A New York Times series detailing reporter David Rohde's seven-month captivity with the Taliban does not hold many surprises for close followers of the movement. But it could impact the debate over the scope of the war in Afghanistan.
Some policymakers hoping to craft an exit strategy have pinned hopes on a political settlement with some Taliban groups that would separate many of their fighters from Al Qaeda and other "irreconcilable" groups. A senior Western diplomat said a key element to the success of the new war strategy proposed by US General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, will be convincing some insurgent groups to come in out of the cold.
"We need to identify the leaders who can be flipped," he said, "and then give them a reason to flip by showing them it will benefit them and their followers."
Underpinning that approach is a belief that many Taliban are motivated by group interests and nationalism, not idealistic religious goals. But Mr. Rohde argues against seeing at least one of the Taliban factions as a nationalist force. He said his seven months held captive by the Haqqani network, a hardline Taliban group that has been involved in suicide bombings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, convinced him that many fighters and commanders are deeply intertwined with Al Qaeda and its vision of global jihad.
"Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of 'Al Qaeda lite,' a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan," writes Rohde. But contact "with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world."
To be sure, the group that held Rohde has long been viewed as among the most dangerous and ideologically committed of the fighters in the region and the word "Taliban" is now something of a catch-all term for ethnically Pashtun, Sunni fighters opposed to the US-backed government in Kabul.
There are a number of different Taliban networks, with separate command structures, core ideologies, and tactics. The Haqqani network was formed by Jallaludin Haqqani during the 1980s war to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, and at that time enjoyed strong financial backing from the United States. Now run by his son Sirajuddin, the group was one of Osama bin Laden's earliest supporters inside Afghanistan and has long been viewed by the US government as ideologically in line with Al Qaeda's goals. (Here's a breakdown of the different leading Taliban groups.)
Talking to the Taliban
Rohde, who won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Srebenica massacre while working as a Christian Science Monitor correspondent in the 1990s, and another as part of a New York Times team for coverage of the Afghanistan war, implicitly compares his efforts at negotiating his own release with the larger US policy goal of finding moderate Taliban with whom to deal. In the early days of his captivity, he thought he could identify moderates amid the irreconcilables among his captors.
"In my mind, Qari and Atiqullah personified polar ends of the Taliban. Qari represented a paranoid, intractable force. Atiqullah embodied the more reasonable faction: people who would compromise on our release and, perhaps, even on peace in Afghanistan," he writes of two of his captors.
At first, Atiqullah appeared to be more a gangster than an Islamist, motivated mostly by the prospect of squeezing a ransom out of Rohde's family or the US government, Rohde wrote. But as time went on, Rohde realized that Atiqullah was toying with him and had been lying about own identity. Rather than a low-level captor, Atiqullah turned out to be the Taliban leader Abu Tayyeb, the man Rohde was trying to meet when he was kidnapped along with his translator and driver last November in Afghanistan's Logar Province.
He and his translator eventually escaped in June after months of captivity, most of it in North and South Waziristan in Pakistan, just over the Afghan border.
In Waziristan, he witnessed what he calls a "mini-state" within Pakistan run by the Taliban and hosting a mix of Arab, Uzbek, Central Asian, Afghan, and Pakistani Islamist commanders.
For some American security experts, the reality of these enclaves of radicals puts boundaries on the discussion of peace talks.
Talking to Al Qaeda?
"At the district level and below, there are going to be individuals who can be dealt with," says Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal. But "as a whole, you are not going to negotiate with Mullah Omar, with the Haqqanis. They are in bed with Al Qaeda – they are part of the movement."
The multiplicity of Taliban factions across the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the nebulous connections between them, complicates the debate on the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Of particular focus has been the Quetta Shura, an Afghan Taliban group run by Mullah Omar.
"Recent Afghan Taliban communiqués emphasized nationalist – as opposed to pan-Islamist – messaging, but it's too early to know if that signifies an actual distancing from Al Qaeda or a shift in strategic communications," says Stephen Tankel, an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
There is considerable backing for the view that the Quetta Shura remains closely allied to Al Qaeda, much the way Rohde portrays the Haqqani network.
"No question a number of Taliban fighters have been influenced as Rhode describes. Others less so. One objective on our side remains splitting off those who are reconcilable from those who are not," says Mr. Tankel.
Rhode describes how his captors talked not just of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but dwelt on casualties in Iraq and among the Palestinians. Their views may have been geographically broad, but were narrowly focused thanks to education limited to religious schooling and jihadi videos of suicide bombers, beheadings, and ambushes. Debate proved pointless.
"Their hatred for the United States seemed boundless," wrote Rhode. "Nothing I said ... seemed to change their minds."
They remained unfazed about hating Christian missionaries while they tried repeatedly to convert Rohde; they cried over the killing of civilians by militaries, but cheered their own killing of dozens of civilians in suicide car bombs.
Even American soft power made little difference: His captors sang Beatles tunes and listened to American radio news.
"I thought what was interesting was how the Taliban were able to hold internally inconsistent views about the US with no apparent cognitive dissonance on their part," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy on the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
That suggests to him that the US will be unable to placate the Haqqani network no matter what it tries, even withdrawal from the region. And that's not necessarily due to the leadership at the top, but to changes occurring at the bottom.
"Rohde's article suggests that the foot soldiers who are filling out their ranks are increasingly radicalized – perhaps through their contacts with Al Qaeda," says Mr. Biddle. "If so, whatever you think of the motivation of the warlords at the top, they may be forced to the more radical extreme because of the need to keep the allegiances of the foot soldiers."