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Insurgents Share a Name but Pursue Different Goals

October 23, 2009

By Scott Shane

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WASHINGTON — As it devises a new Afghanistan policy, the Obama administration confronts a complex geopolitical puzzle: two embattled governments, in Afghanistan and Pakistan; numerous militias aligned with overlapping Islamist factions; and hidden in the factions’ midst, the foe that brought the United States to the region eight years ago, Al Qaeda.

But at the core of the tangle are the two Taliban movements, Afghan and Pakistani. They share an ideology and a dominant Pashtun ethnicity, but they have such different histories, structures and goals that the common name may be more misleading than illuminating, some regional specialists say.

“The fact that they have the same name causes all kinds of confusion,” said Gilles Dorronsoro, a French scholar of South Asia currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

This week, Mr. Dorronsoro said, as the Pakistani Army began a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, many Americans thought incorrectly that the assault was against the Afghan Taliban, the force that is causing Washington to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan.

At stake is not just semantics. Grasping the differences between the two Taliban forces, and their shifting relationships with Al Qaeda, is crucial to understanding the debate under way in the White House situation room. Though both groups threaten American interests, the Afghan Taliban — the word Taliban means “religious students” — are the primary enemy, mounting attacks daily against the 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Washington’s biggest fear is that if the Afghan Taliban overrun the country, they could invite Al Qaeda’s leaders back from their Pakistani hide-out.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch researcher who lives in Kandahar, in the heart of the Afghan Taliban’s power base, said that while leaders of the two Taliban groups might say that they share common interests, the two movements are quite separate.

“To be honest, the Taliban commanders and groups on the ground in Afghanistan couldn’t care less what’s happening to their Pakistani brothers across the border,” said Mr. Strick van Linschoten, who has interviewed many current and former members of the Afghan Taliban.

In fact, the recent attacks of the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistan’s government, military and police, in anticipation of the army’s current campaign into the Pakistani Taliban’s base in South Waziristan, may have strained relations with the Afghan Taliban, said Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer who tracks Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations.

The Afghan Taliban have always had a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence agencies, Mr. Barrett said recently. “They don’t like the way that the Pakistan Taliban has been fighting the Pakistan government and causing a whole load of problems there,” he said.

The Afghan Taliban, whose group is by far the older of the two forces, have been led by Mullah Muhammad Omar since he founded the movement in 1994. They seeks to regain the power they held over most of Afghanistan before being ousted by the American invasion of 2001.

In an interview this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity, an Afghan Taliban commander expressed sympathy for the Pakistani Taliban, but said, “There will not be any support from us.” He said the Afghan Taliban “don’t have any interest in fighting against other countries.”

“Our aim was, and is, to get the occupation forces out and not to get into a fight with a Muslim army,” the commander added.

Before 9/11, the Afghan Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda, but the groups are now separated geographically, their leaders under pressure from intensive manhunts. On jihadist Web sites, analysts have detected recent tensions between Al Qaeda, whose proclaimed goals are global, and the Afghan Taliban, which have recently claimed that their interests lie solely in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dorronsoro, the French scholar, said the Afghan Taliban were a “genuine national movement” incorporating not only a broad network of fighters, but also a shadow government-in-waiting in many provinces.

By comparison, he said, the Pakistani Taliban were a far looser coalition, united mainly by their enmity toward the Pakistani government. They emerged formally only in 2007 as a separate force led by Baitullah Mehsud under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Students’ Movement of Pakistan.

After Mr. Mehsud was killed by an American missile in August, a fellow tribesman, Hakimullah Mehsud, took over after a period of jockeying for power in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Another complication for regional terminology: most leaders of the Afghan Taliban are based in Pakistan, directing their forces from hide-outs across the border. Mullah Omar and his top deputies are believed to be in or around the southern Pakistani city of Quetta. Two other major factions in the Afghan insurgency are led by veteran Afghan warlords, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the Pakistan Taliban is strongest.

Al Qaeda’s leaders, including Mr. bin Laden, are believed to be hiding in the same tribal areas of Pakistan. While it has been weakened by American missile strikes, the terrorist network nonetheless is believed to have provided support for the Pakistani Taliban’s strikes against the Pakistani government.

For the United States, regional experts say, the long-term challenge is to devise policies that peel away as many militants as possible from both Taliban forces, isolating Al Qaeda and other hard-liners and strengthening the Pakistani and Afghan governments. But for a non-Muslim superpower, widely resented in the region, that is a tall order.

“At the moment the ground isn’t very well prepared for splitting the militant groups,” said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who spent a month last summer in Afghanistan. “The security trends are running in their favor.”

Of course, if the United States’ enemies in the region are complicated, so are its allies. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is seen as unwilling to take on corruption and tainted by fraud in the recent election, though he has now agreed to a runoff.

In Pakistan, with 172 million people, a population at least five times as large as that of Afghanistan, power is divided among the army, the intelligence service and two rival political parties — “four actors,” Mr. Biddle said, “each of which sees the threat from the others as bigger than the threat from the militants.”

Polls show that Americans, frustrated by the United States’ supposed allies and confused by the conflict, are losing their fervor for the fight. “The complexity of all this is hard enough for experts to understand,” said Paul R. Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at Georgetown University. “It’s not surprising if it baffles a lot of ordinary people.”

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12 comments

  1. If you guys know all these facts, then Pakistan’s security officials must be aware of them for sure. We can assume that this blurry picture is getting clearer day by day for the common person, which will help identifying the real Enemies and getting out of all the dirty propagandas against Islam and Jihad.

    Our Army has proved it abilities and it will eliminate all the hired militants and Bombers, InshAllah!


