Two years into the Iraq war, moderately well read Westerners already knew that the insurgency there wasn’t monolithic. Honest reporting repeatedly made clear that Al Qaeda, Sunni militant groups of various varieties and Sadrists didn’t see eye to eye and often worked at cross purposes even while all were hostile to America and its allies.


Yet after seven years in Afghanistan, the same cannot be said about Western knowledge of militants in the region. There’s a big, amorphous mass called “The Taliban” which is in cahoots with Al Qaeda – and that’s about as fine grained as it usually gets.

That was sufficient back in 2001. The American-led coalition invaded to engage Osama bin Laden’s group and the Taliban’s organized fighters and on the battlefield itself Afghans quickly sorted into those who were either Al Qeada or Taliban, or those who were against them.

But it doesn’t cover the current complex situation at all well,which means the West’s voters are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding – and approving or disapproving – their leaders’ plans. As Brandon Friedman, a former officer who served in Afghanistan, put it in a recent email:

Instead of fighting organized theocratic government forces and their foreign terrorist guests, we’re now arrayed against a Tatooine-esque combination actual foreign terrorists, actual Taliban fighters from two different countries, narco-warlords jockeying for regional power and influence, regular warlords jockeying for regional power and influence, angry Afghan citizens who’ve grown weary of civilian casualties, angry Afghan civilians who’ve grown weary of foreign forces and their broken promises, regular Afghan citizens who side with the Taliban out of sheer necessity for survival, angry opium farmers, Pakistani agents, and, finally, the invisible blight of government corruption.

Reducing that complexity to a simple “Us and Them” formula hinders much of the debate about Afghanistan.

So it was pleasant to see, among coverage of recent US missile strikes, a report by Mark Mazzetti, David Sanger and Eric Schmidt of the New York Times which tried to explain the various flavors of Taliban, their motives and their aims. The piece highlighted the difference between the Taliban group that Pakistan is most interested in opposing, Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, which is believed responsible for the campaign against Western forces in Afghanistan.

The latter group thinks the former has no business attacking Pakistani security forces or the Pakistani government, pointing to a reciprocal tension between Pakistan and the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. While the Pakistani government is happy to do peace deals with Haqqani’s network and less so with Mehsud’s, the coalition is more likely to eventually do so with the latter. Meanwhile, Pakistani counter-terror efforts are always going to focus on Mehsud’s groups – which isn’t all that useful to the West.

We could do with more of this kind of reporting about the region. In particular, we could do with more differentiation on press reports of the four or five main current strains of Taliban of interest to Western efforts in the region. That’s the plea recently made by Frederick Kagan, in a short article for the National Review Online reproduced at the American Enterprise Institute:

There is no such thing as “the Taliban” today. Many different groups with different leaders and aims call themselves “Taliban,” and many more are called “Taliban” by their enemies. In addition to Mullah Omar’s Taliban based in Pakistan and indigenous Taliban forces in Afghanistan, there is an indigenous Pakistani Taliban controlled by Baitullah Mehsud (this group is thought to have been responsible for assassinating Benazir Bhutto). Both are linked with al-Qaeda, and both are dangerous and determined. In other areas, however, “Taliban” groups are primarily disaffected tribesmen who find it more convenient to get help from the Taliban than from other sources.

In general terms, any group that calls itself “Taliban” is identifying itself as against the government in Kabul, the U.S., and U.S. allies. Our job is to understand which groups are truly dangerous, which are irreconcilable with our goals for Afghanistan–and which can be fractured or persuaded to rejoin the Afghan polity. We can’t fight them all, and we can’t negotiate with them all. Dropping the term “Taliban” and referring to specific groups instead would be a good way to start understanding who is really causing problems.

Mullah Omar’s Taliban – the original Afghanistan-ruling Taliban – is nowadays more under the day-to-day direction of Mullah Bradar (or Brehadar), Omar’s trusted chief of military operations but it still leans heavily towards the position of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Taliban, which has largely supplanted it as the pre-eminent force in Afghanistan. Both are based in Pakistan but mostly interested in attacking allied forces in Afghanistan and the Afghan government. As one prominent member of Omar’s group told Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad last September:

it is necessary to understand that there is a sea of difference between the people who call themselves the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban [led by Mehsud] and the Taliban. We have nothing to do with them. In fact, we oppose the policies they adhere to against the Pakistani security forces.

“We individually speak to all groups, whether they are Pakistanis, Kashmiris, Arabs, Uzbeks or whosoever, telling them not to create violence in Pakistan, especially in the name of the Taliban.

Journalists in the West could do worse than refer to veteran reporter Anand Gopal‘s incisive look at the various competing groups of militants in the region, which also include the resurgent Hizb-i-Islami of charismatic fundamentalist Hekmatyar, who like Haqqani used to be one of those favored by both CIA and ISI intelligence agencies. Gopal writes of a “rainbow coalition” arrayed against U.S. troops, which is “competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners.”

As Brandon Friedman writes, it’s tempting to default to the soundbite term “Taliban” when talking about all these groups and to thus treat them as if they were one monolithic structure. But a more nuanced debate is not only healthy in any democracy, it might pave the way for Western public acceptance of what every military commander has said must eventually happen if there is ever to be real peace – an accord with more moderate groups to reconcile them to mainstream Afghan and Pakistani politics.

Steve Hynd is an expat Scotsman living in the USA who blogs under the pseudonym Cernig.