The key clause in the United States’ peace deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban is a commitment to disallow any militant group from using Afghan soil to plot against America and its allies.
But is the Taliban merely pretending that its long-time ally al-Qaeda no longer maintains bases and fighters in the areas it controls in Afghanistan just to appease the US and withdraw its troops from the country?
As part of a historic deal brokered in February, the Taliban agreed, among other things, not to shelter terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and to cut all ties with the transnational terrorist group best known for orchestrating the 9–11 attacks on US soil.
With that commitment, the US has promised a complete withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, a departure that some speculate could pave the way for the Taliban’s eventual return to power. There are now around 5,000 US troops in the country, a number that will fall to 2,500 by early 2021.
The US is also helping to facilitate a political settlement between the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s incumbent government. While peace talks underway in Doha, Qatar, have not yet achieved any substantial breakthroughs, a deal would restore the Taliban’s international legitimacy as a political actor.
Yet key questions remain. Has the three-decade-long history of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan truly come to an end? Is the world safe from an al-Qaeda threat that has long emanated from Afghanistan’s remote and rocky reaches?
Two narratives offer different answers to these key questions.
The adherents of one line claim plain and simple that al-Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan. Opponents of this narrative, however, believe that al-Qaeda’s recent silence is an agreed strategy to conceal its presence to facilitate the Taliban’s peace deal with the US.
This could mean Afghanistan is still a willing, clandestine hub for Islamist militant groups, posing as ever severe threats to regional and global security.
All of those who want the quickest withdrawal possible of US forces from Afghanistan and those who want the Taliban back into power are fully supporting the success of the US-Taliban peace deal, signed in Doha on February 29, 2020.
They sense and fear that if any new evidence emerges about al-Qaeda’s continued threat in Afghanistan, it will potentially scupper a final US-Taliban peace deal. They therefore insist that al-Qaeda no longer exists in the country.
Those most strongly perpetuating this narrative line are the Taliban, their Afghan sympathizers and certain external powers.
This list also includes many Afghan critics of the Taliban who do not support the Islamist group but believe that Afghanistan’s conflict is rooted in the presence of foreign troops and thus want them to leave their country as soon as possible.
Those who oppose the notion that al-Qaeda has left the premises are against any political deal with the Taliban. Many of them believe that a US withdrawal will restore the Taliban to power and revert the country into a hub of Islamist militancy.
This narrative’s adherents include the current Afghan government, anti-Taliban political forces and certain political and security analysts who closely monitor al-Qaeda and global terror trends. They believe that both al-Qaeda and the Taliban are concealing the former’s presence.
The Taliban and its supporters have resorted to labeling anyone who considers al-Qaeda’s current existence in Afghanistan a possibility as “anti-peace.”
Yet the most credible claims about al-Qaeda’s continued existence in Afghanistan come from reports of the United Nations Security Council’s sanction committee team monitoring al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS) and the Taliban.
These reports have repeatedly and consistently claimed that the Taliban maintains close ties with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, even after the US-Taliban deal announced on February 29, 2020.
The latest such claim came from the coordinator of the UN’s monitoring team, Edmund Fitton-Brown, who stated in a recent online seminar about Afghanistan’s future that the Taliban keeps close contact with al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the terror group’s Egyptian leader.
Fitton-Brown has claimed that the Taliban regularly consulted al-Qaeda during their negotiations with the US. He even claimed that the Taliban offered “informal guarantees” to al-Qaeda to honor their close historical ties. The Taliban and its sympathizers have gainsaid such claims, saying they are a conspiracy to sabotage the US-Taliban deal.
Al-Qaeda has openly acknowledged its cordial relations with the Taliban in the past. It’s past and present leadership, including deceased founder Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri, has frequently made tributes to the Taliban, even naming one of its special brigades after Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Al-Qaeda-Taliban ties were open and evident in Zawahiri’s public statement after al-Qaeda’s early 2015 withdrawal from Waziristan, Pakistan, which remained its stronghold for more than a decade since 2004. The group was driven out of the region by a massive US drone strike campaign followed by a large-scale Pakistani army operation.
Zawahiri acknowledged in the statement that it was a difficult period in al-Qaeda’s history, similar to when the US first invaded Afghanistan in 2001. He credited the Taliban for rescuing al-Qaeda from Waziristan during those tough times, moving their members into strongholds inside Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s protection, however, was limited. Credible evidence shows that al-Qaeda’s senior central leaders, including Hamza Bin Laden and Shaikh Abu Khalil al-Madni, were killed by US drone strikes in Taliban strongholds after al-Qaeda’s withdrawal from Waziristan.
For years, al-Qaeda was grooming Hamza as a future leader. Al-Madni was the senior-most leader of al-Qaeda in the region after Zawahiri, who he appointed as his deputy. The recent killing of Hussam Abdul Rauf, al-Qaeda’s media head, also showed how senior al-Qaeda members are cosseted by the Afghan Taliban.
