Recently in Moscow, Afghan Taliban from their office in Qatar gave many interviews to the Russian media. Afghan Taliban, for a change, sent a message of peace, compared to their brutal regime and their draconic policies in Afghanistan.
The move was calculated and strategic; it was to send a message to the world that they have changed and no more a threat to regional and global security. Question is have they really changed and cut ties with Al Qaeda and its allies? Are they really different after almost two decades of fighting? Has the Taliban movement been fundamentally transformed or they have just become really good politicians i.e. pretenders and sugarcoating themselves into a new role only to change later on once they assume power?
On the other hand – the US and its NATO allies feel they are bear trapped in Afghanistan and are risk-averse. They are in a rush to a graceful exit for its forces with a political cover as a successful conclusion to the Afghan war.
This mindset has made them pretend that the Afghan Taliban have changed and they are now effectively representing an insurgency against the Afghan government born out of corruption, warlordism and a lack of a broad-based government in Kabul. A mere simplification of a much more complex problem with regional and global dimensions not to mention the role they played through their haphazard and quick fix policies and their unwillingness to address the big elephant in the room which is Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan under the cover and support of the notorious Pakistani inter-service intelligence service (ISI).
The fact of the matter remains that the Afghan Taliban have not changed and has deep ties with remnants of Al Qaeda and regional terror outfits. A fact is long known to western and regional intelligence agencies. Taliban, as a group, haven’t changed in nature and its objectives. It still serves as an umbrella organization to many terrorist organisations including Al Qaeda and provide them with the enabling environment to plan, train and equip for their next deadly missions in the subcontinent and beyond.
Any scheme to use the Taliban as a proxy force for fighting Al Qaeda and ISKP will be an exercise in futility. Taliban and its allies continue to pose security threats to the United States and its allies west. Though, what has really changed about the Taliban is their increasing legitimacy as a proxy force and gun for hire by the regional security agencies.
Today – there are at least six different factions within the Taliban on the payroll of Afghan neighbours and their security establishments. Pakistan no longer controls the monopoly of control over the Taliban as a proxy force and their many shuras i.e. councils in different Pakistani cities. Taliban are effectively a rag-tag force for hire to the highest regional bidder with deep ties to organized crime in the region.
Taliban and Al Qaeda
Taliban and Al Qaeda still enjoy a cosy and intimate relationship. Taliban leaders from the Quetta shura participated in the coronation ceremony of Bin Laden son as his successor while Al Qaeda second-in-command paid his tribute and declared loyalty to both former Taliban Emir, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor and the incumbent leader of Taliban, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhund, who have both enjoyed religious and political support from Al Qaeda leader.
Furthermore, Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, has sent from time to time delegations to mediate between Taliban leaders when differences emerged between different faction within the Taliban on matters related to leadership succession, logistics, war and peace. Al Qaeda has also used its network of fundraisers in the Gulf countries to raise funds for the “Taliban jihad” in Afghanistan.
After 9/11, President Bush before announcing global war on terror and operation enduring freedom laid out three conditions for the Taliban regime to remain in power: cut ties with Al Qaeda, hand over Osama Bin Laden and respect human rights. Almost two decades later, Taliban leaders continue to receive advice, financial support albeit meager and host Al Qaeda second in command Ayman Al Zawahiri; Osama bin Laden was not handed over and lived under the protection of Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors until the job was done by American Navy SEALS and finally Taliban continue to violate human rights en mass and provide sanctuary to regional terror outfits such as ETIM, AL QAEDA, ETIM, LeT and the likes.
Taliban to date remains a credible security threat to the region and the world at large. Those who legitimise this group as merely an insurgent group with no ambitions beyond Afghanistan should simply look at their brothers in arms in different battles i.e. Punjabis, Arabs, Uzbeks, Uighurs and the likes. Today one-third of the battled field manpower of Taliban consist of foreign fighters who fight under the command and rank of Taliban in various battled fields across Afghanistan. Question is why term them an insurgency and provide them with political cover and sugarcoating two decades later on?
