The New York Times published this article by Scott Shane about a month ago, but I think it continues to be relevant now, as Obama just announced his new/revised Afghanistan policy of the “surge” (which another commentator mentioned is the war strategy formerly known as “escalation”.)
The article essentially lays out how there are two different groups called “Taliban” that the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan, with quite different motivations and constituencies:
At the core of the tangle are the two Taliban movements, Afghan and Pakistani. 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.
… Though both groups threaten American interests, the Afghan Taliban — the word Taliban means “religious students” — are the primary enemy, mounting attacks daily against the 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Washington’s biggest fear is that if the Afghan Taliban overrun the country, they could invite Al Qaeda’s leaders back from their Pakistani hide-out.
It’s no surprise that the most dangerous group is the one that was ousted by the American invasion in 2001 — that group has the most to gain from a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan:
… The Afghan Taliban, whose group is by far the older of the two forces, have been led by Mullah Muhammad Omar since he founded the movement in 1994. They seeks to regain the power they held over most of Afghanistan before being ousted by the American invasion of 2001.
… By comparison, he said, the Pakistani Taliban were a far looser coalition, united mainly by their enmity toward the Pakistani government. They emerged formally only in 2007 as a separate force led by Baitullah Mehsud under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Students’ Movement of Pakistan.
Of course, things are further confused because of the porous border between the two countries:
…most leaders of the Afghan Taliban are based in Pakistan, directing their forces from hide-outs across the border. Mullah Omar and his top deputies are believed to be in or around the southern Pakistani city of Quetta. Two other major factions in the Afghan insurgency are led by veteran Afghan warlords, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the Pakistan Taliban is strongest.
Al Qaeda’s leaders, including Mr. bin Laden, are believed to be hiding in the same tribal areas of Pakistan. While it has been weakened by American missile strikes, the terrorist network nonetheless is believed to have provided support for the Pakistani Taliban’s strikes against the Pakistani government.
The article mentions that the Afghanistan-Pakistan area has so many ethnic, historical, political and geo-strategic complexities that it is confusing even for experts. That makes it is extremely difficult for the layperson to understand what is going on there, and in the U.S. war there. Nonetheless, with U.S. lives on the line, and more troops to enter the area soon, we owe it to ourselves and the country to understand what we can.