THE Afghan Taliban surprised the world when they asserted that no organisation named Al Qaeda existed in Afghanistan. The statement will not affect the commitments they made to the US early this year as part of the peace deal. Although the Taliban have a history of employing ‘denial’ as a war tactic, their statement denying Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan also hints at their increasing political compulsions. The two militant groups have a long history of cooperation and friendship which the Taliban now feel is harder to maintain.
The Taliban have been using the ‘denial strategy’, equally against friends and foes, since they first came to power during the late 1990s. It was the time when Afghanistan had become a haven for international jihadists, including Pakistani terrorists, who were involved in sectarian killings in Pakistan. It was an open secret that the terrorists of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi were running their training camps in Afghanistan. However, quite surprisingly, whenever Pakistan demanded the extradition of these terrorists, the Taliban denied their presence on Afghan soil. This may be a reference from their past but even now the Afghan Taliban do not publicly acknowledge their close bonds with Pakistani militant groups, mainly the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
A recent report by the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team has indicated that Pakistani militant groups, mainly the TTP, are operating inside Afghanistan with the permission and support of the Afghan Taliban. In many instances, they remain reluctant to take action against the TTP and its affiliates despite Pakistan’s apprehensions. The same report claimed that the Afghan Taliban regularly consulted Al Qaeda during negotiations with the United States, and Al Qaeda gave a nod to the deal.
The Taliban have tried to give the impression of having severed ties with Al Qaeda but there’s no proof of this.
The US adventure with the Taliban is new, and both have just sealed a deal. They should be ready for more surprises. It was in a statement posted in Pashto language on the Taliban’s Voice of Jihad website, that the Taliban claimed that Al Qaeda did not have a presence inside Afghanistan. Reacting to the Taliban statement, the US Central Command’s top general, Gen Kenneth F. McKenzie, had warned that he would not recommend a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan unless the Taliban demonstrated they no longer supported Al Qaeda forces there.
The Taliban have also given the impression that severing ties with Al Qaeda is in process, but there is no proof of it. The Taliban have no political compulsions to continue their relationship with Al Qaeda; nor do they have any financial need to do so as the Taliban have developed their independent sources of revenue and funding. Five hundred to 600 members of Al Qaeda are known to still be in Afghanistan, and have become a strategic burden for the Taliban, who believe they have secured the best possible deal with the US. The deal would be considered a unique phenomenon in contemporary counterinsurgency history as a world power has agreed to a deal with insurgents on weaker terms.
Many experts believed that the Taliban’s insistence — despite their public posturing to the contrary — on continuing their ties with Al Qaeda could sabotage the peace process. Three points need to be considered. If the Taliban have consulted Al Qaeda during their talks with the US, it is not possible that the US would not have been aware of it. If Al Qaeda guarantees that it has no intention to launch terrorist assaults on Nato members, the US can tolerate the group though it would be difficult to guarantee this. Insider stories of negotiations between the Taliban and the American team have not been revealed yet, but these may help to understand the context of such possibilities.
Second, the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 because of Al Qaeda, and it may be considered against their political and ideological code to disconnect with the group for whom they had sacrificed their government and fought a long war. Breaking with Al Qaeda may cause an internal crisis within the rank and file of the Taliban But the most important factor is that Al Qaeda is so entrenched within the Taliban movement that it is somehow impossible to separate the two. This is not only about joint training, fighting together shoulder by shoulder; both have also built strong family bonds through inter-marriage.
In that context, denial seems a good option for the Taliban, but a similar approach towards the presence of the TTP and other Pakistani militant groups on Afghan soil may have some other factors behind it as well. Apart from the prevailing theory that the TTP is a strategic tool in the hands of the Afghan Taliban against Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban have engaged the Pakistani Taliban in their war. The fact that the TTP has carried out terrorist activities in Pakistan may cast doubt on such observations. However, when it comes to power-sharing in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban might be seen as contenders too as they served during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. If that happens, Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban will become prime attractions for madressah graduates in Pakistan, particularly in the country’s border regions.
Such convergences will be a nightmare for Pakistan, which could push Pakistan deeper into religious extremism and violent sectarianism. It could be simply interpreted as the victory of Al Qaeda and the TTP as their ambitions have always been to throw Pakistan and Afghanistan into deep chaos from where they can rebuild a new system according to their vision.
Pakistan’s strategic architects are not factoring in, at least at the moment, non-state actors and phenomena such as extremism into their strategic designs, and their prime focus is on the political calculus. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement in parliament in which he declared Osama bin Laden a martyr might certainly be explained away, but it was a reflection of the mindset of our hallucinating power elites, who live in a utopian ideological world and have little idea about the consequences of their ideas. What more could the Taliban and Al Qaeda hope for if they see their worldview entrenched in the mindsets of the power elites?
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2020