Courtesy Reuters

General Stanley McChrystal’s proposal for substantial U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan has triggered a major debate about U.S. policy toward the conflict there, both within the Obama administration and without. Behind the dispute over American resources, strategy, and interests, however, lie fundamental questions that rarely get addressed directly: Who is the enemy in Afghanistan, and what do they want? Al Qaeda, die-hard terrorists who seek to continue what they started, is one obvious answer. Fine. But what about the Taliban? Are they so closely linked to al Qaeda as to be indistinguishable from them, or can they be dealt with—either co-opted or allowed to thrive untouched?

Commentators often distinguish between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban, but, in terms of ethnicity and location, they are very similar—both are Pashtun and both enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The main difference is in their

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  • BARBARA ELIAS is Director of the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Taliban Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
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