The myth of ‘Tal-qaeda’Posted: 16/02/2012
By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online
The poetry of the Taliban. The concept seemed to capture the audience’s imagination and may have derailed a less well-chaired discussion. Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten came to the IISS this week to discuss the ‘Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda merger’, but after they mentioned they would soon publish an English volume of translated Mujahadeen verse, several extra questioners raised their hands.
The book’s cover is semi-psychedelic, and the speakers’ central argument – that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are less inter-connected than often believed – was cleverly illustrated, too.
The Taliban, Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten said, projecting a photo of the dilapidated White Mosque in Kandahar where founder Mullah Omar taught during the late 1980s, was an insular group. The product of a city with then just two newspapers and one radio station, these relatively young followers of the hierarchical, literalist Hanafi tradition had ‘a very limited concept of the wider world’ and a ‘very nationalist outlook, even to this day’.
Al-Qaeda founding members, by contrast, tended to be older and much better educated. Engineers, architects, doctors, they saw themselves involved in a pan-Arab, pan-Islamist globalist struggle. This was depicted by a network of lines criss-crossing a world map (above), slightly reminiscent of the infamous McChrystal Afghanistan slide. ‘Fairly confusing,’ Kuehn conceded, to laughter.
But, however engaging the style of presentation, this was a serious topic with important implications for Western policy. The US and NATO/ISAF went into Afghanistan in 2001 to ensure the country could not in future be a safe haven for terrorists looking to launch attacks internationally. If a combined ‘Tal-qaeda’ never really existed, what would the withdrawal of Western troops mean?
After five years in Kandahar conducting field research on the Taliban, Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten were impressively well-informed. Extensive interviews and other investigations for their new book ‘An Enemy We Created’, revealed an often difficult relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they said, sometimes to the point that local Taliban would have to intervene to prevent al-Qaeda’s expulsion from local communities.
The popular perception of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar as close allies didn’t stand up to examination either. Bin Laden never learnt Pashto, Mullah Omar’s language, and the two men only met once every few months – perhaps less frequently.
It was only after 9/11 that many previously independent jihadis in the region began to join al-Qaeda, at the same time as the Taliban was ‘virtually destroyed’ by the arrival of Western troops.
One ‘unintended consequence of international intervention’ that Strick van Linschoten highlighted was the emergence of a new generation of Taliban leaders after (attritional) ISAF night raids. Younger, educated in a more ideological environment and more financially independent, these were the ones most often perpetrating suicide attacks. They were also less likely to take instructions from the Quetta Shura in Pakistan or other older Taliban commanders – and al-Qaeda was now sending people in to spend time with them.
This portrait of fragmentation elicited a question as to whether mooted Western negotiations with the Taliban would involve the right representatives. Would those around the table be able to deliver on any promises, if those responsible for attacks on the ground weren’t taking directions from them?
Strick van Linschoten said a lot of things would only be evident afterwards. ‘That said, we have seen some positive developments in that we now have a credible group of people based in Qatar who have a direct line to Mullah Mohammad Omar,’ he said.
Kuehn added that any negotiations would need to include other groups besides the Taliban, such as the Northern Alliance. That some insurgents would keep on fighting was inevitable, but a broader political settlement was needed, ‘not a quick fix’.
In the end, though, the conversation circled back to Talib poetry – which Kuehn portrayed as not only shining a new light on the Taliban approach to war, but as an almost irresistible plank of Afghan culture: ‘It doesn’t matter if you like the Taliban, you will always like their poetry.’