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Analysts: Afghan Taliban Links to al-Qaida Murky

The militant jihadist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan have some common ideology with each other, but not necessarily the same goals. Analysts say the Afghan Taliban has been putting some distance between itself and al-Qaida, at least publicly, with an eye toward future negotiations, while the Pakistani Taliban has gone in the opposite direction.

There was a time when there was only one Taliban, and it was virtually synonymous in many eyes with al-Qaida, especially after the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. But there is now a Pakistani Taliban and an Afghan Taliban, sharing a name, but having different aims.

Al-Qaida, which was once the guest of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, is now in sanctuary in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But opinions differ on how closely the two Talibans remain linked to al-Qaida.

One U.S. counter-terrorism official, who asked not to be named, asserted there is still close cooperation and support among the groups. He says al-Qaida actively supports Taliban efforts in Afghanistan as well as attacks by the Pakistani Taliban.

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, who led the Obama administration's recent review of Afghan policy, says although there are differences among the groups, they are actually moving closer together rather than further apart. "The Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, groups related to them like Lashkar-i-Taiba in Pakistan that attacked Mumbai [India] 14 months ago, operate now as a syndicate. They are not a monolith. They do not have a single leader. They have different agendas. But on the operational level you see a great deal of coordination and interaction between them," he said.

But other analysts see the situation somewhat differently. Richard Barrett, the chief of the United Nations al-Qaida-Taliban Monitoring Team, says that while ties between the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida are still quite strong, the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida has withered.

"I think it is pretty weak between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida. I do not think that it has been strong for some time. You do not see many al-Qaida people in Afghanistan at all now. And really their base, their future, is all linked up with the Pakistan Taliban, I think looking much more to that side of the border than the Afghan side of the border. And I think that Mullah Baradar and other Taliban leaders actually recognize that a close linkage with al-Qaida was not in their interest," he said.

Mullah Baradar, also known as Abdul Ghani, was the Afghan Taliban's top operational commander who was captured recently in a joint raid by U.S. and Pakistani forces in the city of Karachi.

Barrett and like-minded analysts say the Afghan Taliban is looking to some kind of political role in a future Afghanistan, even though it denies any interest in negotiations at this point, and that ties with al-Qaida will damage those prospects. Some reports suggest Mullah Baradar may have been in favor of starting some kind of reconciliation.

Analysts point out the Afghan Taliban's goals are more local, as are its fighters, while al-Qaida's aims are global and its fighters are from around the world.

New America Foundation fellow Brian Fishman says the Afghan Taliban has been trying to portray itself as a nationalist group, which has drawn criticism on al-Qaida-affiliated websites. Fishman, who is also a fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center, says the Afghan Taliban has been careful not to antagonize Pakistan.

"The Afghan Taliban have certainly been projecting an image like there is a separation between them and al-Qaida, but they are doing that for a variety of reasons. They may want to project the idea that it is possible to negotiate with them, even though they publicly say otherwise sometimes. But they also want to, I think, reassure, have tried to reassure the Pakistani government that they are not in league with these Pakistani, Taliban and al-Qaida groups that are doing attacks inside Pakistan. They have been trying to head off the kinds of raids that were conducted on Mullah Baradar," he said.

Islamabad's anti-terrorism efforts have been focused primarily on the Pakistani Taliban, which is more closely linked to al-Qaida and has attacked Pakistani targets. The Afghan Taliban, which Western officials say maintains its headquarters in the Pakistan city of Quetta, has been left alone - at least until now.

Western analysts say they are somewhat puzzled about what motivated Pakistan to mount the raid in Karachi that netted Mullah Baradar, and that it is still premature to say that it signals a change in course by Pakistan against the Afghan Taliban.