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UN report on growing Taliban-Al Qaeda-ISIS nexus in Afghanistan-Pakistan region: Implications

A worrisome dimension of Al Qaeda’s strengthening of relations with the Taliban has been confirmed by the 18-member UN Monitoring Team. The report observes that not only the two outfits remain closely aligned but their relationship has ‘grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in the struggle, now cemented through the second generational ties’. Several top commanders of the Al Qaeda continue to be given shelter and protection by the Taliban.

Assessing the geographical reach of the Al Qaeda, the report points out that it is mainly in 15 districts in east, southern and southern-eastern, and are led by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat-al-Nusra wing under the direction of Sheikh Mahmood. It is also known by other names as well viz. the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Al-Qaeda in Syria or Al-Qaeda in the Levant. This faction is a Salafist jihadist organization fighting against Syrian government forces in the Syrian Civil War with the aim to establish an Islamic state in the country.

Another disquieting aspect brought out by this report is that the above-mentioned faction is also maintaining close links with the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The report brings out that the core of the Al Qaeda remains in the bordering region of Afghanistan with Pakistan and works closely with AQIS. The AQIS has cadres mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan with some from India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It was earlier led by late Asim Umar and is now headed by Osama Mehmood. Asim Umar belonged to a respectable family in UP with his great grand-father being the District Magistrate during the colonial period.
The group is reported to be organically linked with Taliban and it is difficult to separate them from the Taliban allies. The report gives three important pieces of evidence to indicate their nexus. First, it pointed out that the wife of the former leader of AQIS, Asim Umar, was among 5,000 Taliban prisoners freed by the Afghan Government in 2020 as part of the Doha agreement. Second, several Al Qaeda cadres were also reported to have been killed in the attacks launched by US led operations. Third, that the AQIS operates under the Taliban umbrella from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz Provinces.

The Taliban use Haqqani’s faction to deal with Al Qaeda according to the report. Crucially the report mentions that the Taliban is increasing its grip over the Al Qaeda and is keeping a strict watch on the foreign terrorists in the outfit.

According to the report, the immediate objective of the Al Qaeda is to ensure safe heavens in Afghanistan under the new dispensation and therefore they are deliberately lying low as a part of ‘strategic patience’. The Al Qaeda does not wish to let others know about its linkages with the Taliban as that could jeopardise the diplomatic position of the Taliban under the Doha agreement. The report also points out the presence of Al Zawahiri in the region. Al Zawahiri in the past had often raised the Kashmir Issue. In 2019, in a speech, he brought to light Pakistan’s involvement in fuelling the cross-border terrorism in a message titled “Don’t forget Kashmir”. He had exhorted the mujahideen to ‘inflict unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and J&K government’.

While Taliban have assured the US that it would not allow the Al Qaeda to operate from Afghanistan to attack the US targets, the report expresses it doubts if the Taliban could live up to their commitment. Given the close links and continued attacks on the Afghan National Forces, such a suspicion is bound to be there.
Importantly, the report provides the larger picture of the role of ISIL. It says that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K)’s regional strategy is to coordinate the activities of all insurgent groups. It covers the Khorasan region of Central and South Asia (including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Central Asian Republics). Since June 2020, ISIL-K has had an ambitious new leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, who is not listed, and it remains active and dangerous. There is a distinct possibility that it can recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants to swell its ranks and pose a serious security challenge in the region.

A related aspect is the role of Pakistan in the continuation of violence. The Afghan National government leaders have often accused Pakistan for the continuation of bloodshed. Last month, the Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib in a public speech at Nangahar province at the border of Pakistan not only alleged the Pak role in the continuing attacks by the Taliban at the Afghan National Forces and other targets, but called Pakistan a ‘brothel house’. His remarks outraged leaders in Islamabad, who denounced him.

Pak PM Imran Khan is assiduously trying to remove the impression that Pak has any hand in it. Khan said Pakistan would suffer the most, after Afghanistan itself, if there was civil war and a refugee crisis, while pointing out that after the US has indicated its decision to withdraw its forces by Sept 11, it is not easy to get concessions from the Taliban. He stated: “There is a lot of fear right now in Pakistan and I assure you that we are trying our level best that there is some sort of political settlement before the Americans leave.” However, impression in Kabul remains unchanged over the Pak support to the Taliban.

Overall, the situation remains extremely menacing and volatile with the violence level increasing continuously. The report points that failure to arrive at an agreement to form a strong and stable government, could spur the growth of ISIL and Al Qaeda in different parts of the world. The report also observed the concerns of member states about the rising number of ISIL sympathisers in cyber space. This aspect requires a greater focus in view of systematic misuse of social media platforms by adversaries to incite the targets sections and recruit them for causing communal violence. For India, the growing nexus between the different outfits has a serious security implication.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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