The Taliban Say They Have No Foreign Fighters. Is That True?

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The Taliban Say They Have No Foreign Fighters. Is That True?

The Taliban denial of the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan raises questions about the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban deal.

The Taliban Say They Have No Foreign Fighters. Is That True?

A young boy carries a sack of goods on his back walks past a wall depicting Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

In a historic agreement signed with the United States earlier this year, the Taliban made certain counterterrorism guarantees in return for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. However, the fact that officially the Taliban continue to outright deny credible and detailed reports on the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan — even reports that The Diplomat has exclusively obtained from Taliban fighters on the ground — raises questions about their commitment to these counterterrorism pledges.

The Counterterrorism Guarantees of the Doha Agreement

On February 29, after more than 19 years of being at war, the United States and the Taliban signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan“ in Doha, Qatar. At its core, the agreement foresees that the United States will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for counterterrorism guarantees provided by the Taliban. The key guarantees pledged by the Taliban are that the group will:

  • “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
  • “send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct [its] members (…) not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies;” and
  • “prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.”

Contrary to other parts of the Doha Agreement — first and foremost the first phase of the U.S. troop drawdown and the release of prisoners by the Taliban and the Afghan government — the counterterrorism guarantees have received little publicity and there are conflicting views about the status of their implementation.

“On the day the agreement was signed, our emir [i.e. the Taliban leader] issued a statement. In this statement he ordered the implementation of all commitments of the agreement. All our mujahideen [fighters] were ordered to not allow anyone to use Afghan soil to threaten other countries and no one will come to harm from [a threat emanating from] here, inshallah. This statement was also the clear message [against terrorists mentioned in the agreement],” official Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Diplomat via telephone on July 19. “According to our information, there are also no foreign fighters in areas under our control,” he added after having been asked about such fighters.

In other words, Mujahid insisted that the Taliban have already sufficiently implemented the pledged counterterrorism guarantees. Later, in a statement released on July 28, Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada explicitly confirmed this by declaring that the Taliban have “fulfilled [their] obligations” under the Doha Agreement.

This, however, stands at odds with the U.S. position. Asked for a comment on Mujahid’s above statements as well as the general status of the implementation of the counterterrorism guarantees by the Taliban, a spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State replied that “[a]s [U.S.] Special Representative Khalilzad has said in a recent tweet thread marking 135 days since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, more progress is needed on counter-terrorism,” indicating that the United States does not yet see the counterterrorism guarantees as implemented.

The Taliban’s Doubtful Assertions on Foreign Fighters

The main reason for these contradicting views is that the Taliban deny the presence of foreign fighters in areas under their control, while Washington claims that not only there are such fighters in Afghanistan but that they collaborate with the Taliban. While the latter is not clearly stated the text of the Doha Agreement, it is mentioned in numerous official U.S. reports (see for one of many examples this report of the U.S. Department of Defense from June 2020).

The Taliban have regularly rejected such U.S. reports as well as others, namely from the U.N., as “false,” “propaganda,” and “unsubstantiated” and displayed them as malign attempts by their enemies to sabotage the peace process (see, for example, recent official Taliban statements here and here). However, it is not only the Taliban’s “enemies” who assert that foreign fighters are indeed present in Afghanistan.

In July, The Diplomat reached out to Taliban fighters on the ground in areas where the presence of foreign fighters had been reported. Some of the contacted Taliban openly and immediately admitted that foreign fighters operate on Afghan soil.

“There are many Punjabis [from Pakistan] in Marawara and in Ghaziabad [both districts in the eastern Afghan Province of Kunar]. In Marawara, the Punjabis work together with Din Mohammad, who is a local Taliban commander. I have seen them myself,” a Talib from Marawara declared.

“In Shirzad [a district in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar], there are a number of Punjabis and Uyghurs [from China]. The Punjabis used to be members of Jaish-e Mohammad and Lashkar-e Taiba [both Pakistani extremist groups] but currently operate completely within the Taliban. The Uyghurs are in a separate group but also work together with the Taliban,” another Talib from Nangarhar told The Diplomat.

In yet another example, a source of this author is in direct contact with a Pakistani national who is currently in the Afghan province of Ghazni. The Pakistani admits that he is waging jihad together with the Taliban, by building detonators for improvised explosive devices among other actions. There are also detailed reports on the presence of foreign fighters in Taliban-controlled parts of the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan, including videos of such fighters and a photo of their leader Haji Furqan. All these reports can hardly be termed “unsubstantiated” and each case has been corroborated by more than one non-governmental source who had no motive to distort facts for propaganda purposes.

In addition, this author has, as late as early July 2020, himself met members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, in eastern Afghanistan. That said, the TTP presence in eastern Afghanistan is a peculiar example as at least in Kunar members of the TTP and the Afghan Taliban stand at odds with each other.

Confronted with these reports, the official Taliban spokesman Mujahid again waved them away as false or enemy propaganda — without asking for time to check the various detailed allegations. With respect to border areas in Nangarhar and Kunar, Mujahid admitted, though, that there are “some problems with local [Pashtun] tribes.”

