The Link Between the Taliban and Al Qaeda

As the Obama administration debates whether to send the 40,000 additional troops that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has requested for the war in Afghanistan, some officials are arguing that the US should focus mainly on attacking Al Qaeda members based in Pakistan rather than combating the Taliban.  They believe that the Taliban do not pose a direct threat to the US, in contrast with Al Qaeda, which still seeks to carry out attacks against America and American interests. 

Others say that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are closely linked by ideology and experience, and claim that the Taliban will give sanctuary to Al Qaeda in areas of Afghanistan that they control.  According to this thinking, counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban are critical for US national security interests.

It is probably true that the Taliban do not want to attack American targets outside of Afghanistan.  Taliban leaders have said that they have no desire to do so, and their only objective is to drive out foreign forces and retake control of the country in order to recreate an Islamic state.

But their pursuit of their goal will inevitably bring them into conflict with the US because America needs bases in Afghanistan, especially in the south and east where the Taliban are strongest, from which to launch attacks and intelligence-gathering operations against Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan.  The Taliban will not allow the US to maintain bases in areas they control, so preventing them from taking over large swathes of territory is essential for the counterterrorism campaign.

How closely the Taliban and Al Qaeda are linked is not completely clear.  How many troops are needed to contain the Taliban is also difficult to assess at this point.  But the Taliban and Al Qaeda should not be considered two completely separate threats.  There are reasons to believe that the Taliban might allow Al Qaeda to reestablish bases in Afghanistan if they come back into power, but even if they do not a Taliban takeover would still be a major setback for the American counterterrorism effort in terms of logistics, intelligence-gathering and direct action.

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