Updated: June 2, 2020 12:42:44 pm
As India considers opening channels of engagement with the Taliban at the persuasion of the United States, a damning new UN report that says the Taliban were in touch with Al Qaeda through the US, and this may complicate Delhi’s options.
The negotiations led to the signing of a deal between the Taliban and US in Doha on February 29 this year. It was signed by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Baradar for the Taliban.
The deal committed the US to reducing the number of American forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days, and withdrawal of all their troops from five military bases. The remaining troops are to be withdrawn in the next nine and a half months. The agreement committed the Taliban to breaking off ties Al Qaeda, preventing them and other groups from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks on the US and its allies. It also committed the Afghan government (without mentioning it by name as the Taliban do not recognise it; the government was not included in the talks) to releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Under the deal, the Taliban committed to “intra-Afghan talks”, while the US said it would work with international partners to remove Taliban from the UNSC sanctions list.
The new 28-page report is from the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which assists the ISIL & Al Qaeda Sanction Committee, set up under UNSC resolution 1267. The team submitted the report to the Committee on April 30. The Committee forwarded it to the UNSC President on May 19. It was publicly released on Monday.
The report details that Al Qaeda and Taliban held meetings through 2019 and in early 2020 – the same period when Khalilzad was holding talks with the Taliban leadership in Doha – “to discuss co-operation related to operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for Al Qaeda members inside Afghanistan.
The Monitoring team says that of six meetings in the last one year, “the most notable” was one in the early months of 2019 that took place in Helmand Province, at which Taliban leaders “reportedly met with Hamza Usama Muhammad bin Laden [son of Osama bin Laden, killed in September 2019] to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al-Qaeda for any price.”
The report also says Al Qaeda leader Aiman Al Zawahiri met with two members of the Haqqani network who consulted him on then ongoing talks between the Taliban and the US. The two have been named as Hafiz Haqqani, and Yahya Haqqani, who is described as the main liaison between the Haqqani network and Al Qaeda. The leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the de facto number 2 in the Taliban hierarchy.
On ISIS-Khorasan, which has claimed many of the recent attacks targeting civilians in Afghanistan, including rhe one at the maternity hospital and before that at the Kabul gurdwara, the Monitoring team which covers the time period from April 2019- April 2020, appears to accept comments by member states that many of the attacks claimed by ISIS-K “demonstrated some degree of ‘involvement, facilitation, or the provision of technical assistance’ by the Haqqani Network. Furthermore, they have stated that ISIL-K “lacked the capability to launch complex attacks in Kabul on its own” while taking responsibility for operations that had, in all likelihood, been carried out by the Haqqani Network.”
While “the tactical autonomy of the Haqqani Network in pursuing Taliban goals enables them to support operations that undemined the control and credibility of the Government of Afghanistans […] operations resulting in civilian casualties allow Taliban deniability whereas ISIL-K is willing to claim responsibility to demonstrate capability and relevance, ” the report says.
The Monitoring Team states that the attacks most likely to have been carried out by ISIS-K are the ones on soft targets such as Hazara Shia, mentioning three such attacks last year, and the one on the Kabul Gurdwara.
The attack on the Sikh temple was the fourth claimed attack in Kabul by ISIL-K in 2020, compared with a total of four such attacks claimed in the entirety of 2019. “Reasons for the recent increase in such attacks are not clear. Despite ISIL-K motivation, no such attacks occurred during the period of the reduction in violence,” the report says.
According to the report, “many of not all” of the objective of the US-Taliban deal will prove challenging, because, fearing a backlash from its fighting force, the Taliban leadership has not adequately conveyed the terms of the deal to the rank and file, who celebrated the agreement, as did the Al Qaeda, as a victory over the United States.
The report mentions how a key Taliban member of the Political Office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Stanekzai explained to the media on February 20 that, as from the end of March, the war between the Taliban and the United States would cease, but made no mention of the Taliban war against Afghan Forces or the Government of Afghanistan. “This message from the Taliban leadership was echoed by Taliban commanders in the field who informed civilian populations that, following the “victory of the Islamic Emirate”, the “Afghan Government would be toppled within three months”.
In a recent media interview, Khalilzad said India must engage with the Taliban. The view is gathering ground in Delhi’s establishment and strategic community. Pakistan played a key role in delivering the Taliban to the US for the negotiations, and is confident of using the group as a proxy in Afghanistan. India, on the other hand, has only watched the developments from the sidelines, with no role in them. The foreign policy establishment in Delhi believes that engaging with the Taliban is the only way out. India has stayed away from the Taliban since 1996, when the group took power in Afghanistan, and engaged with them indirectly only once, during negotiations for the release of hostages from IC 813, after its hijack and landing in Kandahar in 1999.
The UN report, which also notes that the US- Taliban agreement does not take note of the Taliban’s criminal activities including its involvement in the poppy trade, may have an impact on India’s decision, whichever way that goes.
Last week, a three day ceasefire by the Taliban for Eid, and the release of hundreds of prisoners by the Afghan government have raised hopes for “intra-Afghan talks”.
The Afghan envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said last week that the Security Council was supposed to meet and remove 1267 sanctions on the Taliban on May 29 but would not do so as conditions for this had not yet been met, notably the start of the talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government and civil society.
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