KABUL // Washington's military drive to defeat Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency is failing to consider the benefits of negotiating a strategy against al Qa'eda that could help solve the decades-long war, a new study commissioned by New York University argues.
Alex Strick van Linschoten, one of the authors of the report, titled Separating the Taliban from al Qa'eda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan, said: "The Taliban and al Qa'eda are quite different groups, with different histories, different backgrounds, different goals.
"The current strategy being implemented [by the US] on the ground seems to be driving the two together into what is more a marriage of convenience," Mr Strick van Linschoten said. "But there could be real and useful dialogue with the Afghan Taliban leadership on the issue on al Qa'eda."
The study, commissioned by New York University's Afghanistan Regional Project and released this month, highlights the stark divide in thinking between military officials, policymakers and academics over how to end the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan.
Current US policy relies almost entirely on military prowess to defeat Taliban insurgents.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, confirmed this week that he is in talks with US officials seeking to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan in the fight against al Qa'eda.
The Islamist militant group is believed to have planned the September 11, 2001 attacks from what was then a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, prompting the US invasion that same year.
But the two researchers behind the report, Mr Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, who are believed to be the only two westerners living on their own in Kandahar, say the idea that Taliban insurgents and al Qa'eda are one is a "major intelligence failure" that is driving the US towards an ultimately counterproductive strategy based solely on military gains.
Continued military engagement in Afghanistan that excludes serious efforts to negotiate with insurgents, the authors argue, will only prolong the conflict and radicalise a younger generation of Taliban fighters more susceptible to bin Laden's global jihadist rhetoric.
Mr Strick van Linschoten, who has interviewed hundreds of unnamed Taliban leaders, said: "A fair amount of [Taliban] commanders are currently being removed from the battlefield, so to speak, but the military strategy is quickly changing the nature of the insurgency by bringing in newer, more radical members." Mr Strick van Linschoten, along with Mr Kuehn, co-edited two books written by the former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. Mr Strick van Linschoten has also written for The National.
"Five to 10 years from now, you could have a Taliban that is willing to attack international targets outside Afghanistan," he said. "Which was not the case in 2001 and is still not the case now."
The report says there has been notable friction between al Qa'eda and the Afghan Taliban for years, and that recently the Taliban "have taken considerable care in their public statements to implicitly distance themselves from al Qa'eda".
The Afghan Taliban, it states, do not see themselves in a conflict outside Afghanistan's borders, and in private have expressed a willingness to co-operate with the US in keeping al Qa'eda and other foreign militants at bay.
US embassy officials declined to comment on the possibility of negotiations with the Taliban on al Qa'eda, and referred queries on the establishment of permanent bases to the offices of the US-led International Security Assistance Forces, which was not immediately available for comment.
There are approximately 140,000 international troops in Afghanistan, two thirds of whom are US forces. According to US Major Gen Kenneth Dowd, the former director of logistics for US Central Command, tens of millions of dollars are being spent to upgrade and expand US military bases across Afghanistan, including the construction of 12 new forward operating bases.
US military analysts in the capital claim the country's military strategy, which includes a "surge" of combat troops and plans for an enduring presence in Afghanistan, will ensure the country is never again a sanctuary for global terrorists.
Responding to the New York University report, one Kabul-based military official, who wished to remain anonymous, said he saw no evidence that the Taliban is willing to turn on al Qa'eda, and claimed that the strategy of pressuring the Taliban on the battlefield is working.
Another US military adviser, also based in Kabul, said there was strong intelligence indicating al Qa'eda militants were currently coming back over the border into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and the assumption that Afghan security forces would be able to hinder al Qa'eda's movement without US assistance was nothing more than a pipe dream.
Mr Strick van Linschoten said: "The idea that you could actually negotiate with the Taliban to stymie al Qa'eda is so far out of the realm of US thinking at the moment. There are a few people within the US administration looking for a political solution, but all resources are currently being allocated for the war." He said it appeared that Gen David Petraeus, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, "really seems to believe that they can end this all militarily."