An uncertain theme in the ongoing talks about American withdrawal from Afghanistan have been the historical links of the opposed Taliban insurgency to foreign fighters. The invasion in 2001 had as its most obvious pretext the presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan of one such foreign militant, Usama bin-Ladin, and his Al-Qaida network. Taliban leaders, on the other hand, insist that they will not permit Afghanistan to be exploited as a base for attacks abroad, pointing to their largely successful campaign against Daaish. This article reviews and puts into context the links of the Taliban emirate to foreigners during their period in power.
Given widespread sensationalism since the war on terrorism began, it is important to note the context in which the Taliban encountered foreign fighters. Firstly, foreign fighters were not limited to Al-Qaida, and secondly links to such foreign fighters were not limited to the Taliban emirate. Indeed, the Afghanistan war’s link to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the potential vacuum in the vast Eurasian space that the Soviets occupied, meant that not only non-state militants but several states connected with transnational militants, among whom Qaida were only an outlier.
The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan had seen several thousand foreigners, often known as “Arab Afghans”, pour in. This occurred with the encouragement of both private actors, such as the Jamaat and Jamiat networks in Pakistan, and states – including not only such Muslim states as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and others but also the United States, Britain, and France. Practically every mujahideen party leader – several, such as Abdurrabb Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani, later opponents of the Taliban and parties to the 2001 invasion – welcomed the Arab Afghans. The foreigners’ conduct and performance varied– some, such as Abdullah Azzam, became respected mediators in inter-mujahideen disputes, while others were disliked for their fanaticism or their indiscipline. But their impact on the war was firstly largely exaggerated, and secondly largely encouraged, by international observers.
Though Western priorities changed with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union by 1991 left a vacuum with unsteady successor-states in Central Asia. Each neighbouring power – Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, India, China, and the weakened Russian state – was eager to exercise influence in this strategic region. Wars in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Tajikistan as well as the long-running conflicts in Kashmir and Afghanistan militarized the contest and formed an ideal situation for transnational militants to thrive, occasionally backed by the same states that would tactfully discard them in 2001.
It was in Afghanistan that they found the most welcome environment. Even before the Taliban emerged in 1994, various Afghan leaders – Rabbani and his opponent Gulbadin Hikmatyar, the neutral commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the communist militia commander Abdul-Rashid Dostum, to name a few – had links with armed groups outside Afghanistan. While many Arab Afghans returned home – North Africa in the 1990s was particularly hit by extremists attempting to imitate the Afghan experience – some stayed behind and were joined, after his expulsion from Sudan, by bin-Ladin in 1996; notably, his port of call was not Taliban territory but Jalalabad, which had not yet been captured by the emirate.
The early success of the Taliban in capturing most of Afghanistan attracted a large number of other fighters, eventually including Uzbekistan’s insurgents led by Tohir Yuldushev, previously been based in war-torn Tajikistan but moving south in 2000. They also included a large number of Pakistani militants. Some were transnational militants such as Saifullah Akhtar, who had an ambiguous relation with both the divided Pakistani state of the 1990s and with the Taliban emirate, and Masood Azhar, who was released from Indian captivity after Taliban mediation when his brothers landed a hijacked Indian plane in Kandahar.
Others included Pashtuns from the autonomous Federal Agencies, where the period’s instability prompted Taliban-adjacent projects by the preachers Sufi Muhammad from Malakand and Muhammad Rahim from Orakzai. There were also blatantly sectarian outfits such as Riaz Basra’s Lashkari Jhangvi. The preponderance of such groups in Pakistan has often been labelled “Talibanization”, but this misses the point; not only did they predate the Taliban and act independently, but the Taliban themselves were baffled by them – for example, in 2000 Taliban officials had to fetch a Pakistani mediator to stop a firefight that had broken out between Jhangvi fighters. Taliban inability to control these groups was proven further years later when many of them, banned in Pakistan, ignored Taliban orders and instead waged a separate insurgency against Islamabad.
Foreign fighters beefed up the Taliban ranks in 1997-98, but in 1999-2000 the emirate, seeking to overcome its international isolation, made a conscious effort to restrict and monitor their activity. This was largely conducted in collaboration with Pakistan, which – after the 1998 nuclear tests and 1999 coup – was similarly under international pressure. Foreign fighters were now required to register with interior minister Abdul-Razzaq Akhundzada, who made several trips to Pakistan for consultation. But the fact was that with a costly war afoot, coupled with isolation, the Taliban lacked the resources to carry out this project. This was where bin-Ladin’s money and resources came in: he funded a slimmed-down brigade of foreign fighters, technically accountable to the Taliban military.
This made bin-Ladin indispensable to the Taliban; Pakistan rightly protested that his presence alienated the Taliban from the international arena, but from the emirate’s viewpoint he gave the resources that nobody else would give to bring foreign fighters under control. Hence the Taliban’s ambiguity in relation to bin-Ladin; when pressured to give him up, Taliban foreign minister Abdul-Jalil Akhundzada would plead his apparent popularity among Muslims – an inflated impression that the Qaida leader had built up. But it should be noted that this impression, dating from the 1980s, had not been exclusive among Afghans to the Taliban.
Taliban hesitancy, even after the September 2001 attacks, sprouted a number of baseless rumours – such as the claim that bin-Ladin had married into Taliban emir Umar Mujahid’s family, or that Pakistani spymaster Mahmood Ahmed had encouraged them to hold him when quite the opposite had occurred. As a matter of fact, once the American invasion was underway Taliban officials, such as prime minister Muhammad Abdul-Kabir, did offer a conditional extradition – but it was too late. As for the other foreign fighters – many were captured or killed in the war, others fled into Pakistan – but their experience, coupled with a sweeping ban on their activity by 2002, pushed them further toward Qaida influence and would sprout an additional insurgency inside Pakistan.
“We gave those camels free reign of our country,” Taliban diplomat Muhammad Haqqani would later bitterly remark, “and they brought us face to face with disaster.” Our review shows that links between the Taliban and foreign fighters were largely transactional and subject to regional developments. The insurgency since 2001 could have changed this equation, as could the emergence of Daaish to whom both the Taliban and Qaida are opposed. Taliban military leaders such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, Sadar Ibrahim, and Abdul-Qayum Zakir have battlefield links to foreigners that should not be discounted. Yet Qaida insistence on attacking the Pakistani state in the 2000s opened a rift with even the most hardline Taliban. Furthermore, Qaida’s position with regard to the Taliban is far weaker than it was during the emirate; not only have the former been weakened by defections to Daaish, but the latter are no longer internationally isolated because of the negotiations. It is not lost on the Taliban that the adventurism of their “guests” helped to undermine the same emirate they aim to bring back.