Separating Taliban From Jihadists May Not Be Easy

U.S. officials this week have signaled that President Obama may choose to redirect the U.S. military in Afghanistan from a focus on the Taliban to a narrower mission of opposing al-Qaida. But while some Taliban seem interested only in participating in Afghan political life, others may harbor global jihadist aspirations.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

After today's Nobel Prize hubbub, President Obama made time to meet with his national security team. The topic: The way forward in Afghanistan. We've seen growing indications that Mr. Obama may choose to aim less for a complete defeat of the Taliban and more at keeping al-Qaida from establishing a foothold in Afghanistan. As NPR's Tom Gjelten explains, that shift would reflect a belief that the Taliban may be less threatening to U.S. interests than previously thought.

TOM GJELTEN: The war in Afghanistan entered its ninth year this week. The enemy all this time has been the Taliban, the Islamist movement that gave sanctuary to al-Qaida back when it ruled Afghanistan and is fighting now as an insurgency to return to power. But administration officials have taken pains lately to paint the Taliban as less dangerous than al-Qaida. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs yesterday pointed out that its al-Qaida that's a global jihadist network, wanting to strike the U.S. homeland.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): The Taliban are obviously exceedingly bad people that have done awful things. Their capability is somewhat different though on that continuum of transnational threats.

GJELTEN: If the Taliban don't represent a mortal threat to the United States, maybe it's not necessary to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan to fight them, as General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander, is requesting. The Taliban leaders have apparently picked up on this point. They put out a statement this week saying they're focused only on Afghanistan and have no plan of harming countries of the world. In fact, the insurgents in Afghanistan are almost entirely indigenous. Many are ethnic Pashtuns fighting simply for a bigger role in the governance of the country. They could possibly be won over. Tom Gouttierre directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska and runs a literacy training project for the Afghan Army.

Professor TOM GOUTTIERRE (Director, The Center for Afghanistan Studies, University of Nebraska): Those are the ones who are very likely to be incorporated into projects that hire them and bring them into, you know, the normal Afghan life. That's one kind of group.

GJELTEN: And you think that's a feasible strategy?

Prof. GOUTTIERRE: Going after them is not only feasible, it's absolutely imperative.

GJELTEN: Traditionally, the Pashtun people in Afghanistan have been hostile to foreigners. So to the extent the Taliban represent Pashtun attitudes, the movement may not be accommodating of al-Qaida, which is largely Arab. But Tom Johnson, an Afghanistan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, says that's too simplistic a view of the Taliban insurgency.

Professor TOM JOHNSON (Director, Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, Naval Postgraduate School): While traditional notions of the Pashtun and their tribal morays definitely play a role, it's much more sophisticated and nuanced than that. I mean, this is not just a tribal dynamic.

GJELTEN: Johnson, who recently returned from two months in Kandahar, notes that many part-time insurgent fighters were getting paid for their service, but he says that no longer explains their allegiance.

Prof. JOHNSON: They're not paying their foot soldiers anything. They're joining for ideological reasons. This is a very different Taliban foot soldier than we saw in 2007. They're committed jihadists.

GJELTEN: In his recent assessment of the Afghanistan mission, General McChrystal described three Afghan insurgent groups. The largest, active in the south of the country and led by Mullah Omar is the most Afghan oriented. But his assessment says the other two groups, active in Eastern Afghanistan, have developed close ties with al-Qaida in recent years. Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautions against making broad generalizations about the Afghan insurgency. He points to the evolution of the Taliban in Pakistan.

Dr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Chairman in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies): I think if you look back two years, you'd find the Pakistanis making the same judgments about the Taliban that some people in the United States make about it now; that you can predict its behavior, that you understand it, that you know how broad the threat is and how focused it is. Historically, those are very dangerous assumptions.

GJELTEN: General McChrystal is said to have offered the Obama administration and optional plan for Afghanistan that would require far less than 40,000 new troops, but he calls it a higher risk option. One danger is that there will be too few troops to confront the Taliban should it become a more threatening enemy than it now appears to be.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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