Pakistan Sponsored Terror Next Door. Now, It’s Back to Roost

Afghans rue the return of the Taliban. So does Pakistan, as al Qaeda-linked militants run rampant.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Armed militants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan pose for photographs.
Armed militants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan pose for photographs.
Armed militants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan pose for photographs next to a captured armored vehicle in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Landi Kotal on Nov. 10, 2008, after they hijacked supply trucks bound for Afghanistan. QAZI RAUF/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations Security Council has confirmed the resurgence of al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that is closely tied to the Taliban and is using their return to power in Afghanistan to find safe haven, attract recruits, and boost fundraising for their never-ending jihad.

Al Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden in 2011, and other core members of the group’s leadership are living in eastern Afghanistan as the Taliban’s guests, a report by the U.N. Security Council notes. The U.N. report says Zawahiri is churning out propaganda videos, apparently comfortable that he can “lead more effectively” than was possible before last year’s Taliban victory over the United States.

The biggest loser of the Taliban’s resurgence, other than the Afghan people, is perhaps Pakistan. The U.N. report throws a harsh spotlight on Pakistan’s dilemma as it struggles with an insurgency on its own soil after 20 years of supporting the Taliban’s war over the border in Afghanistan. The growing militant threat in Pakistan now comes largely from Afghanistan, where the Taliban are harboring an al Qaeda affiliate that aims to bring down the government in Islamabad.

The United Nations Security Council has confirmed the resurgence of al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that is closely tied to the Taliban and is using their return to power in Afghanistan to find safe haven, attract recruits, and boost fundraising for their never-ending jihad.

Al Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden in 2011, and other core members of the group’s leadership are living in eastern Afghanistan as the Taliban’s guests, a report by the U.N. Security Council notes. The U.N. report says Zawahiri is churning out propaganda videos, apparently comfortable that he can “lead more effectively” than was possible before last year’s Taliban victory over the United States.

The biggest loser of the Taliban’s resurgence, other than the Afghan people, is perhaps Pakistan. The U.N. report throws a harsh spotlight on Pakistan’s dilemma as it struggles with an insurgency on its own soil after 20 years of supporting the Taliban’s war over the border in Afghanistan. The growing militant threat in Pakistan now comes largely from Afghanistan, where the Taliban are harboring an al Qaeda affiliate that aims to bring down the government in Islamabad.

The report says the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has up to 4,000 armed fighters based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and in the past two years has reabsorbed 17 former affiliates. “The group is focused on a long-term campaign against the Pakistani state, suggesting that ceasefire deals have a limited chance of success,” it said, referring to apparent attempts at mediation by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban cabinet minister, sanctioned terrorist, and notorious go-between for violence between the two countries.

The TTP, the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, has repeatedly attacked Pakistan from its new safe havens in eastern Afghanistan since August 2021, drawing airstrikes from Pakistan military and prompting Haqqani to reprise his role as moderator in peace talks between the two sides.

After the death of bin Laden in 2011 and the subsequent killings of al Qaeda leadership in border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda became increasingly indirect in its attacks. Its strength lies in its influence. Footage of an unknown date released in November 2021 shows Zawahiri branding the United Nations and the permanent members of the Security Council as “the biggest criminals on the face of the Earth.”

According to Ali Mohammad Ali, a New York-based researcher and security expert who previously worked with the Afghan government, al Qaeda has changed its strategy from one of “direct confrontation with its perceived enemies to one of enabling proxies like the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, Kashmiri jihadist groups against India, Ansarullah of Tajikistan, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to recruit and wage jihad against states in the region.”

Warnings of the Taliban’s collusion with major jihadi groups also follow a meeting last week of South and Central Asian security officials in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe. Attendees—India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and host Tajikistan—expressed concerns about the Taliban enabling terrorism in their backyard and demanded they include women and represent ethnic and religious diversity in an “inclusive” government.

Even Iran is alarmed. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Shamkhani, called for a joint regional counterterrorism focus after noting “alarming evidence of the presence and involvement of some regional and extra-regional countries in the transfer of terrorists to Afghanistan.”

The foreign minister of Qatar—an old friend of the Taliban who allows the group to have a political office in its capital, Doha, and hosted the failed peace talks ahead of the collapse of the republic—has sounded the alarm about the Islamists’ propensity for extremism and jihad as well as called for urgent engagement to minimize that threat.

Since taking over last summer, the Taliban have failed to install a functioning administration. Due to international sanctions, and universal opprobrium, the economy is in freefall, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis that has plunged more than half the population into poverty and hunger. Women have been forced out of work and into their homes in an echo of the Taliban’s last stint in power, which grew out of civil war and resulted in a failed bid at autarky.

The Security Council’s 13th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team provides a comprehensive update of the situation in Afghanistan since the republic crumbled before an unrelenting military onslaught. The former Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and his closest circle fled, leaving the country to a cohort of drug dealers, kidnappers, and killers who have since invited terrorists from around the world to enjoy their hospitality as thanks for battlefield support.

The report says, “Al-Qaida appears free to pursue its objectives” as long as it does not “embarrass the Taliban or harm their interests.” Those objectives, it says, “are likely to include recruitment, training, fundraising and al-Zawahiri’s video communications. It is assessed that Al-Qaida is focused on reorganizing itself in the short-to-medium term with the ultimate objective of continuing its idea of global jihad.”

Its findings largely back recent warnings from South Asian security experts that the Taliban have again transformed Afghanistan into a black hole where global jihadi groups can abide and thrive. The report lists foreign terrorist groups that have long had a presence in Afghanistan, confirmation the Taliban have no regard for pledges they made on the path to victory.

Now that they’re back, those groups have stayed on and are waiting for the Taliban to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government so they can get on with fighting their own wars with impunity—and with al Qaeda’s ideological and operational support.

“Al-Qaida has used the Taliban’s takeover to attract new recruits and funding and inspire Al-Qaida affiliates globally,” the report says.

“While Al-Qaida is reportedly aware of the need to avoid embarrassing the Taliban, it is noteworthy that when Taliban authorities were pressing to receive humanitarian support from the United Nations, Al-Qaida did not soften its tone regarding the United Nations or its future intentions to mount attacks against Western targets.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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