Conflicts & War

Al-Qaeda lurks as US readies pullout from Afghanistan

By Baber Khan Sahel

Kabul, May 1 (EFE).- The United States-led coalition began the final stage of its pullout from Afghanistan on Saturday, concluding an almost two-decade long war, and even as the al-Qaeda terrorist group that it had pledged to wipe out remains a threat.

Earlier this month, US president Joe Biden formally announced the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US soldiers – who are joined by another 7,000 allied troops – in Afghanistan by September, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan following the infamous 9/11 attacks.

Biden claimed “America’s longest war” had achieved its goal with the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden 10 years ago in Pakistan and the mitigation of the al-Qaeda terror threat.

His announcement came a year after the administration under his predecessor, Donald Trump, signed an agreement with the Taliban for a complete withdrawal of troops in exchange for security guarantees that Afghan soil would not be used for attacks against foreign countries, particularly the US.

However, despite these claims, and having spent hundreds of billions of dollars in a war that left tens of thousands of casualties, realities on the ground do not seem promising.

The Afghan government and the international community have warned that al-Qaeda remains an active threat in Afghanistan and is likely to expand its presence once the US and its allies leave.

Over the last 18 months, Afghan security forces have launched numerous operations against the terrorist group and taken out several dozen of their members, including senior commanders.

Afghan government records reveal that all al-Qaeda members killed during this period, including 42 senior members in the last seven months, were under the protection of the Taliban.

The authorities in Afghanistan have alleged that al-Qaeda members have been helping the Taliban make bombs and giving weapons training to the insurgents.

“Al-Qaeda members are present in Afghanistan and embedded within the ranks of the Taliban,” Rahmatullah Andar, spokesperson of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), or the Afghan intelligence agency, told EFE.

Andar added that members of the terror outfit also include foreigners such as Chechens, Arabs, Pakistanis and those from other central Asian countries.

The Taliban has categorically rejected the presence of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and called it “propaganda” to extend NATO’s presence in the country.

“Currently, we don’t have any al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told EFE. “After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, they left the country and most relocated to Arab countries.”

However, a UN report from June 2020 revealed that al-Qaeda remains “covertly active” in up to 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces with some 400-600 armed members.

It added that the Taliban had regularly consulted with the al-Qaeda leadership during negotiations with the US for the pullout of troops.

The Taliban is also believed to have met Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama, during the spring of 2019 in southern Helmand province to reassure him that they would not break their historical ties with al-Qaeda.

“The Taliban are protecting and providing shelter to the terrorist group and their numbers will increase (after the US withdrawal),” NDS spokesperson Andar warned.

Meanwhile, US officials have promised to take action in the case of a resurgence of terrorists after its withdrawal.

“Terrorism is a problem for the world” and Washington will continue to “monitor and act when appropriate on terrorism,” the US’ top commander in Afghanistan, Austin Scott Miller, recently told reporters.

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