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Contrails show an American B-52’s route back to Tora Bora to strike at Al Qaida hideouts on December 12, 2001, after Afghan elders’ ceaseifire talks with Taliban forces collapsed. Just as the United States was set to withdraw its military from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, the Taliban took over Kabul, the country’s capital. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was based on the conclusion that terrorist groups would no longer be able to use the country to stage attacks on the United States.

“We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure Al Qaida could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again,” President Biden said in remarks from the White House this week, defending the pullout of American forces after the Afghan government’s swift collapse over the weekend.

“We did that.”

But some experts aren’t so sure. While Al Qaida has been substantially weakened since 2001 - and the Taliban has committed to preventing it from attacking the US and its allies - the Taliban maintains ties to the group, and Al Qaida fighters have hailed its takeover.

Daesh, a more extreme rival, also retains a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban is likely to try to root it out, experts said - but Daesh, too, could benefit from a security vacuum as the Taliban tries to consolidate power.

Here’s where Daesh and Al Qaida stand in Afghanistan.

What is Al Qaida’s relationship to the Taliban, and how strong is the group?

The first time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, it sheltered Al Qaida militants who plotted the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of crushing the extremist group.

After two decades of conflict and counterterrorism operations, “Al Qaida in Afghanistan is a skeleton of its former self,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at London School of Economics. He said that the group lacks charismatic leadership and is “starved financially.”

A recent UN report said Al Qaida maintained a presence in at least 15 Afghan provinces. An offshoot, Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, has operated “under the Taliban umbrella” from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces, according to the United Nations. In total, Al Qaida members are estimated to number between several dozen to 500 people.

Al Qaida showed “no indication of breaking ties” with the Taliban, a recent U.N. report said. Ideological alignment and personal relationships, including intermarriage, have kept the groups close.

Afghanistan analyst Abdul Sayed characterised the relationship as “cordial and stronger than in the pre-9/11 period.”

Though the Taliban has “begun to tighten its control” over Al Qaida, the UN said in the spring, “it is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al Qaida in Afghanistan.”

What presence does Daesh have in Afghanistan?

A: Daesh in Khorasan began operating in Afghanistan in 2015, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Started by Pakistani national Hafiz Zaeed Khan, who pledged allegiance to Daesh’s former head Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2014, it began as a small band of mostly Pakistani militants operating in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangahar. Some recruits came from the Taliban, though members of other extremist groups in the region also defected to the Khorasan group, according to the CSIS report.

Like its parent group - Daesh in Iraq and Syria - the Afghanistan offshoot has ambitions to hold territory and is known for carrying out brutal attacks on civilians. Shiites are particularly frequent targets.

Daesh in Khorasan has never successfully captured territory in Afghanistan. Instead, its strategy has centered on attacking civilian targets such as mosques, schools and weddings. Image Credit: Agencies

UN Secretary General Antnio Guterres warned in 2019 that after Daesh lost its territory in Iraq and Syria, its umbrella group in Afghanistan had access to hundreds of millions of dollars to finance terrorism.

Daesh in Khorasan has never successfully captured territory in Afghanistan. Instead, its strategy has centered on attacking civilian targets such as mosques, schools and weddings.

The number of attacks it has carried out annually has decreased in recent years. During the first four months of this year, the UN recorded 77 attacks associated with the group. Daesh claimed responsibility for the bombing of a girls’ school in Kabul in May that killed more than 85 people, mostly students.

US airstrikes took out key leaders of Daesh in Khorasan, including its founder, early on. And in 2017, the US military dropped the “mother of all bombs” on a cave where fighters were hiding in Nangahar province.

Still, the affiliate group has managed to sustain itself. The UN estimates that it retains a core group of some 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in Konar and Nangahar provinces. Smaller cells are scattered across the country.

What threats do Daesh and Al Qaida pose in Afghanistan?

A: Most analysts agree that Al Qaida lacks the strength and capability to pose an immediate threat to the United States. But given the chance that Al Qaida will acquire a sanctuary under the Taliban - and the complications to counterterrorism operations that the Taliban victory poses - some say the group could later reconstitute itself.

US intelligence officials had previously said that would take up to two years. But Nathan Sales, who served as a senior counterterrorism official during the Trump administration, said that period could be around six months.

Much depends on how much leeway the Taliban gives the group.

Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. A decade after 9/11, the Al Qaida leader was killed by US forces in Pakistan. Image Credit: EPA

Al Qaida is “fully following the Taliban’s instructions for supporting its strategies,” Sayed said, and supported the Taliban’s February 2020 deal with the US for the withdrawal of US and allied troops. That agreement obligated the Taliban to prevent Al Qaida and other terrorists from using Afghanistan to attack the US or its allies. The Taliban reiterated this week that it remains committed to that promise.

Not likely to allow

“The Taliban will unlikely allow Al Qaida to operate from Afghanistan and endanger the survival of their nascent rule as the terrorist organisation did in 2001,” Gerges said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Centre, said the Daesh offshoot in Afghanistan is “certainly resilient and potent” but is unlikely to have the capacity to plan attacks on faraway targets.

Afghanistan’s neighbours, however, are concerned about extremist activity. Russia has ramped up military exercises in Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, for fear of radical Islamist groups spilling over into its Central Asian ally.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking to “NBC Nightly News” about the risks associated with evacuating Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul, said the US was “very focused on . . . the potential for a terrorist attack by a group like ISIS-K [Daesh in Khoresan].”

Unlike its attitude toward Al Qaida, the Taliban sees Daesh as an existential threat and has fought the group in Afghanistan for years.

Some observers had worried that a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government could drive more extreme members of the Taliban to Daesh. After the Taliban’s military victory, that looks less likely.

Kugelman said the Taliban has “compelling reasons” to target Daesh, and could use newly acquired US-made weapons to do so. Such a move could help the Taliban bolster its image in the eyes of foreign governments.

But as it begins to take up the levers of government, the Taliban may be distracted by more pressing priorities, experts say - and Daesh and other groups could take advantage of lapses in security. The UN has estimated that there are already between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters belonging to various militant groups in Afghanistan.

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Afghan anti-Al-Qaida fighters rest at a former Al Qaida base in the White Mountains near Tora Bora Wednesday Dec. 19, 2001, behind a string of ammunition found after the retreat of al-Qaida members from the area. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

“The US withdrawal is an increasingly galvanising moment for these jihadist forces in Afghanistan and the broader region,” Kugelman said.

A desire to drive the United States out of the region has long been a focus of propaganda for radical groups, and Kugelman said the US pullout may inspire militants from the surrounding region to plan local attacks or move to Afghanistan.

There has already been excited chatter among sympathisers of extremist groups in the area: An intelligence official from an Arab nation told The Washington Post that officials had seen an uptick in extremist communications about developments in Afghanistan, and the Taliban takeover “is encouraging many jihadists to think about traveling to Afghanistan now instead of Syria or Iraq.”

One Al Qaida fighter, who goes by the name Abu Khaled, hailed the Taliban’s victory as a turning point for extremist groups.

“God willing, the success of the Taliban will be also a chance to unify mujahideen movements like Al Qaida and Daesh,” he said.