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Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Key Differences Between AQI and the Taliban

President Obama has indicated to the New York Times that he might be willing to reach out to moderate portions of the Taliban.

President Barack Obama says he hopes U.S. troops can identify moderate elements of the Taliban and move them toward reconciliation.


There may be opportunities to reach out to moderates in the Taliban, but the situation in Afghanistan is more complicated than the challenges the American military faced in Iraq, Obama said.

U.S. troops were able to persuade Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq to cooperate in some instances because they had been alienated by the tactics of al-Qaida terrorists.

Obama cautioned that Afghanistan is a less-governed region with a history of fierce independence among tribes, creating a tough set of circumstances for the United States to deal with.

President Obama goes on to say that reaching out to the Taliban is something that military including General Petraeus. Before we attempt to do this though, we must all understand the differences between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban.

The so called Sunni Awakening that started in the end of 2006 (before Petreaus even arrived back in Iraq) reached out to Iraqi Sunnis that had alligned themselves with AQI. AQI, formed initially by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, had been formed mostly by foreigners, but reached out to locals to act as so called foot soldiers. Throughout 2004-2006, Iraqi Sunnis faced a choice. Either they could move forward with their nation and act nationalistically. In this way, they would move forward as part of a new unity government in a new Iraq. Of course, this would have meant a significant reduction of power, Since Sunnis are a minority ethnically in the country.

On the other hand, the could join up with AQI and get into bed, so to speak, with their ethnic brethren (since AQI were almost exclusively Sunni themselves). Initially, Iraqi Sunnis joined up with AQI. They joined in the insurgency in hopes that AQI would over take the country and they would get power again.

Then, AQI's brutality overplayed its hand. (famously recounted in this Michael Totten piece) Their brutality knew no end. They would beat and rape women that put their vegetables in the wrong order in their grocery bags. They would invite families for dinner and then serve their own child's head on a platter. They would cut off the fingers of men that smoked. Worse than that, this brutality was often perpetrated on the very Sunni Iraqis that had allied themselves with AQI.

As such, when the U.S. reached out to Iraqi Sunnis in late 2006, they had an interested ear. Calling these Iraqi Sunnis "moderates" would be an unsophisticated way of analyzing the situation. The marriage of Iraqi Sunnis and the foreigners that made up the leadership of AQI was one of happenstance and convenience. Furthermore, the Iraqi Sunnis had another natural place to go, alligning themselves with their country, when they turned on AQI.

The dynamic in Afghanistan is entirely different. There are likely so called "moderate" elements of the Taliban, but there are two problems with this identification. First, moderate is a relative term. Choosing a moderate out of the Taliban is like choosing the sober one out of a bunch of drunks. Second, even if there are truly moderate elements, how do we identify them? With Iraqi Sunnis, it was easy. The Taliban is not a new group like AQI was. It's both a nationalistic movement and an ideological one. No one in the movement is obviously someone that would be moderate.

So, I say, please try and reach out to the "moderate" Taliban, Mr. President. Before you do though, please know which one is moderate and what you have to offer them.

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