Worry About bin Laden, Not the Taliban

A recent US raid into Pakistan from Afghanistan using Special Forces on the ground is apparently part of the Bush administration’s new "get tough" policy on the Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. For many years, Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership have been thought by US intelligence to be hiding in these wild and remote areas.

Well, at last, the administration, in its waning days, has directed its policy toward the right country. After 9/11 and bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan, the administration became sidetracked with nation-building projects in Afghanistan and then Iraq. These counterproductive episodes of military social work have increased the number of terrorism incidents worldwide and diverted administration attention, intelligence assets, and Special Forces units from the main goal of capturing or killing bin Laden and the other al-Qaeda leaders.

Notice the absence of the word "Taliban" from the last sentence. Even Barack Obama and the Democrats declare that "we cannot lose Afghanistan." The main reason for the stepped up US incursions on the ground, and the concomitant increase in strikes by Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles into Pakistan, is to hit the Taliban’s safe havens to impede the group’s cross-border attacks on Afghanistan. Yet the United States has to worry about the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan only because its non-Muslim occupation of a Muslim land is causing it. The US government and the American public have lost sight of the fact that the Taliban did not attack the United States on 9/11, bin Laden and al-Qaeda did.

A more aggressive policy by the US in Pakistan, when combined with the continued occupation of Afghanistan, is likely to make the Taliban even more wildly popular in both places. Rising Islamic radicalism in Pakistan is very dangerous, because the country possesses nuclear weapons. The US originally helped create al-Qaeda; let’s not create any more threats.

To deflate the Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the vast majority of US and allied forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving only a small contingent of clandestine Special Forces and Predators to take advantage of any window of opportunity, should bin Laden or any other leadership targets be located. However, most of the US effort should be reoriented to the same policy that has reduced violence in Iraq: paying off your enemies not to fight you.

Removing the non-Muslim occupation from Muslim soil would likely take the fire out of the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the United States could simply pay any Taliban remnants not to fight. Even more important, keeping its "eyes on the prize," the US should offer whatever the Taliban in Pakistan wants to turn over bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. In that part of the world, allegiances often shift with the flow of cash. In late 2001 after 9/11, when bin Laden was on the run from US forces, he apparently paid Afghans to let him escape. So why can’t the US just pay whatever it takes to bring him in? Tell the Taliban to name their price. Some say that no matter how high the reward, the Taliban is too dedicated in its radical Islamic beliefs to turn over bin Laden, but the group regularly violates its principles to profitably consort with Afghanistan’s drug lords.

But the amount will no doubt be much more than the measly $50 million sum the US government currently has on bin Laden’s head. Such a sum seems like a lot, but is chump change for countries and political movements, such as the Taliban.

I guess it would be too much to expect the Bush administration – which has incompetently distracted itself with every other task in the "War on Terror" except what should have been its main objective: capturing or killing the perpetrator of one of the most heinous acts of terror in human history – to get it right at this late date. But because a new administration is just around the corner, hope springs eternal.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.