The Two Talibans

Times piece draws an important distinction between Pakistani and Afghan groups

Today’s New York Times features an intriguing bit of explanatory reporting—an article by Scott Shane about the Taliban. Or, rather, the two Talibans: one focused on Afghanistan, the other on Pakistan. Shane writes:

They share an ideology and a dominant Pashtun ethnicity, but they have such different histories, structures and goals that the common name may be more misleading than illuminating, some regional specialists say…

“To be honest, the Taliban commanders and groups on the ground in Afghanistan couldn’t care less what’s happening to their Pakistani brothers across the border,” said [Dutch researcher Alex] Strick van Linschoten, who has interviewed many current and former members of the Afghan Taliban.

The distinction has several consequences, perhaps none more important than the way the two groups relate to the leadership of Pakistan—which has long been sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban, but has launched a military campaign against the Pakistan group. Here’s the Times again:

In fact, the recent attacks of the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistan’s government, military and police, in anticipation of the army’s current campaign into the Pakistani Taliban’s base in South Waziristan, may have strained relations with the Afghan Taliban, said Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer who tracks Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations.

The Afghan Taliban have always had a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence agencies, Mr. Barrett said recently. “They don’t like the way that the Pakistan Taliban has been fighting the Pakistan government and causing a whole load of problems there,” he said.

The Afghan Taliban are especially sensitive about the Pakistani government because its leaders, like Mullah Omar, are actually based in Pakistan. As the British journalist Christina Lamb said in a recent interview: “The Afghan Taliban… were really quite unhappy when the Pakistan Taliban started launching attacks inside Taliban. The Afghan Taliban had always had a policy of not doing anything inside Pakistan, because those were their hosts—they needed the sanctuary.”

It’s good to see the Times, in today’s piece, emphasizing the distinction between the two groups. Unfortunately, not all major news organizations have taken the same approach. The editorial page of The Washington Post, in particular, has depicted the Taliban as a single entity. An Oct. 6 editorial acknowledged that the Taliban is “fragmented,” but also asserted:

The movement doesn’t recognize the border between the two countries, since it is rooted in the ethnic Pashtun community that extends from southern Afghanistan through eastern Pakistan. By advancing to within 65 miles of Pakistan’s capital earlier this year, the Taliban made obvious that it aims to destroy both governments.

That statement is followed by the claim that “there is considerable evidence that the groups coordinate their actions”—a claim that is not supported by the views of many regional experts and journalists who have reported from the region.

Eight days later, the Post’s editorial page returned to the topic of “The Taliban Threat,” this time focusing on the danger to Pakistan—and here the significance of the confusion was clearly demonstrated. With that nation’s military taking the fight to the Taliban within its borders, the Post warned, the U.S. must not abandon its fight in Afghanistan. “After all, if the United States gives up trying to defeat the Taliban, can it really expect that Pakistan will go on fighting?”

Actually, yes. The government of Pakistan is fighting the Pakistani Taliban, which it sees (correctly) as a real threat—a view that does not depend on America’s stance. It is not fighting the Afghan Taliban, which it has historically supported. There may be good reasons for the U.S. to escalate its fight in Afghanistan. But showing solidarity with Pakistan is not one of them, because we’re not really fighting the same enemy.

Today’s Times story relays the concerns of Gilles Dorronsoro, a South Asia expert now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who worries that “as the Pakistani Army began a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, many Americans thought incorrectly that the assault was against the Afghan Taliban, the force that is causing Washington to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan.” It’s not clear whether that’s actually true—but if it is, journalism like the Post’s editorials may have contributed to the confusion.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.