In the Arena

Who are the Taliban?

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Marc Thiessen, the Washington Post’s new pro-torture columnist, has a typically brutish piece today in which he argues that if we only treated our latest Taliban trophy-capture, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the same way we treated Khalid Sheik Mohammed–i.e. waterboarded him in a CIA black site–we might find out who was running the Time Square bomber and a host of other terrorist secrets. Thiessen’s theory is that all these Taliban guys are alike. Even though they have differing allies, agendas and areas of operation, they know everything there is to know about each other’s operations.

And it is true that there is a certain amount of overlap–but, as any Pakistani intelligence officer can tell you, there are real differences as well. Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, appears to have been trained and run by the Pakistani Taliban. (For those keeping a scorecard: these are the enemy of the Pakistani government.) Baradar is the second in command of the Afghan Taliban (who are allies of the Pakistani government). According to Ahmed Rashid–perhaps the best informed journalist in the world on matters Talibanic–it is likely that Baradar was snatched by the Pakistanis because he was negotiating a possible reconciliation deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It is not known whether he was doing this with the approval of his nominal boss, Mullah Omar, or whether he had gone rogue. In any case, Rashid argues, Pakistan has mixed feelings about an Afghan settlement–and one very unmixed feeling: if it happens, the Pakistanis want peace on terms favorable to them and unfavorable to India.

Yes, yes, complicated, complicated. And that is the point: Thiessen’s knee-jerk reaction–torture the sucker–is not only immoral and impossible, since he is a member of a Taliban faction allied with Pakistan, it is stone stupid. It is not impossible that Baradar will be a key player in an Afghan settlement that separates the Taliban from Al Qaeda and enables the U.S. to leave Afghanistan in a more stable condition. A longshot, to be sure. But it’s certainly one of the things that Karzai and the Obama foreign policy team will be discussing this week.