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Al-Zawahiri’s Death: More Where He Came From
Presence in Kabul proves the Afghan Taliban’s never-ending love for jihad
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
The sudden killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri might be a moment of satisfaction for the US ‘war on terror’. But the drone strike that killed him in Afghanistan’s capital has raised more questions than answers with regards to the possibility of the end of the war.
For instance, the fact that he was living in Kabul under the Taliban’s protection means their protection probably extends to many other groups as well – groups that have no intentions about ending their jihad. The strike shows that Afghanistan remains a territorial sanctuary for transnational jihadi networks willing, as al-Zawahiri’s recent video messages shared on social media have shown, to export jihad worldwide.
While al-Qaeda itself may not actually have the capacity for such a venture, it does have friends in Afghanistan, which al-Qaeda’s friends recently succeeded in capturing – and al-Qaeda helped them – means that the group’s resources have multiplied.
Indeed, as a July 2022 report of the United Nations Security Council shows, “Al-Qaida leadership reportedly plays an advisory role with the Taliban, and the groups remain close.” The report also mentions al-Qaeda’s plans to expand from the south and east of Afghanistan to northern Afghanistan.
That aligns firmly with the Afghan Taliban’s own objective to defeat an emerging counter-movement in the north led by Ahmad Masoud, the UK-educated son of Ahmad Shah Masoud, who was killed by al Qaeda agents posing as journalists in 2001. Coalesced around the National Resistance Front, the northerners aim to take back Kabul, although their actual capacity to do so remains doubtful at best.
Al-Qaeda, however, doesn’t have the capacity to “mount direct attacks” outside of Afghanistan, the UN report says. Therefore, concentrating on Afghanistan and mobilizing resources to strengthen the Taliban and defeat their equally dogmatic ideological rival i.e., the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) makes sense, which means that the group has a future in Afghanistan.
The loss of al-Zawahiri could, however, cause internal fragmentation, especially given the fact that, as the UNSC report also mentions, the group “does not appear to have a clear leadership succession plan.” Given, however, that it depends on a “safe haven, improved communications and resources to distribute,” its relationship with the Afghan Taliban will remain unchanged even after al-Zawahiri’s death.
A key factor strengthening the possibility of Taliban-al-Qaeda cooperation is Kabul’s own never-ending fascination with jihad, including international. A case in point can be the Afghan Taliban’s ‘mediation’ of talks between the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamabad.
Noor Wali Mehsud, TTP’s leader, is also based in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s air strikes in April in two eastern provinces failed to eliminate him, let alone do any meaningful damage to the TTP itself.
In the ongoing talks between the TTP and Pakistan, the former has placed a list of non-negotiable demands that Pakistan must meet for ‘peace’ to prevail in the region. These include a) de-merging the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, b) retaining arms and ammunitions, and c) total amnesty for its commanders and fighters.
The Afghan Taliban support these demands for ensuring ‘peace.’ While the fact that the Afghan Taliban, instead of taking action against the TTP and eliminating its leaders in line with their promise to not allow their territory to be used against any neighbor, are mediating these talks shows that Kabul does not intend to act upon its various promises of moderation.
The Afghan Taliban’s reversal of women’s rights aside, their support for the TTP’s jihad shows the group’s growing appetite for a territorial and ideological expansion of their own jihad, as accepting the TTP demands is tantamount to allowing the group to establish a mini-Islamic Emirate in a region bordering Afghanistan.
The UNSC report shows that the TTP has “the largest” component of “foreign fighters” (3,000 to 4,000) in Afghanistan and that it presents the greatest “threat in the region.”
Again, the Afghan Taliban facilitated the TTP’s strength. After taking over Kabul in August 2021, they released hundreds of TTP fighters captured and imprisoned by the Ghani regime. This release allowed Noor Wali Mehsud to re-group and re-organize the TTP, making it “more cohesive” than ever, the report said adding that the TTP is well-connected with other transnational jihadi groups, including al-Qaeda and the anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a group seeking to liberate Xinjiang from China.
The TTP leader has, in the past, also hinted at the possibility of joining the IS-K in case the Afghan Taliban puts too much pressure on them to accept Pakistan’s demands. But the fact that Kabul is openly siding with the TTP means that the Afghan Taliban has no intention of losing a key ally.
Can, therefore, the Afghan Taliban be trusted? This is a question that has acquired renewed significance in the wake of al-Zawahiri’s killing.
For Pakistan, there is a key lesson. Allowing the TTP to create an autonomous territory inside Pakistan where the group can implement its own version of Shariah rule means that FATA will become an additional, official safe haven for all the groups active in Afghanistan.
Regarding the Afghan Taliban, there is much for Beijing to learn and reflect upon, given that China’s foreign minister said in a meeting in March with his Afghan counterpart that China will not interfere in Afghanistan and will respect Afghan i.e., the Taliban, traditions, and way of living in exchange for Kabul’s guarantee that the Afghan territory will not be used to attack Chinese interests anywhere.