One of the emerging narratives of American military operations in Afghanistan is that the combat there is just another round of the Afghan civil war.  Peter Bergen the posted this column last week disputing this and discussing the “merger” of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  Then comes Vahid Brown with this column suggesting the interests are not as aligned as Bergen thinks.  Which is it?

Ideological movements that claim a global reach have historically run hard into the brick wall of national sentiment.  The Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and other communist countries ultimately put their national interests first instead of heading off into hare brained crusades like Che Guevara (which ended with his execution in Bolivia).  The founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al Saud used his alliance with the fundamentalist Wahhabi ulema and the religious militia the Ikhwan to propel him to power.  But when the Ikhwan wanted to continue a global jihad and raid neighboring states he crushed them.  As Brown’s link shows, Hamas and Hezbollah have been pragmatically presenting themselves as national movements even if they may have sympathy with Islamic radicals elsewhere  (as an aside Hezbollah from Al-Qaeda’s perspective are Shiite schismatics).

Of course the cold rationality displayed by other fundamentalists does not always translate to the mind of Mullah Omar.  This could be a feint meant to distract public opinion.

But, American foreign policy rhetoric in the cold war and post-9/11 has not always appreciated that every communist and every jihadist is not automatically in bed with each other.  It was this rhetoric that was used to justify the Iraq misadventure (where Saddam Hussein was not an Islamic radical to begin with).  While there may be broad sympathy by ideologues for the cause, it does not always translate into any direct or effective aid.  The Afghan Taliban regime has cause for bitter feelings towards Al-Qaeda.  It is possible that they may be willing to engage in the more pragmatic goals of regaining power instead of engaging in the nihilistic crusades like the one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi waged in Iraq, but at the same time availing themselves of the military aid and training Al-Qaeda is able to offer.

To what extent these purported divisions can be exploited in unclear.  But if they can lead to a repeat of the Iraqi scenario when Sunni groups banded together against Zarqawi’s blood lust,  America, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be better off for it.

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