LONDON (Reuters) - The Taliban’s alliance with Osama bin Laden appears stronger than for years but strains linger beneath the surface, offering opportunities for Western powers to foment a rift and deprive al Qaeda of its hosts’ protection.
Denying the world’s most wanted man safe haven on the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been an aim of Western policy since the September 11 2001 attacks, when the Taliban in effect spurned a U.S. demand to hand over the al Qaeda chief.
Having no army, no territory and at increasing risk of U.S. drone attacks, bin Laden has had to work constantly to shore up links to his Pashtun hosts to secure sanctuary on the frontier and show loyalty to an ally he owes everything, experts say.
That means al Qaeda must continually prove its worth, providing contacts in the Gulf, equipment, funds, bomb expertise and propaganda advice to help the Taliban fight U.S. forces, even as it pursues its global aim of inciting attacks on Western targets around the world, including in neighboring Pakistan.
U.S. expert Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute in Washington believes the links between the two groups are “probably getting tighter,” pointing to recent al Qaeda operational advice to the Pashtun Taliban on suicide bombings.
“There may be differences of opinion between al Qaeda and the Taliban, but so far what is more impressive is how they have hung together than any differences they have.”
Richard Barrett, Coordinator of the U.N. Taliban-al Qaeda Monitoring Committee, said al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan were often experienced and always determined. “They don’t have families to get back to, or fields to sow,” he said.
But some see the alliance’s balance of need moving steadily in the Taliban’s favor thanks to the insurgents’ recent battlefield gains, strengthening prospects that one day its ally may view al Qaeda as a dispensable liability.
Noman Benotman, a Libyan analyst and former militant who once fought in Afghanistan, said the al Qaeda chief had worked to deepen his relations with Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
“But relations with people lower down are not all good. And in practice the Taliban don’t need al Qaeda. The Taliban do insurgency, and need no lessons from al Qaeda on that,” he said.
The al Qaeda-Afghan Taliban alliance is of high interest to the West because President Barack Obama is reviewing Afghanistan strategy amid increasing war-weariness at home and calls for a more narrowly focused effort to hunt al Qaeda members.
The notion the Taliban could betray al Qaeda is dismissed by some commentators who say Pashtuns live to a code of honor that demands unfailing hospitality toward guests.
But in 1998 the Taliban struck a deal to hand bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia after he fell out with Omar. Although the Taliban eventually reneged, experts point to the incident as evidence that the Taliban’s generosity is not limitless.
“Behind the Taliban’s warmongering propaganda there are credible indications that there is actually a strong pragmatic tendency inside the leadership,” said Michael Semple, the Irish former deputy head of the European Union mission in Kabul.
He said that this leadership tendency “does expect to be engaged in some kind of political process with both the U.S. and Afghan governments at some stage.”
Taliban men are quick to recall in private their hosting of al Qaeda in 2001 cost them power, said an Islamist expert who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Drawing an implicit distinction with al Qaeda, the Taliban has repeatedly said that it poses no threat to the West.
The Taliban, which aspires to be a national insurgency, and the global-minded al Qaeda differ on more than their main aims.
Al Qaeda’s ferocious condemnation of Saudi King Abdullah, its desire to topple Arab governments, its scorn for some Afghan Islamist politicians and tolerance of mass killings of civilians are all positions that set it apart from the Afghan Taliban.
Analysts think that in the interests of mutual survival both groups have managed for now to rise above private resentments, which include old strains over propaganda strategy and security.
“Mid-level and rank and file Taliban don’t much like the Arabs,” said Pakistan writer Ahmed Rashid. “There are tensions, but they are overriden by the needs of the high command.”
Some say al Qaeda’s operational involvement in Afghanistan is in abeyance, in contrast to its growing connections to Pakistani insurgents including Pakistan’s own Taliban group.
Rashid queries this, saying the Afghan Taliban is on a “constant learning curve” that needs repeated al Qaeda advice.
“There is no reason for the moment for either side to dump the other. What might change is if Omar managed to take power or broker a deal with (President Hamid) Karzai,” said Barrett.
“It seems clear that the U.S. and its friends would continue to harry Omar for so long as he gave shelter to al Qaeda,” he said. “That, after all, was how it all started, and will be the bottom line for the U.S. in any eventual pull-out deal.”
British historian of al Qaeda Jason Burke sees “actual and potential tensions” between the groups that might be exploited, but he says this needs time and preparation at a regional level.
Pakistan is crucial, Riedel said. “As long as Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as a long term asset and provides at least a passive safe haven it is very hard to break up this alliance.”
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Luke Baker in London)
Editing by Ralph Boulton