Thoughts on the NYU report on Taliban and al-Qaeda

New York University’s Center for International Cooperation has published a report authored by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the duo that edited a memoir by Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.

The report, previewed by Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, emphasizes a point that some critics of the war had long been making: the Taliban are distancing themselves from al-Qaeda and retain little sympathy, if any, for the terrorist organization.

The report calls for a more serious attempt to reach out to the more reconcilable Taliban. This, too, is a call that has increasingly gained momentum, one that Karzai and the US are actually supporting.

But the report adds an interesting bit of insight: By assassinating, imprisoning or otherwise restricting the activity of high-level Taliban leaders, the international forces are marginalizing Taliban leaders most open to reconciliation, while creating space for a younger, more radical crop of Taliban commanders. These commanders, the report argues, are less interested in reconciliation and more likely to be receptive to overtures from foreign groups like al-Qaeda. Mullah Omar, the report says, is now “more of a symbolic religious figure than an authoritative commander” as a result of the emergence of the younger crop.

This has implications for the current ISAF strategy of assassinating high-level Taliban leaders in hopes of leaving the insurgency leaderless and hence willing to negotiate.

The authors caution against the younger Taliban generation:

With little or no memory of Afghan society prior to the Soviet war in the 1980s, this new generation of commanders is more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations, and therefore less pragmatic. It is not interested in negotiations or compromise with foreigners.

Why are they not interested in negotiations? Because…

Members of the youngest generation, often raised solely in refugee camps and madrasas in Pakistan, have no experience of traditional communities, productive economic activity, or citizenship in any state; they are citizens of  jihad.

Fancy phrase — citizens of Jihad. But it is a simplistic, even demeaning, view of life in refugee camps and other settlements. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans lived, earned a living, learned skills and raised their families in camps and settlements. To equate this mode of living with radicalization is an oversimplification that implies that, somehow, such a life causes ultra-radicalization, even by Taliban standards.

In the camps the refugees retained their family structures, which meant that tutelage of children occurred according to values and ideals of the Afghan society. (Life in the camps is explained in good detail by Zaeef in his memoir.) It was in the madrassas, away from the family’s watch and tutelage, that most of the radicalization occurred. Hence, the name Taliban, or students (of religious education).

The report is written with a view that it will be consumed primarily by an American audience (which is not surprising). The authors get the bulk of their information from personal interviews with unidentified Taliban members.

There are drawbacks to deriving conclusions solely by viewing the problem from the Taliban’s viewpoint and molding the message around American foreign policy. This approach means the viewpoints of many other peace process stakeholders — rights activists, the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, Pakistan — are almost entirely ignored.

In certain areas of the report, the authors use information that is contradicted in other sources. For example, they state that:

…Pakistani security officials assured the inexperienced leader [Mullah Omar] that the United States would react in a limited way [after 9/11]….

Actually, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, recalls otherwise in the autobiography the authors edited. He writes that General Mahmud Ahmad, former ISI director-general, warned him, “We both know that an attack on Afghanistan from the United States of America seems more and more likely” (147).

Zaeef also acknowledges that “Pakistan was sending mixed signals”:

At the same time as General Mahmud was telling me that an attack was imminent, the Pakistani Consulate in Kandahar continued to assure us that America would never launch an attack on Afghanistan. (148)

However, Zaeef had other sources of information to which the Taliban appear to have attached more credibility. These were “a number of high-ranking Muslim officers in the Pakistani army [who] also served as advisors to President Musharraf ,” and “staff from the Pakistani Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs” (148).

Together, these contacts appears to have given them a very clear picture of America’s plan of action before the war:

I learnt of some of the war plans and America’s efforts to form an alliance. This worried Mullah Mohammad Omar. America, together with the Pakistani intelligence agencies, had apparently prepared a plan to launch a cruise missile attack on the residences of Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden in order to eliminate them in the first phase of their campaign. This would, I head heard, eventually become part of a vast military operation including heavy air strikes by the US Navy and Air Force. (149)

It is difficult to ascertain if Zaeef did in fact know such striking details of the American invasion beforehand, but it is clear that the Taliban did not take Pakistani assurances at face value.

The authors also claim in the report that…

In the run-up to the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, Pakistan also repeatedly assured the Taliban of its support, contributing to Mullah Mohammad Omar’s determination [not to hand over bin Laden].

Zaeef actually contradicts the notion that the Taliban bought these assurances. At an emotionally charged meeting, he launches a tirade at General Mahmud who, along with General Jailani, bursts into tears as Brigadier Farooq stands nearby:

If America is going to attack on Afghanistan, then you know better than me from which airports and territories it will attack us. We will see later how many Afghans will be martyred in this war. But, General, you will be responsible for the bloodshed and the killing when you cooperate with America…. You will be Afghanistan’s enemy number one. (148)

These apparent contradictions weaken one of the authors’ main arguments, i.e., that the Taliban decision not to hand over OBL to the US was less out of affinity for the group and more a miscalculation.

One response to “Thoughts on the NYU report on Taliban and al-Qaeda

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