Getting that right determines whether counter-insurgency is a practical proposition. This is a strategy where the people is the "prize", requiring a structured attempt to alter the mindset of the population, and win support for the established government. But, if it is to succeed, then we need to know whether the target populations are amenable to change, what is required to make them change and then, crucially, whether those changes are self-sustaining.
Clearly, much depends on whether the "insurgency" in Afghanistan is localised and can be contained. If that is the case, a counter-insurgency strategy is appropriate, the aim being is to detach the less committed fighters and "turn" them. By this means, the hard core "irreconcilables" are isolated, who can then be either killed, captured or driven out, bringing security to the region.
This is essentially the core of the McChrystal plan, as opposed to the Biden/Obama preference of concentrating on the al Qaeda "terrorist" element, an option which relieves the president of the burden of providing more troops and escalating the war. That strategy would only be more appropriate, though, if the insurgency has a major trans-border element, with the bulk of its fighters "hard core", committed to a global jihad and, therefore, beyond redemption.
Rather conveniently, one might think, we are now beginning to see a series of articles in the US media, the latest an AP report, stating that "US officials face a tough challenge in dissecting the structure and leanings of the militant organisations on both sides of the often indiscernible Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and understanding their murky and evolving ties to al-Qaeda."
From this we learn that "senior al-Qaeda leaders" are forging deeper relationships with Pakistani "militants" and often operating from their camps inside the Pakistan border. This would support suggestions that the so-called Taleban and al Qaeda are merging to form a single entity, with wider objectives than a local insurgency, giving credence to a counter-terrorism strategy.
This follows the line being presented by the Obama-supporting New York Times, which has given considerable prominence given to their correspondent David Rohde who had spent seven months in "Taleban" captivity. He was amongst the first to suggest that the ties between the "Taleban" and al Qaeda might be stronger than at first thought.
However, Rohde was the "guest" of a faction known as the "Haqqani Network" (HQN), rated by McChrystal as second in importance, in terms of threat, after the Qetta Sura Taleban, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. But it is the Haqqani Network group, as much as anything, which illustrates the complexity of the "insurgency" and the kaleidoscopic structures of the players.
The Network is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a member of the Jadran, a Ghilzai sub-tribe from Paktia province in Afghanistan. According to Roche, though, its "main stronghold" is in Miranshah, administrative capital of North Waziristan, on the Pakistani side of the Durand line.
The tribe itself, even by Pashtun standards, is considered "warlike" and its members are regarded as great warriors. It was one of the first Pashtun tribes to rebel against Amin's Communist regime, after the harvest of the summer of 1979, before the Soviet invasion. In a major confrontation with government forces in September and October of that year, the tribe inflicted a major defeat on Amin's forces, which was one of the factors which led to the invasion.
It was very active in fighting against the Soviets from the beginning of the mujahidin movement, in which Sirajuddin's father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, emerged as a prominent leader, attracting the support of the CIA and the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). To that extent, Jalaluddin was considered a western "client", but also an associate of Osama Bin Laden whom he helped build his own militia to fight the Soviets.
Jalaluddin was not originally a member of the Taleban, switching to them in 1995, just prior to their occupation of Kabul. In 1996-97, he served as a Taliban military commander north of Kabul, when he was accused of ethnic cleansing against local Tajik populations. He then served as the Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in the Taleban government, and governor of his home province, Paktia.
In October, 2001, after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, Jalaluddin was named the Taleban's military commander and may have had a role in expediting the escape of Osama Bin Laden. With his base in Khost under repeated American air attack, it is believed he crossed the border into Waziristan in the November or December.
Attempts were made to get Jalaluddin to switch sides and join the Karzai government in Kabul but, instead, he consolidated his base in Waziristan, launching attacks into Afghanistan.
In 2004, though, when the Pakistani Army stepped up its search for al-Qaeda members in the mountains of North Waziristan, armed resistance by local tribesmen escalated into a two-year conflict, culminating in March 2006, when Miranshah was supposedly cleared of Taleban by the Pakistani Army, after two days of fighting.
