: the difference between Al Qaeda and the Taliban is that the Taliban with such grand efforts, can come back into the fold of coexistence….Al Qaeda, regardless of what strategy we use is never the kind of group you can coexist with…from a Pakistani, or American perspective.

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  3. The problem is that what gets wrapped up and served as taliban are basically warlords in Afghanistan. Any effort, be it grandiose or small has to go through these usual checkpoints aka warlords, in Afghanistan. So, my argument is that you are never going to be able to get any thing (development of any kind) through these channels once they realize that compromises can be reached under the banner of Taliban. Additionally, there are warlords who sided with the US against the Taliban when the war started and you are basically going to string them out for the rest of the country and the region to see clearly what ther “rewards” are for confronting the Taliban menace. Also, If you go by the Afghan culture and history, there was never a centralized government control over the country in the past.

    But these are small concerns. The biggest concern is that Confinement is a tactical ploy. It will help the US look good and will get them an exit strategy but it will mess up the entire region because this will not remain confined for too long. As I said, Taliban in Pakistan and Central Asia are watching and are watching very closely. These taliban confined in Afghanistan will rally again and have the potential to join hands with the taliban across the border (Remember its not just the religion, its also the ethnicity that is common) and they will cause massive headaches for Pakistan as well. There is no easy solution to this. The de-coupling of Taliban and Alqaeda is only going to serve very limited US interest in the short term. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan will suffer for a long time to come as a result of this.

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  4. […] McChrystal’s recommendations to President Obama reflects this understanding when it was decided that the Taliban should be differentiated from Al Qaeda as targets in the War on Terror. Such practicality takes into considerations long term realities […]

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  5. […] McChrystal’s recommendations to President Obama reflects this understanding when it was decided that the Taliban should be differentiated from Al Qaeda as targets in the War on Terror. Such practicality takes into considerations long term realities […]

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  6. […] Taliban aggressions and violence plagued Pakistani civilians throughout the year while the Obama administration grappled with crafting an effective strategy in what is now referred to as the Af-Pak War. Collectively, foreign policymaking heavyweights […]

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  7. […] Taliban aggressions and violence plagued Pakistani civilians throughout the year while the Obama administration grappled with crafting an effective strategy in what is now referred to as the Af-Pak War. Collectively, foreign policymaking heavyweights […]

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