With the Doha agreement, the Taliban guarantees that Al Qaeda will not use Afghan soil to launch attacks against the US. But it does not mean they will ask the armed group to leave the country, experts say.
Al Qaeda has fought alongside the Taliban for nearly three decades against various enemies ranging from the US to the former Afghan government and Daesh and their relationship is likely to withstand pressures that may possibly come from the US through the clauses of the Doha agreement, according to experts.
But from a legal perspective, the Doha agreement might also not be demanding from the Taliban to kick Al Qaeda members out of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is directly mentioned in the text only two times to highlight that the Taliban will “not allow” any groups “including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Interestingly, the text’s language is not direct enough to suggest that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and their members cannot stay in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.
“The Taliban leadership always responded that they have no obligation per its political settlement with the US that it will not allow AQ or any other group or individuals in Afghanistan,” says Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based security specialist on radical militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The Taliban only guarantees that AQ will not use the Afghan soil again against the US and its allies. AQ is in full understanding with the Taliban, so [there is] no chance of the Taliban going against the AQ,” Sayed tells TRT World.
As far as the Taliban is concerned, Al Qaeda will stay in Afghanistan, but will not use the Afghan soil to launch attacks against the US, according to Sayed. That's something apparently the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership agreed upon under the implicit US approval, he adds.
“The Taliban’s senior leadership repeatedly publicly expressed it and no reaction came from the US,” Sayed says.
“Their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and their senior leader Ameer Khan Mutaqi told it in separate interviews with Afghan TV channels a few weeks before the Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, but no US reaction.”
Hosting Al Qaeda on legal grounds
Barnett Rubin, an American political scientist and a leading expert on Afghanistan and South Asia, also thinks that the agreement is not designed to create an enforcement mechanism, where the Taliban should kick out Al Qaeda members. Instead, it appears to provide clauses to allow the Taliban to host some members of Al Qaeda.
“Taliban will ask some of them to leave but provide refuge rather than deport those in danger. They won’t turn Uzbeks over to Uzbekistan. If you read the language of the Doha agreement carefully you will see that it provides for that,” Rubin tells TRT World.
The agreement has an interesting clause regarding asylum-seekers, which also apparently include Al Qaeda members living in Afghanistan. “Read it carefully. Every word counts,” Rubin recommends. “See what it says about international standards on refugees.”
Here is what the agreement says about that:
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban is committed to deal with those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of this agreement, so that such persons do not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.”
Richard Falk, a well-known international law professor, thinks similarly to Rubin.
“[With this article], it would seem that Taliban is committed to keep those posing a threat to the US and its allies from leaving Afghanistan, or from acting in the country in a manner that poses such a threat. It would appear that the reference here is to both al-Qaeda and ISIS-K (Daesh-K).” says Falk.
“A major question relates to whether the Biden presidency feel bound to respect the Doha Agreement, or more generally, what is the current status of that agreement, also from the Taliban side,” Falk tells TRT World.
This article in the agreement refers to non-refoulement, a fundamental rule of international law, which bans any country from returning their asylum seekers to a country, where they might face ill treatment and persecution. And the scope of this critical international law principle is very broad, covering anybody including Al Qaeda members.
“The prohibition of refoulement under international human rights law applies to any form of removal or transfer of persons, regardless of their status,” said the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.
“As an inherent element of the prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, the principle of non-refoulement is characterised by its absolute nature without any exception,” it added. “The prohibition applies to all persons, irrespective of their citizenship, nationality, statelessness, or migration status,” according to the UN Human Rights Office.
“Even if someone is accused of terrorism by a country, where the same person might face an unfair trial or torture, the hosting country should not deliver that person to that particular country,” says Gulden Sonmez, a Turkish lawyer.
“On these grounds, the person who is accused of terrorism has the right to demand from the hosting country not to deliver him/her to the country, where he or she might face ill-treatment or unjust legal process,” Sonmez tells TRT World.