Following that, the North Waziristan Accord was signed between the government of Pakistan and the tribes, agreeing a mutual cessation of hostilities in the district, in exchange for an undertaking that cross-border activities in Afghanistan would end and foreign jihadists would leave the area.
Nevertheless, Jalaluddin's network continued its attacks into Afghanistan and, despite US airstrikes against him personally, has remained free and is thought to have been the organiser of a number of high-profile suicide attacks in Kabul.
His forces have been accused by the coalition forces of carrying out the late-December 2008 bombing in Kabul, at an elementary school near an Afghan barracks that killed several schoolchildren, an Afghan soldier, and an Afghan guard. Meanwhile, his son Sirajuddin seems to have taken over day-to-day leadership of the Network.
The Haqqani Network is categorised as part of the "Afghanistan Taleban", distinct from the "Pakistani Taleban", and it is unclear as to how the two are related, and whether they work together. "The complexity of all this is hard enough for experts to understand," says Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA analyst. "It's not surprising if it baffles a lot of ordinary people."
According to Jason Burke, writing in The Observer on 14 October 2007, little is known about Sirajuddin Haqqani, although it is believed he is the "dominant figure among the warlords hacking out their fiefdoms in the tribal areas." He is also thought to be the only one powerful enough to challenge Mullah Omar.
It was he who in the September of 2007 "brought three different warlords together to provide a big enough force to take on the Pakistani army around Mir Ali" – an action in North Waziristan which took place between 7-10 October 2007, starting with an attack on a Pakistani convoy and ending with nearly 200 dead.
His influence, wrote Burke, stretches across eastern Afghanistan as far as Ghazni and even into Uruzgan and, while the Afghan Pashtun tribes do not unconditionally obey one commander:
... Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son have been able to draw together a complex web of links of allegiance, some based on tribal loyalty, others inspired by religious devotion to the senior Deobandi cleric that Haqqani is (or was), still more by a quasi-national response to what is perceived to be a "foreign" invasion and occupation that threatens to change Afghan society for ever.From this narrative, it would seem that any distinction between the "Pakistani" and the "Afghan" Taleban is more imagined that real, reinforced by Rohde reporting that the Haqqanis and their allies (supposedly "Afghan" Taleban) had held him "in territory they control in North and South Waziristan" - part of Pakistan, spanning multiple tribal domains.
Thus, while the Pakistani Army is attacking the "Pakistani" Taleban, it would seem that it is being opposed also by the "Afghan" Taleban – of which the Haqqanis are part - yet, bizarrely, Rohde claims to have been learnt from American officials, via his colleagues, that the ISI provides money, supplies and strategic planning to the Haqqanis and other "Afghan" Taleban groups.
Significantly, Rohde is also told that the contacts were part of a strategy to maintain influence in Afghanistan to prevent India from gaining a foothold. One Pakistani official called the Taleban "proxy forces to preserve our interests."
By all accounts, though, the Haqqani dynasty does need to rely on Pakistan's ISI for its support. His network has acquired considerable wealth from smuggling opium, weapons and timber out of Afghanistan as well as from quasi-legitimate businesses. It also comes in direct donations from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia backers, and from indirect donations via Islamic charities.
Furthermore, until 2001, Jalaluddin was a frequent visitor to the Gulf and one of his wives is from a wealthy family in the United Arab Emirates. This gives him access to the highest counsels in Gulf society, and a wide network of influence - of which al-Qaeda is part.
Thus says Vahid Brown, a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, "You cannot meaningfully distinguish between al-Qaeda and the co-linked (militant) networks — either in terms of understanding the landscape or crafting a policy response."
This then raises the question of whether anyone can meaningfully distinguish anything which would help resolve the ongoing debate. We are confronting an enemy of which we know next to nothing.