The history between the two groups can be traced back to the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. AlQaeda and an important sub-group of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, are bound by ties of marriage among families of key leaders. Al-Qaeda also remains popular among the rank-and-file of the Taliban. There appears to be a firm political basis for the relationship. Both groups fit into each other’s ideology-based political projects. Al-Qaeda sees the Afghan Taliban as an able ideological partner in its stewardship of global jihad,  a group whose virtues al-Qaeda can extol before the Muslim world. It also potentially sees the Taliban as a powerful ally, whose resurgence in Afghanistan offers major political and material advantages.

Among political gains, the Taliban’s rise validates that jihadist victories against powerful states like the U.S. are realistic and viable. Among material gains, the relationship provides the opportunity to move leadership and personnel from Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and Jordan to Afghanistan. In the medium term, al-Qaeda may look to establish a base in Afghanistan for a global jihadist movement. The Afghan Taliban’s perception of alQaeda is more complex but, on balance, favorable. The Afghan Taliban likely views the group through the lens of its ideological vision drawing on the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic theology, the centrality of jihad in its interpretation of Islamic theology, and its role and status as guardians of Islam in Afghan society.

Despite some tensions and theological differences, alQaeda aligns with key parts of the Taliban’s project. One major source of alignment is al-Qaeda’s jihadist project, which fulfills a major perceived religious obligation. Significantly, al-Qaeda pursues its jihadist project by subordinating its Salafist ideology, at least in rhetoric, to the Taliban’s status as the final arbiter on matters of theology. This contrasts with the Taliban’s opposite perception of the ISIS’s ideological project, which is dismissive of both the Taliban’s Hanafi precepts and its status as guardians of Islam in Afghanistan. Consequently, even in the face of major costs, important Afghan Taliban leaders, such as deputy leader Siraj Haqqani and senior military chief Ibrahim Sadr, remain sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

Based on propaganda releases and the rhetoric of Taliban leaders, there may also be some sympathy for al-Qaeda’s grand strategy of bringing about an American downfall. However, it remains unclear which of the Afghan Taliban leaders who sympathize with al-Qaeda are supportive of direct attacks against the United States. For example, staunch former supporters and sympathizers of al-Qaeda in the Taliban, like the leader of the Haqqani Network Jalaluddin Haqqani, did not appear to approve terrorism against the U.S. before 9/11, even if they did little to stop it. At the same time, it is important to note that parts of the Afghan Taliban are wary of a relationship with al-Qaeda. Some have lobbied against the relationship altogether, both before and after 9/11. Others have come to oppose al-Qaeda due to the costs of the U.S. government’s coercive policies since the American invasion. It appears that the size of the constituency opposed to al-Qaeda inside the Taliban has grown, but its political status within the group is uncertain. For now, given the Taliban’s public evasiveness on al-Qaeda and reluctance to denounce it, the balance of internal elite opinion seems to be in favor of the group. Thus, the Taliban is unlikely to carry out a major crackdown or expel it from Afghanistan.

Looking ahead, the Taliban is likely to institute formal mechanisms to manage groups of foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda and its allied organizations. The Taliban may provide guidelines, perhaps non-binding, to regulate the behavior of the groups; such demarches may include provisions on activities against the U.S. and its allies. Nevertheless, if the past is a guide, the Taliban will be unlikely to admit to its relationships with such groups. It may also take steps to mitigate the impression of being a counterterrorism partner to the United States or doing America’s bidding, especially against groups like al-Qaeda

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