A new briefing paper analysing the relationship between al-Qu’aida and the Taliban was released today by the think tank Quillam. It was a welcome addition to my workload. My regular readers will know I’m working on a paper about Afghanistan and the UK Conservative Party, and understanding that relationship is important in dealing with their threat perception. David Cameron has said repeatedly that if the Taliban returned then so would al-Qa’ida and its training camps. ‘That would mean more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.’ It isn’t a self-evident truth, though. Asked what evidence he had that the return of one would mean the return of the other, the Foreign Secretary William Hague told the Foreign Affairs Committee last month: well, it’s what happened in the past. Experts like Anne Stenersen and Vahid Brown would disagree, but it is a tough judgement for politicians to make. They can’t afford to be wrong.
The Quillam paper covers much of the same ground as Stenersen and Brown, but I felt uneasy as I neared the end. Authors Noman Benotman and James Brandon claim that although the Taliban is under pressure to negotiate with either Karzai or the allies, their traditional values might stop them handing over the al-Qa’ida leadership: the whole point of the war. ‘Their religious beliefs and their concept of Pashtunwali [means] the Taliban are highly unlikely to hand over Bin Laden to non-Muslims or to allow him to be captured or killed.’ It reminded me of what Patrick Porter wrote about the Taliban in his book Military Orientalism. ‘On a range of fronts, [they] have compromised their cultural codes for strategic success.’
The Taliban will be better understood once they are de-mystified. Agility, compromise and adaptation make them as rational as they are visceral. Their metamorphosis, from iconophobic puritans to drug-peddling media manipulators flirting with women’s education, shows cultural realists at work.
If we accept this, and a thousand years of ideological conflicts ending in compromise suggests we can, then Pashtunwali might not be such an obstacle to the Taliban handing over Osama Bin Laden. Neither Patrick nor I are experts on Afghanistan, though, so I’d be interested to know what those more immersed in the country think.