Intellectually, it makes sense, since the only reason anyone in the U.S. cares about the Taliban is because the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda ahead of 9/11, and the continuing relationship between elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda provides al-Qaeda in Pakistan with a degree of strategic depth in Afghanistan. Yet it’s still noteworthy that the administration summoned The New York Times to the White Houseto push the line that it was going to sharply distinguish between the two organizations as it considers its next Afghanistan and Pakistan steps:
“Clearly, Al Qaeda is a threat not only to the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad, but it has a murderous agenda,” one senior administration official said in an interview initiated by the White Houseon Wednesday on the condition of anonymity because the strategy review has not been finished. “We want to destroy its leadership, its infrastructure and its capability.”
The official contrasted that with the Afghan Taliban, which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States. “When the two are aligned, it’s mainly on the tactical front,” the official said, noting that Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters in Afghanistan.
Another official, who also was authorized to speakbut not to be identified, said the different views of Al Qaeda and the Taliban were driving the president’s review. “To the extent that Al Qaeda has been degraded, and it has, and to the extent you believe you need to focus on destroying it going forward, what is required going forward?” the official asked. “And to prevent it from having a safe haven?”
My emphasis. The administration is now considering two alternative propositions that require delicate assessment.
The first is, as the piece reports Richard Holbrooke is arguing, whether the Taliban would allow al-Qaeda back into Afghanistan if it took control. And there, the *available *evidence appears to support Holbrooke’s contention that it wouldn’t. Taliban elements have free reign in many areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, yet the administration is contending that there are only an estimated 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.
Now, even a Taliban fulsomely backed by Pakistani intelligence couldn’t take control of the entire country, so it’s unlikely that any Taliban “victory” scenario is going to end up with the Taliban and its affiliates running all of Afghanistan, and accordingly the administration will have to ask whether quantitativegains in Taliban control would lead either al-Qaeda or the Taliban to change the current dynamic. What’s more, it has to ask whether, say, the upcoming Pakistani military offensive in Waziristanwould make al-Qaeda’s senior leadership look for safer haven.
The danger for the administration is clear: premising a strategy on an optimistic scenario or a dimunition of danger is both substantively and politically troublesome. That’s not to say it’s necessarily wrong, but it’s what Gen. McChrystal would call a high-risk option.
The second consideration is whether the public will support a war that really doesdecouple al-Qaeda from the Taliban. So far the polling doesn’t suggest the public will. But there the considerations are actually much easier: if the public doesn’t support such a war and such a decoupling is necessary, then it’s the warthat should be scaled down. Any temptation to overstatethe relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in order to sustain support for the war will be a disaster. But that’s too often the kind of inertial thinking that takes over Washington at war.