Ever since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Doha on February 29, there has been much speculation around the question of whether the Taliban will break ties with al-Qaeda to honor the terms of the agreement. The agreement mentions that the Taliban will not allow any individual or group, including al-Qaeda, to threaten the United States and its allies from Afghanistan.
While the agreement states that there are unspecified “enforcement mechanisms” to validate the conditions of the deal, there seem to be no visible changes in the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban as of now. Al-Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban has not always been steady and while the two groups have had their differences, their relationship has remained intact for more than two decades now. Recent developments in Afghanistan have shown that the Taliban is unlikely to abandon al-Qaeda and may even permit the latter’s activities as long as they benefit the Taliban operationally and are not traceable back to them.
Evolution of the al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban got along due to a similar understanding of a fundamentalist form of Islam known as Wahhabism that they twisted to suit their own beliefs. The Taliban mixed the pre-Islamic Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, with Wahhabism, but lacked credible Islamic scholars who could give credibility to their ultra-strict version of Islam as most Taliban had come from the most backward tribes of eastern Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, however, mixes Salafi and takfiri concepts with Wahhabism and its members usually came from educated backgrounds and provided the guidance that the Taliban required.
Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and accepted Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) of all Sunni Muslims. Al-Zawahiri would later re-affirm this pledge to Omar’s successors, though they were not accepted publicly. Afterwards al-Qaeda gained considerable freedom to operate in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and were even allowed use of national resources for their activities. In return, al-Qaeda doled out money to the Taliban.
However, there were some tensions when al-Qaeda was becoming blatant in its attacks and statements, after which Omar shifted bin Laden to Kandahar to keep him under observation. In 1998, Omar even went as far as to promise the chief of the Saudi intelligence agency that the Taliban would not shelter bin Laden after al-Qaeda threatened the Saudi royal family (one of the three governments that recognized the Taliban). Al-Qaeda’s presence was a source of internal tension within the Taliban. Some Taliban elements were particularly frustrated by bin Laden’s declarations of war and al-Qaeda’s acts of terrorism against the United States in the years prior to 2001. However, U.S. missile strikes on al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan after the 1998 East African embassy bombings renewed Taliban support for the group. Bin Laden had lied to Omar in July 2001, when he promised that al-Qaeda would launch no more overseas attacks (while secretly plotting the 9/11 attacks). Regardless, the Taliban did not give up bin Laden and al-Qaeda after 9/11 to the United States, even at the risk of being bombed out of power.
The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance has since then survived almost 19 years of a U.S.-led Global War on Terror and despite the prospective benefits for the Taliban in breaking ties with al-Qaeda. The Taliban remains solely focused on Afghanistan and has never accepted al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ambitions. Their mutual interest in expelling U.S. forces and retaking Afghanistan has kept them together. Also the emergence of a common rival since 2014 – the Islamic State (IS) – has given them more incentive to cooperate.
Recent Developments in al-Qaeda-Taliban ties
In April 2020, on the seventh anniversary of Omar’s death, the Taliban praised his defense of al-Qaeda and bin Laden after 9/11 in a eulogy. The Taliban had put out a similar statement in October 2019 and in July 2019 the Taliban in a video justified the 9/11 attacks. Even after the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Taliban have not denounced al-Qaeda and rather have done the opposite.
In the present day al-Qaeda appears to be operating clandestinely both alongside and independent of the Taliban. A United Nations report claimed that al-Qaeda and the Taliban had at least six meetings over the last one year at the top level with regard to operations, training, and sanctuary for al-Qaeda by the Taliban in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. The most interesting of these meetings occurred during spring 2019 in Helmand province, in which top veteran Taliban officials reportedly met with Hamza bin Laden (announced dead in July 2019 by the United States) to reassure him personally that there would be no change to the Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship at any cost. However, according to TIME Magazine, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen categorically denied these reports.
In May 2019, al-Zawahiri gave a video eulogy for the deceased Jalaluddin Haqqani of the Taliban’s Haqqani network. Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin became the deputy leader of the Taliban after his death. Al-Zawahiri met with Hafiz and Yahya Haqqani to discuss the Afghan peace process in February 2020. Yahya Haqqani has been the primary Haqqani Network liaison with al-Qaeda since 2009 and the Haqqani Network has been historically close to al-Qaeda.
In September 2019, as negotiations were ongoing between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar, a joint U.S.-Afghan raid on a suspected Taliban-al-Qaeda compound in Helmand killed the leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Asim Umar, along with multiple foreign nationals, including the group’s deputy, its “courier” to al-Zawahiri, multiple foreign females, and several Taliban fighters. This is a strong indication of continued patronage of high-level al-Qaeda members by the Taliban. Prior to his death Umar had praised current Taliban Emir Haibatullah Akhundzada’s leadership in an Eid al-Fitr address.
AQIS changed the name of its Urdu language magazine Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad to Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind (NGH) in March 2020 after the U.S.-Taliban deal. This name change may have been done to give the impression that the Indian subcontinent would be the priority theater for AQIS after its apparently successful jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban. This could be an attempt to create artificial distance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda after the U.S.-Taliban agreement. In the April issue of NGH, AQIS for the first time mentions its role in the fight against the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) under the command of the Taliban. They helped them specifically in preparing improvised explosive devices and conducting special night-time operations to capture ISKP strongholds in Nangarhar province from August-October 2019.
After al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Taliban Emir Akhundzada in 2016 the latter did not publicly acknowledge the pledge, but at the same time there is no indication that it was rejected. Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates are, in theory, loyal to the Taliban’s emir by virtue of their allegiance to al-Zawahiri. Therefore, al-Qaeda’s members around the globe are now, technically, bound by an oath to Akhundzada as well. Ever since the emergence of IS, al-Qaeda has sought to discredit the IS “Caliph” by promoting the Taliban’s emir as the more theologically correct leader of Muslims. Akhundzada not reciprocating al-Zawahiri’s pledge can be seen as an indication of the Taliban cutting ties with al-Qaeda (as pointed out by Shaheen) but it could also be seen as the relationship becoming more clandestine. To demonstrate that the Taliban is actually breaking ties with al-Qaeda, it has to publicly reject al-Zawahiri’s pledge.
Al-Qaeda today has more to gain from the Taliban by continuing to be relevant by playing a supplementary role in the latter’s jihad as well as gaining a prospective safe haven. At present the Taliban have an available fighting force of 55,000-85,000 fighters and contests 50-60 percent of Afghan territory with 21 districts under full Taliban control, so an additional 400-600 al-Qaeda members will not make a significant difference.
The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance has survived the deaths of bin Laden and two Taliban emirs, which is indicative of something much deeper than personal relationships at the top level. The relationship is based on more complex conditions of legitimacy and identity. The Taliban cannot abandon al-Qaeda without also abandoning their current identity as an organization based on the Pashtunwali code and fundamentalist Islam. Their legitimacy depends not only on their governance, popular support, or territory, but on their adherence to their version of Islam. Ideological concerns aside, if the Taliban severs its ties with al-Qaeda it could lead to a domino effect where other regional groups in Afghanistan come out from the Taliban’s influence due to them sharing ties with al-Qaeda at the foundational level. Furthermore, those outfits could also align themselves with the Taliban’s rivals such as ISKP and rebel Taliban factions like the Hizb-e-Vilayat-e-Islami and continue fighting.
Saurav Sarkar is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi and 2020 South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow, Stimson Center, Washington DC.