Past haunts the present

Published August 7, 2022
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

AN American drone strike recently killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Zawahiri was present at a safe house that is reportedly owned by a top aide of Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. This would have been embarrassing for the Afghan Taliban, who deny providing “any cooperation” to the international terrorist organisation in Afghanistan.

The incident has added to global concerns about the Taliban’s seriousness and ability to deliver on the commitments they have made in the Doha agreement as well as other pledges made by them. But the killing may not have a major fallout. The Taliban regime is weak and still looking for legitimacy from the international community.

Read: How the CIA found and killed Zawahiri

In its 30th report released in July, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team had confirmed that Zawahiri was alive and communicating freely, which “coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan”. If the Al Qaeda chief had such visibility and liberty, one can only imagine the kind of freedom that terrorists from South Asia, China and Central Asia would be enjoying in Afghanistan.

The February 2022 report by the UN monitoring team had suggested that terrorist groups now “enjoyed greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history”. For one, Pakistani officials, tribal jirgas and religious scholars have been meeting leaders of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Kabul for several months now.

Many counterterrorism experts allude to Pakistan’s talks with the TTP and now Zawahiri’s killing to argue that the Haqqani Network has extensive ties with international terrorist organisations. There is no evidence to suggest that the Haqqanis are ready to review their past ties or demilitarise foreign terrorists. The Haqqanis control Kabul and wanted terrorists are freely roaming around in the capital.

The Haqqanis’ ‘reconciliatory’ approach may have impressed Pakistan but not other countries.

What the Taliban and the Haqqanis are offering to the world is the facilitation of a dialogue between states and terrorist organisations. Pakistan has already welcomed the offer and initiated a controversial peace process with the TTP. The Taliban made the same offer to China, which refused and conveyed the state’s zero-tolerance approach to terrorism.

Read: Don’t negotiate with TTP

The Haqqanis’ ‘reconciliatory’ approach has not impressed the world because there is little merit in the idea of states talking to their enemies for no reason. Insurgents and terrorist groups employ such tactics of inter-group reconciliation to maintain harmony among themselves and to avoid wasting resources. Al Qaeda has been the main reconciliatory body for terrorist organisations in Afghanistan; for some reason, it used the same strategy when it lessened its administrative control and made its affiliates more independent. Some accounts claim that Al Qaeda had played an arbitration role in resolving the differences within the Taliban’s different shuras, or advisory councils in the early stages of Taliban resurgence.

Osama bin Laden was famous for such arbitrations within the Islamist militants’ organisations. When Maulana Masood Azhar parted ways with his parent organisation the Harkatul Mujahideen in March 2000 and formed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a violent conflict erupted between the two parties over the distribution of resources. It was Osama bin Laden who helped resolve the dispute.

It is unclear whether Al Qaeda or Zawahiri advised the TTP during the discussions with the Pakistani representatives. After all, Al Qaeda would have been among the beneficiaries had Pakistan accepted the demand for the reversal of the Fata merger. Al Qaeda and the TTP have always had close ties. Apparently, the Zawahiri-led Al Qaeda played a similar arbitration role in resolving the TTP’s internal disputes and its differences with other groups and factions just as Osama bin Laden had resolved the dispute between the Harkatul Mujahideen and JeM.

One may recall that in 2010, Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, an Al Qaeda-trained terrorist seeking revenge for the death of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud who was killed in a US drone strike, had blown himself up inside a CIA operating base in Afghanistan’s Khost province, killing several CIA operatives.

Recently, a delegation of Pakistani ulema led by Mufti Taqi Usmani also visited Kabul to meet the TTP leadership and convince them to soften their stance on making peace with Pakistan. Interestingly, the Deobandi ulema made the official visit to Afghanistan after a 22-year interval. In August 2001, the Taliban celebrated their anniversary, and ceremonies had been arranged in the Afghan capital and Kandahar. These celebrations were important in the context of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan statues the same year. They had referred to the statues as idols prohibited by Islam. The trial of some American aid workers accused of preaching Christianity, a capital offence under Taliban rule, was another significant event. Several delegations of Deobandi ulema were invited by the Taliban not only to witness the trial but also to guide their qazis or judges.

Most members of the Pakistani delegations were jubilant and also attended ceremonies held by various Pakistani militant groups arranged in their honour. One can imagine what kind of sermons they would have delivered to them at that time. Many jihadist publications documented these sermons then. Many madressahs in Pakistan may have destroyed the record of these publications to avoid consequences at the hands of the law-enforcement agencies, but the Taliban and TTP have not forgotten their previous lessons.

It would be interesting to know what feelings the recent delegations of Pakistani religious scholars experienced at the time of their meeting with their former students who have now joined the TTP. The TTP would have known that these are transformed ulema, who have revisited their previous fatwas and signed a counterterrorism declaration in the form of ‘Paigham-i-Pakistan’. Media reports said that the TTP leadership listened to their teachers patiently but refused to budge from their demands. In fact, the TTP leadership had put forward an eight-point rationale for their refusal to shun violence, and their arguments were based on the ulema’s old sermons glorifying armed jihad.

The ghosts of the past will continue to haunt the clergy and the establishment. And no one knows until when.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2022

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