The Taliban is seeking to dismiss fears that it would provide al-Qaeda with a safe haven in Afghanistan, 20 years after the United States launched a war to crush the extremist network that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
This comes after back-and-forth comments from top U.S. officials in recent days about whether al-Qaeda remains in the country nearly two decades after U.S. airstrikes helped topple the Taliban for its role in sheltering al-Qaeda.
“What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al-Qaeda gone?” President Biden asked last week, justifying the pullout of U.S. troops from the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later said Biden was pointing to al-Qaeda’s capacity to carry out another attack on the scale of the 9/11 strikes. But he acknowledged that “remnants” were still present there.
The withdrawal decision has come under fire after the Taliban swept into Kabul, the capital, last week, seizing control of Afghanistan and ousting the government backed by Washington.
Thousands of people have since flocked to the Kabul airport, which is still under the control of Western forces, desperate for a spot on the packed evacuation flights.
While al-Qaeda may be a shell of its former self in Afghanistan — and the Taliban has pledged to prevent attacks against the United States or its allies from its soil — experts say the groups still have links.
The two showed “no indication of breaking ties,” a United Nations report said in June. It added that al-Qaeda had a presence in at least 15 Afghan provinces, putting the number of fighters at anywhere between several dozen and 500.
Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political bureau, played down celebrations by al-Qaeda sympathizers over the Taliban’s seizure of power. “If someone, whoever it is, congratulates us and the Afghan people on this day,” he asked, “what’s the problem?”
He also denied that Kabul’s security was now in the hands of Khalil Haqqani, who is wanted by Washington for links to al-Qaeda and who, according to some reports, was greeted in Kabul with boisterous cheers in recent days.
In response to a question about the prospect of the Taliban protecting al-Qaeda fighters, including from neighboring Pakistan, Naeem said: “How many times have I said that we will not allow anyone to use the lands of Afghanistan against the security of other nations? … Anyone, anyone, anyone from any country.”
At a news conference Tuesday, the Taliban spokesman said this was not the same Taliban that governed the country from 1996 until 2001. The group made many of the same professions of moderation when it came to power in 1996.