Before American commanders and policymakers settle on what to do next in Afghanistan, they need to agree on whom they are fighting. Is the enemy the Taliban, al-Qaida or some other force?
There was a time, during other wars, when U.S. commanders tended to oversimplify the fight: It was the United States versus the communists â€” or the terrorists.
But no one can say the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, oversimplifies the enemy there: Speaking in London last month, he described "a uniquely complex environment."
"Three regional and resilient insurgencies â€” we don't just have one in Afghanistan; we've got at least three â€” and then there are other subinsurgencies," he said.
These three "insurgencies" are sometimes lumped together as "the Taliban," but McChrystal separates them.
First, there is the original Taliban that ruled Afghanistan until it was kicked out in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion. It still has the same leader it had then, a mysterious figure known as Mullah Omar, now based in or around the city of Quetta in Pakistan.
But Mullah Omar's movement may not be the most lethal in Afghanistan.
Take last week's deadly attack on a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul that killed five U.N. workers. The Afghan intelligence minister, Amrullah Saleh, blamed it generally on the Taliban, but then he got more specific.
"Within Taliban, we also have more evidence to suggest the Haqqani section of the Taliban," he said.
That Haqqani section is the second insurgent group. It is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who came to fame fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He joined forces at that time with Arab volunteer fighters, including Osama bin Laden. His may be the most brutal wing of the Afghan insurgency.
The third group is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another warlord and former anti-Soviet commander.
A Regional Movement
All three are Afghan movements â€” fighting to drive U.S. and other foreign troops out of Afghanistan. And critics of the U.S. war effort say that to the extent these groups focus only on Afghanistan, they don't threaten the United States.
But Tom Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School says all three are jihad movements â€” determined to establish an Islamic state.
"My research in the south of Afghanistan and Kandahar over the last two years suggests that even the foot soldiers now are ideologues," he says.
In fact, war supporters say the Afghan insurgencies have all evolved in recent years, becoming more dangerous. For one thing, they are now working with militant jihadi groups in neighboring countries with similar agendas. So they are now part of a regional Islamist movement â€” in an unstable part of the world where there are nuclear weapons.
Plus, all three of the Afghan groups have ties with al-Qaida, according to U.S. officials.
The relationship has changed; there may be no more than 100 al-Qaida members fighting alongside the Taliban. But intelligence officials say al-Qaida is providing crucial guidance on such matters as fundraising and propaganda operations.
It is a complex war environment with challenging adversaries for the Afghan government and its foreign allies.