The Taliban-Al Qaeda Connection

As Pakistan is rocked by new attacks, it’s nice to think America could focus on taking out al Qaeda without tackling the Taliban. Reihan Salam on the flawed premise driving the Afghan debate.

Veronique de Viguerie / Edit by Getty Images

The case of Najibullah Zazi serves as a grim reminder that al Qaeda continues to plan deadly attacks against American civilians. Zazi traveled to Pakistan's rugged borderlands, where he connected with al Qaeda operatives who provided him with explosives training in the summer of 2008. The next year, a few months after he had returned home to the United States, Zazi began gathering explosive materials to launch an attack, one that could have killed dozens. Yet it's worth keeping in mind that this plot, however dastardly, pales in significance to the terror attacks of 2001, which demonstrated a level of sophistication and coordination that was truly terrifying. One gets the impression that Zazi, like the shoe-bomber and dozens of other crack terrorists, is not the sharpest tack in the box. Though al Qaeda is at least as committed to killing Americans these days as they were back then, the organization is now relying on a dwindling band of half-wits.

A Taliban victory would embolden the potential Arab recruits who are reluctant to join a fearful and bottled-up al Qaeda, not to mention inspire Saudi Islamists to opentheir pocketbooks.

After eight years of determined effort, the U.S. has destroyed most of al Qaeda's infrastructure and killed and captured dozens of its most formidable strategists and experienced fighters. What is left is a pathetic husk. As U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities in al Qaeda's shrinking sanctuary have improved, CIA drone attacks and special forces raids have grown far more likely to hit their targets. And so al Qaeda's once fearsome elite is spending almost all of its energy trying desperately to stay alive, which is to say that the terrorists are terrified. The destruction of al Qaeda central has meant that the global Islamist insurgency has become highly decentralized. Zazi's connection to al Qaeda marks him as the exception, as other would-be Islamist terrorists have been "self-starters" inspired by Osama bin Laden's ideology yet completely independent. For a time, there was a real concern that this made the al Qaeda threat more potent rather than less. The idea was that a leaderless Internet-enabled movement would prove impossible to defeat or even control. The prosaic truth is that it's impressively easy to monitor mad ravings on the web, and that disaffected youth can do far less damage than highly-educated hardened terrorists with millions of dollars in the bank. At this point, al Qaeda's only hope is that the Taliban, a movement Osama bin Laden mentored and nurtured, will help renew its strength by driving the United States and its allies out of even larger swathes of Afghanistan. Among other things, a Taliban victory would embolden the potential Arab recruits who are reluctant to join a fearful and bottled-up al Qaeda, not to mention inspire Saudi Islamists to open their pocketbooks.

Ahmed Rashid: The Pakistan Army’s Political GambleAs President Obama weighs America's options in Afghanistan, which range from the horrific to the miserably bad, there is a growing sense, thanks in no small part to those successful drone attacks, that the U.S. can vanquish al Qaeda without also crushing the Taliban. Because the Taliban regime sheltered al Qaeda in the years before and immediately after 9/11, Americans tend to see the two organizations as inseparable. Yet there are obvious and important differences, including the fact that al Qaeda is a small organization of mostly Arab militants and the Taliban is an indigenous political movement that draws on the distinctive beliefs and traditions of the Pashtun people who straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within the national security establishment, many are comparing the Taliban to Lebanon's Hezbollah, a social and political movement that uses intimidation and violence as well as social services and slick propaganda to achieve its ends. al Qaeda, in contrast, has no real roots, and it certainly doesn't operate a meals-on-wheels program. While the Taliban and al Qaeda have been tightly coordinated in the past, we're now seeing the Taliban rise while al Qaeda declines. And if al Qaeda were truly destroyed, even a Taliban conquest of all of southern Afghanistan wouldn't be enough to bring it back. The trouble is that for all of the C.I.A.'s targeted killings, al Qaeda's command structure remains intact. The continued survival of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri means that an al Qaeda revival remains a very real possibility.

So while Vice President Joe Biden and anti-war liberals and conservatives believe we can simply take out al Qaeda without also fighting the Taliban, it's hard not to conclude that we need a stable Afghanistan if we really want to prevent the monster from reemerging. This is not the answer anyone really wants, least of all an American public that has grown weary of the casualties and the massive expenditures involved in fighting what often looks like an unwinnable war. But it's the only answer that doesn't rely on wishful thinking.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.