25 Jun 2013

Are we any closer to understanding the Taliban?

It’s become rather a way of life to us in the west to talk glibly about al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

And it is not very helpful in terms of actually trying to work out what is happening in places like Afghanistan and the north west of Pakistan.

For instance, the broadcasting media in the UK cannot even agree upon how to pronounce “al-Qaeda” – still less explain what it might be.

Instead we’ve rather given the impression that it’s some kind of jihadi club or association to which one can belong – perhaps like the RAC but rather heavier on the ammonium nitrate and AK47s. But we convey a misleading sense of membership and association.

In reality, of course, al-Qaeda is much better thought of as a state of being, a state of mind, of anger, betrayal and a general alienation, a sense of disenfranchisement leading to radicalism, jihad and all that flows from there.

My sense of thinking about al-Qaeda in these terms is that you get a simply more accurate appreciation of the reality of what is going down in so very many parts of the world in recent years.

And so to the Taliban or, indeed, the Taleban – once again the dead giveaway that if the media cannot agree how to even spell it, then our understanding of it is likely to bit a bit flawed. For there isn’t really any such thing as the Taliban in any nationally organised sense in the country at all.

What Nato and, increasingly, the new army of Afghanistan is having to deal with are any number of armed groups which very broadly cohere into three main elements.

The most important politically are the inheritors of the original Taliban foray out of Pakistan and into government over much of the country, ended by Nato and beginning the current long war.

These Pashtun fighters across the south and east of the country, led spiritually by Mullah Omar and strategically by the Quetta Shura in tribal Pakistan, have recently opened their office in Doha and represent easily the most important political strand of the broader Afghan insurgency.

These are the fighters who have been killing British soldiers during the long war years of war down in Helmand province, although their leaders protest long and loud that they have no beef with the west at all beyond making sure they are ejected from their country in terms of western soldiers.

International Jihad against the west is not their cup of tea. Never has been. However the west, desperate to talk to them, has yet to extract any guarantees that they will not harbour al-Qaeda elements in their territory in the future are as they notably did in the past.

Then there is the Haqqani network, again based in north western Pakistan, but far more avowedly jihadi in outlook and thus more closely allied to the al-Qaeda mindset.

This is the group is responsible for setting all the recent high-profile attacks in Kabul.

Ministries, hotels, the airport, the UN and various western NGOs have all been attacked by a group that is resilient, well-armed and with an apparently endlessly supply of young men ready to embark upon suicide missions in the capital.

Beyond this, and strung out across the country, is a range of armed groups large and small all umbrellared loosely under this Taliban term but some, like Hizb-e-Islamiya, are little more than flags of convenience for various warlords such as the Taliban veteran fighter Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

So you soon see that the writ of the Taliban might not extend all that far when you are attacking them, or they you.

Equally, this is true when the time comes to talk to them, as it has now done for the US, desperate to escape its longest war. But to whom exactly are you wishing to parley? Who exactly have we been fighting all these years?

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