  2. Nice article. Gives some more clarity about the current affairs. The article suggests that Pakistani Talibans are fighting against the Pak government for the establishment of Sharia. My question is then what is wrong with that struggle?

    We are not too happy with the current government of Pakistan anyways. Then Why are we butting head against the Pakistani Taliban? Why not fulfill their demands of the establishment of Sharia? I am aware of our current stance that we did make deals with them and they broke it because they were working on some sinister US desgins.

    When I talk of Sharia, I am not talking about just reinstating Sharia-courts in Swat ONLY headed by secular judges. I am talking about establishing ALL our institutions on the principles of Islam. Ofcourse some of this can be attained immediately but others will take time. For example, establishing gold economy will take few decades but punishing the corrupt (dirty politicians, hoarders of rice/sugar/flour, cell-phone snatchers etc) can happen immediately.

    I think Pakistan Army should rethink why they are fighting Pak Talibans and find out if they are truly US agents. What surprises me is that we seem to be more concerned with these militants but ignore the wolves midst our government. They are the ones playing more sinister game. They have harmed the interests of nation many many times after Musharraf. I just read an article on PKKH that Kahota plant is surrounded by US forces (or something to that effect). So then what makes us so confident of the loyalty of this unIslamic government.

    Anyone please explain?


  3. the problem with fake pakistani talibs is that they kill innocent muslims. they r using fasaadi way to bring just-system,as if they want some, because its obviouse from their acts that they r only harming the name of ISlam and pakistan by attacking pakskitani ciities and thus giving the amrikan-uk-Israeli and indian backed UN the reason to take out pak-nucclear assets, which we have for defense,detterence & for peaceful purpose.


    • mysT, I agree with your point and that is one reason, I don’t support Pak Taliban or any other Jihadi because they kill innocent people and properties and that they have backing of US. I think they are in this bond together against a 3rd common enemey: Pakistan military. I personally don’t have enough information about these two being each other’s die-hard friends. I wonder what goals TTP has in this regard? By fighting against the Pak Army, will TTP take over Pak government? I don’t know. It won’t be easy because of Pak Army. I do feel that Pak Army and TTP would be wasting their resources and energies on this conflict.

      I think both these parties should come to some understanding with each other. TTP should realize that Pak is the only country with Nuclear weapons and any damage to her would mean total submission of Islam. Pak Army should also realize that Sharia is the form of government to go. It is the commandment of Allah(swt) and the need of the hour. Only through strict punishments can we get rid of some of the rotten vices from our culture.


  4. This Govt or any other Govt.,Pakistan is now a battleground.Rather the whole Muslim world as in America,they are talking of this war to continue for another 50 years.

    Because it does not hurt them.As it is happening thousands of KM away from them.The only worry for them is how to keep their human casualties least.Money they have plenty.

    Now it is time for all top generals(active or otherwise),military strategists from the whole Islamic world( if we could find veterans of WW1 & 2) to sit together and devise plan.

    Try to know their weak points(as they say:NAQAB LAGANA) such as they will try
    to keep this war away from India.We have to abort their plans.Pre-empt them.

    It is useless fighting and arguing amongst ourselves.

    Fatehkhan says”our children”. No man,they are our children as well.The bad luck is that this area has been selected as starting point by our enemies.


  5. Paktoons have always betrayed pakistan. They invited these so called talibans TTP in most of NWFP because they think that they are better muslims then the rest of pakistans and will serve islam by bringing sharia through these fascist groups. But these power hungry highways robbers TTP started abducting their women and killing their men. After being prosecuted for years by these criminals they cried for help from the army. Army started the operation and the displaced people of swat and banor were recieved warmly and open handedly by the pakistani people. They gave them all kinds of food and provision which they might not have thought of in there whole life. When the area was cleared by a very swift and historic operation by pak army they betrayed us again by celebrating eid on a different day. Most of the people who are involved in suicidal bombing on civilians and attacks on pakistan army are pathans who are doing it just for money.


  6. Tauseef may be Indian or their agent.

    His comment is very offensive and everybody must condemn this.For sure he cannot be a Pakistani.


  7. @Tauseef,

    I don’t appreciate your views about Pakistani Pathans. These brothers of ours have protected Pakistan from every invasion. Just because a few pathans are fighting against Pakistan doesn’t mean ALL Pathaans are disloyal.

    Yes a few separatiest elements like Khan Abdul Ghaffar khan had been against Pakistan from the start. He has been (like GM Syed etc) an Indian agent and had been promised the rule over Pakhtoons by Nehru but our Islam loving Pathan brothers rejected them and joined Pakistan movement. Ever since they have been protecting us.

    Pakhtoons have NEVER betrayed Pakistan.


  8. THe leader of Afganistan Al Qaeda now name Imama Ali Bastanan,the group wh far away from the people and the city or activity for another country or another profesion or activity,tehy only mountain soldier and not make contact with every organization maybe they in the pass or to tajikistan or els.because they have the different group(CO;corps office)verry independent every term’s or titlle group;the American system they know verry different metode not like the USSR/Rusian soldier 42 years war they learn about new enemy who’s USA.who behind the USA etc.they know how deep the Intellegent’s work,among the other


    • Either way, USA will kicked out of Afghnistan the very way the soviets were. Time is coming very soon.


  9. The only organized and well disciplined institution left in pakistan is pak army. All the enemies of islam are either jealous or at war with this very strong and invincible institution. Now they have captured kothkai. No army has ever entered this town in thousands of years. My heartiest congratulations and prayers for pak army. Dream on enemies of islam dream on.


  10. If you smell what the bestest best Army in the world is cooking?

    Cook those talibs my soldiers and feed em to dogs.



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