Who are we fighting in Afghanistan?

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Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Barbara Elias the director of the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Taliban Project of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, about the US strategy against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.

MARCO WERMAN: As President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, we want to focus on a couple of basic questions. Who are the enemies there, and what do they want? Barbara Elias is the director of the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Taliban Project of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. She's speaking to us from Philadelphia. Barbara Elias, we're going to get pretty basic here. More than 100,000 NATO and US-led troops are locked in a stalemate with the Taliban insurgency. Who are the Taliban in Afghanistan? Who are we talking about?

BARBARA ELIAS: There's two basic factions of the Taliban. One of them is the one that we're familiar with in Afghanistan, they're led by Mola Omar. They ran Afghanistan as a state from 1996 until 2001. And then there's the Pakistani Taliban, which we've been hearing a little bit more about, and they're the ones that basically run the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. And they are closely related to the Afghan Taliban, but are for all intensive purposes, pretty much an independent faction.

MARCO WERMAN: Let's focus on the Afghanistan Taliban. Is today's Taliban the same people as it was in the 1990's when the Taliban ruled the country?

BARBARA ELIAS: The Taliban has changed since the United States and its allies invaded. What's important to acknowledge is that they've been isolated from all world community, except for maybe Pakistani Intelligence, and from Al-Qaeda operatives. So, they've changed because they've been fighting a war, and they've also been even more isolated than they ever were when they were running the Afghan state.

MARCO WERMAN: And just how have they evolved? I mean, what have they become now?

BARBARA ELIAS: They're back to being what they were when they were first fighting the Soviet Union, which are an insurgency. This is what they know best. They don't know particularly well how to run a state per-se. They don't do what governments do well. But what they do well is they do fight insurgencies very, very well.

MARCO WERMAN: So what exactly do they want?

BARBARA ELIAS: As far as we know, the Taliban are after governing certain territories in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Declassified documents by the national security archive have indicated that US Intelligence services are starting to pick up on statements made by Mola Mohamed Omar, the leader of the Taliban that seemed to indicate a little more sympathy for Al-Qaeda, and for its political aspirations than it has in the past.

MARCO WERMAN: Let's talk for a second about Al-Qaeda. How much overlap is there between Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, and the Taliban there?

BARBARA ELIAS: Both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are seeking to expel US and allied forces obviously from Afghanistan. They're also fighting to control the frontier borders of Pakistan, those areas of Pakistan. Where they diverge really is in the internationalization of their separate brand of political Islam. So, Al-Qaeda for example, they're seeking the establishment of their ideal Islamic [INDISCERNIBLE] fate through terrorist means. And really just to push back using violence against what they perceive was a westernization of world culture. Whereas the Taliban are much more Afghan Pushtun based group that have sought after nationalist's goals.

MARCO WERMAN: So, I mean, generally what we hear from the US military is that the Taliban are basically thugs who terrorize the Afghan population. But our correspondence often report that the Taliban have support in certain Afghan quarters. What do you think about that? And is there room for some kind of negotiation there?

BARBARA ELIAS: The Taliban does have public support. They provide judicial systems. They provide some sort of order there. Essentially we have to offer an alternative to the Taliban, and that alternative is whatever government's in existence in Kabul. Karzai cannot foster any sort of popular sense of legitimacy among Afghans than the United States needs to think of an alternative to Karzai.

MARCO WERMAN: Barbara Elias, very good to speak with you. Thanks.


MARCO WERMAN: Barbara Elias is the director of the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Taliban project at the national security archive at George Washington University. You can find her article from Foreign Affairs Magazine, Know Thy Enemy, Why the Taliban Cannot be Flipped, at the-world-dot-org.