What does the Taliban’s return mean for al-Qaida in Afghanistan?

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As the Taliban prepare to rule Afghanistan after sweeping across the country in less than a week, an obvious question is what does this mean for the future of al-Qaida and other extremist Islamist groups committed to waging a global jihad.

There is no doubt that the astonishing rapidity of the Taliban’s victory will deliver a tremendous boost to Islamist extremists everywhere – whether al-Qaida, Islamic State, fighters in Mozambique or Syria, or jihadi fanboys in bedsits in Birmingham or Manila.

Last week the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, told Sky when asked about Afghanistan that he was “absolutely worried that failed states are breeding grounds for those types of people” and that “al-Qaida will probably come back”.

Wallace was right to worry about failed states – the 9/11 attacks of 2001 were planned and prepared by al-Qaida in Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban – but wrong about the group making some kind of return. Al-Qaida is already there.

Just last month, the UN published an assessment based on intelligence received from member states stating that al-Qaida “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces”, and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, an affiliate of the group, “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.” Al-Qaida’s media celebrate its fighters’ apparently frequent operations in Afghanistan.

This was always a problem for the Biden administration, and one it tried to ignore. As part of last year’s deal with the US, the Taliban pledged not to allow training, fundraising or recruitment “of terrorists, including al-Qaida, that would threaten the security of the United States and our allies.” Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, told Congress in May that the Taliban had “made substantial progress” in meeting these commitments. But even if that was true then, and it probably wasn’t, now all bets are off.

It is unclear what attitude the Taliban will adopt towards al-Qaida or the other Islamist extremists committed to transnational campaigns of violence based in Afghanistan. Nor is it clear how al-Qaida will react to recent events.

The defeat by the Afghan mujahideen of the Soviets in 1989 became a foundational myth that contributed significantly to the rise of the entire contemporary global jihadist movement, even though al-Qaida in reality played a negligible role in the war. The defeat of a second superpower by a new band of Afghan Islamic fighters is a massive propaganda coup at a time when all such groups are badly in need of a new narrative. Al-Qaida, like all the others, will be emboldened, but to do what exactly?

One of the many reasons for the US failures in Afghanistan was an inability in the early years of the conflict there to distinguish between al-Qaida – a small group of largely Arab Islamists committed to the overthrow of regimes in the Middle East as well as a war against Israel and the west – and the Taliban, a reactionary Afghan movement with a strong local ethnic and nationalist element that aimed to impose a rigorous religious rule on a single country.

Relations between the Taliban, which contain many different factions, and al-Qaida have evolved dramatically since. Sometimes these have been fractious, but increasingly they have been the opposite. As the decades have passed, personal relationships and familial links have been forged. Leaders of other militant networks have acted as intermediaries. Some priorities still differ, but the Taliban are very much more globally aware than they were 20 years ago, meaning they share elements of the al-Qaida worldview in new and important ways. US intelligence services have characterised the relationship as “close”.

But the victorious Taliban will also seek international legitimacy. They did when in power before, and will do again. The question is from whom, and which compromises the Taliban’s leaders might be prepared to make to achieve it.

One key factor for the relationship with al-Qaida may be the strategic shift implemented by Ayman al-Zawahiri when the Egyptian veteran militant took over the leadership of the group after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in a US raid on a compound in Pakistan.

Ben Wallace
The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, is worried that Afghanistan will become a ‘breeding ground’ for extremists. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

Zawahiri dropped long-range attacks on the “far enemy” in the west, and has sought instead to win support and legitimacy in unstable, conflict-torn parts of the Islamic world where he believes opportunities for expansion exist and the “near enemy” of local regimes can be better fought. Instead of flying planes into US cities, al-Qaida has sought to build a reputation for competent governance and protection of communities that feel marginalised or threatened. This will make it easier for the Taliban, which has not been directly blamed for any international terrorism and doesn’t want to be, to maintain its current de facto alliance with the group.

But Zawahiri is very ill, western and other security officials maintain, and there is no guarantee that his strategy will survive his death or recent events in Afghanistan. The opportunities provided by the combination of a ramshackle Taliban-run Afghanistan, a US defeat at the hands of an Islamist militia, a Middle East that has experienced two decades of polarising and radicalising violence, and the unprecedented spread of the extremist jihadi ideologies to all corners of the world will be evident not just to any successor to Zawahiri but to everyone. Even if al-Qaida does not try to take advantage of these new circumstances, others will. They may try with the encouragement of Afghanistan’s rulers or against their express will, but they will try.

By: Jason Burke

Source: Guardian

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