Al-Qaeda continues to operate out of Afghanistan with impunity

New Delhi: After taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban have publicly stated that they have completely disassociated themselves from Al-Qaeda, but ground realities are starkly different as there have been sightings of “foreigners” or non-Afghan fighters in their ranks. There is a very clear disconnect between the words of moderate Taliban spokespersons and the reality on the ground.

Al-Qaeda praised the Doha agreement as a great victory and celebrated the US withdrawal and the fall of Kabul. In addition to Al-Qaeda, the ISIS-K (ISIS’s Afghanistan affiliate) also remains a potent threat, as it always found it difficult to win a major foothold in Afghanistan. With the Taliban’s take over of the country and indirect benefits to Al-Qaeda, there is mounting pressure on ISIS-K to prove its relevance, which is reportedly forcing them to be more violent and destructive.

This is made clear by the deadly Kabul airport attack that took place on August 26. The devastating bomb attack so soon after the Taliban take over was just another reminder that even with the end of the civil war, Afghanistan remains fertile territory for jihadi terrorism.

There is a concern of the influx of foreign fighters from neighbouring countries like Pakistan will swell the ranks of jihadist organisations operating in Afghanistan.

Colin Clarke, author of “After the Caliphate: The Islamic State and the Future of the Terrorist Diaspora” while speaking to Time magazine stated that the current situation in Afghanistan is like a rising tide lifts all boat situation, adding “There’s going to be an influx of jihadi, some are going to go to [Al-Qaeda], and some are going to go to ISIS-K.”

Almost immediately following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly overpowered the Afghan Security Forces and took over the entire country, and the world is coming to the realization that a ruthless, fundamentalist terrorist group has taken over an entire nation and is well on its way to forming the government.

The events of the past month can be roughly traced back to the Doha Agreement signed between the US and the Taliban. The agreement stated that the US would withdraw its ground forces from the country and the Taliban would enter into peace negotiations with the Afghan government. Another stipulation was that in the event that the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, it would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the US or other nations.

While this additional condition seems to be logical there seems to be one flaw that the Taliban can not use Afghanistan as a launchpad for global terror attacks, the agreement does not touch upon the topic of providing a safe haven for other jihadist groups or the need to expel the ones already in Afghanistan.

This distinction which was highlighted by Dr Antonio Giustozzi is extremely important because following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the country can now become a safe haven for fundamentalist jihadists from all over the Muslim world and the Taliban would still be able to claim that they are abiding with the Doha Agreement.

This would be the worst-case scenario as many countries like India, Russia and the US feared that with the rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan will become a base of groups like Al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Already three Jihadist groups, Lashkar-e Taiba, Lashkar-e Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have already signed agreements with the Taliban and have forsaken some of their autonomy to the Taliban. Other more notorious groups are still in negotiations with the Taliban.

The last time the Taliban governed Afghanistan was from 1996-2001, and during those years the Taliban provided to not only Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation but numerous other budding terrorist groups as well. During that time, Al-Qaeda’s terror training camps became known as “a university of terror” and it is estimated that 20,000 jihadists were trained in its camp alone.

With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan after 2 decades, the same situation seems to be repeating itself. The Afghan Taliban have a close relationship with Al-Qaeda. The relationship has reached such an extent that Edmund Fitton-Brown, the coordinator of the UN panel responsible for tracking the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan has stated that the top leadership of Al-Qaeda is still under Taliban protection. According to a UN report, there are 200-500 Al Qaeda fighters spread across the 11 Afghan provinces.

According to Rita Katz, the executive director of the Site Intelligence Group, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is one of the biggest boosts and game-changer for Al-Qaeda and Muslim fundamentalist jihadist groups since 9/11.

“The Taliban takeover is the biggest boost to Al Qaeda since 9/11 and a global game-changer for jihadism generally,” said Rita Katz in an interview with The New Yorker.

Although the Taliban will be relatively busy trying to secure the funds and govern a country, the same does not apply to other terrorist organisations that now have a safe haven to rest and launch their attacks. For the past 20 years, the western countries had relied on the Afghan intelligence service and its network of human informants, but now following the Taliban takeover, the western countries and other nations are essentially blind about the internal workings of Afghanistan allowing jihadists to set up safe havens and training camps.

The Jihadists have used the media and their spokespersons to send a moderate message and reiterate that they are the Taliban 2.0 which will form an inclusive government, not take revenge on collaborators of the previous regime and give rights to girls. But one must not forget that the Taliban have many faces. They are trying very hard to appeal to the international community because they are in desperate need of humanitarian aid and funds, and that is why they seem to be making lofty promises. The Taliban’s promises, however, are as fickle as the rain and should always be taken with a grain of salt.

The Taliban claims to have stopped cooperating with Al-Qaeda, but in reality, they are still shielding Al-Qaeda leaders. Taliban spokesperson promised an inclusive government but there have been no steps taken in that direction. They promised rights for girls but women and girls have not been allowed to return to work or schools.

The deal of not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for global terrorist activity is also most likely a veil to cover the truth of an Afghanistan filled with terrorist training camps and drug production fields in order to fund terror activities. The international community and especially the neighbouring countries must not hastily recognize the Taliban and hold it accountable.