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Q&A: The elephant in the room — what is the future of al-Qaida in Afghanistan?

Q&A: The elephant in the room — what is the future of al-Qaida in Afghanistan?

Two prominent experts weigh in on the Taliban's true ties to al-Qaida and what that means for the future of the US in Afghanistan.

Analysis | Reporting | Global Crises

The historic U.S.-Taliban deal signed in Doha back in February requires the Taliban to provide guarantees that it will not allow terrorist groups to use Afghan soil to launch attacks against the United States and its allies. But United Nations monitors claim al-Qaida remains heavily embedded within the Taliban.

What drives Taliban-al-Qaida relations and what effect will a U.S. departure from Afghanistan have on future ties? Will the Taliban disavow al-Qaida and what is the role of the Taliban in stopping the rise of the ostensibly more radical ISIS offshoot known as the Islamic State - Khorasan Province (ISKP)? And, how do U.S. relations with Pakistan and China affect counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan?

To answer these questions, Responsible Statecraft is joined by Dr. Tricia Bacon who is an Assistant Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and brings over a decade of experience at the State Department working for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Bureau of Counterterrorism, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Dr. Asfandyar Mir who is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University has conducted innovative research on terrorism in South Asia (answers have been edited for clarity). 

The lasting impact of Mullah Omar and al-Qaida

ADAM WEINSTEIN: In 2001, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused to handover Osama bin Laden to the United States or disavow al-Qaida, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and routed the Taliban from power. What is the legacy of the late Taliban leader’s decision not to cut ties with al-Qaida in 2001 and how is this interpreted by the Taliban’s leadership today?

TRICIA BACON: The legacy of Mullah Omar’s refusal to break with al-Qaida complicates the Taliban’s ability to do so today. Mullah Omar still enjoys a position as the premier religious and ideological authority of the Taliban. Subsequent Taliban leaders have not enjoyed the same level of reverence or credibility as the group’s founder.

If the current Taliban leaders were to genuinely decide to break with al-Qaida, they would likely have to argue that something fundamental has changed that makes Mullah Omar’s position no longer relevant to the current circumstances. Otherwise, they risk Taliban adherents seeing them as disregarding Mullah Omar’s decision and losing support.

AW: On October 6, 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a warning to Mullah Omar who led the Taliban at the time, that if the Taliban did not “hand over all al-Qaida leaders,” then “every pillar of the Taliban regime will be destroyed.” Several accounts of this period in the Taliban’s history suggest that Mullah Omar struggled with the decision not to hand over Osama bin Laden and many of his closest confidants urged him to do so. Do you think this experience and the U.S. invasion that followed influences the calculus of today’s Taliban leadership?

ASFANDYAR MIR: The Taliban’s calculus on al-Qaida is complex but, on balance, favorable to the group. A pure cost-benefit analytic lens is not right for understanding where the Taliban stand on al-Qaida; instead, the Taliban’s position is best understood through its ideology based political project — which combines precepts of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic theology, the centrality of “jihad” in its interpretation of Islamic theology, and its status as guardian of Islam in Afghan society.

One major source of alignment between the Taliban and al-Qaida is al-Qaida’s jihadist project, which in the Taliban’s perception fulfills a major perceived religious obligation. The Taliban appreciate that al-Qaida pursues its jihadist project by subordinating its Salafist ideology to the Taliban’s status as the final arbiter on matters of theology. As a result, important Taliban leaders remain sympathetic to al-Qaida — and there is a cadre of leaders who express this sympathy to interlocutors who press them on al-Qaida. Taliban propaganda also reveals there is some sympathy for al-Qaida’s grand strategy of bringing about an American downfall.

That said, it is undeniable that the Taliban leadership today is sensitive to the costs of the U.S. invasion and U.S. counterterrorism strikes since. Some Afghan Taliban are wary of a relationship with al-Qaida and have lobbied against it altogether, both before and after 9/11. Others seem to oppose al-Qaida due to U.S. targeting pressures. It appears that the size of the constituency opposed to al-Qaida inside the Taliban has grown but it is unclear whether this constituency can really shape the Taliban’s position on al-Qaida. For now, given the Taliban’s public evasiveness on al-Qaida and reluctance to meaningfully distance itself, the balance of Taliban elite opinion is in favor of al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s leadership also believes this. 

The Taliban and the Islamic State - Khorasan Province 

"The Taliban have demonstrated a real commitment to going after ISKP [an ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan] over the last few years, and it is unlikely to relent even after American forces drawdown."

