BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Taliban and al Qaeda are united against the common foe of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and only when they leave will it be possible to divide the two groups, a former Pakistani spy chief said Wednesday.
Ties between the two armed militant groups are of high interest because international forces are contemplating talks with the Afghan Taliban to forge a political settlement in Afghanistan and create a split between the group and al Qaeda.
Western counter-terrorism officials say they believe al Qaeda leader bin Laden and his largely Arab top commanders are still hiding out in remote areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border, living under the protection of Afghan Taliban leaders.
Speaking on the sidelines of an East-West Institute think tank conference, retired Pakistani General Ehsan ul-Haq said both groups had different agendas but were held together by the presence in Afghanistan of a “common enemy” — foreign troops.
“While they have a common enemy they will always be together. When they are not confronted with a common enemy, naturally their own agendas will come to the fore,” Ul Haq said.
“I think I see there is a possibility in the future (of separating the groups),” he told Reuters in an interview.
Ul Haq played down the significance of President Barack Obama’s statement that U.S. forces will start moves to withdraw gradually in July 2011, subject to conditions on the ground.
“Obama has indicated that (intention) in a broader sense, but various other steps will reinforce or negate what perception is formed of the intent that has been expressed,” Ul Haq said.
“There are many steps to indicate whether they are going toward that objective,” he said. He declined to elaborate.
He said splitting the two allies would be difficult, but there were distinct divergences in the two groups’ aims.
“In my view there is a clear difference between al Qaeda and the Taliban. One has an international agenda, the other is fighting in a national context with grievances in Afghanistan.”
Ul Haq led Pakistan’s spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate from 2001 to 2004 and finished his career as chairman of the Pakistani joint chiefs of staff.
Afghanistan descended into chaos after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 and Pakistan’s ISI nurtured the Taliban in the early 1990s when the group’s young members emerged to fight the factions battling for power.
Pakistan lost the trust of the Taliban after it withdrew support after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Asked if Pakistan could coax the Taliban into talks, he said he did not know of any ISI contacts with the Taliban “that are robust enough to act as a nudge” but Pakistan wanted to be involved in any attempt at bringing peace to Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is of enormous interest to Pakistan and Pakistan would like to be in the loop in any mechanism for seeking solutions,” he said. “Whatever contribution Pakistan can make it will make, because it is in our interest.”
Pakistan is anxious to have a say in post-war Afghanistan in order to limit the influence of old rival India there.
Ul Haq declined to comment on the arrest of the Afghan Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a development that has stirred speculation Baradar could help with any reconciliation process.
Ul Haq downplayed the idea the Taliban could be persuaded to lay down their arms simply by the promise of power in Kabul.
“I don’t think the struggle is about power as the main issue they have in front of them is the presence of foreign troops,” he said. “They can be offered power while foreign troops are there, and it will be difficult for them to accept that.”
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton