Al-Qaeda has mocked the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with the hashtag ‘the year of running away’ on its Telegram channels, as the Taliban continued its advance and claimed it is now in control of 85 per cent of the country. The Taliban has also said it would not allow al-Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan, a pledge that drew scepticism from analysts. Nico Prucha, an independent terror expert who monitors online jihadist activities, said that from the perspective of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the war in Afghanistan was “won by true Muslims” following the exit of American troops. Risks and opportunities for China in Taliban’s return to Kabul “Al-Qaeda has used the hashtag ‘the year of running away’ since early June to refer to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and France’s announcement of its withdrawal from the Sahel region in Africa,” said Prucha who is fluent in Arabic. French President Emmanuel Macron said in June he was ending the country’s eight-year operation in the region and would be pulling out more than 2,000 troops by early next year. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told This Week In Asia that al-Qaeda belonged to a “past era” and would not be allowed to operate in the country “any more”. The Taliban claimed there were no longer any al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and insisted that under the Doha peace deal signed with the US in February 2020, the Taliban had “committed ourselves that we will not allow” any individual, group or entity to use Afghanistan to carry out attacks against the US, its allies or “any other country in the world”. “We will not permit any open recruitment or any training or fundraising centre for any group in Afghanistan,” said Suhail. “If there is one who is hiding and we find them, we will tell them they cannot [stay].” Al-Qaeda presence Colin P Clarke, director of policy & research at The Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy, said al-Qaeda is “most definitely still in Afghanistan”, with around 400-600 fighters on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “The Taliban has not broken ranks with al-Qaeda and has literally no reason to do so,” said Clarke. Nishank Motwani, an expert on Afghanistan affairs, said it “would be costly” to take the Taliban’s word when it comes to al-Qaeda given that “the two terrorist organisations are intertwined by intermarriage that has codified their relationship”. “Al-Qaeda will thrive under Taliban rule, akin to how the Taliban has thrived under Pakistani tutelage,” said Nishank. Taliban’s haul of US weapons may add to problems in region, analysts say Clarke said the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be the exact “momentum that al-Qaeda needs to resurge” and rebuild its networks, perhaps eclipsing Islamic State and winning new recruits in various regions of the world. “I’d say at present, the capability to launch attacks against the West is limited, but I expect this to grow in the months ahead.” Clarke believes there could be friction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda as the latter “grows more powerful” and begins to seek greater autonomy. ‘People are in fear’: Afghan commandos battle Taliban for control of city A report by the UN Security Council released in June found that al-Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions, and is led by al-Qaeda’s Jabhat-al-Nasr wing under the direction of Sheikh Mahmood. “Members of the group have been relocated to more remote areas by the Taliban to avoid potential exposure and targeting,” said the report. It also said “al-Qaeda maintains contact with the Taliban” but has minimised overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to “lay low” and not jeopardise the Taliban’s diplomatic position after the Doha agreement. Al-Qaeda’s own strategy in the near term is seen as being to maintain its traditional safe haven in Afghanistan for the al-Qaeda core leadership, said the report. Changing public image The current Taliban leadership speaks English, is diplomatic and is accessible to the world media, a far cry from its aloof past. The group also said it welcomes and will safeguard the “security” of nationals of all countries who wish to help Afghanistan in “reconstruction”, including those from China, the US and the EU. According to Afghanistan affairs expert Nishank, the Taliban’s diplomatic tone is meant to “gain international recognition” and “legitimacy for their rule”. When it was previously in power from 1996-2001, only the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan recognised it. The Taliban has nothing to offer but to recreate a state of terror Nishank Motwani “The lesson the Taliban appears to have learned from their previous rule is to gain maximum diplomatic recognition so that it is virtually impossible to eject them from power again,” said Nishank. “But in practice, the Taliban has nothing to offer but to recreate a state of terror.” Nishank said the new generation is as “theocratic and lethal” as the previous one. “The Taliban of today are highly motivated, lethal, and will not stop at ruling Afghanistan, but will set their sights transnationally and fuel violent extremism for generations to come,” said Nishank. Taliban and China China is currently Afghanistan’s biggest investor and the Taliban has called the country “its friend”. Nishank said the Taliban is signalling to China that engagement with the group “has the potential to pay off” with Taliban leaders “looking the other way to the systematic persecution of Uygurs in Xinjiang province” – a strategy that has paid off handsomely for Pakistan. Nishank said the Taliban aims to leverage its ties with Pakistan, and by extension, Pakistan’s strategic relations with China, “to attract Beijing’s funding, diplomatic cover, and most importantly, recognition to solidify their rule and international engagement”. “China has made pledges to invest money in Afghanistan, but its wallet has barely opened due to the significantly fraught political and security environment,” said Nishank. What could Taiwan learn from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? Afghanistan reportedly has the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium and thorium, valued at over US$1 trillion. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won a 25-year US$400 million bid to drill three oilfields which contain roughly 87 million barrels of oil. Chinese firms have also gained rights to mine copper at Mes Aynak in Logar province, some 40km southeast of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. “China has limited economic rationale to invest in Afghanistan beyond the small sums it has pledged or invested because Beijing is wary of how a deepening economic relationship could get it stuck and involved in matters it has no interest in addressing,” said Nishank. Civil war Last Thursday, hours after US President Joe Biden issued a staunch defence of the US troop withdrawal, the Taliban said its fighters had seized two crossings in western Afghanistan – completing an arc of territory from the Iranian border to the frontier with China. With the Taliban having taken much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government holds little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must largely be reinforced and resupplied by air. The US intelligence community believes the Afghan military is weak and that the Kabul government’s prospects for survival in the short term are not good. Will Kabul fall to Taliban? Biden defends US exit from Afghanistan The prospect of a civil war “is increasingly likely” as thousands of Afghans mobilise to fight the Taliban – a development the Afghan government does not control and can lead to new challenges, said Nishank. “The survival of the Afghan government is in question and one of the key factors to look out for that could precipitate its collapse is the extent to which the Afghan security forces remain cohesive and under the command of President Ashraf Ghani,” said Nishank. Afghan women Meanwhile, the Taliban has said it would allow women to work and girls to go to school. But according to Nishank, the Taliban has never practised or believed in the advancement of women’s or girls’ rights, and the very notion of a right is “alien to them given their theocratic nature and puritanical interpretation of religious texts”. “An Afghan woman in a rural district remarked, ‘they want to kill even the shadow of women’ in response to how life would be under Taliban rule,” said Nishank.