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Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Not the Same Thing

June 18, 2014 in Economics

By Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter

U.S. policy makers have demonstrated an unfortunate inability to distinguish between governments or movements whose agendas are confined to local or subregional objectives and those governments or movements that have global ambitions hostile to American interests. That maddening tendency was on display again in the negative reaction to the Obama administration’s decision to trade five imprisoned Taliban leaders for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Critics in Congress and the news media acted as though the administration had released high-level Al Qaeda operatives involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

That reaction continues the trend of conflating the Taliban and Al Qaeda as though the two are organizational conjoined twins. In marked contrast to Washington’s attitude during the first few years after 9/11, when the justification for the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan was to smash Al Qaeda, defeating the Taliban gradually became the primary rationale for continuing the military mission. Al Qaeda is now barely an afterthought in foreign-policy discussions regarding Afghanistan.

Blandly assuming that political movements are automatically components of a large-scale threat directed against America leads to unnecessary U.S. entanglements and missed opportunities for constructive dialogue.”

It is uncertain if the process of conflating the Taliban and Al Qaeda—and making the former the senior partner—was a deliberate “bait and switch” tactic on the part of U.S. leaders or if it merely reflects sloppy thinking, but the result is the same in either case. Al Qaeda is a global terrorist movement with the United States (including the American homeland) as a prominent, if not the primary, target. The Taliban is a Pashtun political movement with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s largely Pashtun border-region. Its principal adversaries are rival ethnic groups, especially the Uzbek and Tajik forces that made up the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and became crucial supporters of President Hamid Karzai’s government.

Had Mullah Omar’s regime in Kabul not granted Al Qaeda a hospitable sanctuary during the late 1990s, and then refused to turn over AQ leaders to the United States following the 9/11 attacks (citing the obligation of a host not to betray guests), there would have been little reason for Washington to launch a military crusade against the Taliban. True, Taliban rule was a horrific example of brutal religious zealotry; but the world is filled with obnoxious, repressive regimes—including the stifling theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Yet Washington has never …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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