“Some of these [tribesmen] are armed and have influence. One such man is called Mangal Bagh, another Abdul Wali. They are Pakistanis from the tribal areas and there are sometimes on this side and sometimes on the other side of the disputed border,” Mujahid continued. Mangal Bagh is the leader of Lashkar-i Islam, an extremist group that originated in the Pakistani Khyber valley, but has been present in Afghan areas near Khyber, namely parts of Nangarhar’s Nazian District, since at least 2008. Abdul Wali is the name of the leader of Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a UN-sanctioned TTP splinter group. “In this context, it has to be noted that we [the Afghan Taliban] don’t have these areas under our control; we also don’t have any border force that would allow us to do something against this,” Mujahid added. He also described these tribesmen as “not coming from other countries,” as they are “just from across the Durand Line [the disputed Afghan-Pakistani border],” exemplifying that many Afghans do not perceive Pakistani Pashtuns from the border areas as foreigners.

Mujahid seemingly chose to overlook that the reports with which The Diplomat confronted him mainly indicated the presence of Punjabi — not Pashtun — Pakistanis, who hail from far away from the border and that some reports also mentioned Uyghurs. Pressed for comment on such foreigners, Mujahid curtly rejected the claims as wrong without further elaborating.

With respect to reports on relations or contacts between al-Qaida and the Taliban, Mujahid told The Diplomat that no such contacts exist. “They [al-Qaida] are not in Afghanistan now. When the war started in 2001 they all left. Later came the Arab Spring. They left for Tunis, Iraq, Syria, Somalia. We don’t have any contacts with them now,” he explained. That assertion was later reissued in an official Taliban communiqué.

When asked why the Taliban did not reject the pledge of allegiance by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to the current Taliban emir Haibatullah, or why they have not rejected it now after the signing of the Doha Agreement, Mujahid said that, at the time of the pledge (after the killing of the former Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a U.S. drone strike on May 21, 2016), the Taliban had been “at war” with the United States. He added that “now, it is not necessary to reject the support that someone had declared years ago.”

Given that the Taliban have for years denied the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan as well as reports that they collaborate with transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaida, The Diplomat asked Mujahid what exactly had changed in the counterterrorism context since the singing of the agreement, but could not get a clear answer.

Possible Explanations and Concerns

It is safe to assume that the U.S. side has, during the negotiations preceding the signing of the Doha Agreement, not only clearly indicated their concerns about foreign fighters in Afghanistan to the Taliban but also their expectations that the Taliban have to do more against such perceived threats. Thus the Taliban messaging raises serious questions about their commitment to the pledged counterterrorism guarantees.

This is all the more so as the Taliban statements described above eerily resemble the mid- to late 1990s, when the Taliban regime initially outright (and incorrectly) denied that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida members were present in Afghanistan. “History is repeating itself,” Anne Stenersen, who has written a detailed book on al-Qaida in Afghanistan before 9/11, told The Diplomat in this regard.

However, Stenersen added that it would be too simplistic to jump to the conclusion that the Taliban are denying the presence of foreign fighters to deceive the United States in order to pursue sinister plots. “Western perspectives on Afghanistan tend to lack appreciation of the complex domestic challenges that the Taliban are facing, and how these challenges influence Taliban’s foreign policy decisions,” she pointed out.

This was also confirmed by Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst working on Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group. “Denouncing the presence of foreign fighters on Afghan soil, in particular al-Qaida, might estrange some Taliban rank-and-file amongst whom such fighters are popular, which is why some Taliban leaders fear that such a step could lead to a fragmentation of the movement,” Watkins elaborated.

“For the Taliban it is not so much about deceiving the U.S. [about foreign fighters], as it is about ensuring the movement’s own political survival; above all, the [Taliban] leaders want to avoid making controversial decisions that might cause splits in the movement itself,” Stenersen concurred.

Whatever the motive is, it does not change the fact that the Taliban — in view of the overwhelming evidence of the presence of at least some foreign fighters in Afghanistan that are in contact with the Taliban — apparently knowingly misrepresent facts connected to the counterterrorism guarantees, which they claim to have fulfilled.

In this regard, it should be kept in mind that the actual threat posed by foreign fighters in Afghanistan is sometimes exaggerated, as shown, for example, in a detailed case study on Uyghur extremists in Afghan Badakhshan. This, however, does not exonerate the Taliban from the responsibility to acknowledge the presence of such fighters and to do something about them or, alternatively, explain why such foreigners would not pose any relevant threat. While the Doha Agreement does not state that the Taliban have to implement the counterterrorism guarantees publicly, the fact that the Taliban chose to publicly and consistently deny the presence of any foreign fighters can hardly be reconciled with the guarantees in the agreement. In view of this, the problem of foreign fighters in Afghanistan must be more seriously addressed — be it in public or behind closed doors — so that history won’t simply repeat itself.

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. He writes on a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. You can follow him on Twitter @franzjmarty