WASHINGTON — For more than 15 years, Qari Baryal has been on a special list of Washington’s “most-wanted” Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, accused of carrying out bombing and suicide attacks across the country.
Baryal and the militants he oversaw were “involved in the supervision of IED [improvised explosive device] production, suicide personnel allocation, and overall attack planning and execution” in Kabul and surrounding provinces, according to U.S. military reports.
In November 2021, two months after U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban appointed Baryal as the governor of Kabul province. In March 2022, he became the provincial governor for Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul.
Baryal is among those listed in a recent United Nations report as one of the Taliban’s leaders “affiliated” with al-Qaida. Besides Baryal, Nuristan Governor Hafiz Muhammad Agha Hakeem and Tajmir Jawad, the Taliban’s deputy director of intelligence, are also listed in the report.
“With the patronage of the Taliban, Al-Qaida members have received appointments and advisory roles in the Taliban security and administrative structures,” the U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said in the report earlier in June. It called relations between the Taliban and al-Qaida “strong and symbiotic.”
According to the report, an estimated 400 al-Qaida fighters were in Afghanistan, and there are signs that the terrorist group “is rebuilding operational capability.”
The Taliban rejected the report, calling it “biased and far from reality.”
A statement posted on Twitter by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group “insists on its commitments and assures that there is no threat from the territory of Afghanistan to the region, neighbors and countries of the world and it does not allow anyone to use its territory against others.”
Taliban Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also rejected the presence of any terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
“There are no terrorist groups in Afghanistan. They cannot operate in the country, and we don’t let them operate in Afghanistan,” he said at an event in May organized by the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.
U.S. officials have long expressed skepticism over Taliban claims that they have distanced themselves from al-Qaida. When a U.S. drone killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last July, he was found living in a home in a central neighborhood of the capital, Kabul.
The U.S. said his presence there demonstrated the Taliban had broken the 2020 Doha Agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taiban. By hosting and sheltering the al-Qaida leader, the Taliban violated commitments to not allow terrorists in Afghan territory threaten the security of other countries.
The Taliban “will send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan,” the agreement stated.
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA that by appointing “double-hatted” al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, including Baryal, who killed American troops, the Taliban “are openly flouting” the so-called peace agreement.
These appointments show that the Taliban “are not concerned about the perception of the international community,” Roggio said.
He said the Taliban “always lied” about their ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, and that the group’s statements cannot be “trusted.”
Roggio said Afghanistan could again become a training hub for the terrorist group.
“This is everything that al-Qaida can hope for. They have safe haven. They have support from the Taliban, who are in full control of the country,” he said.
But some experts do not think the country is becoming a magnet for foreign fighters.
Sami Yousafzai, a journalist who covered Afghanistan for years, told VOA he believes al-Qaida members now in Afghanistan are mainly Arabs, with just a few Afghan Taliban members who joined “out of necessity.”
“They had contacts with al-Qaida since they were living there, and they were protecting al-Qaida as they paid them,” he said.
Other regional experts say the region’s long military conflict between the Taliban and U.S.-led forces created loose alliances among regional militia groups.
Rahmatullah Andar, the former spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Security Council, told VOA that the Taliban groups in the districts have been hosting al-Qaida members for more than 20 years.
“Therefore, it is difficult to separate them. Not only with al-Qaida but also with the Pakistani Taliban,” he said.
Andar added that some Afghans were working with al-Qaida, but there were also some who were group members.
“They have the same worldview, the same goals and the same approach,” he said.
Back in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province, Baryal now posts Facebook videos showing his outreach to the local community as the Taliban government’s official representative.
Source : VOA