Last week, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, launched into a broadside against Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American diplomat responsible for negotiating with the Taliban. Addressing reporters in Washington, Mohib insinuated that Khalilzad is seeking to install himself as the “viceroy” of a new “caretaker government.” The State Department quickly issued a sharp rebuke, saying that any condemnation of Khalilzad was really a critique of its leader, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
While Mohib’s specific charge may have been hyperbole, it almost certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Mohib has been around Washington for years, including as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., so he knew how his words would be received. His harsh critique of Khalilzad reflects the Afghan government’s deep mistrust of the Trump administration’s plans. Everyone knows that President Trump wants out of Afghanistan, and the Afghans know that the State Department’s dealings with the Taliban will not deliver “peace.” Instead, Khalilzad’s talks have further empowered the same jihadists America has been fighting for nearly two decades.
The Taliban has repeatedly dismissed the elected Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet” of the U.S. and refused to talk with President Ashraf Ghani’s representatives. Khalilzad’s diplomacy has validated the Taliban’s claim. The State Department long maintained that the talks must be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned,” but nobody seems to have told Khalilzad. He caved to the Taliban’s demand for unilateral negotiations with the U.S. early on, holding extensive two-party talks without any preconditions. Incredibly, though the Afghan government has never been invited to the negotiating table, Khalilzad has already announced that a “draft” agreement is in place. Only after this accord with the Taliban is “finalized” can the Afghan government hope to participate in “intra-Afghan negotiations.”
But meaningful peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government are not likely to happen. The Taliban is fighting to resurrect its totalitarian Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has already established a shadow government throughout parts of the country. The jihadists’ rulers-in-waiting do not intend to share power with the elected Afghan government—they quite openly plan to usurp it. And they are closer to achieving that goal today than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. With American and NATO forces preparing to leave, why would the Taliban suddenly get serious about peace? Indeed, the jihadists know that one of the last major obstacles to their victory is about to be removed.
While Afghan officials like Mohib have their own reasons to distrust Khalilzad, Americans should also be concerned. The U.S. military would have you believe that the Taliban was driven, through force, to the negotiating table. That’s not true. The Taliban contests or controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. This ground is sparsely populated and mostly rural, but the Taliban’s men are circling several provincial capitals, just waiting to seize at least some of them. America has little will to keep them at bay any longer. So the State Department begged the Taliban for talks – not the other way around. As a result, the jihadists are negotiating from a position of strength, and they know it.
But that doesn’t excuse Secretary Pompeo’s willingness to accept an exceptionally bad deal. In addition to alienating the Afghan government, America’s longstanding, albeit problematic ally, Khalilzad has endorsed the Taliban’s big lie concerning al Qaeda and international terrorism. This should be offensive to all Americans affected by the 9/11 wars. Let us explain.
Although he has provided few specific details, Khalilzad tweeted on Mar. 12 that the Trump administration’s draft accord with the Taliban covers two key issues: a “withdrawal timeline” and “effective counterterrorism measures.” In essence, Khalilzad has sought a Kissinger-style “decent interval” during which the U.S. can execute an orderly withdrawal in exchange for a promise that Afghan soil won’t be used as a hub for international terrorism once again. On the latter point, Khalilzad has been remarkably credulous, stating that he is already satisfied with the Taliban’s assurances.
Other than the Taliban, no one else should be satisfied – especially given the sordid history of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda.
Afghanistan is, today, already home to international terrorist groups. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda fight and train throughout the country. The Taliban has no control over the Islamic State’s regional arm, which operates across the Afghan-Pakistani border and has ties to the self-declared caliphate’s mothership in Iraq and Syria. Although there may be some episodic cooperation between the two sides, Islamic State loyalists clash regularly with their jihadist counterparts in the Taliban. And the Islamic State rejects the Taliban’s legitimacy, so it will not abide by any agreement struck with the U.S. Thus, the Taliban cannot guarantee that it will hold the Islamic State’s global ambitions in check.
More importantly, there is no reason to think the Taliban wants to hold al Qaeda’s global agenda in check. And this is where Khalilzad’s credulity becomes especially problematic. He has already declared the Taliban to be a de facto counterterrorism partner. This is an absurd proposition.
As the United Nations Security Council found in two recent reports, al Qaeda and the Taliban remain “closely allied” and their “long-standing” relationship “remains firm.” Al Qaeda’s leaders still view Afghanistan as a “safe haven,” and their men act like a force multiplier for the insurgency, offering military and religious instruction to Taliban fighters. Indeed, al Qaeda is operating across multiple Afghan provinces, including in areas dominated by the Taliban.
Given this current reality, Khalilzad has not explained to the American public why he trusts the Taliban to restrain al Qaeda now. As part of any final deal, the Taliban should be required to state, in no uncertain terms, its official position on al Qaeda.
