One of These Things Is Not Like The Other
Two Kandahar-based field researchers, Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, have produced a paper on the history of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda and where that relationship stands today. The paper, which was produced for the Center for International Cooperation, argues that these two pariah organizations have long standing historic tensions. The two authors conclude that a power-sharing deal with the Taliban could include a commitment on the Taliban’s part not to invite al Qaeda back to Afghanistan.
Similar to Anand Gopal’s research on the origins of the insurgency, Kuhn and Van Linschoten argue that fateful decisions were made soon after the Taliban were overthrown, which would come back to haunt the U.S. and Afghan governments, particularly the decision not to engage the Taliban early in the war. As an “interlocutor” put it:
“If [the Taliban] had been given some assurance that they would not be arrested upon returning to Afghanistan, he said, they would have come, but neither the Afghan government nor their international sponsors saw any reason to engage with the Taliban at that time – they considered them a spent force.”
Again we see two potential hurdles of reconciliation: a lack of trust and an asymmetry of power. Early in the war the Taliban did not feel confident that the Afghan government was willing to negotiate in good faith, and given the strength of the U.S./Karzai position, the Taliban were probably right to be wary. This story belies the notion that the insurgency must be marginalized before they will negotiate. We’ve seen the Taliban “marginalized” and guess what? There has been no political settlement.
Despite the difficulties of achieving a settlement there is compelling evidence to suggest that the Taliban would be amenable to taking a harder line against al Qaeda. Again citing a Talib leader, Kuehn and Van Linschoten write:
One such vision – recently suggested by a senior Taliban political strategist – is that Taliban forces could conduct counterterrorism operations, including joint operation together with U.S. Special Forces, against al-Qaeda and possibly its affiliates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The two authors are quick to point out that this type of strategic cooperation is unfeasible as long as the U.S. and Taliban are engaged in conflict. This fact, however, merely underscores the damage that a political settlement could potentially bring to al Qaeda. If Bin Laden loses allies among insurgent groups operating in the FATA region, his position becomes dramatically less secure. Policymakers take note: Ending the conflict in Afghanistan, with a power sharing agreement, would likely be disastrous for al Qaeda.