— Asfandyar Mir

AW: ISKP contested al-Qaida and the Taliban’s legitimacy in Afghanistan. However, the group has suffered significant military setbacks to include targeted killings of its senior leadership. What is the Afghan Taliban’s current stance on ISKP and is a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan likely to alter this position? [Since this question was posed, the Washington Post reported that the United States is clandestinely providing air support for Taliban offensives against ISKP.]

AM: The Taliban have demonstrated a real commitment to going after ISKP [an ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan] over the last few years, and it is unlikely to relent even after American forces drawdown. The Afghan Taliban view the ISKP as an implacable enemy that needs to be crushed militarily. The Taliban recognize that there is deep resonance of Salafism in the two provinces — Kunar and Nangarhar — due to which ISKP made inroads in that region. Going forward, the Taliban will continue to watch for signs of ISKP’s resurgence. The Taliban might try to enlist support of more Salafi/Ahl-e-Hadith ideology groups to improve its political position in the region.

I keep hearing reports that the Taliban and Pakistan are instrumentalizing the ISKP for violence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is alleging that India is playing spoiler by supporting the ISKP. I don’t know what to make of these reports, especially as no part of the U.S. government is supporting these claims. My sense is that even without external prodding, ISKP’s surviving cadres are ideologically committed to targeting civilians, especially vulnerable Afghan minorities. 

AW: You assert that the Taliban were able to successfully counter the ISKP without the assistance of al-Qaida. Why is this and is it indicative of the Taliban’s ability to prevent other terrorist organizations from using Afghan soil to launch attacks against the United States and its allies?

TB: The Taliban has admittedly been one of the most effective anti-ISKP forces in Afghanistan. But its reasons for doing so are not representative of the group’s relationships with other resident terrorist groups. The Taliban has targeted ISKP because ISKP is the Taliban’s rival. ISKP seeks to challenge and weaken the Taliban, thereby gaining primacy in the insurgency in Afghanistan at the Taliban’s expense.

In contrast, the other foreign terrorist organizations in Afghanistan are allied with the Taliban and operated under its management, guidance, and authority. Those groups support the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan. Thus, the Taliban’s willingness to counter ISKP is not a genuine reflection of its willingness or ability to prevent other terrorist organizations from using Afghan soil to launch attacks against the United States and its allies. It is driven by a parochial agenda that does not apply outside of ISKP. 

The current status of Taliban-al-Qaida ties

"There is very little in the Taliban’s recent behavior to suggest that they are looking to forcefully constrain al-Qaida in Afghanistan."

— Asfandyar Mir

AW: In a recent report, you concluded that al-Qaida remains resilient in Afghanistan but that much of the Afghan Taliban leadership appears to have no intent to engage in transnational terrorism against the United States or its allies. What posture is the Afghan Taliban likely to take toward al-Qaida, particularly after a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? What is the risk of fragmentation among the Taliban over this issue?

AM: The Taliban do not espouse transnational aims — their political project is limited to Afghanistan. But for reasons of ideology among other factors, they are sympathetic to al-Qaida and want to help the group. In recent background interviews, some Taliban leaders describe foreign fighters such as al-Qaida members as “Muslim dissidents” who deserve their support. So, it appears unlikely the Taliban will undertake a major crackdown against or expel al-Qaida. I expect the Taliban to institute formal mechanisms to manage groups of foreign fighters, including al-Qaida and its allied organizations, which may include guidelines and provisions on activities against the United States and its allies. 

But I am skeptical the Taliban will enforce these provisions in earnest — there is very little in the Taliban’s recent behavior to suggest that they are looking to forcefully constrain al-Qaida in Afghanistan. 

As for the risk of fragmentation on this issue, it doesn’t seem like a major problem. Conventional claims of calcified political cleavages and factionalism in the Afghan Taliban in general and on what to do about al-Qaida in particular appear overstated. Internal friction remains manageable for the group’s leadership. 

AW: You have written that the partnership between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida benefits the latter more. Apart from al-Qaida’s technical skills, the terrorist group has little to offer the present day Afghan Taliban which no longer rely on al-Qaida for funding and lack ambitions outside of Afghanistan. What is the current scope of the partnership between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida and what drives the relationship forward?

TB: One of the benefits of al-Qaida’s decision to create a regional affiliate in South Asia, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), was that doing so created a linchpin in the contemporary al-Qaida and Taliban relationship. It is telling that when in 2015 the United States discovered the largest al-Qaida training compound seen in Afghanistan since 2001, it was a complex run by AQIS in Kandahar. Similarly, AQIS’s emir was killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan raid on a Taliban compound in Helmand.

