Monday, October 6, 2008

Not Your Father's Taliban

Pop Quiz: Who are the Taliban, where are they, and what are they up to? What's the nature of their ties to al Qaeda, Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Odds are, you got most of that question wrong. I say that, because up until a couple weeks ago, I would have gotten all of that wrong too.

The most important story today that didn't get nearly enough coverage was CNN's report that the Taliban has cut all ties with al Qaeda and begun secret Saudi-backed peace talks with the Afghani government.

Now, both sides have denied this report. Of course they've denied it. If you are holding talks in secret, odds are you don't want people to know about them.

But I'm going to cautiously assume the report is true. Couple reasons:
1). Hamid Karzai has admitted to asking for Saudi help in talking to the Taliban
2). It makes all the sense in the world for Saudi Arabia to host such talks and
3). This is not your father's Taliban.

I don't think that last fact is very widely understood in the US, where it's become fashionable to say "Taliban" and "al Qaeda" in one breath. In reality, the two are vastly different groups, and the days of them being joined at the hip are apparently over.

By its very nature, al Qaeda has always been more ambitious, more dangerous, and just plain old crazier than the Taliban. While both groups are founded on a similar radical conservative religious ideology (what the neocons like to call "Islamo-Fascism"), they have very different goals. Osama Bin Laden fancies himself the leader of a modern, international jihad. He is a holy warrior, ever searching for enemies of the faith to be cut down. Al Qaeda's grand ambition may be to enforce its view of Islam on the world, but in practice this mostly consists of pursuing a neverending series of grudges. Al Qaeda is, in short, bent entirely on the destruction of anything it deems impure.

The Taliban is a different ball of wax. The Taliban is a regional political entity. Its 0riginal goal was to establish Afghanistan as a Sharia state, following its own particularly strict theology. They were bad guys, for sure, but their concerns were both local and constructive. Unlike al Qaeda, which need only blow shit up, the Taliban had to actually run a country. They did a piss poor job of it too, I might add, in their first go around.

But like I said, things have changed. The Taliban is still run by the one-eyed mullah Mohammad Omar, but Mullah Omar has a lot in common with the Easter Bunny. That is to say, I'm not totally convinced either of them exist. Omar is almost never seen or heard from. He was not, according to the CNN report, present at the Saudi negotiations, though his representatives were sure to mention him.

At the same time, the Taliban he's (supposedly) presiding over now, bears little resemblance to the one the US ousted. "They are more educated," the Post quotes a former Taliban foreign ministry aide as saying, "and they don't punish people for having CDs or cassettes." I'm assuming this example is meant to be symbolic of an overall loosening of the Taliban's moral strictures. Because today's Taliban isn't a bunch of religious extremists, at least not entirely. It's mostly made up of people dissatisfied with Hamid Karzai's government. To that end, they've effectively set up a competing government in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. And whereas the old Taliban couldn't have managed the intricacies of Sim City, the new Taliban's apparently been quite effective. They have a ministry of finance, a justice system, you name it. Given how radically different all this sounds from the old Taliban, I think it's reasonable to wonder if Omar still has the car keys.

So what does all this mean? It means that we shouldn't be dealing with the Taliban as a group of terrorist insurgents, though they are surely utilizing terrorism as a tactic. We should be treating them like a quasi-governmental entity. We should think of them the same way we think of Fatah and Hamas. Like those groups, the Taliban uses violent methods and religious rhetoric, but its goals are largely rational, political and secular. In other words, they're things you could sit down and negotiate. Is it possible and even probable that some of these goals will be batshit and unreasonable? Sure. But by having the conversation, we'll at the very least better understand our enemy.

That's why the Governor of Pakistan's border region recently called for the US to talk with Mullah Omar and company, and why Omar himself offered to arrange a safe withdrawal for coalition troops. And it's why I believe that the Taliban is indeed negotiating with the Afghan government right now in Saudi Arabia.

Now the only question is, are we going to join in?

Probably not. That would be negotiating with terrorists, which the US, obviously, does not do.

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