The Disaggregation of the Taliban

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 4 months ago

David Ignatius has a very positive analysis in his latest commentary at the Washington Post.

The most interesting discovery during a visit to this city where Osama bin Laden planted his flag in 1996 is that al-Qaeda seems to have all but disappeared. The group is on the run, too, in Iraq, and that raises some interesting questions about how to pursue this terrorist enemy.

“Al-Qaeda is not a topic of conversation here,” says Col. Mark Johnstone, the deputy commander of Task Force Bayonet, which oversees four provinces surrounding Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Pete Benchoff agrees: “We’re not seeing a lot of al-Qaeda fighters. They’ve shifted here to facilitation and support.”

You hear the same story farther north from the officers who oversee the provinces along the Pakistan border. A survey conducted last November and December in Nuristan, once an al-Qaeda stronghold, found that the group barely registered as a security concern among the population.

The enemy in these eastern provinces is a loose amalgam of insurgent groups, mostly linked to traditional warlords. It’s not the Taliban, much less al-Qaeda. “I don’t use the word ‘Taliban,’ ” says Alison Blosser, a State Department political adviser to the military commanders here in the sector known as Regional Command East. “In RC East we have a number of disparate groups. Command and control are not linked up. The young men will fight for whoever is paying the highest rate.”

But this analysis is far too positve.  Hamid Karzai is so concerned about the resurgence of the Taliban and future departure of U.S. troops (and consequent Taliban violence) that he has warned the U.S. against arresting Taliban.  It’s time to talk and negotiate, Karzai believes.

But there is more to this problem than meets the eye.  We have previously discussed how the Afghan Taliban have jettisoned a strict command and control structure in favor of distributed operations.  We have also examined how the Pakistani Taliban have fractured into multiple distinct but connected groups in The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis.

Turning to a more in depth analysis, Ashley J. Tellis, writing for The Washington Quarterly, gives us an important analysis in Pakistan’s Record on Terrorism: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance.  Part of his analysis is given below pertaining to the current makeup of the Pakistani Taliban.

The operational context surrounding the counterterrorism effort in the tribal areas and in Afghanistan has changed considerably to the disadvantage of the Western coalition since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.  To begin with, the Taliban movement, which was never a tight and cohesive political entity in any case, has become any even looser network of affiliated individuals and groups since it was forced from power in Kabul.  Today, the Taliban “alliance” can be characterized as a disparate congeries of several elements united only by a common religious ideology, a desire to regain power in Afghanistan or in their local areas of operation, and a deep antagonism toward the United States and its regional allies.

Several distinct elements can be identified in the current Taliban coalition: the leadership council centered around Mullah Omar, other war councils, Taliban cadres, tribal networks of former mujahideen commanders, and “Pakistani Taliban” commanders.  Moreover, many drug lords in eastern and southern Afghanistan are either taxed or willingly contribute revenues that are indispensable for the Taliban war against Kabul.  Sundry former anti-Soviet commanders control small groups of fighters and are engaged primarily in criminal activities while offering their services as guns for hire.  Disaffected Afghan Pashtun tribes, most conspicuously the rural Ghilzai, feel disenfranchised in the current governing arrangements and subsequently continue to support the Taliban with manpower and sanctuary within Afghanistan.  Finally, al Qaeda, although distinct from all of the foregoing groups in that its focus of operations remains the global jihad, nonetheless collaborates with the Taliban to assist the later in recovering control of Kabul while continuing to preserve a sanctuary in the FATA in the interim.

The implication of such a diverse target set is that destroying the “Taliban” today has become much more difficult because its previously weak hierarchical structure has become even more diffuse with truly diverse entities coordinating as necessary, but each also carrying out their local agendas.  The complexity of Islamabad’s relations with many of the constituent elements in the Taliban coalition does not help.  Although Islamabad may readily cooperate in targeting some of the Pakistani Taliban commanders, the drug lords, the petty anti-Soviet commanders, and al Qaeda elements, the ties nurtured by its military and intelligence services with the Taliban leadership and the tribal networks of key former mujahideen commanders make these targets relatively inviolate, at least in the near term.  Therefore, winning the war on terrorism in Afghanistan will require combating all of these targets as well as dealing with the sanctuary enjoyed by various militant groups in Pakistan.

If Tellis is correct, this disaggregation of the Taliban will make it more difficult to conduct operations against them.


You are currently reading "The Disaggregation of the Taliban", entry #1068 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,al Qaeda,Pakistan,Taliban and was published May 5th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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