When I recently participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate about Afghanistan, my debate partner, terrorism expert Peter Bergen (who, like me, argued that it’s not a lost cause), was practically hooted off the stage by a skeptical audience when he said there was not much difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now his insight is confirmed by U.S. intelligence reporting.
As described in the New York Times, “New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like ‘a syndicate,’ joining forces in ways not seen before.” The elements of the “syndicate” cited are the Quetta Shura Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani Network, and HiG (Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin), which are increasingly cooperating to stage attacks in Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan. But all three have close links to other jihadist groups based in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban (aka the Pakistan Taliban), and, lest we forget, al-Qaeda. An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists:
“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”
If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence reporting certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.