Taliban Unmasked: Afghan Taliban’s Continued Symbiotic Relationship with al Qaeda and International Terrorism
At a recent peace conference in Moscow, Taliban representatives sat in front of the Russian media and gave interviews to a select number of Russian women journalists. It was a message of change when compared to their brutal regime and their repressive policies toward Afghan women. The move was calculated and strategic; it was meant to send a message to the world that they have changed and are no longer a threat to regional and global security. The question is, have they really changed and cut ties with Al Qaeda and its allies? Are they different after almost two decades of fighting? Has the Taliban movement been fundamentally transformed, or they have just become ‘good politicians’, i.e. pretenders, sugarcoating themselves into a new role only to change later once they once again assume power?
On the other hand, US and its NATO allies feel they are bear-trapped in Afghanistan and are risk averse. They are in a rush to a graceful exit for its forces with political cover claiming a successful conclusion to the Afghan war. This mindset has led to pretending the Afghan Taliban have changed, and they are now effectively representing an insurgency against an Afghan government marked by corruption, warlordism and a lack of a broad-based government in Kabul. This is a huge simplification of a much more complex problem with regional and global dimensions – without even a mention concerning the role they played in haphazard and quick fix policies and an unwillingness to address the big elephant in the room - Taliban safe-havens across the border in Pakistan under the cover and support of the notorious Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence Service (ISI).
The bottom-line remains just as it has over the last 17 years - the Afghan Taliban have not changed and has deep ties with remnants of Al Qaeda and regional terror organizations - a fact long known to Western and regional intelligence agencies. The Taliban, as a group, haven’t changed in nature and its objectives. It still serves as an umbrella organization to many terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda and provide them an enabling environment to plan, train and equip for their next deadly missions in the subcontinent and beyond. Any scheme to use Taliban as a proxy force for fighting Al Qaeda and ISKP will be an exercise in futility. Taliban and its allies continue to pose security threats to the United States and its allies. Though, what has really changed about the Taliban is their increasing legitimacy as a proxy force and guns for hire by regional security agencies. Today - there are at least six different factions within the Taliban on the payroll of Afghan neighbors and their security establishments. Pakistan no longer controls a monopoly of control over the Taliban as a proxy force and their many shuras, i.e. councils, in many Pakistani cities. The Taliban are effectively a rag-tag force for hire to the highest regional bidder – and is one with deep ties to organized crime in the region.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda
The Taliban and Al Qaeda still enjoy a cosy and intimate relationship. Taliban leaders from the Quetta shura participated in the coronation ceremony of Bin Laden’s son as his successor while Al Qaeda’s second-in-command paid his tribute and declared loyalty to both the former Taliban Emir, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, and the incumbent leader of Taliban, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhund, who have both enjoyed religious and political support from Al Qaeda leadership. Furthermore, Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, has sent delegations to mediate between Taliban leaders when differences emerged between different factions within the Taliban on matters related to leadership succession, logistics, war and peace. Al Qaeda has also used its network of fundraisers in the Gulf countries to raise funds for the “Taliban jihad” in Afghanistan.
Just after 9/11, President George W. Bush in announcing a global war on terror and Operation Enduring Freedom, laid out three conditions for the Taliban regime to remain in power: cut ties with Al Qaeda, hand over Osama Bin Laden and respect human rights. Almost two decades later, Taliban leaders continue to receive advice, financial support - albeit meager - and host Al Qaeda’s second in command Ayman Al Zawahiri; Osama bin Laden was not handed over and lived under the protection of the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors until the job was done by American Special Operations and finally the Taliban continue to violate human rights en mass and provide sanctuary to regional terror outfits such as ETIM, Al Qaeda, LeT and the like. Those who legitimize the Taliban as merely an insurgent group with no ambitions beyond Afghanistan should simply look at their brothers in arms in different battles i.e. Punjabis, Arabs, Uzbeks, Uighurs and others. Today, one third of the battlefield manpower of Taliban consist of foreign fighters who fight under the command and rank of Taliban across Afghanistan. Why call them merely an insurgency and provide them political cover while sugarcoating their actions and intentions two decades later?
