LONDON (Reuters) - Afghan Taliban leaders would be willing to break with al Qaeda to end the war in Afghanistan, but U.S. policy is creating younger, more radicalized fighters less open to a peace deal, a report released Monday said.
The report, by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, said the Taliban could be willing to ensure Afghanistan was not used as a base for terrorism.
U.S. policy, however, including attempts to fragment the Taliban, “are changing the insurgency, inadvertently creating opportunities for al Qaeda to achieve its objectives,” the report released by New York University (NYU) said.
It argued the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda was strained both before and after the September 11 2001 attacks, partly because of their very different ideological roots.
Al Qaeda grew out of militant Islamism in the Middle East, notably in Egypt, which — when fused with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan — created its own view of global jihad.
Taliban leaders grew up in rural southern Afghanistan, isolated from world events. Many were too young to play a big
role in the Afghan jihad, and had no close ties to al Qaeda until after they took power in 1996.
“The relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban during the second half of the 1990s was complicated and often tense,” the report said. “The two groups knew little about each other.”
The two authors, who edited the memoirs of former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad Abdul Salam Zaeef, said that the Taliban leadership had no foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks.
They argued that the Taliban leadership were manipulated beforehand by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who took advantage of their lack of international experience, and then struggled afterwards to work out how to respond.
Miscalculating the likely American reaction, the Taliban asked for evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the attacks on New York and Washington so they could decide whether to hand him over for trial in another Islamic country.
“There can be little doubt that the leaders then and since have gained more insight into the complex world of international political Islam and the costs of their policy of hospitality.”
The authors, who are publishing a book on the Taliban and al Qaeda in April, said breaking ties between the two — a key condition set by Washington for a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war — was not as big an obstacle as often assumed.
“The Taliban claim they cannot publicly indicate their differences with the foreign militants since, for the moment, they are caught in a marriage of convenience,” the report said.
Nonetheless they had also stressed they would not allow Afghanistan to be used for terrorism and had realized the importance of this reassurance to the international community.
The report did not address how the Taliban should break with al Qaeda — the options run the gamut from tacit rejection to public renunciation to outright hostility.
“I’m not sure they have figured this out,” said Linschoten.
Nor does it say where al Qaeda would go if it were forced out of its safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The report also suggested that the Taliban might eventually be ready to cooperate with the United States on international terrorism — though for now its position is that it will not negotiate until foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
“One such vision recently suggested in private by a senior Taliban political strategist is that Taliban forces could conduct counterterrorism operations, including joint operations together with U.S. Special Forces, against al Qaeda and possibly its affiliates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” it said.
Such an idea “signifies considerable flexibility within the senior Taliban leadership,” the report said.
However, the report argued that the U.S. policy of targeting mid-level commanders, along with arrests in Pakistan of senior leaders, was undercutting the old leadership and paving the way for a younger generation more open to al Qaeda.
“Their newer generations are potentially a more serious threat. With little or no memory of Afghan society prior to the Soviet war in the 1980s, this new generation of commanders is more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations, and therefore less pragmatic.”