Exclusive Analysis

The ‘Taliban’ and ‘al-Qaeda’: Does Afghanistan Pose a Threat to the West?


Despite NATO efforts to engage insurgents, a key structural obstacle to effective talks is the fragmented nature of the insurgent groups in Afghanistan, which is often obscured by an assumption that all anti-NATO/Afghan government groups are ‘Taliban’ in name, background and allegiance. This background insight piece looks at the differences between the armed groups active in Afghanistan in terms of both strategy and tactics and what this means for violent risks in Afghanistan. It also considers the danger that Afghanistan once again becomes a secure base from which major terrorist attacks on the West are planned.


In May 2008, Exclusive Analysis published ‘Afghanistan – the Year Ahead’, a report looking at the direction of the insurgency in Afghanistan and the likely success of the NATO response. At the time, the view ran counter to conventional wisdom and assessed that the insurgency was gaining the upper hand and that NATO’s strategy was failing to secure anything but time-limited and geographically localised successes. In 2009, insurgent advances are likely to intensify, despite efforts to engage Taliban leaders in negotiations. We expect talks to be ineffective, primarily because of the fractured nature of the ‘Taliban’ and their limited authority over the various fighting groups in Afghanistan. A similar challenge has prevented lasting ceasefires in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where competing local agendas have disrupted agreements with the central government. In 2009, we expect talks with the Afghan Taliban to lead to temporary lulls in fighting in certain specific districts in key conflict provinces where talks are underway, such as Musa Qala in Helmand where British troops are talking to tribal leaders. However we expect this to fall far short of a significant and sustainable reduction in fighting and terrorist attacks. A recent decision by NATO to engage in counter-drug operations will likely alienate many potential allies amongst Afghans and increase violent risks accordingly.



What risks do the Taliban and foreign fighters in Afghanistan pose to the West?


We see almost no evidence of Taliban militants planning to attack targets in the West or of core al-Qaeda figures operating extensively out of Afghanistan.


There have been no arrests of Afghans in the process of undertaking global jihad outside Afghanistan. The case that Afghanistan’s stability is central to Western security interests rests on a pre 9/11 assessment of the Taliban, which has now changed. Specifically, a number of the Afghans (most notably Abdul Rasul Sayyaf) who hosted bin Laden pre-9/11 have now changed sides and are supporting President Karzai. We also think it is very unlikely that any of the old al-Qaeda leadership is now in Afghanistan and even if they were, we assess that their ability to direct activity in the West has been significantly diminished. We do not, therefore, think that there is substantial evidence to support claims that defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan would significantly increase security in Western Europe and the US. Indeed, the 7/7 attacks in London were unrelated to support from, or military operations in, Afghanistan.

Within the last few months there has been an influx of non-Pakistani and non- Afghan fighters to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence that these fighters are planning attacks on the West.


These are idealistic, active, mostly young males who want to join what they perceive to be the frontline of global jihad. Our sources on the ground have heard Turkish on Taliban radio communications, likely from German Kurds, but there have also been Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks. There is no evidence that these fighters are planning attacks on the West and indeed the environment in Afghanistan (which makes complex planning of sophisticated international plots difficult) and the type of people who migrate there to fight (who are simple fighters interested in fighting on the frontline) suggest this remains unlikely. The limited core al-Qaeda involvement that still occurs is almost certainly confined to Pakistan’s Waziristan region, which, as argued in Exclusive Analysis’ February 2008 report ‘Does Waziristan Pose a Terrorism Threat to the West?’, is a constrained operating environment for them, as it is for other outsiders.


Many foreign fighters are from Pakistan and have mixed combat capability depending on where they are recruited, though they are generally much more radicalised than local Afghan fighters.


There is evidence of a significant number of fighters entering Afghanistan from Pakistan to fight alongside various local insurgents. Fighters from Pakistan, who account for around 40% of those fighting against NATO forces in Helmand, tend to fall into two categories: battle-hardened fighters from Pakistan’s Waziristan region and foot soldiers recruited from madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan. The former tend to be more experienced and well-trained fighters, whereas the latter are often deployed in suicide missions. Both groups are nonetheless much more religiously radical than the local Afghan fighters, to the point where the latter are intimidated by them. Religious radicalisation was not a feature of the anti-Soviet jihad and until the 1990s was not in the Afghan tradition. Indeed, this returns to the point previously made about the increasing use of combat tactics new to Afghanistan, such as suicide bombings, since 2001. There is a big difference between foreign fighters from the Arab world and those from Pakistan, although they have been conflated in media commentary. Because fighters from Pakistan tend to be referred to more generally as ‘foreign’ in the press, the impression is given that the foreign elements participating in the insurgency in Afghanistan is much greater than it really is. However, as above, there is new evidence of non-Pakistani foreign fighters alongside signs of growing activities from Pakistani terrorist groups in Afghanistan, particularly Kashmiri groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Ansar ul-Islam and militants aligned to the Swat insurgency of Sufi Mohammad.



The ‘Taliban’ and the neo-Taliban


Although NATO has killed many Taliban fighters, forcing them to avoid set-piece confrontations, it is the Taliban and not NATO influence that is spreading.


