If Taliban wants legitimacy in Afghanistan, it must renounce al-Qaeda

The world is willing to negotiate with the Taliban and help solve Afghanistan’s problems but, first, the de facto rulers must cut ties with al-Qaeda and address rising terrorism

Islamic extremism is on the rise again in Afghanistan, with terrorists flourishing under Taliban rule. With the international community recently meeting in Doha to consider steps to legitimise the Taliban, it could not have come at a worst moment for the de facto rulers of Afghanistan. In particular, the UN’s report on Afghanistan released last month revealed a disturbing rise in activity by al-Qaeda.
The report said the terrorist group had re-established itself in Afghanistan and “continues to pose a threat to the region, and potentially beyond”. Al-Qaeda has reportedly built eight new training camps, runs safe houses in Kabul and Herat, has stockpiled weapons in the Panjshir Valley, and operates five madrasas in the east of the country.
Al Qaeda’s re-emergence is a big concern globally. Under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, the group used Afghanistan as a base during the Taliban’s last stint in power between 1996 and 2001. This led to the Taliban being internationally isolated and enabled al-Qaeda to carry out devastating attacks around the world, including September 11.
The Taliban is also connected to smaller groups Tehreek-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Tehreek-i Jihad Pakistan (TJP), which have carried out terrorist attacks in neighbouring Pakistan. This includes a bombing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last year that killed 23 soldiers and injured many more. Over 400 Pakistanis, including security forces, have reportedly died in insurgent suicide bombings and attacks since the start of last year.

All three groups are supported by the Taliban, which offers them protection in Afghanistan. The UN report says the Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship “remains strong” and operates under a system of Taliban patronage. The Taliban is also “generally sympathetic” to the TTP and supplies it with weapons and equipment. The report reveals that Taliban members have joined the TTP and that the group’s members receive aid packages from the Taliban.

The Taliban has denied these allegations, claiming the UN is “always spreading propaganda” and that “there is no one related to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan”.But the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda has been known for some time. In 2022, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a US drone in a house in Kabul. The property was owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister. The discovery and death of al-Zawahri was deeply embarrassing for the regime.

Still, ahead of the Doha meeting to discuss Afghanistan’s future, the Taliban had expected progress on international recognition as the Afghan government.

The deputy minister for political affairs, Mawlawi Adbul Kabir, recently claimed the group had met all the conditions for recognition and said: “We have been assured that the coming meeting of Doha will aim at encouraging the world to engage with the Islamic Emirate”.

Such recognition, and Afghanistan’s UN seat, would mean legitimisation of the group and its harsh interpretation of Islam, which has seen it pilloried for its severe treatment of women and minority groups.The problem for the Taliban is that, since its return to power, most countries have demanded that Afghanistan must not be used as a terrorist haven – particularly its neighbours, who fear regional instability and attacks.

Pakistan urged the Taliban last December to “take strong action” against terrorist groups and said it expected “concrete and verifiable steps to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorist entities against Pakistan”.

China has raised similar concerns, telling the Taliban it needed to “take the security concerns of its neighbours seriously and take stronger measures to counter various terrorist forces within Afghanistan”.

This position has not changed and was reiterated in Doha on Monday, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres outlining proposals to ensure Afghanistan did not become a “hotbed” of terrorist activity.

The Taliban appears stubborn and unwilling to budge on a range of issues, including its links to terrorist groups. This was made clear when the group said it would not be attending the Doha meeting, deeming it “unbeneficial”.

For a group obsessed with recognition, the Taliban’s stance is not just counterproductive, but also a bad look, especially when the international community is willing to engage to help solve Afghanistan’s problems. The Taliban’s flat-out denial of its links to al-Qaeda also reconfirms to the world that it is not to be trusted.

The Taliban cannot have it both ways. If it wants to be recognised, it needs to assuage – rather than alienate – Afghanistan’s close neighbours. This means combating terrorism and cutting ties with al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

This can only benefit the Taliban. The regime will be able to meet – at least in part – the criteria for recognition and the benefits that come with it, like legitimacy, influence and greater investment in the nation.

It will also make Afghanistan and the wider region safer. This would be welcome news to the Taliban’s neighbours – particularly Pakistan and China – who have legitimate concerns about the spread of terrorism at home and abroad.

The Taliban has a choice, one that may determine the future of Afghanistan. It can repeat history and choose terrorism and isolation, or it can decide to govern responsibly and accept the demands of the international community, which could lead to a safer, more prosperous Afghanistan.

The Taliban should choose wisely.

Chris Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist and project coordinator for the Platform for Peace and Humanity’s Central Asia Programme

If Taliban wants legitimacy in Afghanistan, it must renounce al-Qaeda