Below, we outline four key aspects of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship that the State Department should address. If Khalilzad’s final deal with the Taliban doesn’t take into these issues, in some direct fashion, then the agreement is an obvious charade.
First, the Taliban has never publicly renounced al Qaeda, by name, or accepted responsibility for harboring it before 9/11. If the Taliban has really offered an ironclad counterterrorism guarantee, as Khalilzad claims, then the group should have no problem officially disowning al Qaeda. Indeed, a disavowal should be mandatory—a key test of the Taliban’s truthfulness.
Some have tried to absolve the Taliban of any responsibility for the 9/11 hijackings, as well as a string of other terror plots hatched on Afghan soil, claiming that the group didn’t really endorse Osama bin Laden’s anti-American terrorism. But this bit of apologia falls apart when subjected to basic scrutiny. The Taliban deliberately shielded bin Laden, even as the U.S. demanded that he be turned over.
In its final report, released in the summer of 2004, the 9/11 Commission documented various American and Saudi efforts to convince the Taliban to break with al Qaeda. All of them failed. In April 1998, for instance, the Taliban’s men told a U.S. delegation led by U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson that they didn’t know where bin Laden was and, in any event, al Qaeda didn’t pose a threat to America. The Taliban told this brazen lie despite the fact that al Qaeda had already declared war on America.
On August 7, 1998, four months after Richardson’s encounter, al Qaeda’s suicide truck bombs struck the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing and wounding hundreds. It was al Qaeda’s most devastating attack prior to the 9/11 hijackings. The U.S. retaliated by lobbing some missiles into a training camp in Afghanistan and at a suspected al Qaeda facility in Sudan. The bombs missed bin Laden, but the Taliban’s lie had been conclusively disproved. Bin Laden was clearly a threat to the U.S.
Still, the Taliban didn’t budge. In late 1999, according to the 9/11 Commission, the Taliban’s senior leadership voted to continue providing safe harbor for bin Laden and his terrorists. Mullah Omar even ordered the killing of a subordinate who objected to his pro-bin Laden policy. Then, on Sept. 9, 2001, two al Qaeda suicide bombers killed the Taliban’s main battlefield opponent: Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Al Qaeda and the Taliban launched a joint offensive against the Northern Alliance the very next day. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders knew that America would rely on Massoud’s men as part of a counterattack after the kamikaze hijackings. And, in a premeditated move, al Qaeda helped the Taliban go on the offensive beforehand. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar then refused to turn over bin Laden even after the U.S. issued a post-9/11 ultimatum, deciding he’d rather lose his Islamic emirate than sacrifice the al Qaeda leader.
The Taliban has never accepted responsibility for any of this. These facts are not merely a matter of history. To this day, al Qaeda continues to praise Omar for his obstinacy in the face of a superpower. The Taliban has had more than two decades to renounce al Qaeda and it hasn’t done so. And the Taliban still hasn’t proven its willingness to hinder al Qaeda’s international plotting from inside Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. killed a senior al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan just days prior to the 2016 presidential election. This same al Qaeda figure, Faruq al-Qahtani, was not only overseeing terrorist plots against the West, he also buttressed the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan by delivering cash and weapons to Taliban fighters, while also planning attacks on coalition forces.
If Khalilzad negotiates a denunciation of al Qaeda as part of the accord, then that would be significant. If not, then everyone should be aware that the Taliban hasn’t really come clean.
As a second measure, Khalilzad’s deal needs to address al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s current top leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Al Qaeda’s top leaders have been loyal to the Taliban’s emir since well before 9/11. In al Qaeda’s view, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the only religiously legitimate state in the world at the time of the hijackings. Al Qaeda deemed Mullah Omar to be Amir al-Mu’minin, or the “Emir of the Faithful,” an honorific usually reserved for the Muslim caliph. (ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adopted the same title in 2014, after the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.) As a result, bin Laden swore fealty to Omar and encouraged other Muslims around the world to do the same.
Bin Laden was killed in 2011. Mullah Omar is thought to have passed away sometime in 2013. Nevertheless, al Qaeda continued to market its loyalty to Omar until 2015, when the Taliban finally admitted that its founder had passed away two years earlier. The Taliban then named Mullah Mansour, a powerful figure who considered al Qaeda’s men to be the “heroes of the current jihadist era,” as its leader. Bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, quickly swore his fealty to Mansour, and Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s allegiance.
After Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, the Taliban named Akhundzada as its emir. Zawahiri fell in line once again – publicly declaring that Akhundzada was the new “Emir of the Faithful.”
