Former UK ambassador raises concerns over US-Taliban peace deal due to ‘close’ Al Qaeda ties

UN terrorism monitor Edmund Fitton-Brown warns the Taliban faces challenges preventing Al Qaeda attacks

epa08759419 People attend at the burial of victims after a landmine targeted a mini-bus full of passengers in a Taliban controlled area in Wardak province 40km away from Kabul, Afghanistan, 20 October 2020. According to the police, at least nine people including women and children were killed and many other wounded.  EPA/HEDAYATULLAH AMID

A former British ambassador and leading UN terrorism monitor has raised serious concerns over the future of the US-Taliban peace deal due to the group’s continued “close ties” with Al Qaeda.

Edmund Fitton-Brown says research by the UN monitoring team reveals Al Qaeda still has a strong presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s failure to cut ties with the terror group poses future challenges to the continuation of the peace deal.

The fragile agreement has faced mounting challenges after the Taliban accused the US of breaching it following US air strikes on its fighters in Helmand province last week.

The US-Taliban agreement, signed in Doha, says foreign forces will leave Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees and a pledge from the insurgents to sit down with the Afghan government to find a peaceful settlement to decades of war.

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One of the criteria has been a commitment by the Taliban to prevent Al Qaeda from committing terror attacks.

During a webinar for the Counter Extremism Project on ‘The current threat landscape in Afghanistan,’ Mr Fitton-Brown said ties between the two organisations remain.

“Al Qaeda senior figures remain in Afghanistan as well as hundreds of armed operatives,” he said.

“Relations between the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain close, mainly due to a history of shared struggle, inter marriage and ideological kinship.

“The Taliban regularly consulted with Al Qaeda during the negotiations with the US and they offered informal guarantees that they would honour their historic ties with Al Qaeda.

“Al Qaeda has reacted positively in public to the agreement with the US with statements celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy.

“The challenge will be to secure the counter terrorism gains to which the Taliban has committed which will require them to prevent Al Qaeda from posing any international threat from Afghanistan.”

Talks between Taliban and Afghan government negotiators began last month in Doha, but the process has been slow, while violence continues.

Mr Fitton-Brown said the UN monitoring team will be putting pressure on the Taliban to uphold its side of the agreement.

“Of course, it is our overwhelming hope this [peace deal] will be successful but we also believe it is necessary to be very objective in our monitoring and assessment of the Taliban in order to ensure they feel the pressure, that perhaps is necessary, to ensure that they deliver on their part of the agreement,” he said.

He has highlighted other concerns posed by thousands of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) and ISIS in destabilising the situation.

The UN monitoring team’s latest data reveals there are more than 7,000 FTFs in Afghanistan.

“A large number of FTFs are broadly aligned with the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” Mr Fitton-Brown said.

“While the Taliban publicly insists there are no FTFs under their umbrella that denial of something which is a universally accepted fact is problematic because we are looking to the Taliban to take action on the basis of something that they continue to insist is untrue.

“Even if we assume a significant number of FTFs are lying low due to having private sympathies for ISIS we still have a large number firmly aligned with the Taliban and Al Qaeda and they have no invested interest in peace, rather the reverse.

“Even if they have no current plans to project an external terrorist threat, at the minimum, FTF extremists continue to benefit from the continuing security vacuum and black economy in Afghanistan and most of them have nowhere to go.”

He said, despite the dissemination of ISIS last November, there are still 2,200 ISIS members in Afghanistan who are “capable of mounting significant attacks” and the group could prey on FTFs as part of its attempts at a resurgence.

“The main risk of an ISIS resurgence in the context of the Afghan peace process may lie in its ability to present itself as a regenerated terror group in the country and thus attract new recruits and funding,” he added.

“It could pose a complex challenge.”

The US has pledged to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and this week said numbers will be cut to around 4,500 in the coming weeks.

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump tweeted that all US troops should be "home by Christmas" – well before the May 2021 timetable agreed in Doha.