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Where the Taliban and al-Qaida cross-fertilize

NBC News’ Jim Maceda is on assignment in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He discusses the threat presented by the resurgence of the Taliban and their close ties to al-Qaida in Pakistan’s tribal regions.
U.S. Forces Hunt Taliban Near Pakistan Border
A U.S. Army machine gun points towards the rugged Afghan landscape from a Blackhawk helicopter as it flies over eastern Afghanistan near the volatile border region with Pakistan on Oct. 29. John Moore / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan — NBC News’ Jim Maceda is on assignment in Pakistan and Afghanistan reporting on the unruly tribal area between the two nations. In a Q&A, he discusses the threat presented by the resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan and the organization's close ties to al-Qaida. 

You were recently in Pakistan, which is reportedly a safe haven for both the Taliban and al-Qaida. Did you see evidence of that on the ground there? Absolutely, there is a sense that there is a sanctuary inside the tribal belt of Pakistan — that semi-autonomous strip of land just east of the border with Afghanistan — for both the Taliban and al-Qaida. In that region, there is a belief that there is a state within a state now operating five years after the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

How did this happen? Well, the world basically turned its eyes away from Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban. They were focused on al-Qaida in the tribal areas, along that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but as many international Taliban experts will tell you, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan felt pressure to go after the Taliban. Both countries considered it to be a local problem, not an international threat.

What happened was in November or December of 2001, the Taliban fled Kabul and went into Pakistan. Over the past five years, they have recruited thousands of young Pashtun men — usually from the madrassa [relgious] schools. They have encouraged them with ideas of jihad, relatively high salaries, and they’ve managed to create command and control centers in that strip of territory that is not under the control of the Pakistani government or army.  

So, yes, there is a Taliban sanctuary. What complicates things is that foreigners can’t go into this tribal area. Pakistani journalists even, if they are not from the tribal areas, go in at their own risk. So a lot of what’s going on in there goes unreported and that makes things even more difficult to understand and react to.

On video that has been smuggled out of places like north and south Waziristan and other provinces like Bajur along the tribal belt, you see frightening things. You see armed Taliban walking the streets of the capital of southern Waziristan like they are deputy sheriffs keeping the order. They are a religious police. I’ve also seen copies of pamphlets smuggled out the region with edicts from the ad hoc Taliban government telling men that they must not shave their beards and imposing taxes on everyone to support mujahedeen fighters.

So, that type of state-within-a-state reality is spreading. It’s growing because the U.S. can’t send ground troops into the tribal areas. And we’ve seen the kind of negative response when the Pakistan government moves in an aggressive way into those areas. 

You saw recently the reaction to the Bajur madrassa school stike — allegedly by Pakistani forces, although there is a strong belief here that the strike was launched by the CIA — the reaction was incredible anger throughout the territories.

So, Pakistan’s President Musharraf sees himself struggling to find a strategy to deal with this growing problem of a Taliban sanctuary right in his country. If he strikes too hard, then there is a backlash. But, if he doesn’t strike hard and continues trying to make peace deals and truces with local tribes, then there is often a rise in the cross-border attacks. So that’s counter-productive as well.

Right now there is no answer; there is only the question: What do you do about this sanctuary? Counter-terrorism experts will tell you, you can not win against a counter-insurgency that has a sanctuary in another country. It never happens. And that is what’s at stake right now.

What's the connection between the Taliban and al-Qaida in these tribal areas? 
There is a strong connection between these militant clerics who are the authority in the tribal belt, Taliban fighters lead by commanders like Mullah Omar, and al-Qaida leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

I’ll draw one connection — Faqir Mohammed, a pro-Taliban cleric. A young man in his mid to late thirties, he has been very much involved in rallying people in Bajur province against the United States after that attack on the madrassa. He is actually a fugitive, being sought by the U.S. government. He is wanted as an al-Qaida-linked cleric who gives support and refuge to al-Qaida leaders, including Zawahiri.

Mohammed spoke openly to NBC News recently just north of Waziristan. He said the Taliban fighters will drive American forces out of Muslim lands. He was very strong in his criticism of Musharraf and said that he is a puppet of the U.S.

Here’s a man who is a fugitive, who is being sought by the United States, but feels comfortable enough inside his Bajur province to talk to an international or Western media.

There is a perfect symmetry there: you have a cleric who is openly in support of al-Qaida who says he would give refuge to bin Laden if he were there; a man who is a close associate of Zawahiri — al-Qaida's number two; and someone with his own fighters organizing anti-American rallies and cross-border attacks on U.S. and coalition forces.

So, you see there is this extraordinary interconnectivity there between Pakistani religious clerics, the Taliban — who are both Afghan and Pakistani — and the al-Qaida fighters who are a mix of everything — Afghan, Arab, Uzbek, Tajik, you name it.

The connection between al-Qaida and the Taliban is important because it represents a double threat to us. The Taliban is not only a threat on the ground to U.S. forces, but al-Qaida working in conjunction with the Taliban is a threat to U.S. national security. Why? Because those guys are plotting the next 9/11. So, their connection represents a double reason to keep the focus on Afghanistan.

Monday was the five-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Can you describe their resurgence?  
Right, there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and there is nothing to celebrate. The Taliban are back and it’s a new kind of Taliban, as well. They are younger and more radicalized. They are doing things and saying things that experts tell me the Taliban of five years ago that harbored bin Laden in Afghanistan didn’t do. This is a much more radical, al-Qaida-ized version of the Taliban than we saw before.

However, they may realize now that they may have gone too far or became too cocky in their tactics vis-a- vis the U.S. and NATO forces. In September and October there were major frontal attacks by the Taliban on NATO forces in the south, as well as on U.S. forces in some of the eastern provinces. And that was a disaster for the Taliban — they lost hundreds fighters by trying to take on a superior asymmetrical force head on. Now Mullah Omar and some of the other commanders have backed off from that approach and they have gone back to the standard guerrilla tactics, which seems to be working to their advantage. 

But we are seeing a re-invigorated, re-loaded Taliban that has much more support today than it did two or three years ago. What’s driving that most of all is a lack of credibility on the part of the central government in Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai is simply not seen as a man who delivers. And the promises of the international community never got down to the areas in the east and the south where they need to go because those are the most difficult and volatile areas. A lot of money has been pumped into Kabul, but it hasn’t made it down to the rural poor and those people who are prey to the radical ideology of the Taliban. So, that is driving this new resurgence as well.

How is the resurgence of the Taliban affecting the morale of the U.S. troops who have now had forces in Afghanistan for over five years?
I’ve embedded numerous times with U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan over the last three or four years and I’m always amazed at how committed they are. It’s rare to get a soldier in front of you who express extreme doubt about his or her personal commitment. They truly believe that they are making a difference and helping people to help themselves.

But there are two criticisms that you will hear. One is that they are too thinly stretched, especially because of the focus on Iraq. And two is that a workable strategy — not only killing and capturing bad guys, but also winning the trust and confidence of the good people — came quite late.

It took the U.S. government about four years to realize that, first of all, Afghanistan was worth investing in and that the Taliban was a major threat to success in Afghanistan.

So it’s a work in progress. The criticism from U.S. forces that we embed with would come to that — why did we wait so long? They hope it’s not a case of too little, too late.