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The al-Qaeda-Taliban Nexus

Authors: Richard Barrett, Coordinator, UN Monitoring Team, al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, UN Monitoring Team, al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee Sajjan Gohel, Director for International Security, Asia-Pacific Foundation, Asia-Pacific Foundation Ronald E. Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy; former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, International Institute for Strategic Studies; former Director for Operations and Intelligence, British Secret Intelligence Service, International Institute for Strategic Studies
November 25, 2009

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U.S. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. military campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan is aimed at preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing a base that could be used to plot attacks against Americans. Prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda enjoyed refuge under the Taliban government, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused to turn over Osama bin Laden to international authorities. But in the eight years since the U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power, relations between al-Qaeda and its former benefactors have changed considerably, experts say. As the Obama administration weighs increasing the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, experts Richard Barrett, Sajjan M. Gohel, Ronald E. Neumann, and Nigel Inkster present differing assessments on cooperation between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and the threat posed by their relationship. --Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org

Richard Barrett, Coordinator, UN Monitoring Team, al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, UN Monitoring Team, al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee

If there is a money flow, it's from al-Qaeda to Taliban rather than Taliban to al-Qaeda, which is very interesting. It makes me think that al-Qaeda is, to a certain extent, having to buy in more and more to their association with Taliban on both sides of the border, and much less on Pakistan's side than [the] Afghan side. The Afghan Taliban is a nationalist movement, and they repeatedly say they're a nationalist movement. When they look at what they've gained from their association with al-Qaeda, [it's] pretty much heavy on the negative side rather than on the positive side. They got kicked out in October 2001. Maybe if al-Qaeda hadn't attacked the United States in September 2001, they'd still be in Kabul, they'd be the recognized government. Now they're still fiddling about, trying to get back. So although they are perfectly friendly and the al-Qaeda leaders say, "Yes, Mullah Omar is our leader," operationally, it's not so strong. And in reality, if the Taliban were engaged in government in Kabul, they wouldn't necessarily have al-Qaeda right behind them.

Could they keep them out is the key question. In many parts of Afghanistan, particularly in that area in Waziristan over the Durand Line [established in 1893 to demarcate British India from Afghanistan, the line today marks the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan], there's no way anyone's going to keep anybody out. There are hundreds of crossing points; there are villages which straddle the line; the whole countryside is like crumpled paper. But maybe they would try. And maybe al-Qaeda calculates that, and I think personally that al-Qaeda is much more comfortable and better off, and far better established now, on Pakistan's side of the border.

Sajjan Gohel, Director for International Security, Asia-Pacific Foundation, Asia-Pacific Foundation

The Taliban have this Pashtunwali code about housing a guest. Al-Qaeda was deemed as a guest in Afghanistan; it was an important dynamic in the relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Where there have been problems, an issue that could perhaps be exploited further, is that the Afghan Taliban resented people like Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Egyptian brigade. Al-Zawahiri was very overbearing in the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and it created problems in the relationship. But nevertheless, the Taliban remained loyal to al-Qaeda. There is an ideological connection: al-Qaeda adopts a very strict interpretation of the Quran that is Wahabi/Salafi-esque; the Taliban is Deobandi. The relationship is close ideologically, and it is that relationship that binds them together. The Taliban is a number of different factions--whether you're looking at the Haqqani network [based in the city of Khost and led by a popular warlord, Jalaluddin Haqqani], or the Quetta Council [led by Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar] but they are based in Pakistan. In addition, they receive support from the Pakistan Taliban, [which is] already ideologically intertwined with groups like al-Qaeda; and that is why al-Qaeda Central, the Islamic Jihad Union, Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, and a whole plethora of groups are based in the tribal areas--because of the Taliban code of allowing these groups to be based there in providing sanctuary, in supporting them. That is not going to change.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan have been a very useful place for al-Qaeda, but I would also argue that the whole of Pakistan has served as a very useful sanctuary for al-Qaeda. Bear in mind all the key al-Qaeda leaders that have been captured were caught in major urban cities--Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, Tawfiq bin Attash and Ramzi Binalshibh were caught in Karachi--so it's not just the tribal areas, it's Pakistan as a whole that's served as a safe sanctuary for al-Qaeda. The United States has been ramping up the pressure, perhaps confining al-Qaeda's operational ability to spread its nexus; the Predator drones are keeping the group in check. So in many ways, their room to maneuver has been restricted, and for that reason they would want to go back into Afghanistan to have that greater apparatus, to have that greater infrastructure that was once there and to be able to plot and plan new attacks.

Ronald E. Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy; former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

This idea that if the Taliban comes back, al-Qaeda either doesn't come with them--or is controllable or isn't a threat--is a very speculative theoretical foundation. This seems to me a very speculative basis, which has no real solid evidence to support it, on which to take a very large national security risk. And if you have a Taliban return with al-Qaeda, you then have effectively the strategic rear of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Just as you say you can't deal with Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan, so it is absolutely impossible to say that you are going to deal with extremism in Pakistan while you lose the fight in Afghanistan.

You have seen a great deal of cross-merging of their capabilities. In the last two and a half years, you have seen an increase in the foreign fighter migration, a rapid increase in not only the types of more dangerous IEDs [improvised explosive devices]--both configurations of the bombs, triggering mechanisms, passage of techniques--that are being used in Iraq into Afghanistan. So in fact the prima facie evidence on the ground is for a tightening of the link. That's not a hard, fast, final piece of evidence. But if you look at what is physically happening, it belies the theory of separation.

Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, International Institute for Strategic Studies; former Director for Operations and Intelligence, British Secret Intelligence Service, International Institute for Strategic Studies

What's happening at the moment in both Afghanistan and Pakistan--continuing pressure by [the] International Assistance Security Force in Afghanistan and the current campaign by Pakistan against their Taliban problem--has created a situation in which the jihadist forces have come together to perhaps a greater extent than they might otherwise have done through a perception of a common threat. The Afghan Taliban were never that much in sympathy with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Arabs, and if you look at what happened in Afghanistan pre-9/11, you realize that the relationship was never very comfortable. If it came to be that the Taliban [was] able to recover all or part of Afghanistan, I think it improbable that [its] first act would be to invite al-Qaeda back in, not least because that would of course bring with it the obvious risk that [it] would continue to be the subject of U.S. and NATO attacks. So I don't think [the leadership] wants that. But they might not be able to prevent it. If you were to ask what al-Qaeda's leadership would like to do, the answer is they would like to get back to Afghanistan if they could. Their ejection from Afghanistan in 2001 was very much a kind of fall from grace--they were sort of ejected from the Garden of Eden--and things have not gone well for them really ever since.

Operationally, there is some evidence of al-Qaeda working with the Afghan Taliban. Al-Qaeda itself doesn't do real operations in Afghanistan--it's not in the position to do so--the most it can hope to be is a kind of force multiplier for the other entities that are already there. In that context it has been ready to provide some support and assistance to Afghan Taliban units--weapons training, some material assistance. Also, some of the foreign fighters are experienced fighters and know quite a lot about military tactics. So there has been, at the tactical level, a certain of amount of cooperation. [In Pakistan], al-Qaeda with the Tariki Taliban--the Pakistan Taliban--there are links, because the al-Qaeda leadership are in the tribal areas and they didn't just come there in 2001. One thing al-Qaeda [has] done quite skillfully and effectively is to create local alliances through intermarriage and business relationships. [It is] quite well established there.

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