Al-Qaeda, LeT, JeM in Afghanistan a ‘ticking bomb’: EU special representative
Tomas Niklasson, who was in New Delhi this week for consultations with Indian officials and experts, said in an interview the Taliban set up in Kabul is serious about tackling IS-KP, though questions remain about its capacity to do so, as well as its commitment to tackling al-Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terror groups
The presence of al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on Afghan soil is a “ticking bomb”, while assessments suggest Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) has built up its capacity more quickly than expected, the European Union’s special representative for Afghanistan has said.
Tomas Niklasson, who was in New Delhi this week for consultations with Indian officials and experts, said in an interview the Taliban set up in Kabul is serious about tackling IS-KP, though questions remain about its capacity to do so, as well as its commitment to tackling al-Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terror groups.
Amid growing international condemnation of the Taliban’s exclusion of girls and women from education and workplaces, Niklasson said there are signs the hardline elements of the group based in Kandahar and centred around the emir, Haibatullah Akhundzada, are strengthening their influence and exercising greater authority.
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Niklasson said the presence of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul – where he was killed in a drone strike in July 2022 – was a “clear example of the Taliban not fulfilling their obligations when it comes to breaking ties with that organisation.” It is also clear other groups such as TTP, East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Ansarullah, LeT and JeM are currently in Afghanistan.
“I cannot say they are all growing in strength, but they also are not under control and it’s in a way...literally, a ticking bomb,” he said, adding he is “much less convinced that the Taliban are fully committed or able to take action” against these groups the way they are trying to fight IS-KP.
“And that is really an issue where neighbours are equally concerned about different entities, while sometimes at the same time accusing each other of supporting some of the other entities,” he said.
Assessments suggest the Daesh or IS-KP has built up its “capacity more quickly than what was foreseen”, Niklasson said. “This is serious. I think the Taliban take Daesh seriously and try to fight them. However, being a terrorist movement or insurgency yourself and changing to counter-insurgency may not be as easy as it looks. So, they [Taliban] may also be lacking capacity,” he said.
The world community’s knowledge about the security situation within Afghanistan is hampered by a lack of accurate intelligence, Niklasson acknowledged. “If we come back to the economy and to the radical curricula being pushed through and being imposed in Afghanistan, that combination provides relatively fertile breeding ground for Daesh and others to continue to recruit,” he said.
Earlier this month, Niklasson travelled to Pakistan and Turkey for consultations on Afghanistan, while his last meetings with the Taliban leadership were in October 2022. He said that while the Taliban’s acting ministers continued to engage with him, they appeared “less willing to make commitments” and “were more uncertain themselves about the future”.
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“We can speculate about the reasons. I think what we have seen over the last eight months [is] that the group in Kandahar around the emir are strengthening their influence or using their influence more directly, intervening more in policy-making, also trying to strengthen their role and their control over the security apparatus and establishing, through provincial ulama councils in 22 of the 34 provinces, more direct control and links to the provinces,” he said.
According to reports, Kabul-based Taliban leaders, perceived as relatively moderate, have sought to distance themselves from bans on women attending universities and working for NGOs. Niklasson referred to such reports and said: “That may be nice, it may be good to know, but they are not, it seems, in a position to push back and to change those decisions.”
The EU has taken up the issue of women’s education and livelihoods because “it matters to many Afghans”, but “no country [or] organisation from abroad can substitute for the lack of a government or for a de facto government that tries to impose policies that go against the interests and wishes of a large percentage” of the population, Niklasson said.
With Kandahar-based elements strengthening their grip and a number of “more pragmatic provincial governors being moved around”, the short-term prospects for the formation of a more inclusive setup in Kabul remain bleak, Niklasson said. Though some former political leaders have returned to Afghanistan, this appeared to be part of a deal that “basically you’re welcome to come back, you will not get killed, but you can also not be active politically”, he added.
Niklasson said the EU and India can benefit from learning from each other’s experiences and working together in Afghanistan at international forums, where they have a “lot of similar concerns and principled positions”. He added, “I think we are very much on the same page when it comes to Afghanistan...I think the EU and India have similar interests in Afghanistan. Europe may be far away, but many of the concerns about regional instability, about terrorism, drugs, migration are similar.”