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 leadership structures. In the early 1990s, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the current Afghan Taliban leader, united a group of fellow anti-Soviet mujahideen to combat the chaos that the country had fallen into after the Soviets’ departure. They coined a name for themselves by combining the Arabic prefix “Talib” (meaning “student”) with the Pashto plural suffix “-an” -- seeking to convey their humility and background in Pakistan’s Islamist madrassas. Mullah Omar’s group was able to grow rapidly and take over the country largely because other contenders for power had become so brutal, fragmented, and unattractive to average Afghans. The population did not demand a severe Islamist regime but was willing to accept one as a way to restore order.
The Taliban who governed Afghanistan from 1996–2001 had strong ties to Pakistan, both official and unofficial: they formed their identity in Pakistani schools and refugee camps, received funding and support from Islamabad that enabled their rise, and had close bilateral relations with their patrons after they seized power. Their agenda, however, was primarily a national one, and it remained so even