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Taliban leaves tribal roots for Al Qaeda tactics

The Taliban has adopted more aggressive tactics – such as kidnappings and suicide bombings – imported directly from the Al Qaeda-led global jihad.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2007

Kabul, Afghanistan

By killing two South Korean hostages and refusing to release the remaining 21, including 18 women, the Taliban is taking a new path that suggests it is becoming an Afghan branch of Al Qaeda.

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In the past 18 months, the Taliban has adopted more aggressive tactics – such as kidnappings and suicide bombings – imported directly from the Al Qaeda-led global jihad.

It marks a departure from the Taliban of the recent past. Indeed, experts say that the Taliban's original reason for being – an intensely tribal brand of religious fundamentalism – has all but evaporated, as Muslims of all sects participate in a movement based less and less on traditional tribal values and increasingly on anti-Americanism and terrorism.

As a result, Pashtun tribal elders, long the best hope to negotiate the release of foreign hostages, including the Koreans, are increasingly being marginalized as the Taliban moves beyond its Afghan roots.

"This is a new strategy," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban." "There has been a progressive Al Qaeda-ization of tactics."

On July 31, Afghan police recovered the body of a second Korean aid worker killed since the group was taken hostage on a dangerous road in the insurgency-plagued south two weeks ago. The Taliban set a new deadline of 3:30 a.m. Eastern Time Aug. 1, saying it would kill more hostages if eight Taliban prisoners were not freed.

The Afghan government has insisted that it will not meet the Taliban's demands, despite pressure from the South Korean government to do so.

During the crisis, Afghan leaders have repeatedly taken issue with the Taliban's shift in tactics. On Sunday, President Hamid Karzai denounced the kidnapping of women and "foreign guests" as unIslamic, and added: "This will have a shameful effect on the dignity of the Afghan people."

For Hajji Spandagul, a tribal elder from eastern Afghanistan, it is abhorrent. "This is not the culture of Afghanistan – to take women hostage, especially in the tribal culture," he says, waving his large, weathered hands forcefully.

Here in a guesthouse for tribal elders visiting Kabul, he sits with several of his colleagues from around the country. In the past, elders like Mr. Spandagul have been able to intervene in hostage situations. They often live in areas beyond the government's control, meaning they must remain neutral, carving out whatever level of peace they can between the Taliban and the Kabul.

"We are threatened on both sides," says Jamaluddin Alizai, an elder from Kandahar Province, where the Taliban resistance is centered. "During the night, the Taliban come to my area, and I have to give them food or they will kill us, then the government comes in the morning and says, 'Why did you give them food?' "

Negotiating for the release of hostages has always been a natural means of maintaining calm in elders' districts. "We are being killed by both sides: How long should it last?" says Khair Mohammed, an elder from Nangahar Province who speaks in measured tones as he leans forward on one of the guesthouse's brown couches. "But the way forward is that we should get these people [hostages] out peacefully or else it will cause more problems."