By Eleanor Beevor
This week, Al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri released a five-minute video message, urging the Muslim world to unite behind the Afghan Taliban. It was imperative to do this, he said, in order to counter “an international infidel alliance”. The way to counter that alliance was to build up a new caliphate, with the Taliban’s Emirate as its cornerstone, and its model of governance.
Analysts remarked that the video’s timing was significant – it was put out a day after ISIS released an audio file supposedly featuring the words of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first for almost a year. True, Al Qaeda is forever hoping to one-up ISIS, its progeny-turned-enemy. Zawahiri made some thinly-veiled swipes at ISIS in the new video. He lamented that the last caliphate had fallen during the First World War, thus dismissing ISIS’s claims to have built one.
But the video primarily focuses on the Taliban, and it is their attention that Zawahiri wants. For the future of Afghanistan is at a turning point. The Taliban now have the choice between peace and war. And peace could lose Al Qaeda its oldest, and strongest ally. The end of war with the Taliban is not imminent, but it is, after seventeen long and painful years, looking possible. Now, Al Qaeda is going to exercise all its influence to stop that happening.
During ISIS’s heyday, it was tempting to regard Al Qaeda as something of a spent entity. Zawahiri’s videoed lectures struggled to get any media attention when ISIS was producing its horrifying snuff films. But we would be wrong to think Al Qaeda has gone away. Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book “Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History”, told Al Bawaba:
"Both Al Qaeda and ISIS favor an Islamic emirate but have competing visions for achieving it. The main difference in their approach is over the optimal level of extremeness. Al Qaeda Central leadership believes that a certain measure of restraint is advantageous. What my research shows is that restraint pays. Unlike Baghdadi, Zawahiri recognizes the strategic perils of attacking civilians, and certainly doesn't brag about indiscriminate killing over social media.
This comparatively moderate approach helps militant groups gain supporters both locally and internationally, putting them in a better position to achieve their political goals. The international community should worry about Al Qaeda, ironically because it has learned the strategic value of restraint."
Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Al Qaeda has played the long game, and it has thrown its weight behind its relationship with the Taliban. Al Qaeda never gave up on the idea of a caliphate, but the group’s leadership firmly believed that popular will was essential for building one. And the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, in their eyes, was the best model with which to persuade people of the need for a caliphate – proof that hardline Islamist governance could work.
An Afghan peace activist arriving in Kabul on June 18 after marching from hundreds of kilometres from Helmand province, shouts a slogan demanding an end to the war. Wakil Kohsar / AFP Photo
The Taliban’s claim to “popular support” is certainly tenuous. But the group is not without supporters. And thus until now, Al Qaeda was happy to bide its time and pin its cause to the Taliban’s fortunes. It seems that the two groups’ relationship largely endured seventeen long years of war. A recent UN report argued that Al Qaeda leadership, and its broader South Asia branch Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) maintains a strong relationship with the Taliban leadership. Zawahiri has not only pledged allegiance to every Taliban leader since the late Mullah Omar – he has marketed his fealty to them.
Professor Bruce Hoffman, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Al Qaeda told Al Bawaba that we could see a resurgence of Al Qaeda’s profile if the Taliban keeps gathering strength in Afghanistan.
“Al Qaeda has always been pathologically obsessed with maintaining – and, after it was destroyed in 2001 – recreating the perfect Islamist ruled entity that they considered Mullah Omar’s rule of Afghanistan.”
Al Qaeda will also continue to push the idea of a caliphate, particularly now that ISIS’s influence is waning. Professor Hoffman continued:
“From its inception, Al Qaeda always sought to re-establish the caliphate. Indeed, this was a focus of Osama Bin Laden’s renewed declaration of war on the US that he made on October 11th2001, the day after the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom commenced. Al Qaeda’s commitment to this desideratum was re-affirmed in the Seven Stage Path Strategy crafted by Saif al-Adl in 2005, that Al Qaeda has since embraced.”
It is unsurprising then that Zawahiri, following in Bin Laden’s footsteps, effectively pinned his group’s fortunes to those of the Taliban. Al Qaeda gleefully watched the Taliban grow in strength after the American withdrawal, hoping their time had come again. But then discussions of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government started to look like a real possibility. And if peace does happen, Al Qaeda leadership’s seventeen-year bet on the Taliban could prove a disastrous mistake.
Traction for negotiations with the Taliban grew in large part because the Afghan people are making their demands for peace heard. Vast “peace marches” involving thousands of brave Afghan citizens have made the world draw breath, and shown the feared Taliban that they cannot make any claim to popular rule if they don’t take a peace process seriously. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has put several ceasefires on the table, which for the large part have held. Washington backs the possibility of negotiation, and American envoys met Taliban officials in Qatar last month.
Still, this is a bumpy and uncertain road to peace, which has taken some very grim turns. The Taliban now control more territory than at any point since 2001. Whilst they do appear serious about peace talks, they are making clear to the government that they can do serious damage to the country if they don’t get their way in negotiations. The four-day attack on the city of Ghanzi earlier in August by Taliban fighters left 320 dead. But while the attack was ongoing, the Taliban continued to declare their support for negotiations. Simply, the Taliban see fighting as integral to boosting their position in upcoming talks, and are not about to stop just yet.
And now, Al Qaeda is also making clear that it wants and expects the Taliban’s ongoing loyalty. If it gets that, peace could well be off the table. Professor David Schanzer, a Professor of Public Policy and a terrorism researcher at Duke University told Al Bawaba:
“The purpose of this statement by Zawahiri appears to be to put pressure on the Taliban to continue the fight and not engage in peace talks with the United States. Zawahiri knows that any agreement by the US would require the Taliban to disassociate with al Qaeda. He is highlighting the importance of the Taliban’s so called “emirate” to motivate the global extremist community to pressure the Taliban to keep fighting rather than engage in any peace talks.”
It is at this junction between war and peace in Afghanistan that Al Qaeda will push its agenda. If the Taliban disavow it, Al Qaeda’s future is in trouble. But right now, it could have the power to disrupt chances for peace. We will thus see a lot more of the group as it tries to take advantage of this window, and spoil any peace process. What the Taliban will do is still unclear. But meanwhile, Afghans keep marching.
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