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Taliban won’t give up al-Qaeda, not after US killing al-Zawahiri. Kabul’s a safe haven

Pragmatists in Taliban have been willing to sacrifice global jihadism for international recognition and state-building aid. But it's not that simple.

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The phone rang at the State Department soon after American cruise missiles slammed into jihadist training camps in southern Afghanistan: the cleric who ruled the Islamic Emirate was on the line from Kandahar. Mullah Muhammad Umar, a declassified document records, “had no specific message, but he did have some advice…To rebuild US popularity in the Islamic world and because of his current domestic political difficulties, Congress should force President [Bill] Clinton to resign.”

Forty-eight hours earlier, on 20 August 1998, death squads despatched by the al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden had bombed United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 241 people.

The seventy-odd cruise missiles used in the strikes, each costing upwards of $1 million, had killed just six jihadists, according to the memoirs of bin Laden’s bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri. For the Islamic Emirate, the blood was a small change. The one-eyed cleric who led Afghanistan refused to hand over bin Laden, and never bothered calling again.

Last month’s killing of bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in his safe-house in Kabul, illustrates a deeper truth: under the Taliban regime, the United Nations sanctions monitor warned earlier this summer, “al-Qaeda enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan.” The group isn’t mounting external operations, like the Embassy bombings or 9/11. Instead, it is using its Taliban-provided safe haven to rebuild.

For years, Western advocates of peace with the Taliban insisted the organisation was willing to sever its links to transnational terrorism, and reinvent itself as a force for peace: Islamic Emirate interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to have provided al-Zawahiri with his home, even debuted as a New York Times columnist.

Things haven’t gone that way, in part, because of deep ties between al-Qaeda and the so-called Haqqani Network, made up mainly of leaders from eastern Afghanistan’s Zadran clans. But the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is deeper than one faction. The durability of the relationship raises important questions about the Taliban’s ideological goals—and if they will ever give up their pursuit of transnational jihad.


Also Read: Hard-nosed, practical—why India has revived relations with Kabul, and why Taliban is welcoming


Making of the Haqqanis

From 1920 on, Afghanistan’s modernising King Amanullah Khan set in motion the forces that eventually forged the Taliban. The king ordered an end to the seclusion of women and founded co-educational schools. In an effort to build a united national army, he ended exemptions the south-eastern Pashtun tribes had enjoyed from military conscription. The king’s reforms enraged both tribal elites and the clerical class.

Twice—in 1924 and in 1928—the Zadran, from which the Haqqanis drew, revolted against the king. Further, crises erupted in the south, historian Sana Haroon has recorded, as ethnic Pashtuns joined in cleric-led insurrections against British imperial power in North Waziristan. King Nadir Shah, Amanullah’s successor, had to roll back his efforts at reform and state-building.

Khwaja Muhammad Khan, the founding patriarch of the Haqqani family, represented the pious trading class empowered by the failure of Afghan state-building. Khan used part of the small fortune he made from trading with British India to educate his four sons at the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania founded in 1947.

The seminary, under the leadership of the Islamist politician Sami-ul-Haq, emerged as the intellectual heart of the Islamist movement in Pakistan. Its students—Fazl-ul-Rehman, Muhammad Yunus Khalis, and Mullah Umar himself—went to command powerful jihadist formations. The founder of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Uttar Pradesh-born Sana-ul-Haq, was also a student—and so, a generation before him, was Khwaja Muhammad Khan’s son, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Late in 1957, socialist prime minister Mohammad Daud Khan reignited the conflict with the south-eastern tribes over women’s education. Jalaluddin would rise to prominence as a key figure in the renewed jihad against the reform.

The Inter-Services Intelligence directorate played a key role in bringing about Jalaluddin’s rise. Former Pakistan prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, scholar C. Christine Fair has recorded, used Islamist groups to undermine the Daud regime. Frontier Corps’ Brigadier Naseerullah Babar, later defence minister of Pakistan, set up military facilities that trained an estimated 5,000 jihad volunteers to take on the Afghan State.


Also Read: Nothing has changed about Taliban, from terror to Sharia. Islamic world should pressure them


Brotherhood of global jihad

From 1979, when Soviet forces crossed the Amu Darya into Afghanistan, a small flow of Arab volunteers travelled to Pakistan—joining the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania graduates. The most influential of these would be Abdullah Azzam—who, as teacher at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, would help Hafiz Muhammad Saeed establish the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and mentored the young bin Laden. Fighting on the frontlines, Azzam became an icon for a generation of jihadists.

Azzam’s 1987 book, Defence of the Muslim Lands, is considered among the seminal texts of the modern jihadist movement—in particular, its assertion that fighting was obligatory on individual Muslims, a proposition he made with the support of the chief cleric of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Baz.

The idea, however, had already been promoted by the Dar-ul-Uloom jihadists for years. “If the Islamic world truly wants to support and help us,” Jalaluddin Haqqani said in 1980, “it should permit its young men to join our ranks. There is a tendency in most of the Islamic countries which wish to help us to present aid and food as a kind of jihad. Some even think that this is the best kind of jihad. This, however, does not absolve the Muslim of the duty to offer himself for the jihad.”

Vahid Brown and Don Rassler have noted that this declaration “was made years before Abdullah Azzam would issue his ‘revolutionary’ Fatwa.”

Five years before Azzam would establish the kernel of al-Qaeda, its to-be leaders were already training at Haqqani’s base at Zhawar. The Egyptian jihadists Mustafa Hamid arrived in 1979, soon to be followed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and  Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s Fazlur Rehman Khalil. Thousands more came from Europe, Central Asia and Kashmir.

“Jihad continues to be a sacred duty until the infidels are defeated throughout the world,” Haqqani declared in 1991. “God will not bless us for our past jihad.” Abetted by Pakistan’s ISI, the United States Defence Intelligence Agency recorded, al-Qaeda would expand its presence after the Taliban took power in 1996.


Also Read: Ideological changes in Kabul mattered little to India, till the Taliban came to power


An iron alliance

Even though the Haqqanis maintained an intimate relationship with al-Qaeda, the jihadist group also enjoyed close ties with the Kandahar-based leaders of the group. In 2015, for example, United States forces bombed the largest al-Qaeda camp ever detected, operating in the mountains near Kandahar. In July 2014, Mullah Umar accepted a formal pledge of allegiance from al-Zawahiri, affirming that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army acting under his victorious banner.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who succeeded Mullah Umar, publicly accepted a pledge of allegiance from al-Qaeda—which the Taliban never repudiated, despite removing it from their website.

“The Taliban’s policy is to avoid being seen with us or revealing any cooperation or agreement between us and them,” the Libyan jihadist Attiyat Abdel Rehman wrote in 2011. “That is for the purpose of averting international and regional pressure and out of consideration for regional dynamics. We defer to them in this regard.”

Even though the eastern and southern factions of the Taliban are engaged in a sometimes-brutal struggle for influence for power—with Sirajuddin competing with Taliban emir Mullah Muhammad Haibatullah and Mullah Yakoob Omar—neither side has shown any willingness to compromise its relationship with al-Qaeda.

From the outset, some pragmatists within the Taliban have been willing to sacrifice global jihadism in the interests of international recognition and aid for state-building. They’ve had little influence over the organisation, though. For the Taliban, jihad isn’t a means—it is the end.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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