This is due to a combination of strategic and tactical factors, including declining commitment on the part of some coalition partners and the Taliban being regarded by some local tribal groups as the better alternative to Western-style government insofar as those groups do not like having a secular democracy imposed on them and because the Taliban is perceived as providing better security. The Taliban, itself a broad term, covers a range of Pashtun opposition forces/tribal groupings and draws on a conservative Islamist tradition with a long history in Afghan politics. The Taliban is likely to spread operations to previously benign areas in western and northern Afghanistan and is in the process of incorporating non-Pashtun Afghans, e.g. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and more recently non-Afghans, into the insurgency. There are limited indicators of strategic success for NATO in Afghanistan, which will increase the risk of greater public questioning of the operations over the coming year, especially if there is a high-profile attack on NATO troops or Western civilians or military setbacks covered extensively in the media.

Taliban field commanders in Afghanistan operate independently from each other and from the Quetta central shura, which coordinates overall Taliban policy and propaganda but exercises limited authority over actual combat operations against NATO forces.


The Taliban is a mainly Pashtun movement that governed most of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when it was removed from power by US forces and the Northern Alliance. The central shura (council) of the Taliban, operating from Quetta in Pakistan, coordinates overall policy and propaganda under the leadership of Mullah Omar, who had fled from his main base in Kandahar to Pakistan following the fall of the Taliban. Nonetheless, operational command is principally held by a younger generation of field commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, including the likes of Mullah Dadullah, who had led the fight against British forces in Helmand before he was killed in May 2007. These Taliban field commanders tend to operate independently of each other. In fact, there is a certain degree of hostility among them as they compete for a more prominent leadership role inside Afghanistan. At the same time, while there remains some reverence for Mullah Omar as the Commander of the Faithful, a title bestowed to him by his supporters in 1996 before he captured Kabul, Taliban field commanders are increasingly operating according to their own strategy and tactics outside the rules of engagement defined by the central shura in Quetta. Indeed, the tactics used by Taliban field commanders against NATO forces exhibit a marked departure from previous Taliban combat methods, most visibly demonstrated by the growing adoption of suicide attacks instead of engaging in direct confrontation with NATO forces in battle. Suicide bombings were very rarely seen in Afghanistan pre-2001 and do not feature in the traditional Pashtun style of combat, which is direct and requires fighters to face their enemies in battle. These factors help to substantiate the view that foreign actors (mainly from Pakistan) are exporting new tactics to fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan.


While they all seek to remove NATO forces from Afghanistan, neo-Taliban militant groups in Pakistan have a fragmented and localised agenda and often come into conflict with Pashtunwali militants, who are opposed to attempts by neo-Taliban militants to make peace with the Pakistani government.


Operating separately from the Quetta central shura and Taliban field commands in Afghanistan are the neo-Taliban militants (sometimes referred to as the Pakistan-Taliban), whose operations extend across Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). The neo-Taliban militants have a common objective of removing NATO forces from Afghanistan and indeed many have experienced fighting alongside the current Taliban field commanders. However, neo-Taliban militants are operating in an environment characterised by a complex set of tribal codes, conflicts and interests that often constrain their ability to concentrate on fighting NATO, as opposed to one another. Attempts by certain neo-Taliban groups to negotiate peace deals with the Pakistani government, for instance, are strongly opposed by tribal militant groups practising Pashtunwali, a customary code of conduct and honour that is exclusively local in nature, predates Islam and is presently primarily concerned with the repudiation of any external military presence in the Pashtun homeland (Pashtunkwah). This means that Pashtunwali militants are also highly resistant to Pakistan’s military deployment in the tribal areas. In addition, neo-Taliban militants follow the orders of local mullahs and tend to eclipse the authority of Maliks and Khans (the traditional tribal leaders in the Pashtunwali code), thereby bringing them into direct conflict with the Pashtunwali militants. At the same time, the neo-Taliban militancy is by no means cohesive in ideology and different groups operate with individual and localised agendas. The Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, for instance, is a neo-Taliban group demanding the imposition of Sharia law in the tribal areas, though its operations are principally confined to the Swat Valley in the NWFP.


While many Pashtun tribes converge to fight against NATO and Afghan forces, they also regularly fight each other. Tribal politics are most polarised in the east rather than in the south.


There are numerous Pashtun tribes with no affiliation to the Taliban, but that are nonetheless fighting the Afghan government and US or NATO troops due to a mix of tribal grievances (such as not being incorporated into the post-2001 power arrangement, or having their poppy fields eradicated) and anger against foreign military operations in their homeland. In some cases, Taliban field commanders are able to persuade local tribal leaders to fight against NATO forces by offering them cash and arms. The Pashtun tribal structure is also highly divisive; while Pashtun tribes converge to fight against Afghan and foreign forces, equally, they also fight against each other. In the east, tribal structures are more rigid and locals are more likely to act in accordance with them. This makes it a more fertile recruitment ground both for the Taliban and the government as an agreement with a local leader will capture his whole constituency. There is also greater polarity between tribal groups in the east, which means that an alliance with the Taliban by one of the groups would be likely to encourage an alliance with the government by their tribal enemies. Tribal politics in the east are further complicated by the presence of small groups of Pakistani militants practising Salafism, a school of Sunni Islam. In contrast, in the south, tribal structures are less disciplined (albeit still strong) and this has led to more frequent shifts in local conflicts and alliances. In Helmand, a combination of fear of the Taliban and a lack of space for the local population to remain neutral has often led to the local Pashtuns being equated with the Taliban by analysts. However, in our assessment, there is greater opportunity for establishing anti-Taliban alliances with local communities in Helmand and the south more broadly, than in the east.


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©Jules Stewart 2008