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Will the Taliban welcome al-Qaeda back to Afghanistan?

Afghanistan's economy is hanging by a thread; Iran makes the best of the Taliban; the "resistance" finds inspiration; five must reads on Afghanistan.
Taliban, imam at Kabul mosque

Afghanistan’s fragile economy

Afghanistan ranks as one of the most at-risk, fragile economies in the world. Poverty is endemic, as is underdevelopment, because of long-term, high-intensity conflict, according to the World Bank. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The other countries on this short, grim list include the Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Afghanistan has 37 million people, with 46% of the population under 15 years of age, which means about half of the population has no memory of previous Taliban rule. The last time the "Emirate" ran things, there was no internet there. What this means is unclear, but at a minimum the population, especially in urban areas, is aware of and connected to the world. That could be a source of stress or instability, especially given an economy in dire straits.

Nearly half (47.3%) of Afghans live in poverty. According to the Asian Development Bank, the official unemployment rate is 11.7% (it’s probably higher), and 34.3% of those who are working make less than $1.90 per day. 

An IMF report on Afghanistan in June painted a worrying economic picture. "The pandemic has imposed a heavy socioeconomic toll," the IMF reported, and "forced thousands into poverty, set back progress toward self-reliance, and caused a permanent output loss."

The IMF, in response to US pressure, this week suspended Afghanistan's access to $440 million in new monetary reserves after the Taliban took over. Afghanistan’s fragile economic progress — a projected 2.7% growth rate for 2021, after a 2% decline in 2020 — could be at risk under the Taliban. 

Ties that bind? Al-Qaeda and the Taliban

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, which killed 2,605 Americans and hundreds of others and injured over 6,000 people. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was living in Afghanistan at the time, under the protection of the then-Taliban government.

After talks with the Trump administration last year, the Taliban agreed not to provide protection to the terrorist group again. The US-Taliban Agreement of February 2020 committed the Taliban to "not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies."

Seth Jones, author of the must read "In the Graveyard of Empires" (five more must reads below), writes in The Wall Street Journal that al-Qaeda and the Taliban nonetheless appear to remain brothers in arms and ideology. "The Taliban and al Qaeda enjoy longstanding personal relationships, intermarriage, a shared history of struggle and sympathetic ideologies," Jones writes, "Al Qaeda leaders have pledged loyalty to every Taliban leader since the group’s establishment."

UN Security Council report in June observed a steep deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, characterized by an increase in high-profile and terrorist attacks, and the presence of as many as 10,000 foreign fighters, as well as an estimated 2,000 or so Islamic State Khorasan terrorists.

It’s not a harmonious assembly of forces. The Taliban have clashed with the Islamic State Khorasan, for instance. That relationship is worth watching. At a minimum, the Islamic State and other affiliated or aligned armed groups have likely found inspiration (see below), and perhaps safe haven, in those ungoverned or poorly governed areas of Afghanistan.

Iran can live with the Taliban … for now

Iran likely has no illusions about the Taliban, but a 572-mile border forces some realism.

As the Pentagon reported in April, Iran has provided "calibrated support to the Taliban" while keeping good relations with the Afghan government. This pattern of maintaining government-to-government ties, while retaining influence with powerful subnational groups, is similar to its approach in Iraq. There Tehran has formal relations with Baghdad, while keeping influence with certain armed Popular Mobilization Units.

Tehran intensified its contacts with the Taliban in recent months, hosting Taliban and government delegations in July to boost Iran's role as a facilitator and mediator.

In Afghanistan, ironically, Iran shares interests with its longtime nemesis, the United States, particularly in countering the international drug trade emanating from Afghanistan, and in combating the Islamic State Khorasan. Iran, which hosts 3 million Afghans, also worries about a new surge.

Iran can play the cultural card in Afghanistan, as we reported here. "Dari, the Afghan version of the Persian language, is spoken by 78% of the population and is the preferred language of governance in Kabul. Herat province, on Iran’s eastern border, is a historic gateway to Iran and was a key cultural and religious hub of the Persian Empire. Afghanistan is 90% Muslim, with up to 17% of the population Shiite, the rest Sunni."

Taking inspiration

The Taliban takeover and US withdrawal from Afghanistan has inspired so-called "resistance" and jihadi groups throughout the region.

Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon, said this week, "With the US defeat in Afghanistan, the eyes are now on the US occupation of Iraq and Syria. … The Iraqis should also take a look at the Afghan experience and reconsider the issue of [the presence of] US advisers and training forces."

Hamas (the Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement) released a statement that “the end of the US and its allies' occupation is proof that the popular resistance, mainly our Palestinian militant people, will triumph and achieve the goals of freedom and return,” as Entsar Abu Jahal reports from Gaza.

Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of God), also known as the Houthis, considered the US withdrawal as a potential sign of strengthened hand in consolidating control in Yemen, as Naseh Shaker reports from Sanaa.

Five more must reads

In considering Afghanistan, and options facing the Biden Administration, there are several must-reads:

-Peter Hopkirk, "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia." Hopkirk’s vivid account of the contest for supremacy between Great Britain and Russia helps contemporary readers understand the context for the frustrations, perils, and disappointments of the current US experience in Afghanistan.

-Steve Coll, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." Coll provides the definitive account of the US covert wars in Afghanistan, while chronicling the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

-Lawrence Wright, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." Simply put, the standard work on the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, an unusual of mix page-turner and meticulous history.

-Bob Woodward, "Bush at War" and "Obama’s Wars." Both books in particular, as well as parts of the Woodward books on the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies, are primary sources on US administrations' decision-making in the Afghan and Iraq wars.

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