Don’t be fooled: the Taliban hasn’t changed its spots

Has the Taliban really changed its spots? Those who advocate talking to the Taliban make the case that they have. The organisation, they say, has recognised the mistakes it made in the years culminating in 9/11. Others claim that the organisation is now committed to local and national aims, not international terrorism, and that the Taliban have – or can be moderated – via the tool of engagement. All of these approaches seem to share the view there is a disconnect between the west’s reaction to events in Afghanistan, and the reality. But is this really the case?

Pakistan’s national security adviser, Dr Moeed W Yusuf, has suggested the time has come to face facts: we need to accept the Taliban has won, negotiate with them and treat them as partners. In an event at Policy Exchange last month, he said Afghanistan needs international assistance not opprobrium. After a diplomatic career spent overwhelmingly in the Muslim majority world – and as author of the 2015 government review of the Muslim Brotherhood – I am sceptical the Taliban have really changed. Here’s why.

The claim that there is always a clear distinction between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda (Al Qaeda) and Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) is debatable. It is true they each originate from different parts of the Islamist swamp. ISK has fought savagely with its rivals in the past, and contains some disgruntled defectors from both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The recent attacks at Kabul airport seem designed, at least in part, to challenge Taliban claims of complete control. But there are many shared areas of understanding of the world and of the necessity of armed jihad.

Some elements of the Taliban have long cooperated with Al Qaeda. There are consistent reports of AQ fighters embedded in certain Taliban structures, and that others are now heading to Afghanistan. Amin ul-Haq, a former associate of bin Laden, for example, has been filmed in Nangahar province, returning from Pakistan in a convoy that waved Taliban flags.

What’s more, the Haqqani network – one of whose senior members, Khalil Haqqani now controls security in Kabul – appears to bridge the two organisations. As for Al Qaeda, this week they issued a statement expressing their delight at the Taliban’s victory, in which they referred to America as the ‘head of disbelief’. They speak of an ‘Islamic Emirate’, and Al Qaeda continues to pledge allegiance to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Emir of the Taliban.

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