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Why the Taliban Won’t Quit al Qaeda

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21.09.2021

What happens to the country and its people after the forever war ends?

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The stunning Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has left many Americans wondering whether al Qaeda will make a resurgence in the country. Several recent analyses have argued that the Taliban’s self-interest in preserving power will prevent this from happening. This is not a new line of thinking: Over the last 20 years, many scholars and policymakers believed that since the Taliban “are not idiots,” they could be trusted to avoid their past mistakes and instead contain al Qaeda. After conducting a grueling insurgency, the argument goes, it simply wouldn’t make sense for the Taliban to risk losing power for harboring anti-U.S. al Qaeda terrorists again, as was the case in 2001.

But this logic overlooks the long, complex, and dynamic nature of the al Qaeda-Taliban partnership. The Taliban have never broken ties with al Qaeda, despite significant pressure to do so—not because they are stupid but because their relationship to the terrorist group offers meaningful benefits as they navigate a highly complex political environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that they’re in power, it’s unlikely the Taliban will—or even can—contain al Qaeda.

Although political and military dynamics in Afghanistan have shifted dramatically since 2001, the Taliban’s past offers clues to what lies ahead.

The stunning Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has left many Americans wondering whether al Qaeda will make a resurgence in the country. Several recent analyses have argued that the Taliban’s self-interest in preserving power will prevent this from happening. This is not a new line of thinking: Over the last 20 years, many scholars and policymakers believed that since the Taliban “are not idiots,” they could be trusted to avoid their past mistakes and instead contain al Qaeda. After conducting a grueling insurgency, the argument goes, it simply wouldn’t make sense for the Taliban to risk losing power for harboring anti-U.S. al Qaeda terrorists again, as was the case in 2001.

But this logic overlooks the long, complex, and dynamic nature of the al Qaeda-Taliban partnership. The Taliban have never broken ties with al Qaeda, despite significant pressure to do so—not because they are stupid but because their relationship to the terrorist group offers meaningful benefits as they navigate a highly complex political environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that they’re in power, it’s unlikely the Taliban will—or even can—contain al Qaeda.

Although political and military dynamics in Afghanistan have shifted dramatically since 2001, the Taliban’s past offers clues to what lies ahead.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States pressed the Taliban to extradite al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, especially following al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Taliban leaders issued false promises that they were containing al Qaeda and that there was no threat to the United States.

But U.S. intelligence agencies issued repeated warnings to the contrary, and Washington’s messages to the Taliban and Pakistan became sharper. “If we are attacked, we will hold the Taliban........

© Foreign Policy


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