Asfandyar Mir on the Taliban Harboring al-Qaida Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The 2020 Doha Agreement was meant to force the Taliban to “think twice” before harboring terror groups. But Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing in Kabul shows the deal was “just a piece of paper for the Taliban. They had no qualms about once again hosting the main leader of al-Qaida,” says USIP’s Asfandyar Mir.
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Julie Mason: Dr. Asfandyar Mir is a senior expert in the Asia center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. So, are we calling it al-Qaeda or al-Qaida? I mean, I feel like we need a consensus decision. Dr. Mir, you decide al-Qaeda, al-Qaida.
Asfandyar Mir: I go with al-Qaida. But it's really up to you.
Julie Mason: No, no, no, I'm not the I'm not the Asia expert. Come on.
Asfandyar Mir: I mean al-Qaida exists in many different parts of the world at this point. So, there's lots of pronunciations out there.
Julie Mason: Well, I appreciate you joining me this morning. Such an interesting series of op-eds. And first, I have a few questions like, why was the Taliban giving safe harbor to al-Qaida? What's going on there? I thought they were rivals, traditionally?
Asfandyar Mir: Well, that's a great question and I'd say at the outset, they were not rivals. So, it all starts pre-9/11. The Taliban gave refuge, sanctuary, a safe haven to al-Qaida and its then leader Osama bin Laden who used Afghan territory to plot the 9/11 attacks, and then the 9/11 attacks happened. The United States government post-9/11 gave the Taliban an opportunity to break from al-Qaida, expel the group. The Taliban decided otherwise, and then the United States, of course, decided to take down the regime. Then we got 20 years of war in which al-Qaida, initially, it was clear, stood by the Taliban. The Taliban were also happy to have their support. But over the last decade or so, it started looking like there was something changing in that relationship and some U.S. officials started saying that maybe we can induce a break in this relationship. And so, we got the Doha Accord agreement during the Trump years in the year 2020. And a key part of that was that the Taliban would not host al-Qaida, would distance themselves from the group, and that they will not allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for international terrorists, in particular al-Qaida. Turns out that was just a piece of paper for the Taliban. And they had no qualms about once again hosting the main leader of al-Qaida, who was Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Julie Mason: Well, and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan has been disastrous. And all the U.S. promises about civil rights, and especially for women, gone, like forgotten, and the people are starving.
Asfandyar Mir: That's right, the humanitarian situation has gone from bad to worse. It's a really terrible situation, the worst crisis in the world, even worse than the humanitarian crisis currently in East Africa. The economy is struggling, the Taliban do not have relationships with any foreign power. No country has recognized them diplomatically. So, they're having a really hard time getting any kind of international aid as well. Of course, the human rights situation continues to get worse. Teenage schoolgirls are not allowed to go back to school. The Taliban have multiple times said that they will make that happen, but they are not allowing girls to go back to school.
Julie Mason: Well, I mean, I feel like just symbolically like need look no further than there was like, you know, a Department for the Advancement of Women. I don't know the exact title. Now it's been taken over by the religious police that are enforcing like virtue and chastity and burkas.
Asfandyar Mir: That's right, they have a ministry called the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. And it is an incredibly powerful ministry, more powerful than many other ministries in Kabul, and they have growing powers. And there is a concern that we may not have seen the worst yet, and that the Taliban want to roll out even more restrictive social policies down the road.
Julie Mason: You write in The Washington Post that the Biden administration clearly misjudged al-Qaida's trajectory in Afghanistan and U.S. influence over the Taliban. How did that happen?
Asfandyar Mir: I think the administration, and much like the previous administration, was keen on turning a page on this conflict in Afghanistan. And there were views, different views on where al-Qaida was at, what the nature of the al-Qaida Taliban relationship was. And part of it stemmed from just lack of information. We have heard…we haven't heard a whole lot about al-Qaida, at least not in the same way as say, some years ago. Ultimately, the administration chose the interpretation that al-Qaida was largely degraded, it was irrelevant, that the Taliban had faced enough costs that they would think twice before hosting this group and this group's top leadership in, say, downtown Kabul, and that didn't happen. It appears that the Taliban remain very committed to their old allies and friends, you know, and al-Qaida.
Julie Mason: So, the U.S. decapitates al-Qaida, and now what happens, I mean, we saw the U.S. decapitated ISIS, and they just broke up, they just busted an ISIS ring in Delhi, of all places. So, you know, these organizations, they continue.
Asfandyar Mir: So, al-Qaida is doggedly persistent, and it has found ways to be resilient in the face of immense American targeting pressures. So, my sense is that they will be able to manage the leadership transition that they're facing, and they will be able to appoint a new leader, and then really stay in the fight against the United States. Before his killing, al-Zawahiri was telling his organization at various nodes and affiliates to really prioritize fighting the United States. There is a suggestion by the administration that perhaps he was telling them things which can amount to some type of plotting. So, there is a real threat to the U.S. homeland, as well. And then al-Qaida has various regional affiliates. It has a presence in the Middle East. It has a presence in multiple places in Africa. So, all of that is in addition to al-Qaida's relationship with the Taliban. So, al-Qaida remains in a position to pose a threat to regional security in critical parts of the world as well.
Julie Mason: Dr. Asfandyar Mir is a senior expert in the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Mir, thank you so much for your time this morning.
Asfandyar Mir: Thanks for having me.
Julie Mason: Good to talk.