Akhundzada’s formal rejection of Zawahiri’s loyalty pledge would shake al Qaeda’s entire scheme. Al Qaeda is an international organization, with branches operating in several countries. Some of these branches have publicly endorsed the idea that Akhundzada is the true spiritual leader of the global jihad. Zawahiri has also declared that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will be the “nucleus” of a new global caliphate, which al Qaeda’s men are fighting to re-establish. If Akhundzada broke with Zawahiri, then it would therefore undermine al Qaeda’s foundational mythology.
Third, Khalilzad’s agreement must sever the decades-long partnership between al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban that has conducted many of the worst terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. This issue is especially pressing, because the Taliban’s deputy emir is an infamous character: Sirajuddin Haqqani. As part of any deal with the Taliban, the State Department should require Sirajuddin to issue a statement, in his name, renouncing al Qaeda. Here’s why this is crucially important:
Sirajuddin is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerbroker along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who was one of bin Laden’s earliest allies. Jalaluddin’s eponymous network welcomed the first generation of Arab foreign fighters to the region during the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Some of al Qaeda’s initial leaders were trained in the Haqqanis’ camps. The Haqqani Network has maintained close relations with al Qaeda in the decades since. Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound show that al Qaeda’s men continued to cooperate with Sirajuddin in Afghanistan years after the U.S.-led war began.
Sirajuddin was named the Taliban’s No. 2 in 2015. With his assumption to that role, the Haqqanis consolidated their power in the Taliban’s hierarchy. Sirajuddin has broad military responsibilities, meaning the Haqqanis are well-positioned to expand their influence across Afghanistan after the U.S. and its allies leave.
More than a generation after the Haqqanis first embraced bin Laden, there is no hint that they are willing to break with al Qaeda or renounce global jihad.
In December 2016, the Haqqanis’ media arm released a lengthy video celebrating the unbroken bond between the Taliban and al Qaeda. After the Taliban announced Jalaluddin’s death last year, al Qaeda issued a glowing eulogy, emphasizing the elderly Haqqani’s brotherhood with bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s central leadership said it took “solace in the fact” that Sirajuddin was now “deputy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Emir of the Faithful,” describing both Sirajuddin and Akhundzada as “our emirs.” The Taliban’s own video eulogy for Jalaluddin featured commentary from jihadists in Syria, including an al Qaeda-linked cleric from Saudi Arabia who has been designated as a terrorist by the U.S.
Sirajuddin himself is an internationally wanted terrorist, with a $10 million bounty on his head. The U.S. and the United Nations have sanctioned the Haqqani Network and multiple members of the group. These legal measures are backed by abundant evidence. Not only have the Haqqanis conducted some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, they have also harbored al Qaeda’s internationally-focused operatives along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The U.S. and its allies have traced a series of global terror plots to the Haqqanis’ strongholds in northern Pakistan.
Fourth, and finally, any agreement has to take into account the many al Qaeda and al Qaeda-linked fighters embedded within the Taliban-led insurgency.
In 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which operates throughout South Asia. AQIS’s first major terrorist plot was an attempted hijacking of two Pakistani frigates. The jihadists intended to fire the ships’ missiles at Indian and American naval vessels, possibly sparking an even more deadly international conflict. The plot was thwarted by Pakistani officials, but only after AQIS came close to taking control of the ships.
While AQIS’s audacious terror schemes remain a concern, the group’s primary mission is to help the Taliban resurrect its Islamic Emirate. AQIS has made this clear in its “code of conduct,” which stresses AQIS’s loyalty first to Zawahiri and then to Akhundzada. AQIS retains a significant footprint in Afghanistan. In 2015, for instance, American and Afghan forces raided two large AQIS training camps in the Shorabak district of the southern Kandahar province. U.S. military officials revealed that one of the camps was nearly 30 square-miles in size, making it the largest al Qaeda training facility discovered post-9/11. The Shorabak camps were hosted by the Taliban and intelligence recovered in the facilities shows that AQIS’s tentacles stretch from Afghanistan into other nearby countries, including Bangladesh.
AQIS’s leader, Asim Umar, has already declared that America’s defeat in Afghanistan is imminent. In a tract released in April 2017, Umar argued that President Trump’s “America First” policy really meant that the U.S. would “give up the leadership of the world.” Umar exaggerated America’s weakness, but he clearly saw a retreat from Afghanistan as a victory for al Qaeda. Other al Qaeda-linked jihadists, including Central Asian and Uighur groups, are eyeing a post-withdrawal Afghanistan as fertile ground for their jihadist projects as well.
Will Khalilzad’s deal with the Taliban address these al Qaeda-related issues? Or is Khalilzad going to accept the deliberately ambiguous denials the Taliban has issued for years?
The Afghan government has its own reasons to distrust Khalilzad.
But Secretary Pompeo’s diplomats shouldn’t trust the Taliban either.