The U.S. State Department announced today that it has designated a terrorist who has fought for the Taliban since the late 1990s and continues to support al Qaeda. Bahawal Khan is the leader of the Commander Nazir Group (CNG), which is “behind numerous attacks against international forces in Afghanistan,” as well as attacks inside Pakistan.
“Since 2006, CNG has run training camps, dispatched suicide bombers, provided safe haven for al Qaeda fighters, and conducted cross-border operations in Afghanistan against the United States and its allies,” the State Department said in a press release. “In addition to its attacks against international forces in Afghanistan, CNG is also responsible for assassinations and intimidation operations against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Khan and the CNG, which is based in South Waziristan, “have vowed to continue the group’s activities, including supporting al Qaeda and conducting attacks in Afghanistan.”
The Obama administration has pursued a deal with the Taliban as part of its plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan. That deal would require the Taliban to renounce its decades-long partnership with al Qaeda. But the Taliban isn’t cooperating. While some Taliban commanders are perhaps willing to foreswear al Qaeda, the Taliban’s senior leaders are not.
The State Department’s designation is just the latest piece of evidence indicating that the Taliban continues to be one of al Qaeda’s most important allies.
In a report to Congress delivered in July, “Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” the Defense Department noted that the Taliban continues to facilitate al Qaeda’s operations. While NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) “estimates that the number of AQ fighters in Afghanistan remains very low,” the Defense Department reported, “AQ’s relationship with local Afghan Taliban remains intact.”
The Defense Department says counterterrorism operations have “eliminated dozens of AQ facilitators and exerted pressure on AQ personnel, restricting their movement to isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan.”
The DoD and ISAF estimate of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan is open to debate, as such figures often do not count al Qaeda-affiliated groups that are pursuing the same goals and are firmly within al Qaeda’s sphere of influence. Al Qaeda itself maintains safe havens in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, in addition to fighting elsewhere.
The Defense Department’s report mentions some of the other al Qaeda-associated groups fighting in Afghanistan. These other groups include the Haqqani Network, Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Haqqani Network is itself part of the Taliban. In addition, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba “targeted ISAF in Kandahar, Nangarhar, and Kunar Provinces.”
The LeT, which has worked closely with al Qaeda, is responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks (which al Qaeda also assisted in), on top of other attacks inside India and elsewhere. The LeT’s “interaction with Afghan-focused groups likely consisted of providing trainers and operatives.”
In September 2010, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified this coalition as an “unholy syndicate.” After a speech at Duke University, Gates explained to students that eastern Afghanistan “is increasingly an unholy syndicate of terrorist groups working together: al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
“A success for one is a success for all,” Gates warned. The Defense Department’s recent report confirms that this syndicate is still in business, even though it has suffered some serious losses.
One year ago, the State Department targeted another terrorist operating in Afghanistan. Mansur al Harbi was identified as a Saudi al Qaeda member “who is responsible for training militants and for the coordination of foreign fighters who travel to Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces.” Al Harbi is “closely connected to many senior al Qaeda leaders.”
While coalition forces have killed or captured a significant number of al Qaeda facilitators and other operatives, al Qaeda and its allies still have designs on Afghanistan.
And Taliban commanders continue to support al Qaeda, despite American efforts to separate the two.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.