THE Afghan Taliban’s recent statement denying any knowledge of the now deceased Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence in their country must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is incredibly difficult to believe that Zawahiri — who was taken out in an American ‘over-the-horizon’ drone strike in one of Kabul’s most exclusive neighbourhoods — was operating incognito, with Afghanistan’s de facto rulers unaware of his location. In fact, a UN report released only a few weeks before the Al Qaeda supremo’s assassination said that Zawahiri was living in “increased comfort” with the “ability to communicate” in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The same report also observed that Al Qaeda leaders were advising the Taliban. However, protesting their innocence, a Taliban statement said they had no information about “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul”. The unpleasant reality that Zawahiri was killed in Kabul also raises serious questions about the Taliban’s commitment to not let Afghan soil be used for terrorism.
Along with Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, the fact that the self-styled Islamic State group’s Khorasan chapter has a firm foothold in the country is a matter of great concern. On Friday, IS claimed to have carried out a deadly bombing in a Kabul area inhabited by the Shia Hazara community. While the Afghan Taliban and IS are not allies, Kabul’s present rulers have done little to expel IS militants from their land. Furthermore, thousands of terrorists belonging to the banned TTP have found refuge in Afghanistan. The fact is that all that the Taliban crave — international recognition; legitimacy; foreign trade and investment — will be impossible to achieve if they continue to harbour terrorists. During their earlier stint in power, under Mullah Omar’s watch, Afghanistan became a hub of global jihadist militancy. Arguments that tribal codes or religious customs disallow the Taliban from kicking out their ‘guests’ hold no water. If the group wants international legitimacy, along with other actions, cleansing the country of foreign terrorists must be on top of the agenda.
Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2022