Intel: Al-Qaida Down, Taliban Rising

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U.S. troops in Afghanistan prepare to board a helicopter i

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Wardak province prepare to board a Black Hawk helicopter. The Obama administration is assessing U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan and weighing whether to send tens of thousands more troops. Dima Gavrysh/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dima Gavrysh/AP
U.S. troops in Afghanistan prepare to board a helicopter

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Wardak province prepare to board a Black Hawk helicopter. The Obama administration is assessing U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan and weighing whether to send tens of thousands more troops.

Dima Gavrysh/AP

Obama administration officials, military commanders and U.S. intelligence analysts may debate the proper policy to be followed in Afghanistan, but on one point there is consensus: The Taliban movement has grown in strength in recent months.

The disagreement arises over whether the network of militants affiliated with al-Qaida stands to gain or to lose from this Taliban advance.

The evidence is mixed. U.S. intelligence officials claim that al-Qaida has suffered significant setbacks in recent months. Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that efforts to crack down on al-Qaida's financial support have proved successful.

Treasury's assistant secretary for financial intelligence, David Cohen, said that al-Qaida's leaders have made four public appeals for money in the first six months of this year. "We assess that al-Qaida is in its weakest financial condition in several years — and that as a result, its influence is waning," Cohen said in a speech before the American Bankers Association and American Bar Association.

But the Treasury Department's conclusion applies only to al-Qaida.

"Many other terrorist organizations, most prominently the Taliban, are in much stronger financial shape than al-Qaida," Cohen said. The fresh Taliban money comes in large part from the drug trade: United Nations officials have put their drug earnings at tens of millions of dollars a year — perhaps hundreds of millions.

Some analysts immediately seized on Cohen's report as evidence that the ties between al-Qaida and the Taliban have weakened.

John McCreary, a retired analyst from the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote in his widely followed daily NightWatch blog that Cohen's statement "means that the Afghan Taliban has no need of al-Qaida for financial support."

McCreary wrote: "The conclusion is compelling, that al-Qaida is not a significant influence on the Afghan Taliban movement." That is a view that is propounded by several Obama administration officials.

There are other perspectives, however. Philip Mudd, a veteran counterterrorism officer with the CIA and the FBI, this week downplayed the importance of al-Qaida's financial problems.

"To my mind, money is sometimes overrated," Mudd told a forum organized by the New America Foundation. "It's significant, but I don't see money as a huge impediment to conducting a single attack. I think [al-Qaida leaders] have some significant money problems, but their problems conducting operations are not money-related."

Mudd and others say al-Qaida has been affected by the military attacks directed against it over the past year. Missile strikes have killed many of the network's most experienced operatives.

Analysts are also divided over whether al-Qaida's depleted finances necessarily mean that its ties with the Taliban movement will diminish.

"Al-Qaida has become much more joined at the hip to the Taliban since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001," says Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Williams travels often to Afghanistan and monitors al-Qaida videos.

He argues that al-Qaida and the Taliban are closer than they have ever been — both operationally and ideologically.

"In some ways, the Taliban has morphed under al-Qaida influence and become a bona fide terrorist organization," Williams says.

If the Taliban and al-Qaida are more closely allied ideologically, the weakening of their financial connections may be less significant.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, takes that argument one step further, suggesting a possible role reversal between the two networks.

"It used to be that al-Qaida paid the Taliban," Hoffman points out. "The question now is whether the Taliban can provide a quid pro quo. Foreign fighters provide training and expertise to the Taliban and other groups. So I don't think the Taliban paying al-Qaida is outside the realm of possibility."

If the Taliban were to become al-Qaida's financial patron, it would add a whole new dimension to the security challenge the United States and its allies face in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Much of the analysis about al-Qaida and the Taliban is speculation, and intelligence officials differ over what it means. That could be one reason President Obama is moving slowly on a decision of what to do next in Afghanistan.



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