No amount of window-dressing in terms of facing a woman television anchor or showing a moderate face will convince the world that the Taliban will sever links with terror groups like al-Qaeda now that they are back in power in Afghanistan and need the world’s recognition and approbation.
The one question the Taliban have not addressed at their first press conference in Afghanistan is about their relations with terror groups. The longer they take to answer the more suspicious they will come across. The Taliban and the terror groups based in Afghanistan are certainly happy that the departure of the United States has been humiliating if nothing else, considering they came to expel the Taliban but return twenty years later as the latter returns to power.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted, BBC reported, that the US decision to pull out of the country had “accelerated things” in Afghanistan but said “we’ve known for a long time this was the way things would go”. He said no one wants Afghanistan to become “breeding ground of terror”.
Johnson said his country will work with the UN Security Council and Nato countries to stop Afghanistan “lapsing back into terror” and called for an “international effort” from the West. He warned the West must unite to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a hot bed of international terrorist groups.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already said at an emergent meeting of the UN Security Council that “the international community must unite to make sure that Afghanistan is never again used as a platform or safe haven for terrorist organizations”. The Taliban have never confirmed or denied terror links in Afghanistan, but all that changed after the Doha Agreement of 2019 when they signed on the dotted line to ensure that they will not allow any terrorist group to use Afghanistan as a base to plan attacks against the United States.
They have a two-decade-old relationship with al-Qaeda while in recent years their proximity with Pakistan-based terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa. When they came to power in 1996, they were pariahs while Afghanistan was recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabi and United Arab Emirates. The Taliban behaved like a terror group themselves, with their depraved violence and regressive Islamist theories. They provided a safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda. Thousands of trainees from across the world passed through the terror groups’ training schools in Afghanistan.
Fast-forward twenty years since then, and the Taliban are back in power and the US has gone back home. Even though some Taliban sympathisers claim that they would keep distance with the terror groups because they want to be seen as moderate, several counter-terror experts believe it will not be easy for the Taliban to sever the links.
The relations between the two were forged literally under fire in the 1990s. Fighters of both sides spent years in the wilderness, hiding in mountains and valleys, living harsh lives, watching one another’s backs all the while. Over time, they developed familial relationships, each marrying into the other group and in the hill tribes, these bonds are permanent.
With the Taliban in power now, more potential hiding places open up for the terror groups. There are many areas in Afghanistan which because of their remoteness are difficult to govern and see hardly any administrative or security presence. The Taliban’s capture of the strategic Kunar province was hailed by the terror groups.
It boasts of inaccessible and challenging terrain with forested valleys, difficult for security forces to monitor. Anywhere between 200 and 500 al-Qaeda terrorists are supposed to be hiding in Kunar and their numbers are expected to grow in the coming days. Its leader Ayman al-
Zawahiri is said to be somewhere in Afghanistan along with a number of other senior figures of al-Qaeda. The report of the UNSC’s monitoring team in late July stated: “Al-Qaida is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the eastern, southern and south-eastern regions. Its weekly Thabat newsletter reports on its operations inside Afghanistan. Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz Provinces. Since the death of Asim Umar in 2019, AQIS has been led by Osama Mahmood (not listed). The group consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, but also individuals from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.”
About Islamic State, the report said: “Despite territorial, leadership, manpower and financial losses during 2020 in Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant- Khorasan (ISIL-K) (QDe.161) has moved into other provinces, including Nuristan, Badghis, Sari Pul, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunduz and Kabul, where fighters have formed sleeper cells. The group has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it conducts most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees and personnel of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.”
Till recently, much of the Taliban leadership itself was based in Pakistan’s Quetta. The terror groups were also based there. The Pakistanis, facing consistent pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on terror financing, would be too eager to see that the terror groups shift base to Afghanistan.
The question is: What would the terror groups do once they settle in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule? Would they use the territory to plan attacks abroad? If so, that may necessarily invite the West to resort to drone strikes and cruise missile attacks even if from a distance. That will change the security scenario once again.