In the February 2020 agreement reached with the US in Doha, the Taliban pledged to prevent al Qaeda and other terror groups from using Afghan soil. Last week, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid repeated the promise. “No death will be caused to anyone outside of Afghanistan … we will not allow anyone to use Afghanistan against them.”
In recent years, the Taliban has kept al Qaeda in check. Edmund Fitton-Brown, who leads the United Nations Monitoring Team on Afghanistan, noted in an interview with CTC Sentinel 2019 that the Taliban had “shown an iron self-discipline in recent years in not allowing a threat to be projected outside the borders of Afghanistan by their own members or by groups who are operating in areas they control.”
Western — and not only Western — intelligence agencies worry that discipline may begin to fray, for a variety of reasons. For a start, the Doha process is dead; facts on the ground mean the Taliban don’t need to play nice. There is continuing evidence of close ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates. The Haqqani Network, which straddles both groups, is now highly influential in Kabul. And as they emptied out prisons across Afghanistan, Taliban fighters set free hundreds of al Qaeda operatives.
As former CIA counter-terrorism officer Douglas London told CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, “Those folks are force multipliers for the Taliban, and they are likely to regroup [with] what is left of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
US President Joe Biden has argued that the threat from al Qaeda has metastasized to places like Africa and Yemen. “There’s a greater danger from ISIS and al Qaeda and all these affiliates in other countries by far than there is from Afghanistan,” he said last week.
Senior military officers seem less convinced. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, acknowledged in a recent briefing, according to a US Senate aide, that groups like al Qaeda could reconstitute in Afghanistan in less than the two years previously estimated by the defense officials.
Al Qaeda’s leadership and ideological core remains in the mountains along the Afghan/Pakistan border. The US Defense Department said last year that al Qaeda’s affiliate in the region, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), “maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, likely for protection and training.”