WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen argued in Senate Testimony Wednesday that the 30,000-troop increase is necessary to prevent the Taliban from giving new safe havens to al Qaeda terrorists.
But that argument is flatly contradicted by the evidence of fundamental conflicts between the interests of the Taliban and those of al Qaeda that has emerged in recent years, according to counterterrorism and intelligence analysts specializing in Afghanistan.
Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, "Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become once again sanctuary for al Qaeda, as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan."
Mullen made the same assertion in even more pointed terms. "[T]o argue that should they have...power the Taliban would not at least tolerate the presence of al Qaeda on Afghan soil is to ignore both the recent past and the evidence we see every day of collusion between these factions on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," he said. "Put simply, the Taliban and al Qaeda have become symbiotic," said Gates, "each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other."
It is well known among government officials working on Afghanistan and al Qaeda, however, that serious tensions between the two organizations emerged after the attack on the "Red Mosque" in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in July 2007. Western intelligence quickly discovered the attack was an al Qaeda operation, and that it marked the beginning of an al Qaeda campaign calling for the overthrow of the Pakistani government and military.
That created a serious conflict between al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to specialists who followed the issue closely. The Taliban leadership, which is based in Quetta, Pakistan, had been depending on assistance from the Pakistani military to increase its military capabilities and did not look kindly on that al Qaeda policy.
Despite widespread confusion over the two, the Tahreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani jihadist group that has been an umbrella organization for the military campaign against the Pakistani military, is not related to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Pakistani group, which has now changed its name, is a close ally of al Qaeda, but does not see eye to eye with the Afghan Taliban.
Ignoring these turning points in the Taliban's relationships with both al Qaeda and other Pakistani jihadi groups, Gates suggested that the three groups are closer than ever before. "What we have seen in the last year develop is an unholy alliance, if you will, of al Qaeda, the Taliban in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan," he said.
Two former counterterrorism intelligence specialists who followed the Taliban closely until earlier this year told IPS this week that the facts do not support the portrayal by Gates and Mullen of the Taliban and al Qaeda as ideologically united.
"We make a serious mistake in equating the two organizations," said Arturo Munoz, who was a supervisory operations officer in the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center from 2001 to 2009 and is now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
Munoz called the Taliban "a homespun Pashtun, locally-based revolutionary movement with a set of goals that are not necessarily those of al Qaeda".
"It is well known that deals have been made between the Taliban and Pakistani commanders," said Munoz. "Obviously the Quetta Shura [the top Taliban leadership organ] is located there because of a deal with the Pakistani government."
But al Qaeda's view has been different. "The more fanatical al Qaeda types say 'let's tear apart Pakistani society'," he observed.
Veteran specialist on counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan Rick "Ozzie" Nelson agreed that the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban that has evolved in recent years is very different from the one they had up to 2001.
"The Taliban is a nationalist organization, which wants to govern Afghanistan under Sharia law, not attack the United States," said Nelson, who was on the inaugural staff of the National Counter-Terrorism Center's Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2005 to 2007.
Nelson directed a Joint Task Force in Afghanistan until early 2009 and is now in the International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The Red Mosque was a big deal," Nelson recalled. The al Qaeda-directed assault on the mosque and subsequent Taliban reaction to its jihadist campaign in Pakistan were what convinced officials that "their goals have become more divergent", he said.
More recently, counterterrorism analysts have noted that the gap has widened even further, as the Taliban leadership has gone public with a "nationalist" line that openly departs from al Qaeda's global jihadist stance.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar's Sept. 19 message for Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, called the Taliban a "robust Islamic and nationalist movement" which "wants to maintain good and positive relations with all neighbors based on mutual respect".
The message went on to assure "all countries" that a Taliban state "will not extend its hand to jeopardize others, as it itself does not allow others to jeopardise us".
In October, the Taliban sent a letter to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization repeating its offer of good relations, despite the fact that at least three of its member states (China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) are the targets of armed resistance by jihadi allies of al Qaeda.
That line of thinking has created a firestorm among commentators associated with the al Qaeda global jihad worldview, according to Vahid Brown, research associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In an article published on the Foreign Policy magazine website Oct. 21, Brown cited a series of angry responses to the Taliban leader's message from jihadi publicists across the Middle East.
One rejoinder from one of the most influential jihadi ideologues referred to the Omar message as "dangerous utterances", likening the nationalist line taken in it to the refusal of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal to support the Chechen jihad against the Russian government, which is anathema to the global jihadi community.
Later discussions on several jihadi internet forums clearly recognized that a major rift had developed between al Qaeda and the Taliban. One commenter even referred to "the beginning of the end of relations" between the two.
Gates tired to minimize such evidence by suggesting that Taliban officials are engaging in deception. He said Taliban leaders "recognize that the reason they are not in power right now is because they allowed al Qaeda to launch attacks against the United States", and referred to reports that "the Taliban is saying, 'Well let's downplay the relationship with al Qaeda so we don't get hit again'."
What Gates failed to mention is that Taliban officials are furious at Osama bin Laden's attacks against the United States, because he had given a written pledge, referred to by Mullah Omar in a June 2001 interview with conservative journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave, not to attack any other country from his Afghan base.
President Barack Obama appears to have been informed about the evidence of divergent Taliban and al Qaeda interests. Senior administration officials told the New York Times in early October, evidently with the encouragement of the White House, that the Taliban was now viewed by the national security team as a group that did not have "ambitions to attack the United States".