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Al Qaeda and the Taliban are very familiar with the terrain, have a longstanding relationship with many of these tribes, there is mistrust within the tribes toward the US and Pakistani governments, there is no history of centralized government within Afghanistan and that is one of the first things we try to set up—a strong sense of government. There are a lot of layers at work that don’t lend themselves to stabilization. Historically, no one has been able to stabilize or centralize control of Afghanistan.
Isn’t that in part, due to our inconsistency? They say we have been at war in Afghanistan for eight years. US and British forces began offensive air strikes there in 2001, made inroads and then the focus shifted to Iraq, leaving Afghanistan minimally resourced in terms of reconstruction aid and military presence. Compared to Iraq, this could not be seriously called a war. Now with Iraq surged and calm, and the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all eyes are turned toward them.
Senior military commanders were saying mid-2000s that Afghanistan was the forgotten war, even while we were at war in Afghanistan. The fact is it had been undermanned, under-funded, under-resourced, under-prioritized, and under-addressed by the Bush administration. This is not a political statement, it is a reality. As Iraq starts to improve, starts to stabilize, we turn our attention back and realize that we have been absentee landlords and that the force on the ground were doing the best they could, but just didn’t have the power that they needed from the onset. So now we’ve got mistrust from the Afghan people, not just because we pulled up our tent poles in ’89, but also because we go in and destabilize the place and address the situation half-heartedly. Now they are living in if not as bad, even worse living conditions and they are forced to make a choice: “Am I with the Taliban or am I with the US?”
What are the connections between al Qaeda and the Taliban?
That is one of the most complicated and most asked question I get. The Taliban has proliferated, and looks and smells different wherever you find it between Pakistan and Afghanistan. You’ve got Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban, neither of which isn’t a coherent organization. Then you’ve got al Qaeda. On top of that you’ve got a push from Kashmiri groups moving into the game, and now Punjabi groups. I can’t disaggregate this very cleanly, but in some ways the Taliban and al Qaeda are indistinguishable, and in other way there remains some historic tension. Then there are nationalist issues. You’ve got your old al Qaeda guard, which are mostly Egyptians and Saudis. Then you’ve got your young upstarts, which are mostly Libyans—guys like Abu Yahya al-Libi, Abu Laith al-Libi before he was killed—who have a long history of working with the Taliban. They seem to get along swimmingly, whereas there is tension with the old guard Egyptians. It is a complicated relationship and often it comes down to the individual leaders themselves that determines the nature of the relationship and level of cooperation.
It sounds amorphous.
It has always been personality dependent. Their new leadership is a lot smarter, more lethal, and extreme than any previous leadership incarnation. Getting rid of Bin Laden and Zawahiri will see a rise in lethality and creativity from al Qaeda, not less, once these young Libyans get in charge. They are highly strategic, thoughtful, and nefarious in terms of their ideology, much more extreme than Zawahiri or the current leadership. The movement is getting smacked in Iraq right now, they are embellishing their ties with Al-Shabab in Somalia, their North African Maghreb franchise is sputtering about, but the guys in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are on the upswing right now. The high command has been pretty quiet. But the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani Kashmiri groups that are closely coordinating with al Qaeda are being very very aggressive. We don’t know how much command and control al Qaeda has over them, but we do know there is coordination. The attack on the Pakistani Pentagon, followed by the simultaneous bombings, then the more recent massive suicide strike by the group called Jundallah, which is a Baluchi-based terrorist group who attacked senior Iranian Shiite generals who were trying to have a conference on Sunni/Shiite relations. These Baluchi guys are not al Qaeda, but they fight like al Qaeda. They’re hardcore Sunnis who don’t buy into the global jihad, only buying into the local jihad. Meanwhile, al Qaeda supporters are heralding these guys as one of their own. So we are seeing a lot more chickens coming home to roost and they are doing it a lot more aggressively and sophisticatedly, making it a crazy and complex world right now.