Hawks still link Taliban to al-Qaeda
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States national security officials, concerned that
President Barack Obama might be abandoning the strategy of full-fledged
counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan, are claiming new intelligence
assessments suggesting that al-Qaeda would be allowed to return to Afghanistan
in the event of a Taliban victory.
But two former senior intelligence analysts who have long followed the issue of
al-Qaeda's involvement in Afghanistan question the alleged new intelligence
assessments. They say that the Taliban leadership still blames Osama bin Laden
and al-Qaeda for their loss of power after September 11, 2001, and that the
Taliban-al-Qaeda cooperation is much narrower today than it was during the
period of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
The nature of the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban
has been a central issue in the White House discussions on Afghanistan strategy
that began last month, according to both White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and
National Security Adviser General James Jones.
One of the arguments for an alternative to the present counter-insurgency
strategy by officials, including aides to ambassador Richard Holbrooke, is that
the Taliban wouldn't allow al-Qaeda to re-establish bases inside Afghanistan,
The Wall Street Journal reported on October 5. The reasoning behind the
argument, according to the report, is that the Taliban realize that their
previous alliance with al-Qaeda had caused them to lose power after the
September 11 attacks on the US.
Officials in national security organs that are committed to the
counter-insurgency strategy have now pushed back against the officials who they
see as undermining the war policy.
McClatchy newspapers reported on Sunday that officials have cited what they
call "recent US intelligence assessments" that the Taliban and other Afghan
insurgent groups have "much closer ties to al-Qaeda now than they did before
9/11" and would allow al-Qaeda to re-establish bases in Afghanistan if they
were to prevail.
McClatchy reporters said 15 mid-level or senior intelligence, military and
diplomatic officials they interviewed had agreed with the alleged intelligence
But John McCreary, formerly a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence
Agency, wrote last week on NightWatch, an online news analysis service, that
the history of Taliban-al-Qaeda relations suggests a very different conclusion.
After being ousted from power in 2001, he wrote, the Taliban "openly derided
the Arabs of al-Qaeda and blamed them for the Taliban's misfortunes".
The Taliban leaders "vowed never to allow the foreigners - especially the
haughty, insensitive Arabs - back into Afghanistan", wrote McCreary. "In
December 2001, [Taliban leader Mullah] Omar was ridiculed in public by his own
commanders for inviting the 'Arabs' and other foreigners, which led to their
flight to Pakistan."
McCreary concluded, "The premise that Afghanistan would become an al-Qaeda safe
haven under any future government is alarmist and bespeaks a lack of
understanding of the Pashtuns on this issue and a superficial knowledge of
recent Afghan history."
The Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) former national intelligence officer
for the Middle East, Paul Pillar, expressed doubt that the Taliban's relations
with al-Qaeda were tighter now than before the Taliban regime was ousted.
"I don't see how you can say that," Pillar told Inter Press Service. "If you
look at the pre-9/11 relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in many
ways it was far more extensive."
In the civil war between the Taliban regime and its Northern Alliance foes from
1996 through 2001, Pillar observed that "Bin Laden's Arabs and money"
represented a far bigger role in supporting the Taliban than the one al-Qaeda
is playing now.
"You can say that there are more groups which have relationships with al-Qaeda
now, but I don't see any as close as that which existed before 9/11," said
The role played by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the Taliban's struggle
against its rival the Northern Alliance from 1996 to 2001 has been documented
by journalist Roy Gutman, now foreign editor of McClatchy newspapers, and other
As early as 1997, 300 Arab troops trained by Bin Laden troops were fighting
alongside the Taliban on the front line north of Kabul, according to Gutman's
book, How We Missed the Story, published in 2008. Later, they were
reported to have taken over large sections of that front line.
Bin Laden's military and financial support became an even more important crutch
for the Taliban regime in its final years in power. Gutman says the Taliban's
mid-summer 1998 offensive in northern Pakistan was largely financed by Bin
In the last stage of the conflict, Gutman writes, al-Qaeda troops consisted of
1,500 to 2,500 Arabs and Central Asian "frontline fighters", and Ahmed Shah
Massoud, the commander of the Northern Alliance forces seeking to overthrow the
Taliban, regarded them as his toughest and most committed opponents.
Gutman quotes Massoud telling CIA operative Gary Schroen, "Every time I fight
the Taliban, the glue that holds them together is the Arab units."
Bin Laden also financed Taliban military equipment and operations, according to
Gutman's account. A summer 1998 Taliban offensive was fought with hundreds of
new Japanese pickup trucks - Massoud claimed a total of 1,200 vehicles - bought
with Bin Laden's money.
Today, however, al-Qaeda is cash-strapped and has very few foreign fighters in
Afghanistan, whereas the Taliban appear to be well-financed.
The US Treasury Department's expert on terrorist financing, David Cohen, said
al-Qaeda is "in its weakest financial position in several years" and "its
influence is waning", the BBC reported on Tuesday.
Jones told CNN interviewer John King on October 4 the presence of al-Qaeda in
Afghanistan today is "minimal", adding the "maximum estimate" is 100 foreign
fighters. One official critical of the White House position quoted in the
McClatchy story suggested the number might be as high as 200 or 250.
Both figures appears to be consistent with the estimate by Western officials of
a total of only 100 to 300 foreign fighters in Afghanistan cited in the New
York Times on October 30, 2007.
Of that total, however, only "small numbers" were Arabs and Chechens, Uzbeks or
other Central Asians, who are known to have links with al-Qaeda, Seth Jones of
the Rand Corporation told Voice of America the following month.
The bulk of the foreign fighters in Afghanistan are Pashtuns from across the
border in Pakistan. Those Pashtun fighters are recruited from religious schools
in Pakistan, but there is no evidence that they are affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Just this month, US intelligence has increased its estimate of Taliban armed
insurgents to 17,000, compared with 10,000 in late 2007. Even if all foreign
fighters were considered as al-Qaeda, therefore, 250 of them would represent
only 1.5% of the estimated total.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.