U.S. Reassesses Taliban Role In Fight Against Al-Qaida As the Obama administration explores new options for Afghanistan, there is renewed focus on a key premise of the current strategy: preventing the Taliban from regaining control. But questions are growing over the threat the Taliban actually pose to U.S. national security interests.

U.S. Reassesses Taliban Role In Fight Against Al-Qaida

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

The Obama administration is exploring new options for Afghanistan. One reported proposal favored by Vice President Joe Biden calls for scaling back the American military presence there. The remaining troops would then focus on protecting large population centers.

Preventing the Taliban from returning to power is key to the administration's current strategy. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, there are increasing questions about the threat the Taliban actually poses to U.S. national security interests.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The goal of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan has been to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida. To that end, the theory goes: the Taliban must also be defeated in order to prevent it from regaining control of Afghanistan and once again offering al-Qaida safe haven, from which to plot attacks against the U.S. This thinking is misguided, says Ted Galen Carpenter, a defense and foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute.

Dr. TED GALEN CARPENTER (Vice President, Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute): It has been a big mistake of U.S. policymakers to completely conflate al-Qaida and the Taliban. The former is a foreign terrorist organization with the United States in its crosshairs. The latter is a parochial insurgency. It is not a direct security threat to the United States.

NORTHAM: Carpenter says over the years, the U.S. has drifted into war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, not primarily against al-Qaida, which U.S. intelligence officials say has been entrenched in neighboring Pakistan since being driven from Afghanistan in late 2001 by American forces. Carpenter says it's time to rethink the strategy.

Dr. CARPENTER: If al-Qaida is not in Afghanistan, why on earth are we in Afghanistan? We went there to defeat al-Qaida. If this isn't the arena for al-Qaida anymore, then our mission seems to have no rational purpose whatsoever.

NORTHAM: Carpenter says that even if the Taliban was able to reestablish control, it's not at all certain it they would allow al-Qaida to use Afghanistan as a training and logistical base again. After all, the Taliban was driven from power because of its association with al-Qaida.

But Frederick Kagan, with the American Enterprise Institute, disagrees. Kagan, who advices General Stan McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says the Taliban's links with al-Qaida are strong.

Dr. FREDERICK KAGAN (Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute): The reason al-Qaida was there was because of an ideological affinity between the Taliban leaders and bin Laden and his group, and because of personal ties between the groups that go back to the 1980s. And I don't think that there's any evidence to suggest that those personal ties or ideological ties weakened.

NORTHAM: But Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer and now a professor at Georgetown University, questions how much of an advantage al-Qaida would gain if the Taliban regained power. Pillar says al-Qaida would become an easier target if it moves from Pakistan and tries to regroup in Afghanistan.

And Pillar says groups like al-Qaida don't actually need a haven nowadays. He says globalization has led to freer movement of ideas, people and money, which has been exploited by international terrorists. Which means: they're not beholden to any one headquarters.

Professor PAUL PILLAR (Security Studies, Georgetown University): Most of the things that terrorists may do, and what comes to be regarded as a safe haven, can very easily be done. Or at least with little additional cost and trouble be done someplace else, including in hiding places in Western countries.

NORTHAM: Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, says it might not be al-Qaida that the U.S. would need to worry about if the Taliban was able to gain control in all or even parts of Afghanistan. Williams says the Taliban has become more sophisticated in its tactics over the past few years and more global in its thinking.

Professor BRIAN GLYN WILLIAMS (Islamic History, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth): I'm afraid the Taliban of 2001 is not the Taliban of 2009. That they have become more radicalized, more extreme. They've become closer to the al-Qaida, and they will see the U.S. as an enemy for removing them from power back in 2001.

NORTHAM: Some analysts say the U.S. should have good enough intelligence and certainly the use of unmanned drones, to prevent al-Qaida from setting up shop once again in Afghanistan.

But as one analyst pointed out, despite all the intelligence assets the U.S. has in Afghanistan and all the drones flying around the region, it still hasn't been able to wipe out terrorist networks.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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