Jonathan Chait

The Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban: Two Heads of the Same Monster

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This morning’s New York Times piece about the alleged Times Square bomber who may have connections to the Taliban in Pakistan included this tidbit:

The Pakistani Taliban is a different organization from the Taliban groups that the United States is battling in Afghanistan.

However, at TNR we’ve run several pieces that argue differently. Back in February, David Rohde, the NYT reporter that was held in captivity for seven months by the Taliban, explained first-hand his experience with the “Afghan Taliban” and “Pakistani Taliban,” while also reviewing two books that affirm his view:  

Over the next several days, it became clear to me that our Afghan Taliban abductors had not sold us to the Pakistani Taliban. Instead the two groups were working seamlessly together. When we departed from the area six weeks later for unknown reasons, the coordination between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban was equally flawless. Throughout our captivity, Afghan and Pakistani militants spoke in one voice of their desire to topple the American-backed governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and halt what they saw as the oppression of Muslims worldwide.     

While American troops are on their way to Afghanistan, however, Pakistani military officials are refusing to confront the Afghan Taliban inside their borders. For years, Pakistani officials have differentiated between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups, insisting that Afghan militants pose no threat to the Pakistani state. They also say that they hope to use the Afghan Taliban as proxies to prevent attempts by India to gain influence in Afghanistan after the Obama administration begins withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in 2011. As long as they persist in this view, it appears that the Afghan Taliban will continue to enjoy a sanctuary in Pakistan. In January, Pakistani officials rebuffed a request from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Pakistan launch a military offensive in North Waziristan. The area, which is dominated by an Afghan Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network, is one of the last major Taliban strongholds in the tribal area.

These books suggest--as does as my own experience in captivity--that the Pakistani differentiation between the two Talibans is false. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban work closely together, strengthening and supporting each other in various ways. For this reason, the American surge in Afghanistan appears unlikely to achieve a military victory until the Pakistanis themselves move more aggressively against the Afghan Taliban. From its Pakistani base, the Haqqani network has carried out a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul, including a recent attack on the Central Bank that paralyzed the city. As long as the Haqqanis remain unchallenged in Pakistan, American and Afghan security forces will have a very hard time containing them--let alone defeating them.

And last October Peter Bergen pointed out that the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are "quite a bit more interwoven than is commonly thought," reflecting the way the security of each country depends on the other:

These arguments point toward one conclusion: The effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest. But those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism--and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.

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