The United States toppled the Taliban regime because it hosted and provided the enablers for Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants who carried out the tragic attacks of September 11 not because they were running a reign of terror on Afghans. How come this same yesteryears terror group have turned into an insurgent group fighting for an internal cause? The truth is that the Taliban have neither changed in nature nor in objectives. It is still serving as an umbrella organisation and incubator of various terrorist groups. It has shown neither in word nor in action that it has denounced Al Qaeda and cut its ties with all terrorist organisations. Any other portrayal of this group is a pure myth and political convenience.
The formula of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not hold true when it comes to using the Taliban as a proxy force to fight Islamic State offshoot in the AfPak region. While the approach and organisation of the two groups may be different but essentially the Taliban movement shares the same religious ideology and worldview as IS.
ISKP is a mixture of disenchanted Taliban and various jihadi groups members with a flavour of various regional intelligence projects. Taliban have never fought ISKP groups in any part of Afghanistan in a meaningful way. More often than not, Taliban operations against ISKP were retaliatory in nature or based on orders from Iranian revolutionary guard, Russian KGB or the Pakistani ISI for clearance operations along Afghan Iranian and Afghan Pakistani borders. Taliban to date lack a coherent anti-Daesh campaign whereas Afghan forces have killed more three ISKP emirs, dozens of its deputies and mid-ranking commanders.
In fact, the Taliban have pooled resources and joined hands with ISKP in certain parts of Afghanistan especially in the north and northeastern part of the country to fight Afghan forces. While they have fought each other over resources, territory and population centres in eastern and southern Afghanistan. There is also a close relationship between the Haqqani, Taliban’s fighting arm and ISKP, almost an alliance since a close member of the Haqqani family is considered to be one of the founders of ISKP branch in AfPak area.
Taliban and Regional Terrorist Outfits
Taliban movement continue to serve as an umbrella organisation for regional terrorist groups from Pakistan i.e. LeT, JeM, Sepah e Sahaba and the likes; Arab -mercenary fighters from Libya, Iraq and Syria; Central Asia – IMU, Ansarullah, Jundullah; China – ETIM; Russian – various Chechen groups. These groups bring critical skill set and resources to the Taliban leadership and battlefield such as explosive making, effective command and control and above all extortion through organised crime.
One-third of the strength of the Taliban fighters in various battlefields are foreign fighters from a mixture of these groups. This was the exact case when the Taliban regime was in power in the 1990s and they used these groups in their battles against the former recognised government of Afghanistan led by former President Burhannuddin Rabbani.
Today – Pakistani, Arab, Central Asian, Russia and Chinese terrorist groups who are fighting in Afghanistan provide critical skill sets i.e. command and control, explosives and bomb-making in their fights against US, NATO and Afghan forces. On the contrast, the foreign fighters are merely transit fighters many of whom will jump to the first opportunity of waging jihad and attacking targets in their countries of origin with the exception of Pakistani fighters who are almost state-sanctioned fighters.
The Cost of Taliban Returning to Power in Afghanistan
Taliban have not yet demonstrated in word or action that they have cut ties with Al Qaeda; no longer serve as an umbrella and incubator to regional and global terrorist organisations such as IMU, ETIM, LeT, Sepah and the likes and will not serve as another Hezbollah type proxy group to Russia and Iran.
Therefore, any effort of legitimisation of this group as an indigenous insurgent group with no agenda beyond Afghan borders is an exercise in futile because their return to power will embolden their terrorist allies and enforce their conservative Islamic view of the world. This essentially means we are back to zero and all the sacrifices of US, NATO and Afghans in blood and treasure were in vain.
To avoid such a scenario, the United States together with Afghan neighbours to reach a consensus on three major points: a. Taliban movement should publicly cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist group and shun away their fighters from their ranks. b. Under military pressure bow down to a political settlement. c. provide guarantees it won’t serve as an armed proxy group for regional players including Iran and Russia.
Any measure short of these actions will only lead to an emboldened Islamic terrorist group, the resurgence of Al Qaeda, higher level of threats to the US and its western allies and a possible civil war in Afghanistan with the current Afghan government and security forces in disarray and a party to it. Time and credible action is of the essence here.
By: Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council.