By Noman Benotman and James Brandon
Despite recent reports that attempted Afghan-Taliban talks were successfully infiltrated by a Pakistani ‘impostor’, it is nonetheless clear that senior leaders in both the Taliban  and US-led forces in Afghanistan think that a negotiated end to the war is both desirable and possible – even if neither side is yet publicly prepared to admit that such negotiations would involve significant concessions.
While the US and its allies are obviously keen to leave Afghanistan due to the cost and the rising casualties, it is not always appreciated that the Taliban is also under pressure. Its fighters and its core Afghan constituents are showing signs of increasing war-weariness while the Taliban’s leadership in Pakistan is also under increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia to negotiate. This is important because, unlike al-Qaeda, the Taliban still respects Saudi Arabia’s religious authority and Riyadh is increasingly keen for an end to the Afghan war.
Strikingly, the overall shape of an eventual US-Taliban settlement is already clear: a large role for the Taliban in the Afghan national government and a gradual withdrawal of western combat troops in return for a Taliban commitment not to impose Pashtun values on non-Pashtun Afghans and not to shelter terrorists as they did prior to 9-11.
In this context, the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which was both a cause of the war in Afghanistan and a potential stumbling block to an eventual settlement, is highly significant.
Taliban views towards al-Qaeda:
– Al-Qaeda let the Taliban and Afghans down badly in 2001 and al-Qaeda’s actions have led to continual turmoil in Afghanistan.
– The Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda is preventing the Taliban from receiving international recognition and makes it harder to reach a deal with the US and the Afghan government.
– At the same time, however, al-Qaeda are the guests of the Taliban and they are Muslims: consequently the Taliban cannot betray them or hand them over to non-Muslims.
Al-Qaeda views towards the Taliban:
– The Taliban protects al-Qaeda and being seen to be working with them allows al-Qaeda to present itself as a legitimate defender of ‘Muslim lands’.
– Without the Taliban’s support, al-Qaeda would lose this advantage and it would have to relocate to another part of the world.
– The Taliban’s view of Islam is different from al-Qaeda’s understanding but al- Qaeda should tolerate such religious differences for the greater good of the jihad.
– Notwithstanding their current stance, however, the Taliban might ultimately sell out al-Qaeda as part of a deal with the US or the Afghan government.
This imbalance between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has created a number of reactions on both sides:
– The Taliban have largely sought to keep al-Qaeda fighters out of their area of operations in Afghanistan in order to gradually de-link themselves from ‘terrorists’. Direct Arab jihadist involvement in Afghanistan is now largely through the Haqqani Network. However total Arab jihadist involvement in Afghanistan has generally diminished since late 2008.
– Al-Qaeda has used supportive Pakistani religious leaders (largely hardline Deobandis) to pressure the Taliban indirectly into continuing to support them.
– In addition, al-Qaeda has built stronger links with indigenous Pakistani jihadist groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba to guard against any attempts by the Quetta Shura to control them and it has tried to provide ‘value’ to these groups by offering training or carrying out strategic attacks.
– Al-Qaeda has also stepped up attempts to re-establish alternative bases, as in Yemen and Somalia, again as insurance against any future US-Taliban deal.
Signs of al-Qaeda-Taliban differences have been evident in the recent statements of both groups. For instance, the Taliban’s Eid message made no references to foreign fighters in Afghanistan and framed its ‘jihad’ as a legitimate resistance to foreign ‘aggression’ in line with international norms rather than as part of a global religious conflict – a view which al-Qaeda would entirely reject. The statement additionally called for ‘Muslim countries’ to help stabilise Afghanistan (al-Qaeda believes such regimes are apostates). At the same time, al-Qaeda has recently issued a large number of statements saying that the US is being defeated in Afghanistan and that the Taliban will never negotiate – propaganda that is clearly intended to make it harder for the Taliban to begin such negotiations.
On account of their religious beliefs and their concept of Pashtunwali, the Taliban are highly unlikely to hand over Bin Laden to non-Muslims or to allow him to be captured or killed. However, there are face-saving compromises that the Taliban could make that would allow for a deal with the West without betraying al-Qaeda.
For instance, the Quetta Shura could agree to entirely relocate itself and its forces to Afghanistan while leaving Bin Laden under local tribal protection in Waziristan. This would allow the Taliban to credibly claim that they had split from al-Qaeda without actually betraying them – and that responsibility for protecting al-Qaeda now passed to other groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan.
Another option might be for the Taliban to put Bin Laden on trial in one of their own ‘Sharia courts’ (for instance, for encouraging attacks against innocent Muslim civilians). This would obviate the need for them to hand him over to western forces but might risk damaging their credibility among their core constituents.
Western governments should:
– Prioritise separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda (through their actions and their political messaging) while also giving the Taliban the space to dissociate itself from al-Qaeda in a face-saving manner.
– Clearly articulate western goals in a way that is compatible with making a deal with the Taliban, e.g. such goals could be stated as to ‘bring peace and security to Afghanistan’ and to ensure that ‘al-Qaeda can never return to Afghanistan’.
– At the same time, the US and other ISAF nations should appreciate that many regional players, for many disparate reasons, do not want to see a lasting deal between the US and the Taliban and see the current situation as desirable.
Noman Benotman is a senior analyst at Quilliam. He was previously a leader of the jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and an associate of senior al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. In September 2010, he published an open letter to his former colleague Osama bin Laden calling on him to abandon violence.
James Brandon is the head of research at Quilliam. A former journalist based in the Middle East, he has worked for a wide variety of think-tanks in the UK and the US. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
For further information, please contact Quilliam at [email protected].
This briefing is also available as a PDF here.
 In this briefing, ‘the Taliban’ refers to the Quetta Shura, the leadership grouping that controls the dominant and most unified group of Afghan Taliban insurgents. This is not to deny the existence of the fitfully-independent ‘Haqqani Network’, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami organisation or of numerous other small groups.