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OP-ED: Putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop?

  • Published at 02:29 am August 29th, 2021
Taliban
Reuters

With the Taliban back in power, will terrorist organizations be emboldened?

Abu Omar Khorasani was taken from Kabul’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison and unceremoniously shot.

The first and only person to have been executed since the Taliban gained full control of Afghanistan, Khorasani was the head of IS in South Asia until he was arrested by government forces last year.

The precise circumstances of his execution are not known. His killing was, however, at least in part designed to send a message to the international community, and particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China and Iran, as well as Russia, Central Asia’s security overlord.

The message was that the Taliban were cracking down on foreign jihadists and militants in Afghanistan.

Khorasani was an easy symbol. The Taliban and the IS, whose ranks of foreigners are primarily populated by Pakistanis and a sprinkling of Central Asians, Uighurs, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, and Frenchmen, have long been adversarial. IS recently accused the Taliban of being more nationalist than pious in their negotiations with the US.

The Taliban message is a partial truth at best. What is true for IS not true for al-Qaeda and others such as the Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Taliban appear to believe that they can get away with the differentiation because they perceived the US as more focused in the withdrawal negotiations on ensuring that IS, al-Qaeda, and other militants will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for international operations rather than on getting them expelled from the country.

The perceived US focus may have been rooted in a concern that if Taliban’s hands were forced, they would let militants slip out of the country and not hand them over to authorities. That would make it difficult to control their movements or ensure that they are either entered into deradicalization programs or, if warranted, brought to justice.

“It’s a Catch-22. The Taliban ensuring that al-Qaeda sticks to rule risks putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. How much better that is than having foxes run wild remains to be seen,” said a retired counter-terrorism official.

Officials of the Trump administration that negotiated the agreement suggest that the continued presence of al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan would violate the accord with the Taliban.

Is al-Qaeda rising?

Al-Qaeda may have been boosted in recent weeks by multiple prison breaks in which the Taliban freed operatives of al-Qaeda and other militant groups. General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, warned this week that al-Qaeda and IS could quickly re-build their networks in Afghanistan.

The UN recently reported that al-Qaeda “is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces,” and that its affiliate in the Indian sub-continent “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz provinces.” 

“Without information on who exactly escaped, it is difficult to determine whether historically significant figures remain within AQ’s AfPak network, or if it is mainly composed of newer figures these days, whether local or regional foreign fighters,” cautioned political violence scholar Aaron Y Zelin. Zelin was referring to al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network.

The prison breaks further go to concerns about relying on the Taliban to police jihadists and other militants with aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Of particular concern is the fact that the balance of power has yet to be determined between Taliban leaders who in recent days have been eager to put a more moderate, accommodating foot forward with security guarantees for their opponents, minorities, and women and the group’s far-flung less polished rank and file.

The concern about the Taliban’s ability and willingness to control militant activity on Afghan soil is magnified by worry regarding the continued existence of warlords with the power to organize violence, provide jobs and public services, and forge or strengthen ties with militants.

“Warlords will play an active role in the future of Afghanistan. They will remain businessmen and political leaders, connected to global economic processes and networks,” said Romain Malejacq, author of a book on Afghan warlords.

“Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland,” said journalist and author Graeme Wood.

The Taliban’s refusal to expel militants not only complicates the group’s efforts to garner legitimacy in the international community and particularly its neighbours, even if al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since 9/11 and is less focused on attacking the US and more on the Muslim world.

It also strengthens those who fear that Afghanistan will again emerge as a launching pad for trans-national political violence. “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state -- a breeding ground for terrorism,” warned Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the US House foreign affairs committee. “They (the Taliban) will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key,” added Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia.

The Taliban proved already 20 years ago that they valued loyalty when they rejected US and Saudi pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden no matter the cost. The Taliban have since come to appreciate al-Qaeda’s fighting skills and contributions to the Afghan militants’ cause.

Taliban fighters this week, in a violation of their pledge to inclusiveness, demonstrated their ideological anti-Shiite affinity with al-Qaeda by blowing up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a Shiite Hazara militia leader killed by the Taliban when they first took power in 1996. 

James M Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, and a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. This article first appeared on jamesmdorsey.substack.com and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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