Even as Islamist groups around the world are rejoicing over the Taliban’s forced and violent takeover in Afghanistan, there is a global alarm that the country could once again become a safe haven for jihadists inspired by its success.
And though the Taliban have said they will not allow Afghanistan to be used to launch attacks on other nations, there are concerns over their ties with the al Qaeda, whose attacks against the United States prompted Washington to invade the country in 2001, as well as other militant groups including in neighbouring Pakistan.
A global terrorist at the helm
One of the Taliban’s top leaders is Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the militant Haqqani network. The United States has designated him a global terrorist and offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
“Jihadists writ large are jubilant and electrified by the Taliban’s return,” Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security scholar affiliated with Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
“Major jihadist constituencies across South Asia, Middle East and Africa have taken note … (and) al Qaeda’s eco-system sees the Taliban’s return as its own victory.”
Besides groups affiliated to al Qaeda, congratulatory messages to the Taliban have come from Somalia’s al-Shabaab and Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Yemen’s Shi’ite Muslim Houthi group, which is opposed to the United States and other Western countries, said events in Afghanistan proved that foreign “occupation” was bound to fail.
The Pakistani Taliban, which is not part of the Afghan group, pledged allegiance and said hundreds of its members were freed from prisons when the Afghan Taliban swept through the country in recent days.
The world is seeing the Taliban’s moderate public pronouncements since seizing power with heavy scepticism. There are also those who say the group is seeking international recognition and possibly development assistance.
At a breakthrough press conference in Kabul on Tuesday, their first-ever such public address, Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, promised that Afghanistan would not be used to launch any attacks on foreign countries.
“I would like to assure the U.S. and the international community that no one will be harmed … we will not allow our territory to be used against anybody,” he said. “We don’t want any internal or external enemies.”
The resurrection of the Islamic State
Independent UN experts informed the Security Council last month that al Qaeda had its presence in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
They also said Islamic State had expanded its presence to several provinces, including Kabul, and that fighters have formed sleeper cells.
Islamic State is opposed to the Taliban. But some analysts and officials cautioned that the ultra-radical group could take advantage of any chaos, or encourage hardline Taliban fighters to defect as the movement settles into governance.
There are reports that China too has raised concerns over the anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement(ETIM) group during its recent meetings with the Taliban.
The Taliban, Reuters reported, have reassured China they would not allow attacks to take place.
The US government says ETIM no longer exists as a formal organization and is instead a broad label China uses to oppress a variety of Muslim ethnic groups, including Uyghurs, in its Xinjiang region. China denies all accusations of abuse.
Risk to Pakistan
The most concrete risk, some officials and analysts say, is to Pakistan.
“The first, easy test of their commitment (to their promises) is the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP),” said Mir at Stanford University, referring to the Pakistan Taliban.
Based out of eastern Afghanistan, the TTP has claimed that at least 780 of their members, including former second-in-command Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, have been freed from prisons in Afghanistan, and had made their way to what the group called its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan.
At their peak, Pakistani Taliban attacks killed hundreds of people, including one assault on a school in Peshawar in 2014 that killed more than 140 people, most of them children.
TTP operations were severely disrupted in subsequent years, but more recently has begun to regroup and launched attacks on security personnel in border areas.
While there are hopes that the Afghanistan Taliban, which is keen on international recognition, could try to live up to their promise to not allow Afghanistan to become a base for militancy, there is also suspicion that the terrorist outfit may let the hero-worship it is getting from the Islamic radical underground go to its head.
(With inputs from Reuters)
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