Afghan President Karzai’s new reconciliation policy, articulated in his January 28 speech at the London Conference, is that non-ideological, or non-extremist, Taliban members who also have no links to al Qaeda, may make peace with the Afghan government and be helped materially to reintegrate into Afghan society. However, the radical Taliban elements and al Qaeda fighters are hopeless and cannot be rehabilitated.
Karzai’s reconciliation policy is reminiscent of the biblical Judgment Day where the sheep are separated from the goats. Understood in Karzai’s policy is that not all insurgents are alike and not all are evil. Some are evil for sure, and all al Qaeda members are evil without exception, but many insurgents that are fighting against the Karzai government and international forces fight for non-ideological reasons. According to Karzai, this latter group can be saved.
The line from Karzai’s London Conference speech where he articulates reconciliation is: “We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al Qaeda or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution” (see YouTube link). Discriminating among the insurgents may be a bit murky but the theory behind Karzai’s reconciliation policy has substance.
The way Karzai’s theory goes is that many of the men who have joined the Taliban have done so because the Taliban offered them a means to support their families. Others joined out of intimidation or for nationalist reasons. These types of people did not join the insurgency for ideological reasons and may be willing to reconcile with the government, which means -and this is important- they would have to accept the Afghan Constitution, a document that is influenced by Islam, Afghan tradition, and Western democracy.
President Karzai refers to these types of insurgents as “our disenchanted brothers.” The word disenchanted can mean “disappointed” or “dissatisfied”. If understood correctly, Karzai is saying that the insurgents are disappointed with their current situation, or their association with the Taliban and the dead end where that relationship is leading them.
Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul echoed Karzai’s reconciliation message: “There are elements within the Taliban -Pakistani Taliban but some Afghan Taliban- they have links, closer links with al Qaeda and those people cannot be reintegrated or reconciled so we need to fight them” (see Quqnoos story).
In contrast to the good Taliban, the bad Taliban are men blinded by religious extremism. This group includes Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself but may not include all of his leadership council, or the “Quetta Shura”, as recent evidence points to a schism developing in the Taliban’s upper leadership (see story).
The bad Taliban fighters have friendly ties to al Qaeda. The Taliban-al Qaeda relationship dates back to the mid-90s when Mullah Omar hosted Osama bin Ladin after the Sudanese government asked the latter to leave the Sudan. Mullah Omar permitted bin Ladin to set up training camps in Afghanistan where recruits could be indoctrinated with extremist ideology and then attack targets all over the world. In effect, the Taliban provided the necessary refuge for al Qaeda to realize its mission.
The two continue their courtship at present. Their common goal is to get international forces out of Afghanistan, topple the Karzai government, and transform Afghanistan into an Islamic state after a peculiar hybrid version of Islam that merges Pashtun culture with radical religious elements from Wahhabism (from Saudi Arabia) and Deobandism (from India).
The biggest non-ideological difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda is al Qaeda’s larger goal. Officially, the Taliban has only its national ambition so it insists that it is no threat to the West. However, its willingness to team up with al Qaeda makes the Taliban a threat to the world. In contrast, al Qaeda has a global vision, which is first to expel Western powers and all Western cultural and political influences from Muslim-dominated lands, and then eventually to convert the whole world (including the West) to Islam.
Both the Taliban and al Qaeda are intransigent in the achieving of their goals. Compromise is not an option. Both use suicide bombings, road mines (IEDs), assassinations, and intimidation and, consequently, kill a lot of civilians. Afghan security forces and international forces have also taken civilian lives but when they have apologies, investigations, and restitution have followed. In contrast, the Taliban and al Qaeda chalk up civilian lives lost to their suicide bombings as the consequences of Jihad.
(Even in the case of the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal lands, the US operates surgically. That is, it tries to kill just the insurgents and avoid civilian casualties as much as possible. Hypothetically, if the tables were reversed and it were al Qaeda operating drone airstrikes in Western towns, they would take out whole towns without giving it a second thought, because they believe that Western civilians are linked to their government’s actions. In contrast, the West discriminates between civilians and fighters even if the local civilians are sympathetic to the fighters.)
Whether or not President Karzai’s reconciliation effort will work remains to be seen. While it is a good idea, such an outreach may be premature and ultimately rebuffed by the very non-extremist Taliban elements that it is designed for, since these men likely will fear Taliban reprisals. However, if the Afghan and international security forces can gain the upper hand (or “momentum”) on the battlefield, then non-extremist Taliban efforts might be emboldened to jump ship.