NEW YORK — The United States risks making an Afghan peace settlement ever harder by wrongly lumping together the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as a single force, US academics said in a study published Monday.

The study, by two scholars from New York University's Center on International Cooperation, challenges US policy that treats the Taliban guerrilla force and Al-Qaeda's international jihadist movement, arguing that instead they are fundamentally different -- and can be split.

"The Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain distinct groups with different goals, ideologies, and sources of recruits; there was considerable friction between them before September 11, 2001, and today that friction persists," the report by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn says.

According to the paper, "Separating the Taliban from Al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan," Washington and the US military should work to widen that divide so that the key US goal -- preventing Afghanistan from being an Al-Qaeda haven -- can be achieved.

"There is room to engage the Taliban on the issues of renouncing Al-Qaeda and providing guarantees against the use of Afghanistan by international terrorists in a way that will achieve core US goals, the study said.

But the report's authors argue that intensified attacks against the Taliban could backfire by harder to include them in a political settlement.

"Elements of current US policy in Afghanistan, especially night raids and attempts to fragment the Taliban, are changing the insurgency, inadvertently creating opportunities for Al-Qaeda to achieve its objectives and preventing the achievement of core goals of the United States and the international community," the study says.

"Fighting and negotiating are not mutually exclusive; these can and will happen in parallel. But the way the conflict is conducted is important. If a political settlement is indeed being sought, there is little sense in trying to destroy the organizations one wants to talk to."

NATO says it plans this year to begin handing Afghan forces the security lead in the battle against Taliban rebels, province by province, with the aim of giving them full responsibility across the nation by 2014.

The alliance hopes to build up Afghan security forces to 306,000 soldiers and police by the end of the year to begin taking over from around 140,000 foreign troops fighting across the nation.