By Ali Ahmad
The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations Security Council released a report on the 1st of June on key developments after the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement was signed in February 2020. The report, covering the period between May 2020 and April 2021, highlights the status of Taliban and their connections to Al-Qaeda, the insurgents’ financial resources and the presence of foreign terrorist groups in the region. It describes security threats posed by the Taliban, the insurgents’ revenue structure, and their involvement in criminal activities. According to the report, the relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain strong and there is no indication of ties weakening.
The Trump administration and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha on the 29th of February 2020 to end the longest U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and to pave the way for direct peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The peace deal contains four important elements: In exchange for completing the withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by the 1st May 2021, the Taliban must cut their ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and organizations; start direct peace talks with the Afghan government; prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies; and the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
The Taliban managed to get more than 5,000 of their prisoners released before they started their first meeting with the Afghan government peace delegation on the 12th of September in Doha, followed by several meetings to agree on the code of conduct for the negotiation process over a period of several months. There has not been any tangible progress on the negotiations especially since Biden delayed the withdrawal of troops to September rather than May this year.
On the 14th of April, the U.S. President, Joe Biden promised to complete the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the 11th of September. This takes place 20 years after the U.S.-led international forces toppled the Taliban from power for harboring Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden who was spotted and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on the 2nd of May 2011. The objectives of the U.S. invasion was to deliver justice to bin Laden and to ensure that Afghanistan never becomes a haven for terrorists to attack America and its allies. The Monitoring Team report, however reveals that Al-Qaeda’s strength has not diminished in Afghanistan and still enjoys close relationships with the Taliban.
Taliban as the main threat to Afghanistan peace
The U.S.-Taliban peace agreement had risen the expectations for the reduction of violence and possibly a ceasefire. On the contrary, the Taliban intensified their attacks on the Afghan security forces and civilians. The spike in the number of attacks in 2020 in Afghanistan hit a new record. The UN in Afghanistan has recorded more than 25,000 violent incidents last year – most of which took place after the so-called ‘intra-Afghan’ talks kicked off in September 2020. During the first three months of 2021, another 7,177 security incidents occurred – a 61% increase over the same period in 2020.
According to the UN report, the Taliban have also increased its targeted assassinations throughout Afghanistan by killing journalists, judges, healthcare workers, prosecutors, religious leaders, human rights defenders, prominent Afghan women and government employees. The number of targeted killing increased from 780 in 2019 to 996 in 2020, which is an increase of 28%. During the first quarter of 2021, the wave of assassinations of prominent Afghans continued. The Haqqani Network and other members of Taliban leadership are believed to be behind those killings.
The Taliban leadership councils and its ties with Al-Qaeda
Two councils of Taliban senior leadership known as ‘Quetta Shura’ and ‘Peshawar Shura’ control the majority of the Taliban operations in Afghanistan. Quetta is the capital of Pakistan’s largest province of Baluchistan and Peshawar is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both border Afghanistan. Quetta Shura controls Taliban affairs in 11 provinces in the south, south-west and west, while Peshawar Shura is responsible for 19 provinces. According to the Monitoring Team of the UN, the Quetta Shura has continued to “pursue a diplomatic policy and military strategy to gain leverage for negotiations and raise Taliban’s international profile”.The leadership of both these Shuras are based in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, they “exchange fighters on occasion in order to reinforce their respective operations”, states the report.
The Monitoring Teams of UN Security Council states that the Taliban fighters is estimated to be between 58,000 and 100,000 who are either deployed on the battlefield or on reserve units. Among the Taliban fighters, members of the Haqqani Network are the most skilled in conducting terrorist attacks and operate as an intermediary group between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The network leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani who is also the first deputy leader of the Taliban on military affairs is reported to have the closest ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) as well. The Haqqani Network remains a “hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups.” There is also a collaboration between Haqqani Network and Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) based on personal connections, but the Monitoring Team have not found any hard evidence to verify that relationship.
The connection between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (active in at least 15 provinces) is bonded through inter-marriages and common objectives to oust the U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban have made the commitment in the Doha peace agreement to cut their ties with Al-Qaeda and other regional terrorist groups, but have failed to comply with the Doha agreement. In more than one year since they have signed the peace agreement with the U.S. administration, there is no indication of these ties breaking, as inferred by the report.
The UN report confirms the presence of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan to be between 8,000 and 10,000, mainly comprised of individuals from Central Asia, the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Pakistan and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Some of these foreign terrorists are associated with the Taliban while some support Al-Qaeda,.
Another element in the report is the source of funding and the deep involvement of the Taliban in criminal activities. Based on the report, it is estimated that Taliban earned a staggering amount of between $300 million and $1.6 billion annually from criminal activities that include drug trafficking, opium production, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, mineral exploitation and revenues from tax collection in areas under their control. Opium production and the mining sector remain to be the highest sources of funding for the Taliban. Each of the sectors, namely mining and opium poppy production provided approximately $460 million each in 2020.
Since the start of the U.S. troops withdrawal on the 1st of May, several districts across Afghanistan have fallen under the Taliban control and this has concerned the people that the U.S.-backed government will collapse and the Taliban will take over once the foreign forces are completely pulled out before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
This article was initially published on Diplomatic Intelligence – click here!