Once considered so entwined that they were twin targets of a U.S. invasion, al-Qaida and elements of Afghanistan's Taliban are now being surgically separated, one careful stitch at a time.
The move by the United Nations last week to remove five former Taliban members from its official sanctions list reflects a growing belief by U.S. and international officials that some less-active leaders of the Afghan Taliban no longer are tightly linked to the al-Qaida network they sheltered before the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The decision anchors an Obama administration policy shift that would transform the Afghanistan war from a broad international conflict into an internal political struggle largely handled by the Afghans. Key to that change would be an effort to negotiate with and buy out midlevel Taliban figures willing to renounce violence and abandon their fight.
In paring back some of the Taliban's connections to al-Qaida, however, the move risks running up against the American public's ingrained perception that the Afghan Taliban remains a national enemy, and there is no ideological daylight between the two groups.
A few other Taliban figures have been dropped from the target list in recent years, but the latest round signals a more comprehensive approach. Any large-scale tinkering with the U.N. target list would have a tangible impact on American counterterror moves: The United States typically has a strong behind-the-scenes role in U.N. decisions and the U.N. list is often used by the United States to identify its own targets for diplomatic and economic punishments.
U.S. officials are quick to say the decoupling is limited and proceeding carefully. Some Taliban leaders, they say, may never come off the list — such as Mullah Mohammed Omar or the leaders of the Haqqani network, which directs the fight against U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan from the Waziristan tribal region in Pakistan.
Gates: 'Insidious' characters
Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has endorsed the reconciliation plan as essential to success in the Afghanistan war, warns of the complexities involved in separating the two militant groups.
Gates ticked off "a syndicate of terrorist groups" on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, including al-Qaida, Afghan and Pakistan Taliban and a number of Pakistani groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba.
"So you can't say one's good and one's not good," he said recently. "They're all insidious, and safe havens for all of them need to be eliminated."
The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions against the Taliban in November 1999 for refusing to send Osama bin Laden to stand trial on terrorism charges in connection with two 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa.
Those sanctions — a travel ban, arms embargo and assets freeze — later were extended to al-Qaida, and in January 2001, the U.N. assembled its first target list of 10 al-Qaida leaders and 74 top Taliban officials. The list has grown to 268 al-Qaida and 137 Taliban figures and is largely replicated in a similar list used by the U.S. State and Treasury departments to pinpoint terror targets.
The U.N. decision, approved by all 15 members of the Security Council, came last week after Russia dropped an objection.
The driving concern of those opposing the move focuses on what would happen if the Taliban were allowed to regain any power in Afghanistan. Opponents fear that al-Qaida, including its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are believed hiding along the Pakistan border, would be welcomed back.
Richard Barrett, the head of a U.N. group that monitors the threat posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban and among those who back the decision to start removing Taliban leaders from the list, said that "in areas that have been under Taliban control for some time, there aren't al-Qaida there."
Other terrorism analysts are more cautious, warning that it will be difficult to determine who is no longer a threat, and that removing names may undercut the credibility of the list.
"The lines are blurred between the tribal affiliations of the Taliban on both sides of the border and al-Qaida," said Juan Zarate, a top counterterror official in the Bush administration who is now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It becomes a very difficult chess game and you need astute Afghans to help guide this. You don't want to make a deal with the wrong set of actors; you don't want to make a deal with the devil," he said.
U.S. officials see a similar move as a key turning point in the Iraq conflict, says a senior Obama administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the rationale behind the strategy. U.S. forces teamed up with former Sunni insurgents to fight against al-Qaida and began an effort to absorb them into national security and other civilian jobs.
That effort was largely accepted by the American public, but it is less certain there would be equal appeal for rehabilitating Taliban leaders long portrayed as brutal enemies.
Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the American public is more likely to embrace the move because it is backed by U.S. military commanders.
"I think we need to give the American people more credit," he said. "They know al-Qaida actually attacked the United States, while I think they view the Taliban as a more regional group focused on taking over Afghanistan. I think there is a pretty clear line between al-Qaida and the Taliban."
Removing the names of former Taliban leaders from the sanctions list would provide them with significant benefits. The sanctions bar their travel to other countries and freeze their financial assets, making it impossible for them to conduct business overseas.
Lifting financial sanctions on Taliban leaders "may well serve as a conduit for acquisition of funds, economic resources and weapons for the Taliban," warned retired U.S. diplomat Victor Comras, who was one of five international monitors who oversaw the implementation of U.S. Security Council terrorism financing measures in 2002.
Ex-Omar aide dropped from list
Several of the Taliban members dropped from the list last week were senior leaders. Among them were Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former foreign minister and Mullah Omar confidant who has recently been involved in helping negotiations, and Abdul Hakim Monib, a former deputy minister of frontier affairs who later renounced the Taliban and became a provincial governor.
The lists have at times been a struggle to keep current. Officials have had to keep up with removing the names of Taliban leaders who died or for other reasons did not belong.
"It was a matter of resources, and we were waiting for the Afghan government to take the lead," said Zarate.
Zarate said it may be too soon to conclude there is a true rupture between the Taliban and al-Qaida. Still, he said, it makes sense to keep looking for openings.
"It's very smart — if they can make a determination that these former Taliban officials are no longer actively supporting violence against our troops," he said. "It's important as part of the counterinsurgency campaign to peel away elements of the enemy and find a way to reconcile those moderates who are Taliban because you need the population to be behind the government for the long term."