Moreover, the senior leadership of al-Qaeda’s regional branch for South Asia, known as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, have also recently been killed in US counterterrorism operations in Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan.
They include AQIS chief Maulana Asim Umar, its military head, commander Khattab Mansur, As-Sahab, AQIS’s media head, and Engr Osama Ibrahim Ghouri. All their killings show that they were hosted by the Taliban’s local leadership, who were killed with them in most cases.
Although Afghan and US sources claim these killings, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been surprisingly reticent about them. Many Afghan and Western analysts consider the silence as a part of a strategy to conceal the two sides’ enduring ties.
Although al-Qaeda violated Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s strict orders in launching the 9/11 attacks, including planning from Afghan soil, the Taliban never blamed or criticized al-Qaeda for the massive costs they paid for the attacks.
On the contrary, the Taliban has termed the collapse of their regime and the losses and problems they faced due to al-Qaeda as a tremendous religious sacrifice they would repeat if necessary.
Mullah Dad Ullah, Mullah Hassan Rohani, Ustad Yasir, Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Sangeen Zadran are a few of the senior Taliban leaders who have repeated this admiration for al-Qaeda on different occasions.
Declassified documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s hideout — a window into the secret world of al-Qaeda — confirm that al-Qaeda and Taliban ties were not limited to public statements. The leaderships of both groups had intimate close working relations, regularly consulting on important matters, according to the documents.
These documents reveal that al-Qaeda continued to provide economic support to the Taliban, much as the group did before 9/11. There is also reams of video evidence released by al-Qaeda’s official media outlets showing its men fighting under the Taliban’s command in many Afghanistan provinces.
The Taliban apparently kept al-Qaeda informed from the beginning about its secret negotiations with the US. Tayyab Agha, the Taliban’s political office head who had established communications with the US government, was previously in direct contact with Osama bin Laden. Agha even sent letters to Bin Laden two weeks before his killing.
A Bin Laden letter addressed to his deputy in Waziristan at the time also reveals he was afraid that some Taliban leaders would not stand up against US demands on al-Qaeda. Bin Laden had even suggested a “Plan B” to help the Taliban in case of any such pressures whereby al-Qaeda leaders would hide outside of Afghanistan, including in Pakistan, and later covertly re-enter and scatter inside the country.
But Zawahiri’s statement about Taliban support for al-Qaeda’s withdrawal from Waziristan and later the killings of its leadership in Afghanistan indicates the group never needed to exercise Bin Laden’s plan B.
The establishment of AQIS, the regional South Asian branch of al-Qaida, can also be seen as part of al-Qaeda’s wider strategy for driving America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Analysis of AQIS’s media outlets shows that the group is mainly involved in fighting against the US and Afghan state forces in Afghanistan and not globally.
AQIS has never attempted or showed any transnational terrorism ambitions against US allies outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as al-Qaeda’s core based in Waziristan did during 2004–2011. AQIS’s leadership has, however, shown militant interest in Pakistan’s Kashmir conflict with India.
Tellingly, the group formally announced directly after the signing of the US-Taliban accord on February 29, 2020, that it would disengage from Afghanistan and focus instead on the decades-long India-Kashmir conflict.
As al-Qaeda’s history shows, the terror group was never seriously involved in the Kashmir conflict, although it did have pre-9/11 close ties with certain Kashmir-based jihadist groups.
Instead, it absorbed Kashmiri jihadists into its ranks, utilizing them for its global goals.
Al-Qaeda’s attempt to establish an indirect symbolic presence in Kashmir likely really aims to divert attention away from its enduring presence in Afghanistan, contrary to the terms of the Taliban’s deal with the US.
It also suggests that one of the primary purposes of al-Qaeda’s establishment of AQIS was to show it was not a threat to the US’s global interests and was focused only on local issues, similar to the state-sponsored Pakistani Kashmiri jihadist groups.
As al-Qaeda has fully supported the Taliban in its two-decade-long insurgency against US and Afghan government forces, it likely also supports the Taliban’s tentative peace deal with the US and its underly aim of drive American troops out of the country.
The Taliban is still clearly al-Qaeda’s most vital strategic partner in the region. And it’s still unclear if al-Qaeda will seek to use Afghanistan to secretly shelter its leaders and monitor its global franchises, or will again plan terror operations against the US and its allies from Afghan territory, including if the Taliban is restored to power.
Either way, al-Qaeda’s silence in Afghanistan is deafening and as always potentially deadly.
Abdul Sayed has a master’s degree in political science from Lund University, Sweden, and is now an independent researcher focused on jihadism and the Af-Pak region. He’s on Twitter at: @abdsayedd