Al Qaeda Versus ISIS
The Jihadi Power Struggle in the Taliban’s Afghanistan
In Doha in late January, the United States and the Afghan Taliban agreed in principle to the contours of a peace deal. Under its terms, the Taliban would guarantee that Afghan territory will never be used by terrorists. The concession is critical to the United States, but while some commentators have heralded the Taliban’s promise as a major breakthrough, analysts have noted that the group has made, and failed to keep, similar assurances in the past. Questions remain about whether the Taliban is genuinely willing to break with al Qaeda—the very prospect at which the group balked back in 2001, prompting the United States to invade.
The terrorist landscape in South and Central Asia extends far beyond al Qaeda. The Taliban has been fighting the Islamic State’s affiliate in the region, the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK), inflicting serious losses without succeeding in eradicating this rival. Since 2002, the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan has been a unifying cause for militant organizations in the region. At least 18 terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan. The Taliban exercises some influence over the activities of 14 of them, providing entrée to the insurgency in exchange for manpower and expertise. These groups will expect a payoff in the event of a Taliban victory and will likely seek to continue using Afghan territory as a base for terrorist activities. If the Taliban proves unwilling or unable to prevent the country from becoming a free-for-all for militant organizations after the U.S. withdrawal, the United States, as well as Pakistan, India, and the Central Asian states, will be threatened.
From the United States’ standpoint, the Taliban’s most important affiliation is with al Qaeda, which continues to prioritize striking the United States homeland. The Taliban has never successfully curtailed al Qaeda’s activities. Rather, it supplied the group a safe haven in Afghanistan while its leadership planned and executed attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000; and the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Al Qaeda leadership did not ask the Taliban permission to conduct these attacks; in fact, al Qaeda carried them out in direct defiance of Taliban orders to abstain from international attacks. The 9/11 attacks led the United States to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban from power. Nonetheless, the Taliban refused to sever ties with al Qaeda and remained unable to prevent its rogue behavior.
Since 2001, al Qaeda has continued to enjoy refuge with the Taliban. In particular, al Qaeda found haven in North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), under the protection of the Haqqani network, a faction within the Taliban. Until 2014, when a Pakistani military offensive disrupted a number of militant groups operating in this area, most of al Qaeda’s major plots and attacks against the United States and Europe emanated from the tribal areas, particularly North Waziristan. There is no evidence that the Taliban or the Haqqani network assisted in these attacks or that it even knew about them, but it also did nothing to prevent them.
Another of the Afghan Taliban’s allies, the Pakistani Taliban, has a vendetta against the United States, which is responsible for the deaths of three of its leaders. In 2010, this group planted a bomb in Times Square. (The device did not detonate.) The Pakistani Taliban is a highly decentralized umbrella group that seeks to expel Pakistani forces from the tribal areas, overthrow the Pakistani government, eliminate Shiite Muslims from Pakistan, and push the United States out of Afghanistan. Ever since the Pakistani military forced many of its operatives over the border following operations in South Waziristan in 2009 and North Waziristan in 2014, the Pakistani Taliban has operated in large part from Afghanistan. And while its agenda is more localized than al Qaeda’s, it will likely exploit opportunities to attack the United States if and when they arise.
The Taliban has not demonstrated a genuine willingness to actively hinder the operations of the two groups that are most likely to attack the United States. And even if it wanted to do so, it probably lacks the ability. If the Taliban continues to allow either group to operate in territory under its control—as it is likely to do—it will be seriously hamstrung in delivering on its pledge to prevent international attacks emanating from Afghanistan.
The Taliban has long received funds and haven from the Pakistani security establishment, but the relationship between the two is fraught with complexity. The Taliban cooperates with militant groups that seek to overthrow the government in Islamabad. In the past it has urged these groups to focus on Afghanistan and abstain from attacking Pakistan, to no avail. Al Qaeda’s affiliate in South Asia, for example—al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent—cooperates closely with the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan; it also conducts terrorist attacks throughout Pakistan with the intent of weakening the government. Other groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban and its offshoots, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also target the Pakistani government but also have long-standing ties with the Taliban and participate in the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan has served as a pressure valve for Pakistan, providing an outlet for anti-state groups such as these, particularly for those in the tribal areas. Pakistani security forces have made truces with some groups, promising to leave them alone in Pakistan as long as they focus their activities on Afghanistan. If the Taliban’s insurgency ends and these groups gain more freedom to operate from within Afghanistan, they will likely choose to direct their attention toward Pakistan instead.
India also stands to lose if the Taliban does not keep its pledge. The greatest threat to India is that the Taliban will allow Pakistani militant groups traditionally close to the Pakistani state, notably Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, to operate in its territory. Both of these groups work closely with the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan, but their primary cause is contesting India’s control of Kashmir. The groups also oppose India more broadly and have attacked other parts of the country. Both groups are closely aligned with the Pakistani security establishment, which uses them as weapons against India. In the event that the Taliban is charged with managing militant groups in its territory, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed would almost certainly seek to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to train and plan attacks against India and Indian Kashmir. The use of Afghan territory offers Pakistan plausible deniability. Pakistan used Afghanistan in exactly this way when the Taliban ruled in the 1990s.
Two other Pakistani militant groups that target India, Harakat ul-Mujahedeen and Harakat ul-Jihad-al-Islami, were also close to the Taliban in the 1990s and still have operatives in the insurgency in Afghanistan. These groups are no longer organizationally coherent, but people affiliated with them remain in Afghanistan and have been integrated into broader networks of militants. With more operating space in Afghanistan, these weaker groups could rebuild.
Even the Central Asian republics have something to fear from an Afghan state that is once again dominated by the Taliban. A smattering of terrorist groups with Central Asian origins have long operated in exile in Afghanistan. Groups such as Islamic Jihad Union, Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, and factions of the Islamic Movement are primarily committed to the insurgency in Afghanistan and to opposing the Pakistani state, but they still nurture ambitions to strike their homelands. They will likely take advantage of a haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban to rebuild and develop their external capabilities.
And so while the United States has reason to be concerned, these countries likely face an even graver threat from the militant groups allied with the Taliban. The Taliban’s pledge would require it to police over a dozen organizations with ambitions to strike at least five other countries. Making good on such a commitment would be a major undertaking for any government—let alone an insurgent group with long-standing ties to those organizations.
The Afghan Taliban is the central hub in South and Central Asia around which other militant organizations revolve. Its insurgency enjoys substantial ideological authority and support. But this privileged position does not translate into control over the Taliban’s partners, who would need to be persuaded to relinquish their external ambitions—an unlikely proposition. And so to keep its pledge, the Taliban would have to be willing to either turn its back on longtime allies or use force to restrain them. Both scenarios are difficult to imagine.
Having supported the Taliban’s campaign for more than 17 years, its militant partners certainly expect to see some benefit when the insurgency emerges victorious. The ultimate prize would be safe haven in areas under Taliban control, with the freedom to pursue their external agendas. In pledging to prevent terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, the Taliban is making a promise that it will struggle to keep—if it even intends to try.