The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is understood by everyone as a human tragedy and as a foreign policy disaster for the Biden administration. Still up for debate is the extent to which this will become a longer-term foreign policy challenge for the United States and the world. According to President Biden, for instance, there are no al Qaeda in Afghanistan—so there should be no threat to the United States. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” he asked on Friday. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did.”
Key to the claim that al Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan is how we understand and frame the Taliban. If we decide (as the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations did) that the Taliban are local insurgents who just want their positions of power back; who basically haven’t changed since the 1990s; who are full of different competing factions held together only by this fight; and who are completely distinct from al Qaeda and other global “terrorists,” then we should have a policy that riffs off the 1990s—with perhaps sharper sanctions to help shape better treatment of women and vulnerable populations.
Just as importantly, criticism of the Biden administration should focus not on erroneous underlying principles and therefore questions of “should we have stayed or not,” but solely on its botched handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
All of these framings and therefore our policies hinge on our understanding of the Taliban and the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Based on their belief that there was significant distance between al Qaeda and the Taliban, President Biden and his two immediate predecessors pursued negotiations to push the Taliban to give up their “guests” and not allow al Qaeda to use Afghan territory to carry out attacks against the United States. Every discussion came down to this simple demand (or perhaps plea).
The first sign we might have misunderstood their relationship was that every leader of the Taliban has refused to repudiate al Qaeda. Mullah Omar lost a country because of his intransigence on this point. Other Taliban leaders have simply lied and continued their support for al Qaeda despite promising to give them up.
There were other signs we did not understand the Taliban. Mullah Omar allowed multiple foreign terrorist groups to create training camps in Afghanistan—not just al Qaeda. Zarqawi (later head of al Qaeda in Iraq) had his own terrorist group during the 1990s and was given permission to create a training camp in Omar’s Afghanistan. And he was not alone. There were training camps for Kashmiri terrorists, Moroccan jihadists, Tunisian jihadists, Libyan jihadists, and many, many more.
Strange behavior for a movement that has consistently said they have no “global” ambitions.
Then there’s the fact that every leader of al Qaeda has stated they are part of the Taliban; not “guests,” but made men in the Taliban with oaths of fealty (bay’at) to the head of the Taliban; oaths that al Qaeda’s leaders hold to be legally and religiously binding. These oaths bind the swearer into a hierarchical relationship with a commander that one must “hear and obey.” Based on the legal machinations of the Egyptian leader of Islamic Jihad, ‘Abd al-Qadir bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, this creates a chain of command within jihadist fighting groups in general and al Qaeda in particular.
That al Qaeda takes these oaths very seriously indeed can be seen in their conflict with ISIS. The main argument al Qaeda had with ISIS was that the wayward group failed to keep their oaths to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and were therefore legally liable as traitors in this world and damned to hell in the next. This interview with a sharia official in Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al Qaeda in Sham (i.e., greater Syria), is especially telling. Here we have an “affiliate” of al Qaeda saying that these oaths are absolutely binding and must be obeyed or the traitor will suffer the consequences.
On the Taliban specifically, thanks to the treasure troves captured after the Taliban regime fell in 2001 and after bin Ladin’s death in Abbottabad in 2011, we have the internal documents from al Qaeda on their bay’at with the Taliban leadership. They decided that there was no way out of it; they were part of the Taliban and had to submit to Mullah Omar’s orders. When it was revealed in 2015 that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years, Zawahiri immediately swore an oath of fealty to the new head of the Taliban, Akhtar Mansur. And when Mansur was killed by a drone strike, Zawahiri swore bay’at to the current head of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada.
The close organizational relationship between the two groups is best shown by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is both the first deputy of the Taliban (that is, next in line for the throne) and a sworn member of al Qaeda. Sirajuddin is, according to U.S. military intelligence, a member of al Qaeda’s military council. Since only sworn members of al Qaeda can belong to their ruling councils, he must have sworn bay’at to Zawahiri. The U.N. agrees with this characterization of Sirajuddin describing him in a recent report as part of al Qaeda’s leadership.
But what about the two groups’ agendas? It might be true that the Taliban and al Qaeda are organizationally tight, but the Taliban have repeatedly averred that they only want their country back and will not allow their territory to be used to carry out “international strikes.” There is a good deal of evidence to refute this statement, but perhaps most importantly, the Taliban have adopted al Qaeda’s ‘aqida (ideology).
The Taliban formerly drew on the principles of the nineteenth-century Deobandi movement of Hanafi Sunni Islam. While some Taliban still claim to follow those principles, in fact the group’s leadership adopted the fundamental principles of al Qaeda’s religious sect, jihadi-Salafism, and maintains very little from their Deobandi past. The Taliban decision to engage in suicide bombing for instance, publicly condemned by the leaders of the Deobandis, was a clear sign of their adherence to al Qaeda’s sharia rulings rather than that of their original belief system. More importantly, they have adopted al Qaeda’s version of tawhid, the core of Islam, a version that argues Islam is incompatible with democracy and that anyone who fails to agree with jihadi-Salafist views of tawhid must be fought and killed. Jihadi-Salafism is also global in nature, advocating for, preparing for, and attempting to realize the conquest of the entire world. When a Taliban commander echoes this commitment, it is not incidental to the problem: it is the entire problem in a nutshell.
If all this is true, then it is delusional to believe that it was ever possible to separate these two groups. Structurally, ideologically, and methodologically (militarily) they are one organization with one commander—Haibatullah Akhundzada—who has claimed for himself, as all the leaders of the Taliban have claimed, the title of Amir al-Mu’minin—that is, Caliph of all Muslims.
By leaving Afghanistan, we have empowered al Qaeda but perhaps just as importantly, we have empowered the Taliban, a movement that we never really understood.