The Myth of Talqaeda

The purported merger of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is the WMD of the Afghan war.  This myth is almost as old as the two groups themselves.  There's so much writing on Afghanistan that it's always going to be easy to find wild theories and dodgy "scholarship", but this supposed morphing between militant Islamist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani border has grown into more than just the theories of a few crackpots; in some ways, it's part of national security discourse and debate.

My colleague, Felix Kuehn, and I have tackled the topic from the perspective of the Afghan Taliban, drawing in as much actual evidence as we could.  For the easy question to ask after reading one or another of the proponents of "TalQaeda" - as we propose the purported behemoth be called - is "what's the evidence for that?"

Two pieces were published in the last month which reminded me how enduring the myth is, so I thought it'd be useful just to examine them openly, in the harsh light of day, since they are pretty representative.  I'd like to hope that 2011 will be the year this hoary old chestnut comes to rest, but I think we'll be fighting this one for a good while yet.

So the first, a blogpost by Max Boot entitled, "The War in Afghanistan Is Part of the Larger Struggle Against Global Terrorism."  He writes:

"An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists: 'This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.'

If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.”

It’s only a blogpost, so it seems unfair to fault him for not being expansive enough. But the question remains: "what’s the evidence for that?" And an unnamed "American officer" (gosh, well, he must know what he’s talking about) is not enough, not by any stretch.  One of the reasons An Enemy We Created is so long is that we take pains to lay out the evidence, to examine it all, to talk to people in the field and so on.  It’s an enduring feature of those who believe in the “syndicate” (or nexus, or morphed or fused organisation -- take your pick) that with a few exceptions they have not spent much time independently on the ground in Afghanistan.  And no, embed trips courtesy of the military don’t count for much.

Bruce Riedel has long been an advocate for the existence of "TalQaeda".  His last book, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, was pretty bad and included bold claims of a role in the September 11 plot played by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.  There’s much more to amuse you in the book, presumably cobbled together in haste as a position paper of sorts with which to advocate policy in Washington D.C. I refer you to my thoughts on the book, written back in May 2009, for some of the best quotes.

He has a new essay out, co-authored with Mike O’Hanlon, on US strategy for Afghanistan (what else?!).  Because it’s co-authored, it’s difficult to know who wrote what, but there’s a passage which is classic Riedel TalQaedaism.  It deserves a full quotation, along with the footnotes cited in support of the claims:

Those who assert that the Afghan Taliban may no longer have sympathy for these other extremists base their hopes on a thin reed. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden continue to work together to send terrorists to the United States, as illustrated by the foiled 2009 New York metro attack planned for the eighth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The three U.S. citizens led by Najibullah Zazi, who have pleaded guilty to the plot, were referred to al Qaeda after initially approaching the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan. The Taliban were active recruiters for an al Qaeda attack on the U.S. homeland, and it is not clear why the Afghan Taliban would become more moderate at the very moment it defeated NATO and reclaimed control of its historical heartland.”

[and the footnote states:]

“Bruce Riedel, The Search for al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 2008), pp. 122—124; Antonio Giustozzi, ‘‘Conclusion,’’ in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, ed. Antonio Giustozzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 293—300; and O’Hanlon and Sherjan, Toughing It Out, pp. 58—60.”

It’s almost enough to leave it there, steaming away like something your dog left in the park on a cold winter’s day, but unfortunately these ideas have currency in the current US Administration, largely on account of Riedel’s advocacy.  I happen to have all three books cited in that footnote, and the evidence they allude to is not contained within.  Not to mention, citing your own book as evidence is not the best way for your work to be taken seriously as rigorous scholarship.  We see similar stunts in The Search for al Qaeda, where Riedel would effectively write, “trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”

It’s not enough.  The issues are too important, too consequential, to continue to rely on hearsay and the weight of personal reputation to drive the debate.  So here’s me hoping for more fact-based, confirmed-on-the-ground research that comes from people who speak relevant languages and who have full exposure and familiarity with all available sources.  Above all, in 2011, we should ask ourselves: "what's the evidence for that?"