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Monday, August 23, 2010

Are the Taliban and Al-Qaeda poles apart?

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

THE most notorious Islamic militants are ordinarily grouped under two heads: Taliban and Al-Qaeda network. However, there is another group emerging - Salafism- that advocates restoring a Muslim empire across the Middle East and Spain. Salafis have sought inroads in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Many people are confused about the objectives of Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Some think the objectives are similar and some believe they are not. Deeper analysis shows that Talibans in Afghanistan and Pakistan have different objectives than those of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda promotes holy war to translate its conservative religious ideologies globally; the objectives of Talibans are confined to changing the regimes in AfghanistanPakistan, and in that sense they are local.

Two embattled governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan confront the Talibans without success. The US came to Afghanistan in 2001 to remove the Taliban government which supported the Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden living in Afghanistan. The US fears that if Afghan Talibans regain control over Afghanistan, it may invite Al-Qaeda back in the country.

Understanding the differences between the two Talibans is also necessary. When Pakistan army launched an offensive against Talibans in Pakistan, many in the US administration thought incorrectly that the assault was against the Afghan Talibans, against whom the NATO forces, including the US military, are fighting.

Although both groups threaten American interests, the Afghan Taliban is the primary enemy of the US. On 25th December, the Taliban released a video showing an American soldier who was captured five months ago in Afghanistan. Private Bowe Bergdahl, an infantryman, was taken by the Taliban in Paktika Province on June 30th. The Taliban demands for a number of prisoners to be exchanged for Bergdahl.

The recent attacks of the Pakistani Talibans on military and police establishments have strained relations with Afghan Talibans because their hiding place in the Tribal areas in Pakistan is under attack from Pakistan army. They do not approve the way Pakistani Talibans are fighting with the Pakistan government and causing a lot of problems for Afghan Talibans.

The Afghan and Pakistani Talibans are present in the tribal areas on both sides of the Durand Line and the tribal areas have always been autonomous. Anxious to safeguard this autonomy, the tribes resist control by the central government.

The Afghan Taliban is by far the older of the two Talibans, led by Mullah Omar since it was formed in 1994 (believed to be formed under the guidance of Pakistan intelligence agency). It may be described as a genuine national movement incorporating not only a broad network of fighters but also a shadow government-in-waiting. It seeks to regain power it held over most of Afghanistan before being removed by the US invasion after 9/11.

The Pakistani Taliban is a looser coalition united mainly by enmity toward the government in Islamabad. It emerged formally in 2007 as a separate force led by Baitullah Mehsud under the name of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Students' Movement of Pakistan). After the death of Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud took over as head of Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.

Another confusion that has arisen over the Afghan and Pakistan Talibans is that Afghan Talibans have been directing their forces from Pakistan and their leaders are believed to be residing in the border areas of Pakistan. Mollah Omar and his senior colleagues are understood to be in or around the city of Quetta in Baluchistan.

The US-backed Karzai government in Kabul has a tenuous hold on power. The insurgency has spread in many parts of the country, including Kabul itself. The military situation for the US and NATO is worse today than it has been in 2001. At the same time, neighbouring Pakistan has been destabilized. President Asif Ali Zardari, like his predecessor Pervez Musharraf, has to face a public which has become fervently anti-American. To the majority of people in Pakistan, India poses a threat greater than that of the Talibans. Furthermore, the fact that the US has so far failed to persuade India to restart talks with Pakistan and it has been doing little to curb what Pakistan perceives as the undue influence of India in Afghanistan has been unsettling for Pakistan.

Pakistan is expected to hang on to the “Kashmiri freedom fighters” that it has reportedly used as proxies in the Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan possesses 75 to 100 nuclear weapons. The deepest concern for the west is: what would happen with the nuclear weapons in the case of total regime collapse? Will they fall under the hand and control of the Talibans?

Lately Pakistan is fighting back the Talibans in South Waziristan. It is reported that the army has deployed some 28,000 troops to take on an estimated 10,000 militants including up to 1,500 foreign fighters.

As for Afghanistan, many observers suggest there is an urgent need to the establishment of a mechanism consisting of the six countries with contiguous borders with Afghanistan plus the US, Russia and Britain. Such a mechanism will facilitate precision targeting of terrorist groups and minimizing collateral damage. This has to be accompanied by a concerted effort to win hearts and minds through mega-doses of economic assistance.

The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva. and

Source: Bangladesh newspaper - The Daily Star, 02 January 2010