Two days with Felix Kuehn

Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

Felix Kuehn, a Kandahar-based researcher, came to Washington DC last week to discuss the state of the insurgency and the ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban.  You may recall that Kuehn co-authored with his colleague Alex Strick van Linschoten, a paper examining the history of the al Qaeda-Taliban connection in February.  (Here is ASG’s take).  It’s obviously very difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs the wealth of insights that Kuehn provides but here are some of the key points:

The State of War

On the security situation and the death of bin Laden
Kuehn left Kandahar one day before the 40 hour siege last weekend, and expressed regret that he missed the beginning of what he expects will be a brutal summer season.  He dismissed DoD reports suggesting that the war is turning around.  In Kandahar, according to Kuehn, war wounded are up 60 % to 70 % in Jan and Feb from a year ago.

He also believes that the death of bin Laden will have no effect on the insurgency and only a minimal impact on al Qaeda’s operational capabilities.  Bottom line, says Kuehn quoting an actual Taliban leader, is that the insurgents never fought for al Qaeda and so will be unaffected by his demise.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban

On the generational gap between Al Qaeda and the Taliban
The first obvious difference between the two organizations, says Kuehn, is generational.  Al Qaeda leaders were graduating from madrasahs before the Taliban could even talk.  Al Qaeda’s roots are in the Muslim brotherhood.  Several foreign Islamic groups came to Afghanistan in the 1980s (after getting kicked out of Egypt and other Arab countries) and set up training camps.  Osama bin Laden was successful in uniting these groups under al Qaeda’s banner.

In contrast to al Qaeda’s middle and upper-class Islamist roots, the Taliban leadership grew up in poor rural Afghanistan.  Most of the Taliban were members of the poorer, more warlike Ghilzai Pashto tribes.  Their parents typically did not have money for private education and so sent their children to madrasahs, which were free of tuition.

On the religious divide between al Qaeda and the Taliban
Al Qaeda and the Taliban also have fundamentally different religious ideologies.  Al Qaeda follow the strict Salafi movement from the Hanbali school, a very strict conservative interpretation of Islam.  The Taliban are mainly of the Deobandi Hanafi School which came out of India.  Kuehn points out that the Taliban often practice a form of Islamic Sufi mysticism, which al Qaeda fundamentally rejects.

On political differences between al Qaeda and the Taliban
The Taliban are not a global jihadist movement and have fundamentally different political aims, however both view the United States at present as an enemy.   The Taliban movement united against the lawlessness that pervaded Kandahar in the 1990s.  Fifty or sixty religious students took an oath at the White Mosque in Sangesar—an enormous risk according to Kuehn, but the movement soon gained popularity by bringing security and law and order to the country and was soon able to take over.  Even in this period al Qaeda was never close to the Taliban.  Mullah Omar believed strongly in the Umma—Islamic unity—for this reason he did not reject bin Laden, but neither did he choose bin Laden to lead foreign forces in 2001, a major blow to al Qaeda.

U.S. Policy Going Forward

On Kill Capture
Kuehn’s discussion coincided nicely with the release of a report from Frontline documenting the limitations of the U.S. Kill-Capture campaign.  The news report chronicled several instances where the wrong person was targeted or even killed and the increasing radicalization of midlevel commanders.  One Taliban leader talked about following the U.S. troops back to the United States.  Kuehn is very worried about this increased radicalization among younger insurgents, who do not have the same perspectives as the older Talibs and act increasingly independent from the Talib leadership.  Last summer during the spike in violence, Kuehn describes reaching out to senior Talibs to ask whether he or van Linschoten were in any danger.  The Talib leader said the two Germans were not on any Taliban “hit list”, but he could not vouch for the new young insurgent leaders in Argandab.

On Rapid Withdrawal
Kuehn is most worried about the prospects of civil war in Afghanistan.  For this reason he did not advocate a rapid withdrawal of troops.  He did acknowledge that the surge forces in places like Marjah were costly and counterproductive.  The locals there just want to be left alone.  He seemed to advocate a managed withdrawal of international forces.

On Reconciliation
Kuehn supported reconciliation as outlined by Pickering and Brahimi, but he cautioned against some potential risks and obstacles:

1. The lack of trust between Afghans and Americans has grown significantly.  A majority of Afghans in Kandahar believe that the U.S. was behind the Sarposa prison break.  Apparently, Afghans believe we want the violence to continue as an excuse to occupy the country.  This lack of trust that we will someday leave is the opposite of what one hears here in Washington, where “experts” claim the Afghans don’t trust us because we might leave.

2.  The Northern Alliance opposes reconciliation and is, according to Kuehn, openly preparing for civil war.  There is some indication that members such as Sarwari, who was intel chief under Ahmad Shah Massoud are amenable to the notion of Talib governors in the South.   On the insurgent’s side, Kuehn believes they will not give up ties to al Qaeda for free, but their fear of Civil War may force them to compromise on this point.  If the U.S. and Afghan government can appeal to the insurgents’ pragmatism, an agreement might be possible.

On Governance and Corruption
Kuehn advocates a devolution of power from the Central Government to local regions.  Everything in Afghanistan happens on the local level, says Kuehn, and the U.S. correspondingly spends far too much time worrying about things like the Constitution, which have no bearing on anything that actually happens in Kandahar and elsewhere.

He noted that the Taliban are far more tech literate than the Afghan government.  The Taliban have both a website and twitter feed in multiple languages, including English.  The reason for the Taliban’s tech advantage, according to Kuehn, is that most of the best qualified IT people are hired by NGOs, leaving the Government of Afghanistan with the dregs of the talent pool.  The proliferation of government contractors, NGOs and military dollars has also led to an increasingly unequal society in Kandahar which exacerbates the conflict.  Kuehn points out that there are over a thousand millionaires living in the impoverished province.

Kuehn and van Linschoten have a book coming out this summer which covers their research into al Qaeda and the Taliban.  If his presentation is anything to go by, it will be very good.

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One Response to Two days with Felix Kuehn

  1. Kelvin Garvanne says:

    The Ghilzai Pashtun deserve more explanation because their relationship with Durrani Pashtun and outsiders in general is not favorable. They were relentless against the British and seem to be generationally consistent.

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