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Know Thine Enemy: Why The Taliban Cannot Be Flipped

ForeignAffairs.com Features Article by Archive Analyst

For more information contact:
Barbara Elias belias@gwu.edu

Posted - November 2, 2009

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"Know Thine Enemy: Why the Taliban Cannot be Flipped"
By Barbara Elias
November 2, 2009



Washington, DC, November 2, 2009 - As Vice President Biden and other high-ranking U.S. officials contemplate a policy of compromise with the Taliban in order to induce them to turn against al-Qaeda, a new article published today on the Web site of Foreign Affairs magazine by the National Security Archive's Barbara Elias outlines why this approach may be unrealistic.

Drawing on declassified documents and invoking lessons of recent history, Elias, who directs the National Security Archive's project on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban, notes how "Secretary of Defense [Robert] McNamara warned us of the central importance of knowing the enemy."  "We must not ascribe our own logic, mindsets or worldview to the Taliban," Elias writes.

The problem the Obama administration faces, the article argues, is that "the Taliban and al-Qaeda are neither inextricably linked by ideology nor held together merely by fleeting correspondence of interests. Their relationship is rooted in more complex issues of legitimacy and identity. The Taliban cannot surrender bin Laden without also surrendering their existing identity as a vessel for an obdurate and uncompromising version of political Islam. Their legitimacy rests not on their governing skills, popular support, or control over territory, but on their claim to represent what they perceive as Shari'a rule. This means upholding the image that they are guided entirely by Islamic principles; as such, they cannot make concessions to, or negotiate with, secular states."

In other words, according to Elias, "the Taliban is not a state, and we should not expect it to act like one."

The Archive's project on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban has filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests for documents on the region and historical U.S. government approaches toward it.  Many of these materials are posted on the Archive's Web site at www.nsarchive.org.


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