The United States toppled the Taliban regime because it hosted and provided enablers for Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants who carried out the tragic attacks of 9/11, not because they were running a reign of terror on Afghans. How have we come to calling this terror group an insurgency fighting for an internal cause? The truth is that the Taliban have neither changed in nature nor in objectives. It is still serving as an umbrella organization and incubator of various terrorist groups. It has not shown, neither in word nor in action, that it has denounced Al Qaeda and cut its ties with all terrorist organizations. Any other portrayal of this group is pure myth and a political convenience.
The Taliban and ISKP
The old maxim of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not hold true when it comes to using the Taliban as a proxy force to fight Islamic State offshoots in the AfPak region. While the approach and organization of the two groups may be different but essentially the Taliban movement share the same religious ideology and world view as IS. ISKP is a mixture of disenchanted Taliban and various jihadi groups members with a flavor of various regional intelligence projects. Taliban have never fought ISKP groups in any part of Afghanistan in a meaningful way. Often, Taliban operations against ISKP were retaliatory in nature or based on orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Russian KGB or the Pakistani ISI for clearance operations along Afghan-Iranian and Afghan-Pakistani borders. The Taliban, to date, lack a coherent anti-Daesh campaign whereas Afghan forces have killed at least three ISKP emirs, and dozens of its deputies and mid-ranking commanders.
In fact – the Taliban have pooled resources and joined hands with ISKP in certain parts of Afghanistan - especially in the north and north eastern parts of the country to fight Afghan forces. There is also a close relationship between the Haqqani, the Taliban’s off-shoot fighting arm, and ISKP – it’s almost an alliance since a close member of the Haqqani family is considered to be one of the founders of an ISKP branch.
The Taliban and Regional Terrorist Groups
The Taliban movement continues to serve as an umbrella organization for regional terrorist groups from Pakistan i.e. LeT, JeM, Sepah e Sahaba and the likes; Arab -mercenary fighters from Libya, Iraq and Syria; Central Asia - IMU, Ansarullah, Jundullah; China - ETIM; Russia - various Chechen groups. These groups bring critical skill set and resources to the Taliban leadership and battlefield that includes explosive making, effective command and control - and above all - extortion through organized crime. One third of the strength of Taliban fighters on various battlefields are foreign fighters from a mixture of these groups. This was the case when the Taliban regime was in power in the 1990s and they used these groups in battles against the former recognized government of Afghanistan led by former President Burhannuddin Rabbani.
Today, Pakistani, Arab, Central Asian, Russia and Chinese terrorist groups who are fighting in Afghanistan provide critical skill sets, i.e. command and control, explosives and bomb making, in their fight against US, NATO and Afghan forces. On the contrary, the foreign fighters are merely transit fighters, many of whom will jump at the first opportunity of waging jihad and attacking targets in their countries of origin, except for Pakistani fighters who are almost state-sanctioned.
The Cost of the Taliban Returning to Power
Taliban have not yet demonstrated, in word or action, that they have cut ties with Al Qaeda; no longer serve as an umbrella and incubator to regional and global terrorist organizations and will not serve as another Hezbollah type proxy group to Russia and Iran. Therefore, any effort of legitimization of this group as an indigenous insurgent group with no agenda beyond Afghan borders is an exercise in futility because their return to power would embolden their terrorist allies and reinforce their conservative Islamic view of the world. This essentially means we are back to ground-zero and that the sacrifices of US, NATO and Afghans in blood and national-treasure were in vein. To avoid such a scenario, the United States together with Afghans needs to reach consensus on three major points:
- The Taliban movement must publicly cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist group and remove their fighters from the ranks.
- Maintain military pressure on the Taliban until they agree to a genuine political settlement.
- The Taliban must guarantee it won’t serve as an armed proxy group for regional players including Iran and Russia.
Any measures short of these actions will only serve to emboldened Islamic terrorist groups, aid in the resurgence of Al Qaeda, and lead to a possible civil war in Afghanistan with the current Afghan government and security forces in disarray and a party to it. Time and credible action are of essence here.