Shadow Government

Why Defeat the Islamic State but not the Taliban?

On Sunday President Obama said on NBC that the United States is undertaking a campaign to "defeat" the Islamic State, and he is expected to give a speech on Wednesday explaining why and how. This marks a significant change of rhetoric for the president. Obama has always sounded a cautious note about the goal of ...

Rahmatullah Alizadah/AFP/Getty Images
Rahmatullah Alizadah/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday President Obama said on NBC that the United States is undertaking a campaign to "defeat" the Islamic State, and he is expected to give a speech on Wednesday explaining why and how. This marks a significant change of rhetoric for the president. Obama has always sounded a cautious note about the goal of U.S. military action. He repeatedly said his goal in Iraq was to "end" the war, not to win it, and he has never stated that the goal of the war in Afghanistan is the outright "defeat" of the Taliban.

He has been most direct about al Qaeda, saying in March 2009 that the goal of U.S. military action in South Asia was to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." He repeated the same formula in Dec. 2009 and, in abbreviated form, in his May 2012 speech in Kabul.

But his stance towards the Taliban has always been softer. In March 2009 he said "There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban.  They must be met with force, and they must be defeated.  But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price.  These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course." In Dec. 2009, he was even more circumspect. While maintaining his pledge to "defeat" al Qaeda, he only said of the Taliban, "We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government." In May 2012, Obama said, "our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban."

Similarly, in Feb. 2011, he told Fox news host Bill O’Reilly that "I can say we will defeat al Qaeda and that the Taliban will not be retaking Afghanistan." Note the careful phrasing: it would have been easier, simpler, and stronger to say "defeat al Qaida and the Taliban," but he went out of his way to separate the two groups and construct an awkward sentence to avoid saying that the United States is committed to "defeating" the Taliban. The New York Times reported back in 2012 that one of the reasons the president had a difficult relationship with the military was that "Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban," (an issue I blogged about at the time).

To give credit where it is due, we should of course recognize that the president is right to differentiate between al Qaeda and the Taliban. They are different groups with different goals — the Taliban have always been more locally-focused than al Qaeda. And it is true that the U.S. should not lump all jihadist groups together and treat them as a monolith, nor assume that one tactic — say, drone strikes — is the right tool to use against all of them. Frankly, some jihadist groups (Boko Haram comes to mind) are barely relevant to U.S. national security.

But if Boko Haram is on one end of the spectrum of relevance to the United States and al Qaeda is on the other, the Taliban plainly are far closer to al Qaeda. Of all jihadist groups in the world, the Taliban have been the most intertwined with al Qaeda, the most directly responsible for the latter’s operations and continuing success in South Asia, and the one most likely to continue its relationship with al Qaeda if given the chance.

The alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban goes back decades, almost to the founding of both groups. They literally fought in the same trenches in Afghanistan’s civil war. Bin Laden gave the Taliban millions of dollars and thousands of foot solders; they gave him asylum and at least one of his wives. He assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud as a gift to them. The Afghan and Pakistani mountains and caves are where al Qaeda was born; they remain a place of central significance both symbolically and practically. It is the terrain al Qaeda’s leaders know best, the place they can hide the most effectively, and the place where they have an extensive network of contacts amongst the dense community of South Asian jihadist groups. No other location and no other al Qaeda affiliate can lay claim to being so central to al Qaeda as Afghanistan and the Taliban can.

The Bush administration did not immediately assume it had to overthrow the Taliban regime. The United States gave the Taliban the opportunity to join the international counterterrorism coalition, and it refused (it offered to detain bin Laden or hand him over to a third party if given convincing proof of his guilt in an attempted delaying tactic). Ever since, the Afghan government and the international community have repeatedly and consistently said that the Taliban still have the opportunity to reconcile and join the political process in Kabul if only they denounce al Qaeda.  Despite 13 years of pressure, the Taliban have never done so nor indicated any willingness to break from the group.

By contrast, other jihadist groups — such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP), and others — have a much looser tie to al Qaeda. They share the same overarching jihadist ideology as the Taliban and al Qaeda. But they do not have the same shared history. By and large, their affiliation with al Qaeda is recent and is more a shared brand: by affiliating, they are publicly expressing solidarity with al Qaeda’s main beliefs and goals. But their operations and targets are of their own choosing.

Obama has been fairly consistent throughout his presidency in reserving the word "defeat" only for al Qaeda. That leads me to ask two questions. First, how does Obama believe we can defeat al Qaeda without doing the same to the Taliban? For my part, I doubt it can be done. Secondly, why has the president now chosen to add IS to the very exclusive club of groups whose defeat we seek? While IS is certainly a threat to Iraq and to the region (and to Americans in the region), I am not yet convinced that it poses a greater or more direct of a threat to the United States than AQAP or any other jihadist group. It certainly does not seem to pose a greater threat than the Taliban.

It seems as if the administration is simply attacking some groups, like IS and al Qaeda, harassing others, like the Taliban and al-Shabab, and leaving others alone, like Boko Haram — without any clear criteria for why. One test of the president’s speech on Wednesday is if he addresses this issue. The president admitted earlier that his administration didn’t have a strategy for dealing with IS. Now I wonder if it goes further: if the administration has no strategy for the long war as a whole.

Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. @pauldmiller2

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