Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Both go by the name “Taliban,” but militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly diverging in their ultimate goal. The Pakistanis have joined al Qaeda’s campaign to attack Western targets and spread radical Islam while the Afghans want to rid their country of foreign troops but harbor no global ambitions, according to a number of prominent analysts.

The split potentially complicates U.S. strategy in the region while opening a route toward negotiations in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are battling a nationalistic Taliban in Afghanistan, but the internationally more ambitious Taliban, as well as al Qaeda, are located across the border in Pakistan, where the U.S. operates only with drones.

In a recent interview with a Pashto-language TV channel, Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Manan (also known as the Mullah Toor) condemned the Pakistani Taliban for targeting innocent civilians as “un-Islamic and wrong.”

He also denied that al Qaeda influences the Afghan Taliban, a stark change from the 1990s when the Afghan group hosted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda training camps and became the base for the Sept. 11 attacks.

White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones said last month that fewer than 100 al Qaeda members are left in Afghanistan and that most of al Qaeda is now based in Pakistan.

A U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan might make it easier for al Qaeda to re-establish itself in Afghanistan, but some analysts question whether al Qaeda would be welcome.

Ashraf Ali, a specialist on the Afghan Taliban movement, told The Washington Times that some former Taliban leaders, such as Afghanistan’s former foreign minister, have been allowed to live freely in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to represent the Taliban in negotiations with other Afghan factions and potentially the U.S.

Mr. Ali noted that Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the former foreign minister, also has stated that the Afghan Taliban does not share al Qaedas global agenda of terrorism and that his Taliban was not a threat to the world peace.

“Afghan Taliban know well that it would be very difficult for the Americans to negotiate with them unless they clearly distance themselves from al Qaeda and its new allies, the Pakistani Taliban,” Mr. Ali said.

Indeed, one of the key distinguishing factors between the two Talibans is that the Afghans insist they have a strictly local agenda of “liberating” their homeland, many analysts say. Beyond that, they would prefer to be left alone.

In contrast, the Pakistani Taliban has embraced al Qaeda’s vision of pan-Islamic rule, and it has increasingly targeted the Pakistani state instead of helping its Afghan brethren.

A Pakistani Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, has said that his organization aims to establish a strict fundamentalist Islamic system, not only in Pakistan, but also throughout the world starting from South Asia.

Rifatullah Orakzai, a Peshawar-based analyst, said the Afghan Taliban is trying to create good will by showing its differences with al Qaeda. For example, Mr. Muttawakil recently stated “that if the Taliban came into power, girls would be allowed to pursue education in segregated institutions,” Mr. Orakzai said.

The Afghan Taliban, he said, wants to show “that the religious militia is no longer as radical-minded as it had been during its rule [from 1996 to 2001]. Moreover, such a statement is also an attempt to distance Afghan Taliban from Pakistani Taliban,” which destroyed more than 400 girls schools when militants controlled Pakistan’s Swat valley earlier this year.

Not everyone accepts the premise of a complete rupture between the two Talibans.

The U.S. has to be careful not to be “suckered in” by relatively moderate statements by former and current Afghan Taliban officials, said Bruce Riedel, a specialist on South Asia who headed a policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration last spring. “A lot of smoke is being thrown up to confuse people.”

Mr. Riedel said that such figures as Mr. Muttawakil “speak for no one but themselves.”

Yet even Mr. Riedel recognizes growing tensions between the two camps.

“The Pakistani Taliban are attacking the ISI, which threatens the Afghan Taliban’s cozy relationship with the ISI,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

That is significant, because the ISI helped create and nurture the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s and ISI agents continue to maintain ties with Taliban factions in Afghanistan, Mr. Riedel said.

By doing so, Pakistani intelligence can retain influence in Afghanistan, especially in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, he said.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a leading Pakistani journalist and authority on Afghan affairs, said the Afghan Taliban wants to differentiate itself from the Pakistani branch so the two will no longer be “lumped together.”

Mr. Yusufzai quoted an unnamed Afghan Taliban member as saying, “The Afghan Taliban are fighting Western forces that have occupied Afghanistan. It is jihad against non-Muslims and occupiers. We cannot say the same about the new groups of Taliban fighting in places outside Afghanistan.”

Mr. Yusufzai said some Afghans were going so far as to ditch the name “Taliban,” because of the growing stigma attached to it. He quoted a senior Afghan Taliban official as saying that “the term Taliban no longer represented the madrassa students who rose against the Afghan mujahedeen in the mid-1990s and challenged and defeated their corrupt and cruel commanders.”

Meanwhile, links between Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda have been growing since the formation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in 2007. Al Qaeda helped forge the TTP out of several Pakistani factions.

Most Taliban members are Pashtuns, an ethnic group that straddles the border. But the TTP also includes ethnic Punjabis from the Pakistani heartland, which can be attributed in part to al Qaeda influence, analysts say.

In a recent interview, former French investigating magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere said he was convinced that Lashkar-e-Taiba, first set up by the Pakistani government to fight India in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, had become part of an international terrorist network tied to al Qaeda. The group is thought to be responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed more than 170 people.

“Lashkar-e-Taiba is no longer a Pakistani movement with only a Kashmir political or military agenda,” he told the Reuters news agency. “Lashkar-e-Taiba is a member of al Qaeda. Lashkar-e-Taiba has decided to expand violence worldwide.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.

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