The active coordination between the two groups has continued to this day, despite the Taliban’s commitment to sever ties as a condition of the peace deal, according to U.N. and Afghan officials and current and former Taliban members. U.S. officials see the Taliban’s pledge as essential to preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for groups with aims of attacking the United States.
Since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, al-Qaeda has become more active in Afghanistan, communicating more frequently with Taliban leaders and traveling around the country to rally support among sympathetic local Taliban leadership, according to an Afghan security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The ongoing coordination is a reflection of the deep bonds that were forged decades ago over a shared ultrareligious Islamist ideology and al-Qaeda’s early support for a fledgling Taliban.
“It’s a bond that cannot be broken,” Hanafi said.
Of the two groups, the Taliban is by far the larger and more powerful in Afghanistan. Estimates of the group’s fighting force range from 55,000 to 85,000, according to a recent U.N. report. Though there may be thousands of al-Qaeda fighters worldwide, only 400 to 600 are estimated to be in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon warns that while al-Qaeda currently poses a “limited threat” to the United States in Afghanistan, the group is resilient and its interest in attacking U.S. and Western targets “persists.” And while the group may be diminished in Afghanistan, it’s growing in strength in other parts of the world, particularly North Africa and the Sahel region.
The U.S. war in Afghanistan was launched in response to al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Taliban’s refusal to hand over the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Now, as peace talks in Doha, Qatar, show signs of progress and the United States pushes forward with an accelerated troop withdrawal, U.S. officials have been vague when pressed to respond to questions about ties between the two groups.
The special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the Taliban has “taken additional steps to comply with the agreement” in the past three months but that the group still has “work to do before they satisfy their commitments.” He declined to discuss the specific steps the Taliban has taken.
Taliban leaders have rejected the claims of continued links to al-Qaeda, but official Taliban spokesmen have been reluctant to directly address the issue.
“We are fully committed to the Doha deal,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in response to questions about links to al-Qaeda. “We will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against the United States and its allies.”
Another senior Taliban member put a finer point on the group’s stance, saying al-Qaeda fighters might be allowed to live as “refugees” in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan but “they would not be allowed to carry out their activities.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Afghan officials dispute the characterization that al-Qaeda members are living as “peaceful refugees.” They say al-Qaeda members are fighting alongside the Taliban and are involved in training, according to statements from the National Security Council and Afghanistan’s top intelligence agency.
Those assessments are supported by the U.N. monitoring team focusing on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Edmund Fitton-Brown, the team’s coordinator, said his group has evidence of al-Qaeda fighters training and advising the Taliban. Al-Qaeda members are often embedded in Taliban units to act as military advisers for key operations, he said.
Last month, Afghanistan’s top spy agency announced that a senior al-Qaeda member was killed in a Taliban-controlled district in western Afghanistan. The National Directorate of Security said in a statement that the al-Qaeda member “had close ties with the Taliban terrorist group. He helped and trained them in planting explosive materials, making car bombs and other types of makeshift mines.”
In October, the intelligence agency announced the killing of another senior al-Qaeda member, Abu Muhsin al-Masri, during an operation in Taliban territory in Ghazni province. Masri was on the FBI’s most-wanted list for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals.
The Afghan security official said Masri was a key member of al-Qaeda’s finance operations in Afghanistan and was in Ghazni to reassure local Taliban leaders that al-Qaeda would continue to provide them funds and support regardless of what the group’s leadership in Doha says about cutting ties.
It was ultrareligious Islamic ideology during the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan that brought together al-Qaeda and fighters who would later make up the Taliban. Al-Qaeda was an experienced militant group with an established global brand when the Taliban was in its infancy in the 1990s. While many factors and sources of support would help bring about the Taliban’s eventual success as a national force, al-Qaeda provided early training, fundraising and supplies that many Taliban members saw as critical.
“The Taliban had nothing at that time. All the professionalism in fighting and all the equipment, that came from al-Qaeda,” said a former al-Qaeda member in Afghanistan who is now a local Taliban leader. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by Taliban leadership to speak to journalists.
The Taliban was “not acquainted with the methods of fighting,” he said. “Al-Qaeda had already spent 13 years fighting in Afghanistan [against the Soviet Union]. They knew the geography of Afghanistan and they knew combat.”
Over the past two decades, the al-Qaeda-Taliban relationship has gone through periods of intense strain and the organizations themselves have changed dramatically.
The strength of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been significantly diminished by a punishing U.S. air campaign targeting the group’s leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, is emerging from war with the United States battle-hardened and ascendant. In particular, the Doha deal calling for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was seen by many within the Taliban as a declaration of victory.
With the shifts in fortunes of the two groups, their relationship has also changed.
The partnership now is based on “growing up together and sharing common adversity and remaining committed friends and allies,” said Fitton-Brown, the U.N. official. “It’s not that the Taliban desperately needs al-Qaeda. It’s that there’s still a strong sense of commitment for many Talibs.”
Since the signing of the Doha agreement, the Taliban has taken steps to distance itself from al-Qaeda, said the former al-Qaeda member who is now a local Taliban leader. He said all financial and military support from al-Qaeda to the Taliban was halted, but he conceded that cutting ties completely would be difficult and probably protracted.
“They will at least need two to three years [to completely sever ties]” and clear al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan, he said.
But it is unclear whether severing ties completely is possible under Islamic law or the tribal code of conduct that the Taliban adheres to. Al-Qaeda members swear allegiance to the Taliban’s leader, and they are considered guests of the Taliban, a status that commands deep respect within the movement.
As peace talks in Doha progress, the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is likely to come under intense strain once more. If the talks succeed, the Taliban will be on the path to assuming formal power in Afghanistan.
“If the Taliban want to become a legitimate power in an Afghan state, a power recognized by more than three countries around the world, then they’re going to need to show the world that they take global counterterrorism concerns seriously,” said Andrew Watkins, the senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Watkins said that could require Taliban leadership to take concrete action on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or reach an accommodation that appeases both the international community and Taliban members who continue to feel indebted to al-Qaeda for the group’s help during the early years.
“It’s a real problem,” Watkins said, “and I’m not sure that Taliban leadership have even figured out what that compromise could look like.”
Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan in Kabul, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Souad Mekhennet in Washington contributed to this report.