The issue of whether the Taliban are insurgents with strictly local grievances or an Islamist movement with international ambitions is one that I’ve addressed frequently in this space.
It’s an important question, because if the Taliban are concerned only with Afghanistan, then Canada, the United States, and other countries with troops and aid workers in the country can pull out without endangering themselves. Abandoning Afghanistan to thugs such as the Taliban, who have recently taken to shooting alleged adulterers in Pakistan, might be cruel it wouldn’t be risky for the West. (Why so many on the left who spent decades trumpeting their supposed internationalism are content with this option is something I’ll never understand, though Terry Glavin has some ideas.)
If, on the other hand, the Taliban are allied with al-Qaeda as part of an international jihadist movement, we can’t really afford to abandon our fight there. It’s a war of necessity rather than choice.
Afghanistan is a country for which I have deep affection. I was there in the weeks after 9/11 in the company of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. It was dangerous. I got sick, shelled, and shot at. Colleagues were killed. But I still remember my time there with fondness and pine to go back. The memory of my Afghan translator, a man who owned very little, pushing gifts into my hands as I left is one I’ll never forget. Because of these memories, even if I believed the Taliban were strictly an Afghan problem, I couldn’t advocate ceding them the country. I care too much about the people who live there.
But none of this really matters. Countries almost always fight wars because they believe it is in their national interest. And I believe Afghanistan is in ours, precisely because I think the Taliban are an international threat. I’ve outlined some of the reasons why in previous posts: the fact that they hosted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda when the 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out; recent threats by Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, to attack Washington; the movement’s violent growth in Pakistan; and its ongoing cooperation with al-Qaeda, according to Ahmed Rashid, arguably the world’s foremost expert on the Taliban.
I’d be remiss, however, not to present opposing evidence. Senior Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihollah Mujahid recently gave an interview to Afghan Islamic Press in which he distances his movement from al-Qaeda: “We are not responsible for the affairs of other parties or the world. We are only concerned about Afghanistan. It is up to al-Qaeda and the rest of the world whether they resolve their problems or not. Such issues have nothing to do with the Taliban.” The Jamestown Foundation has a summary of the interview.