Historically, al-Qaida was closer to the Haqqani Network and operated mainly in the east and southeast of Afghanistan. But AQIS has made inroads with the Taliban in the south, thereby connecting al-Qaida more closely with the Taliban’s birthplace and deepening al-Qaida ties with Taliban leaders beyond the Haqqanis. There is a tendency to assume that al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan are Arab, but AQIS in Afghanistan is dominated by Pakistanis, which offer al-Qaida a more seamless relationship with the Taliban in terms of culture and religious practices. AQIS is a frequently overlooked factor in the depth and strength of the Taliban-al-Qaida relationship as well as estimates of al-Qaida's presence in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban, al-Qaida, and Pakistan

"The Taliban cannot control al-Qaida (and vice versa). Pakistan cannot control the Taliban (and vice versa). And the United States cannot control Pakistan (and vice versa)."

— Tricia bacon

AW: Al-Qaida retains an alliance with the Pakistani terrorist organization known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that is sometimes referred to as the Pakistani Taliban and operates between Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan. What is the primary target of the TTP and how might the United States and Pakistan challenge the group and its ties with al-Qaida after a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?

AM: In recent months, the TTP has staged somewhat of a comeback. It has become more unified politically, regenerated organizational capability and engaged in a sizable extortion campaign in Pakistan’s tribal belt. There are reports of some foreign fighter movements in areas under the influence of the TTP in Pakistan’s Waziristan region [part of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. The TTP’s primary target is Pakistan, on which it has long received support and strategic guidance from al-Qaida. 

The TTP-al-Qaida nexus is underappreciated. In the years past, al-Qaida pushed the TTP to develop a military strategy with clear political aims. Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders were upset with the TTP for targeting Pakistani civilians. If the TTP takes al-Qaida’s doctrinal guidance seriously, I expect it to focus more on Pakistani state targets. On targeting and timing of U.S. homeland and U.S. interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it will take its cues from al-Qaida. 

The U.S. government has failed to remove senior TTP leadership from the battlefield in Afghanistan since late 2018. It is unclear to me if this is because of lack of intelligence or a political disinterest and unwillingness on part of the United States. In the murky and complex world of U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism politics, the U.S. government has used TTP leadership targeting to bargain with the Pakistani military on various issues, and vice versa. But this is short-sighted because theTTP’s resurgence will aid al-Qaida’s transnational terrorism plans.

AW: Despite the Afghan Taliban’s alliance with al-Qaida, it has not historically advocated for transnational terrorism operations. You have written that al-Qaida has operated internationally in defiance of the Afghan Taliban and that it is unlikely that the latter can entirely control al-Qaida. You also assert that some anti-state terrorist groups originating in Pakistan that have focused on Afghanistan may refocus their efforts on Islamabad if the insurgency led by the Afghan Taliban ends. How might the United States work with and pressure Pakistan to reduce the threat of terrorism in the region if a political settlement is achieved in Afghanistan? 

TB: This question reveals a series of relationships in which partners cannot control one another. The Taliban cannot control al-Qaida (and vice versa). Pakistan cannot control the Taliban (and vice versa). And the United States cannot control Pakistan (and vice versa). Thus, actions that one partner does not condone are inevitable. 

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is poised to undergo significant changes in the coming years. The U.S. policy towards Pakistan has been shaped by its reliance on the Pakistani government for the Air Lines of Communication and Ground Lines of Communication for the U.S. military campaign. With a U.S. withdrawal, Pakistan loses that leverage with the United States. For its part, Pakistan will be invested in securing a post-U.S. Afghanistan in which the Taliban is a dominant and friendly actor, even if it cooperates with the United States to some degree on countering terrorism. That counterterrorism cooperation will be tempered by Pakistan’s interest in securing the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan and managing its own sometimes tumultuous relationship with the group. 

Of note, the Taliban has long worked with anti-Pakistan militants, including today. While the Taliban has sometimes sought to temper those groups’ actions against Pakistan, it has continued to cooperate with them even as they attack Pakistan. For its part, the Pakistani government has supported the Taliban even though it works with groups that target Pakistan. This complicated dynamic is unlikely to change with a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.

This all comes as, irrespective of the results of the U.S. election, counterterrorism is becoming less of a priority and China has risen to the top of U.S. national security concerns. The focus on China will probably move the United States closer to India and more at odds with Pakistan. This may hinder U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation, including the ability to rely on Pakistan to enforce the terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal. 

US representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]||
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