Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Taliban without al Qaeda? Don’t bet on it

If the Taliban took over Afghanistan, would al Qaeda again have a safe haven? I think so. The time to drive a wedge betwixt the two was back in 2002-2003, after the American invasion, when both groups had fled Afghanistan in disarray, and were licking their wounds and reproaching each other as they hid in ...

579706_091008_RicksTaliban2.jpg
579706_091008_RicksTaliban2.jpg

If the Taliban took over Afghanistan, would al Qaeda again have a safe haven? I think so. The time to drive a wedge betwixt the two was back in 2002-2003, after the American invasion, when both groups had fled Afghanistan in disarray, and were licking their wounds and reproaching each other as they hid in Pakistani frontier villages.

That thought is provoked by an article in today's New York Times and by a  series of interesting interviews with Taliban members recently carried by Newsweek. After the U.S. arrived, notes one Talibaner interviewed: 

If the Taliban took over Afghanistan, would al Qaeda again have a safe haven? I think so. The time to drive a wedge betwixt the two was back in 2002-2003, after the American invasion, when both groups had fled Afghanistan in disarray, and were licking their wounds and reproaching each other as they hid in Pakistani frontier villages.

That thought is provoked by an article in today’s New York Times and by a  series of interesting interviews with Taliban members recently carried by Newsweek. After the U.S. arrived, notes one Talibaner interviewed: 

The Arabs were disappointed the Taliban hadn’t stood and fought. They told me they had wanted to fight to the death. They were clearly not as distressed as the Afghans. This was understandable. The Arabs felt they had lost a battle. But the Afghans were much more devastated-they had lost a country.”

The groups began rebuilding, the same Talibani recalls, by using raids and even funerals as recruiting and fund-raising tools. After one cross-border raid against an American outpost, he recalled:

We carried the stiff and bloodied bodies of our martyrs back to Wana. Thousands of locals attended their funerals. … As the news traveled, a lot of former Taliban began returning to Wana to join us.

Another Taliban member says they benefited from American violence and the abuses of the Kabul government:

The Afghan Taliban were weak and disorganized. But slowly the situation began to change. American operations that harassed villagers, bombings that killed civilians, and Karzai’s corrupt police were alienating villagers and turning them in our favor. Soon we didn’t have to hide so much on our raids. We came openly. When they saw us, villagers started preparing green tea and food for us. The tables were turning. Karzai’s police and officials mostly hid in their district compounds like prisoners.

As the old John Hiatt song laments, this is the way we make a broken heart. Or rather, this is the way we allowed a medieval bunch of Afghan hillbillies to re-group while we distracted ourselves with an unnecessary war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, someone tried to blow up the Indian Embassy in Kabul today. I wonder who doesn’t like Indian influence in the Afghan capital?

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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