Deadly Cooperation: The Shifting Ties Between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban
Today marks 17 years since 9/11 and nearly the same since America’s war in Afghanistan started. Launched on Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan quickly overthrew the Taliban regime after their leader, Mullah Omar, refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. While America’s strategic objective in Afghanistan has often been unclear, the Taliban’s refusal to give up al-Qaeda — and by extension the fear that an Afghanistan dominated by the Taliban would remain a safe haven for international terrorists — has been one of the primary motives for the “forever war.”
The alliance between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has endured for over 20 years. Between a crushing military campaign by the world’s foremost military alliance and the realpolitik considerations that seemingly should have led the Taliban to break ties long ago, the fact that they haven’t is remarkable. As in other alliances, the two groups remain engaged in cooperation with mutual expectations about consultation and cooperation in the future.
An alliance does not mean that partners have merged, operate in lockstep, or even always adhere to one another’s input. In this case, they certainly have not, do not, and they sometimes ignore one another’s counsel. Allies can have areas of major divergence. And the Taliban and al-Qaeda certainly do. Since the inception of their relationship, the two groups have differed on their strategic objectives, priorities, and tactics. The Taliban continues to be staunchly focused on Afghanistan and has never embraced al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ambitions. For its part, al-Qaeda has consistently pursued its agenda with a disregard for how doing so has affected the Taliban.
Yet they cooperate in Afghanistan and expect future cooperation and consultation in that realm. They share a desire to expel U.S. forces from Afghanistan and re-instate Taliban rule. And they now have a mutual rival in the Islamic State. But even these common interests do not fully capture what binds these two groups into their long-standing, but difficult, partnership.
Their relationship has evolved over time. Though Bin Laden had pledged bayat to Mullah Omar, al-Qaeda was “an organization supporting a state” during the 1990s. Now the Taliban does not rely on al-Qaeda nor does it need al-Qaeda’s support for its insurgency. Al-Qaeda gains more from the relationship, not least of all a role in the insurgency in Afghanistan and an alternative to the Islamic State that it can promote to discredit its former ally. Al-Qaeda also gets the prospect of a future safe haven should the Taliban return to power, though the Taliban’s willingness to provide such sanctuary is uncertain. The alliance has proven resilient and thus poses a hurdle to efforts to find a negotiated settlement to end the war.
Heavy Costs for Limited Benefits for the Taliban
The Taliban has incurred tremendous costs for its alliance with al-Qaeda over more than two decades. The relationship contributed to the Taliban’s international isolation while it was in power, including a rupture with Saudi Arabia, one of only three states to recognize the Taliban government. Al-Qaeda’s presence was a source of internal strife within the Taliban, with some urging Mullah Omar to oust the group. Some in the Taliban were particularly frustrated by Bin Laden’s declarations of war and al-Qaeda’s acts of terrorism against the United States in the years prior to 2001. But Washington’s responses actually increased the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda. Of course, most notably, Mullah Omar’s refusal to hand over Bin Laden after 9/11 led to the United States’ invasion and the downfall of the Taliban regime.
The persistence of their alliance is all the more remarkable when you consider how little the Taliban needs al-Qaeda now. However, it does accrue some benefits.
Though al-Qaeda was the cause of the U.S. invasion, it has steadfastly supported the Taliban’s insurgency. The Taliban has benefited from al-Qaeda’s expertise since the onset of the conflict, as it did against the Northern Alliance during the 1990s. Al-Qaeda helped train local Taliban commanders to fabricate improvised explosives beginning in the early days of the insurgency. The terrorist group’s personnel also offer other specialized and technological skills, leading one leading scholar on Afghanistan to refer to al-Qaeda operators as “subcontractors” for the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has assisted the Taliban with special operations and terrorist attacks, offering experienced supplemental manpower. The jihadist group rarely conducts or claims attacks in Afghanistan independently; instead it contributes to attacks by the Taliban and its partner then decides how to claim responsibility.
But, by al-Qaeda’s own admission, “the Taliban almost does not need us.” The Taliban’s greatest strength is its ability to capitalize on widespread local grievances and the Afghan government’s lack of legitimacy. It has ample Afghan personnel, and it controls or contests at least 44 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. Even those estimates vastly understate the Taliban’s influence.
In addition, at times, especially during the 1990s, the Taliban needed funds from al-Qaeda. That is no longer the case. The Taliban’s coffers are well-stocked through its relations with various patrons, including Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, as well as through its involvement in the drug trade in Afghanistan. It also garners funds locally from extortion and protection rackets. Furthermore, it enjoys substantial support from donor networks in the Gulf. Thus, to the extent that al-Qaeda provides the Taliban with resources, they are not pivotal to the Taliban’s financial health.
While al-Qaeda and the Taliban share antipathy towards the Islamic State, there are no indications that the Taliban has needed al-Qaeda’s assistance in forcibly challenging the Islamic State’s local affiliate, the Islamic State in the Khorasan.
Nonetheless, some in the Taliban still have a soft spot for al-Qaeda. As recently as 2015, al-Qaeda operated a massive training facility in Kandahar until it was destroyed by the United States. Whether the facility was an anomaly or an indication that the Taliban remains willing to offer al-Qaeda operating space in its territory remains unclear. In addition, the Haqqani Network faction of the Taliban has long been close to al-Qaeda. They have conducted joint operations and al-Qaeda has benefited from Haqqani protection. The Haqqanis’ support for al-Qaida is more important than ever since the faction’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, ascended to the number two spot in the Taliban in 2015.
