The Taliban and Al Qaeda are joined at the hip. From its founding by Osama bin Laden in 1986, Al Qaeda has pledged loyalty to the Taliban.
London: Twenty years after the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan, where is the country heading? One thing for sure is that the new Taliban government urgently wants international recognition and legitimacy. Brilliantly successful in taking over the country, the Taliban now find themselves with a whole host of potentially catastrophic problems. The country was already facing an alarming humanitarian crisis even before they came to power; now the predictions are unequivocally dire. People have no money, have no food and are losing hope. But for the Taliban, putting in place their Islamic Emirate and a Sharia compliant society is what matters most of all. Everything else, even the welfare of Afghan citizens, is secondary.
The Taliban have a long record of being exceptionally obstinate. They knew that many problems would await them and had the opportunity of a negotiated settlement which would have ensured that the aid kept flowing. Instead, they chose a military victory, calculating that “we’ll work out something when we’re in power”. While they assumed that Western powers might initially hold back in providing aid, they hoped to persuade some Gulf countries, Pakistan and others in the region to recognise them, perhaps even playing power politics with Russia and China. But they have reverted to type in setting up an Islamic Emirate, identical to that which was overthrown by international consensus back in 2001, so nobody is rushing in to recognise them. Ignoring the impending humanitarian crisis, the Taliban show no intention of changing course. Instead, they are doubling down, trying to run a country without any money, even extorting businesses throughout the country to pay the running costs of ministries. Government ministers are said to be holding their heads in despair.
All the signs are that any international aid will be conditional. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming an incubator for terrorism is top of the list for most countries before they will even consider recognition and support. Six weeks ago, it was loud and clear in the West that the Taliban’s victory delivered a tremendous boost to Islamist extremists everywhere. Terrorists the world over are contemplating a new jihadi migration to Afghanistan, proclaiming that the country is now indisputably the “centre of global jihad”. The loudest cheer came from Al Qaeda, with Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates, aligned scholars and social media groups, all voicing their elation and shared sense of victory. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called the Taliban’s conquest “the beginning of a pivotal transformation”, while its North Africa and Sahel-based franchises jointly called it proof that militant jihad is the “only path to glory”. Al Qaeda in the Indian sub-Continent (AQIS) issued a statement congratulating the Taliban, calling the victory “divine and just reward for pursuing jihad”. AQIS operates under the Taliban umbrella from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces, and consists primarily of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, but also includes individuals from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. As is well known, one of its objectives is to “liberate” Kashmir.
When the Islamist extremist Taliban signed the questionable peace accord with the Trump administration in Qatar in February 2020, they “pledged” to keep others, including both Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP, sometimes called ISIS-K), out of the country. Both US and Taliban signatories to this “pledge” were either naïve or disingenuous, as at the time there were at least 500 Al Qaeda fighters in the country plus dozens of ISKP. Following the release in August of more than five thousand prisoners from Afghanistan’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison, which contained a maximum security cell-block for the most hardened Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, this number will have multiplied many times.
And it’s more than just numbers; the Taliban and Al Qaeda are joined at the hip. From its founding by Osama bin Laden in 1986, Al Qaeda has pledged loyalty to the Taliban. This pledge, called “bay’ah”, is more than a mere gesture of alliance; it’s a sacred, holy relationship that is rarely undone. One that continues to this day. Osama bin Laden swore allegiance to the then Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the 1990s and, by extension, so did every Al Qaeda leader and fighter. In 2016, following the killing of Taliban head, Mullah Mansur, Al Qaeda published a fourteen-minute video featuring its current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri again pledging allegiance to the Taliban, this time to the group’s new leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada. “We pledge allegiance to establish a caliphate on the prophetic method. We are your soldiers and supporters, and a brigade among your brigades.” Al Qaeda places Akhundzada’s rule at the apogee of Islam, in some ways similar to the credentials the Islamic State granted its so-called caliphs Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi. When the 60-year-old Akhundzada says he rules an emirate, Al Qaeda recognises it as such and submits to its authority.
To date, the Taliban have never disavowed Al Qaeda’s pledge, which has helped to fuel confidence in Al Qaeda members and supporters that these ties endure, regardless of what they say to the world. This clearly indicates that they have no plans to cut ties with their long-time partners.
A more serious problem for the Taliban is the ISKP. On the evening of 26 August, just eleven days after the Taliban takeover, ISKP claimed responsibility for a bombing at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed more than 180 people and injured hundreds of others. Several attacks have been reported in the city of Jalalabad, one of ISKP’s most common targets. On Friday, a suicide bomber from ISKP attacked a Shia mosque, killing 46 worshippers and wounding 143. The blast, which the United Nations’ mission in Afghanistan called part of a disturbing pattern of violence, follows others in recent days at a mosque in Kabul and a religious school in the eastern province of Khost. The Taliban continue to pledge to eradicate any forces loyal to ISKP, and recently detained at least 80 of their fighters in Nangarhar, an ISKP stronghold. But this long-time foe is proving more difficult than the Taliban will let on, and many believe that the new government will resort to the playbook of former Afghan governments by using unlawful detentions and extrajudicial killings.
But there’s another reason for urgent action. The Islamic State has long framed the Taliban as an apostate organisation in the hope of drawing disaffected members to its ranks. So, unless the Taliban government acts decisively against ISKP forces there is the very real danger of its rogue or disillusioned members defecting in the hope of seeing action. For those Taliban members who long for battle, ISKP, known among Afghans for brutality and violence, may prove to be an attractive alternative.
This is the impossible dilemma for the new government in Kabul. Eliminating the ISKP will be difficult and time consuming, and even if it does, it may not gain international recognition it needs to run the country because of its intimate connection to Al Qaeda, one which will be virtually impossible to unravel. Americans inextricably link Al Qaeda to the 9/11 attack on their country and Washington will refuse to assist any government with such links. Although countries are now establishing relations with the Taliban, to date none has offered formal recognition of the militant government, even long-term allies such as Pakistan and Iran. And the problem is not just diplomatic isolation. Global financial institutions, including those in the US where most of Afghanistan’s reserves are held, have frozen access to the money, rendering the Taliban incapable of paying for imports that feed the country.
So, no Al Qaeda and money; or Al Qaeda and no money. Which is it to be? How will the Taliban government resolve this challenging conundrum?
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.