How much do the two groups have in common?
The Taliban’s five-year rule over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 saw the Islamist group form ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, providing their fellow fundamentalists with a base from which they could orchestrate the devastating attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed 2,996 people and left 25,000 injured.
Bin Laden’s organisation – more globally-minded in their ambitions than the Taliban, born out of the mujahideen victory over the Soviet Union in 1989 – reportedly paid $20m a year for the privilege of the Afghans’ protection, which would ultimately cost the latter dearly when its repressive, tyrannical regime was swiftly overthrown by US-led coalition forces in December 2001 at the outset of George W Bush’s War on Terror.
Fighters from both groups found themselves scattered to the winds by the western invaders before subsequently regrouping as insurgent factions, often collaborating, as the emergence of Isis in 2014, another violent terrorist organisation, briefly eclipsed their shared notoriety.
Most recently, the Taliban signed a questionable peace accord with the Donald Trump administration in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020 – just prior to the coronavirus pandemic dawning in the West and nine months before the Republican lost the White House – which saw them pledge to keep other Islamist extremists, including both al-Qaeda and Isis, out of Afghanistan.
But few international experts were convinced by the promise.
“The Taliban are terrorists, and they’re going to support terrorists,” former US defence secretary Leon Panetta told NPR last week.
“If they take control of Afghanistan, there is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, for Isis and for terrorism in general. And that constitutes, frankly, a national security threat to the United States.”
What kind of a presence do al-Qaeda retain in Afghanistan?
Also speaking last week was UK defence secretary Ben Wallace, who likewise told Sky News that he was “absolutely worried that failed states are breeding grounds for those types of people” and that “al-Qaeda will probably come back”.
But according to the UN Security Council, they already have – or indeed, never went away.
As recently as June, the council published a report based on intelligence received from its member states that suggested al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces” and that its wing on the Indian Subcontinent “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces”.
Al-Qaeda’s media arm, as-Sahab, routinely celebrates its fighters’ seemingly regular operations in Afghanistan and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to reside in the country – assuming rumours of his death last year are not to be believed.
The UN’s report also states that the Taliban “has started to tighten its control over al-Qaeda by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them” while continuing to arm and train its estimated 200-500 men gathered along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The UN has considered the two groups to be linked since at least 1999 when it adopted Resolution 1267, creating the so-called al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, which sought to block their funding, travel and arms shipments and contain the threat.
They are not identical, however, and the Taliban is now seeking international recognition for its new regime, a legitimising pursuit that will presumably necessitate it disassociating from al-Qaeda and its record of terrorist atrocities.
How sincere such a move would be is also in doubt, as Asfandyar Mir of the United States Institute of Peace points out, given that the Taliban sought to downplay its ties to al-Qaeda once before in the late 2000s, apparently having consulted with leaders of the rival faction before doing so and during which time the latter continued to swear an oath of allegiance to its leader, Mullah Omar at the time and now Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada.
“Of course, the Taliban’s policy is to avoid being seen with us or revealing any cooperation or agreement between us and them,” al-Qaeda ideologue Atiyyat Allah al-Libi wrote at the time to his peers. “That is for the purpose of averting international and regional pressure and out of consideration for regional dynamics. We defer to them in this regard.”
As the UN report suggests, the groups remain interlinked, with al-Qaeda’s current leadership continuing to consider Afghanistan the “seat of the anticipated caliphate” and the Afghan Taliban chief its “caliph-in-waiting,” according to jihadism scholar Cole Bunzel, suggesting their relationship is unlikely to shift until a change of leadership occurs on either side.
Why are we asking this now?
Afghanistan is again in a state of turmoil after the Taliban recaptured the capital on Sunday, declaring the country an Islamic Emirate once more after president Ashraf Ghani abandoned the presidential palace and fled to Tajikistan.
The operation followed swiftly on from the withdrawal of American troops from the country last month at the order of US president Joe Biden, their exit coming almost 20 years after the US military drove the same faction out of Kabul.
Biden has expressed his determination not to hand the responsibility for policing Afghanistan on to a fifth commander-in-chief following the completion of his own tenure in the White House and trusted in the Afghan military, in whom the US had invested almost $1trn over two decades, to keep the Taliban at bay.
“The fact of the matter is we’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country… and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” US secretary of state Anthony Blinken lamented on Sunday.
The Taliban has since asked women to join its future government as the group seeks to ease widespread fears of a return to its ultra-conservative reign prior to the US-led invasion of 2001.
UK foreign minister Dominic Raab meanwhile said the situation at Kabul airport was “stabilising” on Tuesday morning after thousands of panicked people took to the runway in an attempt to flee the country.
Seven people died at the airport in their bid to seek sanctuary abroad, including two who are believed to have dropped from the sky after falling from a US Air Force C-17 aircraft.
Raab said he would “not dissent” from the view that the Taliban are a “rag tag bunch of thugs” but suggested the West would need to be “pragmatic” in its attempts to “moderate” the country’s new rulers: “They are now in power, and we now need to deal with that reality.”