Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters on the march in Afghanistan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

PESHAWAR – Hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives including the terror group’s elusive leader Ayman al-Zawahiri are sheltering in the Pakistan-Afghan border region, a hidden presence that could come above ground as Afghanistan tilts towards a new era of civil war.

A United Nations report released last week claims Taliban operatives consisting of Afghan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar nationals now run al-Qaeda’s Indian Subcontinent chapter from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces in Afghanistan.

The report says the al-Qaeda Indian chapter’s leader is Osama Mahmood, who recently succeeded the late Asim Umar. It also said al-Zawahiri is “probably alive but too frail to be featured in propaganda.”

The wife of former al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent leader Asim Umar was among 5,000 Taliban prisoners freed by the Afghan government in 2020 as part of the Doha agreement with the United States, which facilitated the US troop withdrawal.

But risks of an al-Qaeda revival are rising as the US and NATO wind down their military presence in Afghanistan.  

“The group is such an ‘organic’ or essential part of the insurgency that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies,” the report said.

The UN Analytical Support and Sanction Monitoring Team listed the Haqqani network, a guerilla insurgent group that has used asymmetric warfare to battle US-led NATO forces, as the main link between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

It added that al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network are closely interlinked on “ideological alignment, common struggle and intermarriage.”

The scene of one of two bombing attacks in Kabul on June 12. Seven people were killed in the attacks. Photo: AFP / Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat / Anadolu Agency

The Haqqani network, which has been blamed for several high-profile suicide attacks in Afghanistan, also has the backing of elements within the Pakistani security establishment.

It is one of the most organized, skilled, and experienced insurgent organizations and enjoys shelter in Pakistan’s North Waziristan area near Afghanistan’s southeastern border. Washington deemed the group a terrorist organization in 2012 and repeatedly called on Pakistani authorities to launch military operations against the group.

But the Pakistani army consistently resisted launching attacks in North Waziristan despite reports that senior al-Qaeda leaders were present with Haqqani network elements in the area.

For decades, Pakistan’s security establishment had been treating the Haqqani network as a “strategic depth,” trusting it will secure Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan’s political and security areas.

Seen by some as a Pakistan “proxy”, the Haqqani network has long been focused on targeting India-sponsored development projects in Afghanistan.

Farhatullah Babar, a Pakistani leftist politician, former senator and spokesperson for the Pakistan Peoples Party, said that it was disturbing to know that al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri and an estimated 500 al Qaeda operatives were living in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.

“The Afghan peace process has entered a crucial phase, which makes it necessary to be watchful of the re-emergence and cross border movements of militants. People in ex-tribal areas have also been complaining of the regrouping of militants and targeted killings,” Babar said.

“Such perceptions, if not dispelled, will play havoc with the peace process and the region will plunge into another round of war and mayhem over the coming decades. Any misstep and refusal to address it will be potentially disastrous.”

A screen shot of Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2019. He is said to be alive but frail now. Photo: Courtesy YouTube

Security sources confirmed to Asia Times that al-Qaeda operatives have also been sheltering in Pakistan-Iran border areas, where many foreign nationals have been spotted traveling back and forth to Iran using the Balochistan region as a base. 

Sources claim that several senior al-Qaeda leaders have been given shelter in Iran. They mentioned deceased al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, who was released by Iranian authorities in 2010 from Tehran to travel to Pakistan and join up with his father.

They said that in 2015 Iran released five senior al-Qaeda leaders under a prisoner exchange mechanism who later traveled to Syria to join that war. Another al-Qaeda senior leader – Abu Muhammad al-Masri – was killed by Israeli special forces on a street in Tehran in August 2020, they added.

All these cases, they claim, indicate that senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders were welcomed in Iran and allowed to travel abroad. They noted that former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was traveling back from Iran in Balochistan province in 2016 when he was killed by a US drone attack.

“The timing of the UN disclosures is intriguing. The report is released at a time when the Taliban have unleashed an aggressive war against Afghan national security forces in Afghanistan and captured major parts of the country,” Shahid Raza, an Islamabad-based strategic affairs analyst told Asia Times.  

Afghan security forces escort suspected Taliban fighters as they are being presented in front of the media after an operation at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) headquarters in Herat on February 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

He said the Taliban have taken control of at least 26 outposts and bases and four district centers in Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak, and Ghazni provinces in the last month as US troops accelerate their withdrawal from the war-torn country.

Pakistan’s military leadership is now moving to fence much of its 2,640 kilometer border with Afghanistan to shore up its defenses against militant movements. The border fencing, which passes through the rugged mountains and thin rocky terrains, is near completion.

Still, analysts are skeptical that the US$500 million fence will be able to prevent cross-border incursions and sporadic attacks on security agencies. They note that another section of existing border fence failed to stop al-Zawahiri and his men from crossing over and taking refuge in Pakistan.

Babar said that the border fence will have no meaningful or positive upshots unless militant sanctuaries were uprooted and cross-border movements stopped forcefully.

“Fencing is merely a physical barrier. No physical barriers will work unless there is a change in the policy, a change in the thinking. The policies of running with the hare and hunting with the hound and proxy wars must come to an end if durable peace is to return to the region,” he added.  

Afrasiab Khattak, a Pashtun rights activist recently tweeted “Total silence/inaction of (the) state over dead bodies of Pak(istan) citizens coming from the war in Afghanistan (which) proves that the barbed wire on Durand Line is only to block tribes trade, medical treatment and other peaceful activities. Is there any cut-off date for the undeclared war against Afghanistan?”

Babar called for “de-militarization and de-colonization” of Pakistan’s tribal areas, which he said had already merged with Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“There is no justification to keep it as a vast military cantonment and a no-go area for the people. Militarization breeds suspicion as to what is going on in these areas,” he added.