Although nine years have elapsed since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the relationship between this Afghan Islamic movement and al-Qaeda remains a mystery to many analysts of the situation in Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that understanding the relationship between the two parties could expedite efforts to solve the Afghan crisis.
Is the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda an alliance, as it appears at face value, or are there differences between the parties that one or both of them try to keep from view? This question is the focus of a paper titled “Al-Qaeda’s Relations with the Taliban: An Unhappy Marriage?” published recently by Quilliam, a British counter-extremism think tank.
The paper analyses the future of the relationship between the Afghan rebel group and its “guests” from among the al-Qaeda leadership.
Noman Benotman, a former leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and James Brandon, a former journalist who specialises in Middle East affairs, wrote the paper. They believe an eventual settlement to the Afghanistan crisis would likely include “a large role for the Taliban in the Afghan national government and a gradual withdrawal of western combat troops in return for a Taliban commitment not to impose Pashtun values” (the ethnic group to which the majority of Taliban belong) on non-Pashtun Afghans and not to shelter terrorists as they did prior to the September 11 attacks.
This scenario does not differ much from what has been said publicly by Afghan government officials, who have repeatedly asserted that the door to reconciliation is open with any segment of the Taliban that agrees to lay down their arms, severe their relationship with terrorists (in reference to al-Qaeda) and operate in accordance with the Afghan constitution.
Al-Qaeda is the obstacle
Although the Taliban, or people in their circle, have consistently argued that the main problem is the foreign military presence, it is clear that the solution is not contingent on that issue, since all Western countries say they want to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of the day. The solution is actually tied to the extent to which the Taliban is willing to sever all ties with al-Qaeda and expel it from Afghanistan – or at least prevent it from renewing its activity, as practiced before September 11.
Saudi Arabia made an effort in recent years to broker an agreement along those lines, but the effort came to a stop when the Saudis could not get a commitment from Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar to cut his ties with “the terrorists.” However, Saudi Arabia’s exit as mediators has not prevented contacts between President Hamid Karzai’s government and some Taliban elements to negotiate an agreement that would spare Afghanistan further bloodshed and destruction.
In spite of the recent “setback,” specifically the reports that the Afghan government was negotiating with a person posing as a senior leader of the Taliban, official reports out of Afghanistan speak about different groups of Taliban elements turning themselves in and giving up fighting to take advantage of the reconciliation offer that the government and the Afghan Peace Council are working on.
Taliban views of al-Qaeda
If the relationship between the Afghans themselves (the government and the Taliban) does not seem too difficult to mend, one potential stumbling block is undoubtedly related to the fate of al-Qaeda’s “foreign fighters” on Afghan soil.
In this respect, the Quilliam authors tried to address how the Taliban views al-Qaeda. They write that the Afghan movement believes al-Qaeda failed the Taliban and the Afghan people in 2001 (because of the September 11 attacks) and that the actions of Osama bin Laden’s organisation have led to continued turmoil in Afghanistan.
The authors said the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda prevents it from “receiving international recognition and makes it harder to reach a deal with the US and the Afghan government.”
The paper says the problem lies in the Taliban viewing al-Qaeda as Muslim “guests,” consequently “the Taliban cannot betray them or hand them over to non-Muslims,” which is the position the Taliban has taken since 2001. Al-Qaeda and Taliban religious differences
Being seen to be working with the Taliban allows al-Qaeda to portray itself as defender of “Muslim lands”, the paper noted. Without the cover the Taliban provides, al-Qaeda would be forced to relocate to another part of the world.
The authors write that al-Qaeda’s view of Islam differs from that of the Taliban, but bin Laden’s organisation is ready to “tolerate such religious differences for the greater good of the jihad.”
However, “the Taliban might ultimately sell out al-Qaeda as part of a deal with the US or the Afghan government,” the paper noted.
Taliban, al-Qaeda growing apart
The paper revealed that “the Taliban have largely sought to keep al-Qaeda fighters out of their area of operations in Afghanistan in order to gradually del-link themselves from ‘terrorists.’ ”
Direct participation of Arab jihadists now largely occurs through the Haqqani network (a branch of the Taliban active in south-eastern Afghanistan in contrast to the south of Afghanistan where the insurgency is led by the Quetta Shura group under Mullah Omar). However, “total Arab jihadist involvement in Afghanistan has generally diminished since late 2008.”
Al-Qaeda sought to use “supportive” Pakistani religious scholars, especially hard-line Deobandis, to place indirect pressure on the Afghan Taliban to continue to support the organisation.
Bin Laden’s organisation also built stronger links with Pakistani jihadist groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba to “guard against any attempts by the Quetta Shura to control” al-Qaeda.
The researchers noted that al-Qaeda stepped up attempts to establish alternative bases in Yemen and Somalia “as insurance” in the event an agreement was reached between the Afghan government, its Western backers and the Taliban.
Signs of differences between al-Qaeda. the Taliban
Recent statements from the Taliban and al-Qaeda highlight some of their differences, the paper noted.
“For instance, the Taliban’s Eid message made no references to foreign fighters in Afghanistan and framed its ‘jihad’ as a legitimate resistance to foreign ‘aggression’ in line with international norms rather than as part of a global religious conflict – a view which al-Qaeda would entirely reject,” the researchers wrote.
The statement additionally called for ‘Muslim countries’ to help stabilise Afghanistan. However, al-Qaeda believes such regimes are “apostates,” the authors noted.
Al-Qaeda has recently issued a large number of statements saying that the Americans are being defeated in Afghanistan and that the Taliban will never negotiate. This is “propaganda that is clearly intended to make it harder for the Taliban to begin such negotiations,” they wrote.
The researchers conclude that it is unlikely the Taliban will hand over bin Laden “to non-Muslims” or allow him to be killed or captured.
However, there are face-saving compromises that would allow the Taliban to make a deal without appearing to “betray” al-Qaeda, the paper noted.
One option is for the Quetta Shura to agree to entirely relocate to Afghanistan while leaving Bin Laden under local tribal protection in Waziristan, Pakistan.
Another option might be for the Taliban to put Bin Laden on trial in one of their “Sharia courts” on charges of encouraging attacks against “innocent Muslim civilians.”
Analysis by Camille Tawil