Bin Laden's Revenge

The deadly consequences of confusing Al Qaeda with the Taliban.


An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, by Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn, Oxford University Press, 560 pages, $35

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, George Tenet, then head of the CIA, told national security advisers in the White House bunker that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were really the same. In An Enemy We Created, Kandahar-based field researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn turn that story on its head. Drawing on six years of experience living in southern Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of interviews with senior Taliban officials, field commanders, and former militants, they find good reasons to doubt that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were once fused as a single entity. They do find, however, that after years of coalition night raids, aerial bombings, and billions in American aid to a predatory regime in Kabul, Al Qaeda ideology is influencing a new generation of Taliban-affiliated insurgents.

During their jihad against the Soviets, the progenitors of the Afghan Taliban, based in the south around greater Kandahar, were religious nationals fighting to protect their communities and customs against the communist government in Kabul and the external occupiers that backed it. "Afghan Arabs," on the other hand, were based mainly in the south-east and desperate for martyrdom. Many of them, including elements of Al Qaeda's predecessor (Maktab al-Khidmaat, or "Services Office"), were emptied from prisons of U.S.-allied Arab tyrannies, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others disposed of their jihadists by exporting them to Afghanistan. One group of Arabs marked their tents white so they would stand out. Asked why, they replied, "We want them to bomb us! We want to die!"

When the Soviets withdrew in February 1989, thousands of these stateless jihadists were left behind. Eighteen months later, they found a new rallying cry and turned against their American and Saudi sponsors. The stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil was like an "earthquake," as America's war against Saddam was perceived as a conspiracy to control Muslim states and the oil under their sands. The authors, corroborating much of the existing literature, brilliantly illustrate how Osama bin Laden and his coterie, who in 1992 moved from Afghanistan to Sudan, would eventually seek to draw America into a prolonged and costly war, striking the "far enemy" to weaken the "near enemy"—apostate Arab regimes.

During this period, the book reveals, the Kandahari Taliban "were not ever listening to the radio in those days, being content simply to continue their studies free from the distractions of the outside world." They were less interested in global concerns than in the looting, murder, and chaos consuming their country. War-ravaged Afghans, looking for order, turned to the Taliban, which from the south gradually spread and established a legal system, arbitrating local disputes and enforcing their harsh interpretation of Sharia law.

By September 1996, U.S. officials largely welcomed the Taliban's capture of Kabul, a feat the militants accomplished with Pakistan's generous assistance. But bin Laden's relocation to Afghanistan earlier that year would become a source of constant friction, not only between Washington and Kabul but also between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The notoriously reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar inherited bin Laden, but he repeatedly took him to task for his international media campaign calling for jihad against America. Taliban figures such as Mullah Mutawakil, Mullah Mohammad Khaksar, and Mullah Mohammed Rabbani argued that the Al Qaeda leader was becoming an obstacle for the international legitimacy the Taliban sought. The discontent was mutual. "No one at the camp liked the Taliban," recalls one foreign jihadi. "They were vicious, completely uncivilized." The application of Sharia, including public executions and decapitations, disgusted some jihadis. The Arab guests also challenged their hosts' Islamic credentials. Among other things, they smashed graveyard shrines, a local tradition they characterized as "tomb-worship."

In the wake of Al Qaeda's August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania—and the American missile strikes on Afghanistan that followed—political Talibs once again argued that bin Laden was a strategic liability. But unlike his underlings, Omar had grown close to bin Laden, coming to view him as a bridge to millions of Muslims around the world. Omar extended his hospitality to bin Laden for another year and a half. But he added a caveat: "Make arrangements for your move." He didn't move, but the Taliban did confiscate bin Laden's communications equipment to enforce a lower profile. By October 1999, however, U.N. sanctions targeting both groups had drawn the leaders closer.

After 9/11, senior Taliban military commanders demanded bin Laden's expulsion. A council of religious scholars also ordered the withdrawal of their Afghan sanctuary. Instead, Omar believed that such a "sophisticated operation" was "the work of governments." (Al Qaeda did not claim responsibility for 9/11 until autumn 2004.) Omar also refused to extradite his guest to a non-Muslim country, fearing alienation among the Muslim umma and worrying that even if he did hand over bin Laden, the U.S. would find some other pretext, such as human rights, with which to bully his government.

The authors argue persuasively that Omar's resistance, combined with President George W. Bush's "with us or against us" formulation, fed the perception that Al Qaeda and the Taliban were one, a supposed link that became "the principal strategic blunder of the war in Afghanistan."

Before and during the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora, the majority of Taliban and Al Qaeda senior leaders fled to Pakistan. Despite little support among senior Taliban commanders for reigniting an insurgency, by late 2003 Afghans who saw themselves as marginalized by their government reached out to their former protectors. As in the 1990s, the Taliban spread gradually from the South while the world was focused on Iraq.

By 2009, the Taliban had expanded their shadow government to the north and west. Among some senior Taliban figures, the authors discover that President Barack Obama's surge, announced in December 2009, came as a disappointment. These leaders had hoped for discussions with Washington about gaining a stronger leadership role and a future in Afghan society. Here the authors could have broadened their discussion about the Haqqani network, which is associated with Al Qaeda. The network—headed by the prominent mujahedeen commande Jalaluddin Haqqani, who once played a role in the Taliban government—had hosted many foreign fighters in its stronghold of southeast Afghanistan, and it is believed to be currently based in Miram Shah, Pakistan.

The book's most indelible mark on contemporary scholarship comes when it analyzes the implications of the coalition's kill and capture campaign, in which special operators hunt down militants one by one. These targeted operations, we learn, have significantly weakened the veteran Taliban leadership's hold over the insurgency. Filling the vacuum: younger fighters who are accustomed to war, motivated by Al Qaeda's ideology, and less inclined than their elders to reach a political settlement. Policies intended to eradicate bin Laden instead created conditions that enabled his vision to thrive.