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Bid to split Taliban, Al Qaeda

In Afghanistan, US and NATO reassess their strategy amid concerns that their efforts are failing.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 2008

Plans: President Bush met with his counterpart, Hamid Karzai, in Kabul Monday during a short trip to Afghanistan. The incoming administration is reassessing its strategy there.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters


Kabul, Afghanistan

The Afghan government and its allies are reconciling with moderates and isolating hard-liners in a bid to split the insurgency, Western and Afghan officials say.

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The idea of wooing moderates has gained traction as violence in Afghanistan has reached record levels this year. The United States and NATO are reassessing their strategy amid a growing chorus of Western officials who say that the international effort here is failing.

"Some ministries have started a program to try to separate Al Qaeda and the Taliban," says Ursala Rahmani, a former Taliban official who has been involved in talks with the government. Mr. Rahmani says that the Interior and Defense ministries are involved in the effort.

"We are trying to exploit the natural tensions that exist between Al Qaeda and those under Mullah Omar," the fugitive leader of the Taliban, adds a senior intelligence officer with the international forces, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some insurgent commanders may be closely aligned with Al Qaeda, which is waging an international, ideologically driven war against the West.

But Afghanistan experts say that most Afghan insurgents fight because of local grievances, including tribal rivalries, poor economic opportunities, and dissatisfaction with the Afghan government and international forces. Many experts say these insurgents have little interest in attacking sites in the West and restrict their concerns to Afghanistan.

Western officials dub these fighters "moderates," even though many of them are just as religiously conservative as their Al Qaeda counterparts.

"Over the long term, I see reconciliation as one of the primary actions that will have to occur for there to be success," says Carter Malkasian, who directs the Stability and Development program at CNA, a Washington-based think tank.

Two-pronged strategy

Such reconciliation is a key ingredient in the kind of counterinsurgency strategy militaries have used for decades, including in Iraq. The strategy may take two approaches. First, it will focus on the low-ranking insurgent fighters who may be easier to reconcile with the government.

"We tend to talk about the Taliban, but there is 'big T' Taliban, that is Mullah Omar and the [others] who ... swept through the country in the mid-'90s," says Eric Edelman, the Pentagon's senior policy official, told reporters in Washington recently. "There is what I call the 'small-T' Taliban, which are Pashtun tribals who are not reconciled to the government and may be engaging in ... activity kind of opportunistically."