Slowly and Carefully, the Taliban Are Reining in Jihadists

World Politics Review

In early July, U.S. President Joe Biden stirred controversy by stating that al-Qaida no longer has a presence in Afghanistan—thanks, he suggested, to the Taliban. Responding to a question about a recently released State Department report that was critical of his administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden replied, “Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there. … I said we’d get help from the Taliban.” He then added, “What’s happening now? … I was right.”

The Taliban predictably applauded Biden’s statement. But others pointed out that it contradicted a United Nations report issued in February, which stated that “ties between Al-Qaida and the Taliban remain close, as underscored by the regional presence of Al-Qaida core leadership.” Moreover, a more recent report released in June by the same U.N. monitoring team included a claim made by an unnamed U.N. member state that the successor to Ayman al-Zawahiri as al-Qaida’s de facto leader, Saif al-Adel, has recently moved from Iran to Afghanistan. The June report also described the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida as “symbiotic.”

However, this time again, U.S. officials quickly disputed both claims, with one saying that al-Qaida “simply has not reconstituted a presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. departure in August 2021.” How are we to make sense of these conflicting characterizations?

To begin with, the reports issued by the U.N. monitoring team have always been somewhat controversial, because they rely on information passed on by member states but lack transparency as to which member state shared what and how strong the consensus is on specific issues. As each report has seemed to rely on a different set of sources, it has not been uncommon in the past for successive reports to contradict each other. The lack of transparency also lends the reports to manipulation by state agencies, which can hide behind them to disseminate partial, biased or even outright false information.

But beyond that, the dispute over al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan and its relationship with the Taliban is a war of definitions. When approached by my research team, the Taliban do not deny that some al-Qaida members are present in Afghanistan, as are larger numbers of affiliated organizations, including vestiges of the old Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU; Uyghurs of the Turkestan Islamic Party, or TIP; and various other groups.

The Taliban insist, however, that these people are not terrorists but asylum-seekers who have agreed to the Taliban’s demand not to use Afghanistan as a platform for exporting jihad. Moreover, the members of al-Qaida who are in Afghanistan appear to mostly belong to al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, rather than to al-Qaida central. That jibes with U.S. intelligence claims that no senior cadre of al-Qaida central, including Saif al-Adel, are currently in Afghanistan.

Given that al-Qaida central’s role is to support and protect the group’s leader, it seems logical that, with al-Zawahiri dead and no senior figures in the country, that structure relocated. The AQIS members in Afghanistan do appear to have active training camps, but these seem to be dedicated to helping the Taliban train their new army, rather than terrorist teams meant to be deployed abroad. In any case, the contribution of AQIS to the Taliban’s efforts is marginal, and there is no evidence of AQIS helping active jihadist groups based in Afghanistan, such as the Pakistani TTP or the Iranian Jaysh ul Adl.

Clamping down on al-Qaida was never in the cards. Slowly and carefully, however, the Taliban have been increasing the pressure on a number of other jihadist organizations.

Does this qualify as a “symbiotic” relationship, as the U.N. report describes it? Clamping down on al-Qaida and its affiliates was never in the cards, and the Taliban never committed to it, even in Doha. Doing so would be immensely divisive for the Taliban, who are already facing enough internal rifts. Slowly and carefully, however, the Taliban have been increasing the pressure on a number of jihadist organizations, especially Uyghur and Uzbek groups. The intent is clearly to reassure neighboring countries that have adopted a positive, business-oriented attitude toward the Taliban’s emirate.

The Taliban already ordered the Uyghurs, who were concentrated in Badakhshan near the borders of Tajikistan and China, to move away from both borders in October 2021. Unhappy about the decision, a significant proportion of the TIP’s roughly 300 members defected to the Islamic State, which also has bases in parts of Badakhshan. Others went into hiding with the complicity of some local Taliban networks, and still others fled to the border with Pakistan, where they were offered hospitality by the Pakistani TTP, which controls some stretches of territory there.

Of the two main groups of Uzbekistani jihadists in Afghanistan—one based in the northwest near the Uzbek border and one based in Badakhshan—the Taliban have concentrated pressure on the former, probably because of its location close to Uzbek territory. After over a year of constant attempts to force them to relocate, the Taliban eventually succeeded in getting them to move. Some may have joined a reintegration scheme promoted by Uzbekistan, although the Uzbek authorities have not confirmed any arrivals from Afghanistan. The majority appears to have fled to the border with Pakistan, also seeking the protection of the TTP. Others joined the Islamic State in Badakhshan, according to sources in both the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Kabul’s writ is weak in Badakhshan, where different Taliban factions are still jockeying for both local power and the favors of the central Taliban leadership. The latter are unable to dispatch a large troop contingent there due to ethnic tensions between Pashtuns, who make up the bulk of the Taliban’s army, and the local Tajiks. Moreover, the region is the main remaining stronghold of the Islamic State in Khorasan, after it moved most of its members out of eastern Afghanistan. As a result, Kabul probably considered it best to leave well enough alone there.

As for the Pakistani TTP, the Taliban are deeply divided about what to do about it. The Haqqani network and most Taliban from eastern Afghanistan consider the TTP as their brethren and resist any idea of clamping down on them or forcing them to give up on attacks against Pakistan. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzaza, is reportedly more willing to intervene, but his power to do so in eastern Afghanistan, where the TTP is based, is almost nonexistent. The compromise approach that has instead been adopted first saw an unsuccessful attempt by the Haqqanis to mediate between the TTP and Islamabad in 2022. They are now pursuing a partial relocation of TTP forces and associated civilians to northern Afghanistan—that is, away from the Pakistani border.

While the TTP issue has been a longstanding challenge, a more recent case involves the Iranian Baluchi rebel group Jaysh ul Adl. Once funded by Saudi donors and operating from Pakistani territory, Jaysh ul Adl’s activities inside Iran collapsed after Tehran and Riyadh signed their diplomatic normalization deal in March 2023, agreeing among other things to clamp down on flows of support to each other’s adversaries. The Baluchi group now seems to have regrouped in Afghanistan, near Iran’s Sistan province, where it receives some support from local Taliban officials linked to the Haqqani network, which is on poor terms with Tehran. Surely, this will be a bone of contention between Haibatullah, who enjoys close relations with Iran, and the Haqqanis.

It seems clear that the Taliban intend to tackle the issue of the presence of foreign jihadists at their own pace, avoiding excessive internal tensions and relying as much as possible on voluntary returns or relocation. The lingering difficulties are due to the lack of consensus within the Taliban’s leadership about the future shape of Kabul’s foreign relations, with some—like Defense Minister Yaqoob and intelligence chief Wasiq—more inclined toward cooperating with the U.S. and Western powers, and others preferring engaging with regional powers. Among the latter, there are divisions between those would like to limit engagement to China and Uzbekistan, and others who want to extend it to Russia, Iran and Pakistan. These divisions affect how the Taliban treat different groups of foreign jihadists.

While it is clearly misleading to suggest that the Taliban have adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward the presence of armed groups on Afghan territory, it is also not true that they are in cahoots with foreign insurgents, particularly those planning to export jihad. To the contrary, the presence of foreign jihadists in Afghanistan is often the result either of Kabul’s difficulties in enforcing its own policy or of its inability to arrive at one.

Antonio Giustozzi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “The Taliban at War” and “Jihadism in Pakistan,” among other publications.

Slowly and Carefully, the Taliban Are Reining in Jihadists