Mostly Benefits with Few Costs for al-Qaeda
Through its alliance with the Taliban, al-Qaeda participates in the insurgency in Afghanistan, thereby maintaining a foothold in a campaign against the United States with symbolic importance in the broader global jihadist movement as the site of the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1989. But, as discussed, its involvement is selective, and the Taliban does not rely on al-Qaeda, which limits its losses and the resources it must invest in the effort.
This arrangement works well for al-Qaeda because the insurgency in Afghanistan is not its top priority. In recent years, some of its skilled military and explosives experts have even left Afghanistan for Syria. By Ayman al-Zawahiri’s own admission, Afghanistan is on the periphery of the larger battle in which Iraq and Syria command more importance.
Since the Islamic State’s emergence, al-Qaeda has garnered additional benefits from its alliance with the Taliban. Al-Qaeda sought to discredit the Islamic State’s claims to have formed a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph. It did so by touting the Taliban’s leader as the “true” leader of the faithful. This effort initially backfired in the wake of humiliating revelations in 2015 that Mullah Omar had died in 2013. Nonetheless, al-Qaeda stuck with the approach, hailing the Taliban as the only theologically legitimate alternative to the Islamic State.
Prospects Going Forward
The alliance between these two movements has long defied the apparent cost-benefit calculation, suggesting that their ties run deeper, especially after 17 years of fighting together. Their bond was once attributed primarily to the personal relationship between Mullah Omar and Bin Laden. Thus, Bin Laden’s death in 2011 and the revelation of Mullah Omar’s 2013 death seemed to be an opening for the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda. Once again, in defiance of predictions, the alliance persisted.
However, Zawahiri does not enjoy the same standing as Bin Laden with the Taliban or even among al-Qaeda’s other allies. Mullah Omar’s successors have suffered from their own legitimacy shortfalls. Consequently, they have sought to navigate Zawahiri’s declarations of bayat carefully. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s pledge, only to subsequently remove the announcement from the Taliban’s website. The Taliban’s current leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has not publicly endorsed Zawahiri’s most recent pledge.
The Taliban has also undertaken some rhetorical maneuvers to distance itself from al-Qaeda publicly. Most notably, the Taliban’s current leader pledged that the group will not allow Afghanistan to be used for attacks on other countries.
While proponents of negotiations are encouraged by the move, al-Qaeda is probably relatively untroubled by such declarations. It does not and never has felt compelled to consult the Taliban about its operations outside of Afghanistan: It is beyond the scope of their alliance. Moreover, the Taliban’s rhetorical steps have been uneven and contradictory; it has also issued statements in recent years seemingly touting ties with al-Qaeda.
With the obvious exception of the rupture with the Islamic State, al-Qaeda’s other alliances have also proven resilient. Its affiliates remained loyal despite efforts by the Islamic State to entice them. Al-Qaeda has also sustained a web of relationships with other militant groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have allowed it to survive the past 17 years.
Implications for Negotiations
There is renewed hope for negotiations since President Donald Trump announced a willingness to engage in direct talks with the Taliban. However, it is hard to imagine the United States being satisfied with a negotiated settlement that does not include the Taliban abdicating al-Qaeda. How much of a stumbling block does this pose?
In my experience, officials working on Afghanistan tend to be more optimistic about the prospects of persuading the Taliban to sever ties with al-Qaeda than those working on counter-terrorism. While the cost-benefit analysis offered above seemingly favors the interpretation of former, history is with the latter.
Determining the Taliban’s view is difficult because proponents of negotiations within the Taliban are likely the same individuals who would like to break ties with al-Qaeda anyway, so their views on the topic may not represent important factions within the Taliban. Conversely, at least some of those within the Taliban who oppose negotiations would probably also reject renouncing al-Qaeda. In other words, Taliban leadership will have to strike a difficult, perhaps impossible, balance between these two positions.
At the same time, Taliban leaders have to be vigilant to avoid fragmentation: a major hurdle to serious negotiations and an eventual political settlement. Though the Taliban has shown remarkable unity to date, Mullah Omar’s successors do not enjoy the same levels of loyalty and deference from Taliban members as he did. The Taliban lost power because its revered founding leader refused to relinquish al-Qaeda. While the insurgency in Afghanistan is certainly not about protecting al-Qaeda, reversing Mullah Omar’s 2001 positon will not be a small feat for any Taliban leader, especially one whose grasp on the various factions within the organization is not fully secure.
One British official recently shared his view with me that the Taliban is holding on to severing ties with al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip, which it expects to exchange only for a major concession from the United States. If this is correct, the key question becomes: What is Washington is willing concede?
Unfortunately, America’s inability to drive a wedge between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is not an anomaly. It is indicative of a larger failure to prevent or disrupt alliances between militant groups, despite the centrality of such relationships in the threat to the United States since 2001. In the case of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, this failure has been particularly costly.
Tricia Bacon is an assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, fellow at Fordham University’s Center for National Security, and non-resident fellow at George Washington’s Program on Extremism. She is the author of Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances (University of Pennsylvania, 2018). She was previously a counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. State Department from 2003-2013.
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