KABUL -- One of the key elements of the peace accord between the Taliban and US negotiators, which is meant to pave the way for intra-Afghan talks, requires the Taliban to disavow all terrorist groups.
While progress has been made on some terms of the deal signed February 29 -- namely the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and prisoner releases -- the Taliban has refused to denounce al-Qaeda.
"The Taliban's relationship with al-Qaeda is very strong, long and deep-rooted, and it will not be easy to break it," said Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, a political analyst in Herat Province.
"In 2001, when the United States asked the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, the Taliban leadership did not accept it at all and these relations are still as close as ever," he said.
Taliban leaders continue to deny al-Qaeda's role in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, even though the terrorist group admits carrying it out from Taliban-controlled territory.
"The Taliban claims that it is going to sever ties with al-Qaeda, but the reality is that the group cannot do it because al-Qaeda has influence among various Taliban groups as well as in Arab countries where it collects a lot of money," Shahir said.
With the Taliban's funding sources drying up because of the Afghan government's crackdown on poppy cultivation, the security forces' removal of the Taliban's roadblocks and citizens' refusal to pay unjust "taxes" to the militant group, the Taliban is unlikely to sever ties with al-Qaeda any time soon.
"Al-Qaeda is providing the majority of the Taliban's financial resources," Shahir said.
The Taliban also relies on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for funding, weapons and military training.
Taliban 'staunch supporter' of al-Qaeda
A report submitted to the United Nations (UN) Security Council on May 27 details the Taliban's extensive, ongoing ties with al-Qaeda.
"Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage," the report said.
"The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties," it said.
The evidence shows that the Taliban, despite pledging to turn their backs on the terrorist group, have enabled al-Qaeda to gain strength under their protection, according to the UN monitors.
"Al-Qaeda and the Taliban held meetings over the course of 2019 and in early 2020 to discuss co-operation related to operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan," the report said.
Al-Qaeda is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces, and the group is comprised of "between 400 and 600 armed operatives", according to UN monitors.
Since the Taliban and al-Qaeda share much of the same ideology, it will be very unlikely that they will separate from each other, said Kabul-based political analyst Mohammad Ibrahim Masoan.
"The only way to separate the Taliban and al-Qaeda is for the Taliban to change their ideology, but as we can see, there has been no change in the ideology and behaviour of the Taliban and the group is a staunch supporter of al-Qaeda," he said.
"One of the reasons that we know ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban are close is that the Taliban has never criticised al-Qaeda publicly," he said. "The Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to cut ties with al-Qaeda based on their agreement with the United States."
Actions not words
The Taliban are "no friends" of the "Islamic State" (IS), but Washington needs to see "deeds and not words" about what they would do against al-Qaeda, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said June 18.
The United States has upheld its side of the deal by reducing the number of US troops in Afghanistan to about 8,600, McKenzie said.
But it is a "conditions-based approach", he said, warning that conditions must be met for a full withdrawal by next year.
"What we need to see is what they're going to do against al-Qaeda," he said.
President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to complete the release of Taliban prisoners as agreed in the deal between the insurgents and Washington.
Afghan authorities have already freed about 3,000 Taliban inmates and plan to further release 2,000 as stipulated in the deal as a condition for intra-Afghan talks to begin.
The Taliban on June 19 said it was committed to the February deal, "especially the US's and the West's concern about a threat to them from Afghanistan".
"Our country will not be used against anyone. They should not be concerned," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP.
The escalation of Taliban violence following the signing of the peace accord is an example of the group's empty promises, Afghan authorities and security analysts say.
"The evidence suggests that the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaeda remains as stable as it was in previous years despite signing the [peace] deal with the United States," said Gen. (ret.) Sikander Asghari, the former deputy director of the General Directorate of Local Police and a military affairs analyst in Kabul.
The Taliban want to take advantage of the peace agreement so they can regain power with the support of their regional supporters, he said.
"Maintaining ties with al-Qaeda shows that the Taliban are not committed to any agreement that would lead to peace and stability in Afghanistan," said Daud Kalakani, a former member of the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul.
"In the past week, the Taliban carried out 222 attacks against Afghan security forces, resulting in the death and injury of 422" personnel, Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said at a news conference June 14.
He also accused the Taliban of targeting religious scholars in a bid to put "psychological pressure" on the Afghan government.
Bombings of Kabul mosques that killed two prayer leaders this month were the work of the insurgents, Arian said, accusing the militants of being an "umbrella group for other terrorist networks".
The National Security Council on June 22 said the Taliban had killed at least 291 Afghan security personnel over the past week, calling it the deadliest week in the 19-year conflict.
The violence unleashed by the Taliban is "running against the spirit of commitment for peace", Ghani told the cabinet June 22.
[Omar from Herat contributed to this report.]