In comments on June 30, U.S. President Joe Biden indicated that the United States has received indirect support from the Taliban in its counterterrorism pursuits, which has resulted in the flight of al-Qaida from Afghanistan lock, stock, and barrel. This assertion – which conflicts with other assessments – brings attention back to the information void that the August 2021 withdrawal by U.S. forces created in Afghanistan. This information blackhole must be addressed for the sake of regional as well as global security.
In the last two years, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Taliban’s bête noire, has managed to garner much of the media’s focus for its repeated acts of violence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, al-Qaida, an ally of the Taliban, has managed to remain out of focus. An “over the horizon” effort did lead to the killing of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in August 2022 in a U.S. drone strike. But since, there has been complete silence on the activities of al-Qaida’s fighters in Afghanistan.
Biden’s suggestion that there are no al-Qaida fighters left in Afghanistan has been seized on by the Taliban as an endorsement of their efforts and position. On July 1, Acting Foreign Minister of the Islamic Emirate Amir Khan Muttaqi said that the remark represents an “understanding of realities,” and hence the United States should “positively engage” with the Taliban, since the Islamic Emirate has remained committed to the fulfillment of its pledge to not allow the use of Afghan soil against others.
Curiously, however, the Taliban had criticized the killing of al-Zawahiri as an affront to Afghanistan’s sovereignty and a violation of the Doha accord, and at the same time, had feigned ignorance about his presence in Kabul. Since then the Taliban have appointed dual-hatted al-Qaida operatives as governors of some provinces.
In spite of the criticisms Biden’s remarks have attracted from various quarters, including Rahmatullah Nabil, a former intelligence chief of the deposed Ashraf Ghani government, it is in sync with the U.S. intelligence assessments, which have been downplaying the influence of al-Qaida in Afghanistan after the killing of al-Zawahiri. For instance, two weeks after the successful strike, an intelligence report said that since the withdrawal of U.S. troops, al-Qaida “has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan.”
The report acknowledged that fewer than a dozen al-Qaida core members could be in Afghanistan, but they are neither involved in external attack planning, nor does the group as a whole have the “capability to launch attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad from Afghanistan.” Indirectly, it meant that the al-Qaida operatives are merely seeking safe haven in Afghanistan, without intentions of plotting attacks against U.S. interests.
On the contrary, the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which produces periodical reports “concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to peace, stability, and security of Afghanistan,” draws different conclusions. In its June 2023 report, it categorically points to a close and symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The report assesses the numerical strength of Afghanistan-based core al-Qaida members at 30 to 60 based in Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand, and Kunar provinces. It estimates that al-Qaida has around 400 fighters in Afghanistan, most of whom are in five new training camps being run in Badghis, Helmand, Nangarhar, Nuristan, and Zabul, and safe houses in Farah, Helmand, Herat, and Kabul. It also assesses that while al-Qaida could be lying low at the moment, it is indeed using Afghanistan “as an ideological and logistical hub to mobilize and recruit new fighters while covertly rebuilding its external operations capability.”
The problem with these seemingly precise and ominous details about al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the Monitoring team’s report, however, could be its sources. The findings are based on the accounts of the “regional member states” and hence, could have been influenced by their ability (or lack of it) to collect ground-level information from Taliban-run Afghanistan. In addition, while U.S. intelligence is analyzing the level of threat posed by al-Qaida purely from a U.S. perspective, regional states could be portraying an increased threat while trying to regain the much-diluted focus of the U.S. and the international community on Afghanistan.
Both the U.S. intelligence and the U.N. assessments could contain some amount of truth, but the actual facts on the ground remain unknown unless concrete efforts are made to end the information vacuum.
Reliance on systems intelligence may be effective to launch targeted strikes against specific terror targets, but is not sufficient to block systematic capacity-building by terror groups like al-Qaida. For far too long, the Taliban and possibly al-Qaida may have benefited from the information blackhole in Afghanistan. It is time to rethink ways and means to end this opacity by carefully crafting counterterror strategies based on ears on the ground and human intelligence (HUMINT), which includes the local population, paired with an effective strategic communications plan.