General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), questioned the Taliban’s willingness to take action against al Qaeda during an online conference held last week. The U.S. is prepared “to go to zero” troops in Afghanistan, McKenzie told an online forum hosted by the Middle East Institute. But he added: “Can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there?” Only on that condition, the CENTCOM commander claimed, would the U.S. leave no forces behind.
McKenzie went on to question the Taliban’s commitment to its Feb. 29 withdrawal accord with the U.S. “And as of right now…frankly, if you were to ask me my opinion, those conditions have not been fully met,” McKenzie said.
The Taliban is openly opposed to the Islamic State’s Khorasan arm, which rejects the legitimacy of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The two sides have fought each other on multiple occasions. The same is not true of al Qaeda, McKenzie noted.
“It is less clear to me that they [Taliban] will take the same action against Al Qaeda and only time will tell,” McKenzie explained. He pointed to al Qaeda’s presence in eastern Afghanistan and claimed that Ayman al Zawahiri, the group’s global emir, was based there.
The Taliban’s reaction to McKenzie’s comments doesn’t inspire confidence that it “will take” some “action” against al Qaeda.
In a statement posted in Pashto on the Taliban’s Voice of Jihad website, the organization went so far as to claim that al Qaeda doesn’t even have a presence inside Afghanistan. This is obviously false.
“Any Arab or other militant groups under the name of al Qaeda, who were in Afghanistan during the rule of the Islamic Emirate do not exist [here] now,” the Taliban’s Pashto statement reads. “The Islamic Emirate is committed to seeing that the soil of Afghanistan will not be used by anyone, against anyone. Nor will anyone face any threat from Afghanistan.”
In a statement published on the English version of Voice of Jihad, the Taliban didn’t specifically mention al Qaeda. Instead, the group claimed that McKenzie had made the “same baseless accusations” as a recent U.N. expert monitoring team. These allegations “serve no purpose other than to discredit the ongoing [peace] process,” the Taliban’s media men wrote.
Before the Feb. 29 withdrawal was signed, various reports claimed that the Taliban would “renounce” al Qaeda. That still hasn’t happened. Nor is that what the text of the actual agreement says — at least not the terse paper released to the public.
Instead, the Taliban agreed to supposedly prevent al Qaeda or other terrorist groups from launching attacks against the U.S. and its allies from its territory inside Afghanistan. As FDD’s Long War Journal has previously assessed, that is a version of the same assurance the Taliban has issued since the 1990s, when the group first lied about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his men. There is nothing in the publicly available text of the agreement about verification or enforcement mechanisms to ensure the Taliban isn’t lying now.
There are other passages in the agreement that don’t specifically name al Qaeda, but which are supposedly intended to ensure that the Taliban will prevent terrorists who threaten the U.S. and its allies “from recruiting, training, and fundraising.” The Taliban “will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.” Moreover, the Taliban is supposed to “send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct [its] members…not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies.”
To date, FDD’s Long War Journal is not aware of any actions taken by the Taliban against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Instead, the Taliban has denied that al Qaeda or any foreign fighters even operate inside the country. The implication of the Taliban’s response to McKenzie is that al Qaeda hasn’t even had a presence inside Afghanistan since the fall of its Islamic Emirate.
The Taliban’s claims are obviously false.
FDD’s Long War Journal has tracked al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan for well more than a decade. Al Qaeda has maintained an active foothold in Afghanistan despite nearly 19 years of war. Al Qaeda advertises its role in the fighting only occasionally, preferring to fight under the Taliban’s banner and avoid unwanted scrutiny. But there is plenty of evidence concerning al Qaeda’s footprint.
In September 2019, for example, American and Afghan forces killed Asim Umar and some of his top men in a Taliban stronghold in Musa Qala, Helmand. Asim Umar was the first emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which was formed in 2014 to buttress the Taliban’s ranks, among other roles. According to U.S. and Afghan officials, Umar’s courier was also present in Musa Qala and had been running messages back and forth to Zawahiri.
Umar was only the latest senior al Qaeda figure to perish inside Afghanistan during the past several years. So while FDD’s Long War Journal cannot confirm Zawahiri’s presence on the Afghan side of the border, his lieutenants .
Although the U.S. military has consistently underestimated al Qaeda’s network inside Afghanistan, it has found the group’s presence across the country — not just in eastern Afghanistan, as mentioned by McKenzie.
The Taliban has bristled at reporting by the aforementioned U.N. monitoring team, which has also alleged that al Qaeda and AQIS maintain a presence throughout much of Afghanistan. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, U.N.: Taliban “regularly consulted” with Al Qaeda throughout negotiations with U.S.]
Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have vouched for the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances. Pompeo has gone so far as to claim that the Taliban’s men said they would help the U.S. “destroy” al Qaeda in Afghanistan, even though that isn’t in the deal released to the public on Feb. 29.
It’s not clear why U.S. officials think the Taliban will betray al Qaeda now. The claim is especially curious given that the Taliban won’t even admit al Qaeda is fighting inside Afghanistan.
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