The Taliban need help to break their al-Qaida ties
The west should offer the pragmatic wing of the Taliban an alternative to al-Qaida's armed struggle
So, we have evidence that the Afghan Taliban movement is a veritable extension of al-Qaida and thus must be even more resolute in the fight against them. That would be the obvious initial reaction to the revelation that the leaders of the two movements kept closely in touch right up to the time of Osama bin Laden's death. But anyone drawing this conclusion is glossing over our real strategic failure in Afghanistan – the failure to squeeze the Taliban out of their Faustian alliance with al-Qaida.
Anyone who follows the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan closely knows that, despite the talk of diminished al-Qaida numbers on the ground, its activists and affiliates are heavily involved in the Taliban military campaign. In particular, it contributes military expertise to the spectacular attacks organised out of Waziristan, it sends groups of fighters from there to the front lines and it inspires. The graph of foreign fighters killed or captured in Afghanistan's provinces shows that the al-Qaida-linked international militant coalition is still a factor in the war. The revelations of the correspondence between Bin Laden and Mullah Omar simply confirms that the militant leaders knew what their militaries were up to.
The real question is not whether there are linkages between the Taliban and al-Qaida, it is what to do about these linkages.
In the decade after 9/11 I have had many occasions to sit with thoughtful members of the Taliban movement who have reflected on where they went wrong. One of their main conclusions is that ties their leadership developed with al-Qaida between 1996 and 2001 prevented them from having a normal relationship with the international community. They argue that this in turn undermined anything they might have achieved in restoring security in civil war-ridden Afghanistan. By this line of Taliban thinking, the new alliance with al-Qaida, to fight the insurgency, is also an anomaly. They need a way out of both the military campaign and the al-Qaida alliance. There are some parallels between pragmatic Taliban thinking and the political reorientation that the republican movement went through in the years of the Irish peace process. The pragmatic Taliban have a vision of their movement helping to reform Afghan society and deliver justice and have critiqued the role of the armed struggle in pursuing this vision, just as Irish republicans rethought the relationship between armed struggle and the achievement of a united Ireland.
Al-Qaida and its enthusiasts within the Taliban offer a very different vision. They believe that the US is bound to weaken in its commitment to the war in Afghanistan. Those who have chosen the road of jihad should therefore sustain their fight, expel the invaders, topple the puppet regime and restore the Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, as an inspiration to all those Islamists who have struggled against the US in the Muslim world. This clique sees the potential defeat of the US in Afghanistan as the ideal springboard for taking the jihad to Pakistan.
Which of these tendencies wins out within the Taliban movement has profound implications for the stability of south Asia and international security. The on-again, off-again talks process in Qatar offers an intriguing opportunity to affect the outcome of this internal struggle within the Taliban between their version of hawks and doves. Any Taliban agreement with the US would have to exclude al-Qaida. Unsurprisingly, al-Qaida-linked people in Waziristan have downplayed the talks and ridiculed the possibility of an agreement. But the Taliban leadership has so far avoided really showing its hand in Qatar, over how far it is prepared to engage in compromise with fellow Afghans. It has preserved ambiguity about the outcome.
The point is that the west's strategy for political engagement with the Taliban is not about denying the movement's links with al-Qaida, it is about offering a viable alternative that will help break those links and isolate al-Qaida. The really strange thing is why it has taken us so long to get to this point and why US backing for a fundamentally important process sometimes seems lukewarm. Just as the Taliban have found it hard to mend their ways, we too have been reluctant to act upon the lessons we have learned in this long struggle. We should have realised much earlier that the way we structured the military campaign pushed al-Qaida and the Taliban closer together.