But then, for example, if Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who reportedly continues to live somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, wants to seek asylum from Taliban authorities, should it be granted?
“They should not be allowed in. But if they are already there, and they seek asylum or residence, they must be treated according to international law,” says Rubin.
“Even Zawahiri cannot be forcibly sent somewhere he will be tortured or summarily executed,” Rubin informs. But Zawahiri “could be extradited”, he adds, possibly to a law-abiding country, whose citizens were victimised by his actions, according to a proper legal procedure.
Most recently, a video of Dr Amin ul-Haq, a prominent Al Qaeda-affiliated figure, was circulated on social media as he was allegedly entering Afghanistan from Pakistan with an expensive jeep escorted by the Taliban. But if Dr Amin, an Afghan native of the Nangarhar province, is already in Afghanistan, he might also benefit from non-refoulement granted by the agreement.
“Dr Amin has never been an official AQ leader or member, but he has played massive roles in Osama Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora [caves in 2001 during the US invasion of Afghanistan] and for AQ during the 1996-2001 period in Afghanistan,” Sayed says.
“His post-9/11 role till his arrest in Pakistan is a secret,” Sayed adds. The 1996-2001 period refers to the Taliban’s first rule.
An unbreakable bond
Dr Amin has long been one of the bridges between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But the bond between the two groups is something much more than what Dr Amin and others represent, says Obaid Ali, an Afghan political analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“When it comes to breaking this relationship, it’s really really difficult for the Taliban and also for Al Qaeda. It is also difficult for other countries and the international community to force the Taliban to cut this relationship between the two groups,” Ali tells TRT World.
Ali also draws attention to an interesting aspect, which is the pledge of allegiance of some Al Qaeda-affiliated groups to the Taliban’s top leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in 2015 following the announcement of the group’s founder and leader Mohammed Omar’s death. Mansour was killed by a US drone attack in 2016.
“It means they [Al Qaeda] believed that the Taliban leader is Amir ul-Muminun. When Al Qaeda leadership pledges allegiance to late Akhtar Mansour, it means all Al Qaeda groups not only in Afghanistan but also outside of Afghanistan believe that the late Akhtar Mohammed Mansour was Amir ul-Muminun,” Ali says.
It means Al Qaeda-affiliated groups accept “to operate under the Taliban or respect the Taliban rule and should believe that the Taliban leader is Amir ul-Muminun,” Ali says. Zawahiri also called the current Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada as Amir ul-Muminun. All these also imply that the Taliban movement is not only a national movement of Afghanistan but also a global movement “entrusted” by a lot of jihadist groups across the world, according to Ali.
Amir ul-Muminin means the Commander of the Faithful, a title used to describe the leader of the Muslim community (umma) since early Islamic history. It was first adapted by Umar, the second caliph after Prophet Mohammed’s death.
At the time, there was also another announcement coming from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Daesh leader, who also claimed to be the Muslim caliph. Ali believes that by pledging allegiance to Mansour in 2015, Al Qaeda leadership made a conscious decision to strengthen the Taliban at the expense of Daesh.
“Looking at this strong relation, I do not think that it would be easy for the Taliban to cut their ties with Al Qaeda,” Ali says.
There is also a second factor, Ali says, regarding the Taliban-Al Qaeda connections, which is the presence of many small Al Qaeda-affiliated foreign groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other Central Asia-origin organisations in Afghanistan.
There are many “non-Taliban jihadist groups” operating either on the Afghan side of the Durand Line or the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, which is the official borderline between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While they are Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, “at the moment, they are operating under the Taliban flag in Afghanistan,” Ali says. As long as these connections between the Taliban and those small groups stay intact, it will be very hard for the Taliban to break their ties with Al Qaeda, he says.
Al Qaeda will have a lot of “influence” over the Taliban rule, he adds.
“They will accept any help they get from AQ in achieving Taliban goals. They will try very hard to prevent the remaining members of AQ from doing anything to provoke other countries from Afghanistan. I don’t know if they will succeed,” Rubin says.