Dr. Anthony Celso, an Associate Professor with Department for Security Studies at Angelo State University. A specialist in Islamic terrorism, and Mediterranean and Middle East Politics, he is the author of two books, ‘Al-Qaeda’s Post-9/11 Devolution: The Failed Jihadist Struggle Against the Near and Far Enemy’ (2014) and ‘The Islamic State: A Comparative History of Jihadist Warfare’ (2018), as well as over a dozen peer reviewed articles. His commentary also regularly appears in the mass media.
It has been more than a year since the seizure of Afghanistan by the Taliban. There is now little hope the Taliban will moderate their extremism or break with Al Qaeda. The group’s banning of secondary education for girls in March 2022 and last July’s killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in a US drone strike conclusively demonstrate that the Taliban have not changed. As Afghanistan teeters on economic collapse and mass starvation, the country’s future is bleak.
The Taliban’s ideological and organizational connections to Al Qaeda are not debatable. UN and US policy makers agree that Al Qaeda’s network has grown in the country in the last year. Since 2014, Al Qaeda’s South Asian branch, known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS), has a network that stretches from Pakistan to Kashmir. Its best trained fighters actively assisted the Taliban’s seizure of power after the calamitous US withdrawal. A retrenchment disastrously timed on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 gave Al Qaeda an unnecessary symbolic and psychological victory.
After the fall of the Western supported government, Pakistani, Tajik and Uzbek jihadist fighters streamed across the Afghan border secure they would have safe havens for their respective networks. The region hosts possibly the richest criminal-insurgent-terror network in the world that is a dominant presence in the new Afghan government. Dating back to the Afghan war, the Haqqani movement has a long history of involvement with Al Qaeda, protecting its commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and conducting joint military operations.
The Haqqani Factor
Although the Taliban historically has had an ambiguous relationship with Al Qaeda, the Haqqani group has consistently supported AQ for close to a generation. In fact, it was at a Haqqani network safe house that Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed. Haqqani control over half of Afghanistan’s cabinet positions, including supervision over powerful intelligence and immigration ministries, has raised fears that international terror groups will be given safe harbor and passage through Afghanistan.
Despite al-Zawahiri’s killing, Al Qaeda Central is no doubt strengthened by a supportive state run by the Taliban and Haqqani who never were seriously committed to severing their relationship with Islamist terror groups. What al-Zawahiri’s death does do, however, is create a leadership succession crisis in the network. Likely successors (AQ commanders Saif al-Adel and Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi) are in Iran and their ability to manage the network’s sprawling franchise is suspect. Faced with Iranian restrictions, the network’s governing shura council could opt for a regional commander based in the Maghreb, Yemen, or Somalia.
Such a selection could exacerbate centrifugal pressures in the organization that already has been weakened by the 2014 ouster of its Iraqi branch (now known as the Islamic State) and the loss of its Syrian branch formerly called as Jabhat al-Nusra. Reconstituted as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian group broke ties with al-Zawahiri in 2017 and actively represses what remains of Al Qaeda’s operations in Idlib Province.
Poised for Expansion
Seen as one of Al Qaeda’s weakest branches, AQIS may be poised for expansion. Taliban and Haqqani support, the erosion of the US intelligence network in Afghanistan and the steady decline of American directed drone strikes across the Afghan-Pakistan tribal region, are propitious conditions that facilitate the branch’s possible growth. Intelligence analysts worry that the network could, within a year, develop external operations capability to launch an international attack. Much of this, however, is conditioned upon the survival of the Taliban-Haqqani regime. This is far from certain.
The new government faces multiple insurgencies and a calamitous economic crisis exacerbated by the cutoff of international assistance. Remnants of the former regime led by Tajik commander Ahmad Massoud have mounted a sustained insurgency in the country’s north. Analysts for the Long War Journal have argued that the National Resistance Front (NRF) insurgency against the Taliban-Haqqani state has grown in intensity. The prospect of Western aid and arms to the group may augment its nascent revolt.
The Taliban, moreover, are under pressure from the Islamic State’s Khorasan province (ISKP) that has mounted a series of devastating attacks against Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia community including dozens of mosque attacks that have killed hundreds. ISKP has assassinated leading Taliban clerics and commanders. They consider the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies as “apostates”.
Although the ISKP insurgency is limited to the eastern Nangahar region, continued insecurity and economic crisis threaten to increase its membership and combat capability. The network is popular among Salafist communities in Afghanistan and some reports indicate that the factions within the Haqqani network work with ISKP operatives. Afghanistan’s sectarian configuration where Sunni-Shia tensions have been historically low militates against a major ISKP expansion. Historically Islamic State branches have thrived (as in Iraq) where sectarian fissures are severe.
Faced with multiple insurgencies, severe economic conditions, and social isolation some observers predict a looming civil war and state collapse reminiscent of the post-Soviet occupation period of the early 1990’s. What can be said confidently is Afghanistan will continue to be an unstable failed state incapable of securing control over a difficult terrain compounded by unruly meddlesome neighbors and intractable tribal grievances.
Pakistan and Iran are increasingly threatened by the country’s instability. The intermarriage between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban worries Islamabad that anti-government Tehrik- i-Taliban (TTP) insurgents could be strengthened by Kabul’s patronage.
Cross-border skirmishes between Iranian and Taliban troops and ISKP attacks against the Shia Hazara community compound Tehran’s anxiety about the new regime. Prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan, relations between Iran and the Taliban were tense. The two countries almost went to war in 1996 when the Taliban massacred dozens of Iranian diplomats. Until their seizure of power in August 2021, Iran supported Taliban insurgents fighting the US-backed regime.
Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan now hosts Uzbek and Tajik jihadist networks affiliated with Al Qaeda that raise concern of a broader regional Islamist insurgency. This is an environment where terror groups can not only survive but thrive. The July 2022 killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri however lends some credibility to the Biden Administration claim that the US retains ‘over the horizon’ capabilities to neutralize terror threats before they damage international security.
The success of the strike suggests that the US has remaining intelligence assets on the ground. This may be true in Kabul, a city of 4.6 million, but it remains unclear whether this intelligence network extends across the country. It is unlikely that the US or any Western intelligence has agents operating in the tribal areas spanning the Afghan-Pakistani territorial divide where most of the region’s terrorist networks operate and train their recruits.
Oddly, the best hope that regional and Western governments have is that no one secures power in Afghanistan and the country remains internally divided and fractious. Without secure state patronage, terror groups find it difficult to survive. The Taliban and their Haqqani allies have not been able to make the transition from insurgent movement to a functioning state actor. The movement remains divided between extremists and pragmatists who have not been able to achieve a working consensus on state economic management and engagement with the international community. The regime’s recent decision to ban opium production may create further splits within the Taliban-Haqqani movement because important constituencies within these groups have historically profited from the sale of illicit drugs.
Equally problematic is the ongoing war between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that is playing out in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. These internal tensions have resulted in jihadists fighting amongst themselves across the Muslim world. Today Al Qaeda’s factions in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and in Afghanistan, compete with local IS affiliates diverting their attention away from the West.
Al Qaeda’s signature far enemy strategy of attacking the US homeland is but extinguished. The American drone war on the network’s external apparatus in Pakistan and Yemen has seriously weakened the groups capacity to strike the West. Factionalism within Al Qaeda, and its network struggles with the Islamic State worldwide, paradoxically enhance Western security. If these divisions remain, and the Taliban grip on power continues to be tenuous, the prospect of another 9/11 is quite remote.
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