Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Taliban’s Complicated Relationship With Jihadists
- Taliban’s continued sympathy for jihadists may destabilize a fraught security situation for Pakistan.
Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed in Afghanistan recently. Zawahiri was notorious for his role in Al-Qaeda as he planned 9/11 with Osama Bin Laden. But while others celebrated his death, some were disturbed. Zawahiri’s presence was in direct violation of the Doha agreement between the Taliban and the U.S.
The agreement was contingent on the Taliban keeping Afghanistan free from any jihadist presence. Yet, Zawahiri was living in the same house as a senior Taliban member. The presence of Zawahiri has revamped fears that Afghanistan could revert back to being a jihadist hotbed.
Today, Afghanistan is under the iron fist of the Taliban who have established order by creating a new Islamic Emirate. Under this Emirate, everyone abides by Sharia law. To the Taliban’s credit, Afghanistan has not become a hotbed for jihadist activity. At the moment, ISIS and Al-Qaeda have a small presence in the country, but they are not strong enough to plan any major attacks.
However, the Taliban still sympathize with jihadists. The worrying part of Zawahiri’s death was his presence in the house of a high-ranking Taliban official. If senior members of the Taliban still hold deep sympathies with jihadists, then it is very likely that Afghanistan could revert to its pre-9/11 state. But this does not line up with the facts.
First, the Taliban have sympathies with a very weak group, Al-Qaeda. After the death of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda has become irrelevant. While its affiliates have spread to Africa and parts of Asia, their lure is not enough to launch major attacks. After all, the Taliban need foreign assistance in running a country that has essentially been a pariah state since 2021. If jihadists do come back to Afghanistan, it will limit the Taliban’s ability to look legitimate.
Secondly, the Taliban already has its hands full with jihadists. In recent months, the Taliban and ISIS have been embroiled in a civil war. While the Taliban are still in control, ISIS has launched numerous attacks on mosques and cities killing scores. Since ISIS is a sworn enemy of Al-Qaeda, it is highly likely that a jihadist civil war will ensue if Al-Qaeda gains a large presence. It is in the Taliban’s best interest to keep Afghanistan free from any large jihadist presence.
The Taliban’s sympathy for jihadists is not significant enough to alarm the West. But it is enough to set off alarms in Pakistan. For years, Pakistan aided the Taliban’s war against the U.S. But the Taliban have been giving Pakistan the cold shoulder when it comes to dealing with the TTP.
The TTP and Pakistan
For almost a decade, the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) waged a brutal jihadist war in Pakistan killing scores of civilians and soldiers. The group seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan. They gained notoriety in 2014 after attacking a Peshawar school that killed 100 children. They were rooted out of Pakistan between 2015 and 2017 by the Pakistani military and have been hiding in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.
After the U.S. withdrawal, the TTP have resurfaced. Their attacks on Pakistani military outposts have increased by 42%, according to the Pakistani Institute of Peace. Overall, TTP attacks have gone up by nearly 84% (Source: Pakistani Institute of Peace). Since the withdrawal, the United Nations estimates that nearly 5,000 TTP fighters have regrouped in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government wants the Taliban to cease its support for the TTP, but that will not happen. The Taliban have strong sympathies with the TTP. Both groups had fought the U.S. in Afghanistan and share the same jihadist ideology. Many members of the Taliban support the TTP and breaking off the alliance would anger many. It is highly likely that the Taliban will continue to ignore Pakistan’s demands.
The good news for Pakistan is that the TTP is not strong enough yet. At the moment they are mainly launching cross-border attacks and are targeting small civilian targets. They are yet to carry out large attacks in major urban areas such as Karachi or Islamabad. For now, the Pakistani government must continue its dialogue with the TTP to avert a war. The negotiations with the TTP are yet to deliver any results, but dialogue is the best option for Pakistan.
But Pakistan may have already shot itself in the foot. Earlier in the year, Pakistan launched cross-border airstrikes against the TTP that ended up killing 44 civilians. This airstrike angered the Taliban and increased anti-Pakistan sentiment. Just recently, 3 TTP commanders were assassinated in Afghanistan potentially derailing peace talks.
Essentially, Pakistan must not anger the Taliban or strengthen any anti-Pakistan sentiment otherwise another jihadist war could be on the horizon.
Rohan Kumar is a senior at UC Riverside studying International Affairs. His focus is on Russian foreign policy and South Asian security affairs. He aspires to join the U.S. State Department. In his free time, he watches European soccer (football) and reads the Economist.