Intel: Al-Qaida Down, Taliban Rising The debate over an appropriate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan hinges, in part, on differing assessments of the Taliban's relations with al-Qaida. The aggressive U.S. pursuit of al-Qaida has hampered its operations. But there is a counterargument: The Taliban has grown stronger, wealthier and more radical, and may now be disposed to offer more support to al-Qaida.

Intel: Al-Qaida Down, Taliban Rising

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'M Melissa Block in California.


And I'm Michele Norris in Washington, D.C.

The debate over how to move ahead in Afghanistan has divided the American people. It has split the Obama administration. It even appears to have opened a dispute among intelligence analysts. Here's one question they're debating: Does the increased success of the Taliban in Afghanistan mean its al-Qaida allies will also grow stronger? Intelligence officials are of two minds on that point, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: For those who worry about al-Qaida, there is good news from the Treasury Department. David Cohen, an assistant secretary who follows the terrorists' money trail recently told the American Bankers Association that efforts to go after al-Qaida's financing have proved successful.

Mr. DAVID COHEN (Assistant Secretary, Treasury Department): In the first six months of this year, al-Qaida's leaders made four public appeals for money, including one in June of this year when an al-Qaida leader announced that a lack of funding was hurting the group's recruitment and training.

GJELTEN: And what does that mean?

Mr. COHEN: We assess that al-Qaida is in its weakest financial condition in several years. And that, as a result, its influence is waning.

GJELTEN: Its influence is waning. So, even if the Taliban advance in Afghanistan, al-Qaida may not be in a position to re-establish its sanctuary there. Without financial resources, al-Qaida has lost some of its clout. But that's the Treasury Department view.

Philip Mudd, a top counterterrorism officer originally with the CIA, now with the FBI, has a different take on al-Qaida's financial position. He spoke this week to the New America Foundation.

Mr. PHILIP MUDD (Counterterrorism Officer, FBI): To my mind money is sometimes overrated. I think they've got some significant money problems. But their problems conducting operations aren't money-related.

GJELTEN: 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. But new fighters are still arriving.

And another point, after saying al-Qaida's influence is waning due to its money problems, David Cohen, the assistant Treasury secretary, added this caveat.

Mr. COHEN: Many other terrorist organizations, most prominently the Taliban, are in much stronger financial shape than al-Qaida. These other organizations continue to pose serious threats to U.S. interest around the world. The fresh Taliban money comes in large part from the opium trade. United Nations officials have put Taliban drug earnings at tens of millions of dollars a year, perhaps hundreds of millions.

Now, one conclusion to draw here is that a wealthy Taliban movement won't turn for help from an impoverished al-Qaida. So it may be more inclined to break away from the terror network. Some intelligence officers do make that argument. But other analysts don't buy it. Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth travels often to Afghanistan and monitors al-Qaida videos that appears to him that al-Qaida and the Taliban are closer than they've ever been, both operationally and ideologically.

Professor BRIAN GLYN WILLIAMS (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth): Al-Qaida is, you know, much more joined at the hip - the Taliban - since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001. In some ways the Taliban has morphed under al-Qaida influence and become a bona fide terrorist organization.

GJELTEN: If the Taliban is now an ideological ally of al-Qaida, whether it's financially independent may not mean much. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, takes the argument one step further. He actually sees a possible role reversal here.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Terrorism Expert, Georgetown University): It used to be that al-Qaida paid the Taliban.

GJELTEN: Now he says the Taliban leaders may be inclined to return that financial support in exchange, perhaps, for the help they're still receiving from al-Qaida.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Foreign fighters provide training and expertise to the Taliban and other groups. So the Taliban paying al-Qaida, I don't think, is outside of the realm of imagination, much less possibility.

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

Admittedly, much of this is speculation. There are intelligence officials on both sides of this debate. That could be one reason President Obama is moving slowly on a decision of what to do next in Afghanistan.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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