Afghanistan’s Taliban have rejected as “baseless propaganda” American concerns that al-Qaida, or militants linked to the Middle East-based Islamic State terrorist group, maintains a presence in the South Asian country.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid made the assertions at a news conference in Kabul just days after the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for a string of deadly bomb attacks over the weekend targeting Taliban fighters in eastern Nangarhar province.
Mujahid’s remarks also follow recent warnings by U.S. intelligence officials that al-Qaida and Islamic State operatives were making their way back to Afghanistan, emboldened by the Islamist Taliban takeover of the conflict-torn nation five weeks ago.
The Taliban spokesman denounced the bombings in Nangarhar. He said his ruling Islamist group was determined to stem the violence and does not see ISIS-K as a significant threat.
“You will witness for yourself that these will be the last attacks they have carried out and they will not be able to conduct them in the future.”
Mujahid asserted Tuesday that militants operating in Afghanistan in the name of ISIS-K have no ties to those fighting in Syria and Iraq.
“Daesh [Islamic State] has no physical presence here, but it is possible some people who may be our own Afghans have adopted Daesh ideology, which is a phenomenon that is neither popular nor is supported by Afghans,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Middle East-based terror outfit.
ISIS-K also claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport last month that killed 13 U.S. service members and nearly 170 Afghan civilians who had crowded outside the airport gates.
Al-Qaida in Afghanistan
Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director David Cohen said last week that the U.S. is “already beginning to see some of the indications of some potential movement of al-Qaida to Afghanistan.”
“But it’s early days,” Cohen told a panel discussion at an intelligence summit outside of Washington. He warned that al-Qaida could reconstitute in as little as a year. “We will obviously keep a very close eye on that.”
But Mujahid denied those assertions.
“These concerns about foreign militants or anyone linked to al-Qaida being present in Afghanistan are misplaced and they are expressed for the sake of propaganda only. We don’t see anyone in Afghanistan who has anything to do with al-Qaida,” said the Taliban spokesman.
“We have given commitment to the world and to America, as well that we will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil to harm or threaten any country. This is a principled position and we strictly stand by it because it is also in the interest of Afghans,” Mujahid added.
Since ousting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul last month, the Taliban have been under pressure to deliver on counterterrorism pledges and renounce ties with al-Qaida, the terrorist group Washington says organized the September 11, 2001, strikes on America from the then -Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The attacks provoked the United States and its Western allies to swiftly invade the country and removed the Taliban from power for refusing to hand over the al-Qaida planners.
The Taliban regained power in Kabul after all U.S.-led NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan, and the government and its military collapsed in the face of increased attacks by the insurgent group.
Male Taliban Cabinet
Mujahid addressed Tuesday’s news conference mainly to announce an expansion in the Taliban’s two-week-old caretaker government, but failed to name any women to the all-male cabinet of about 60 members.
He insisted the Taliban government represented all Afghan ethnicities, saying women will be added to the cabinet at a later stage but did not say when. The spokesman again urged the United Nations, the U.S., the European Union, and other countries, as well as Afghanistan’s neighbors, to recognize the Kabul government.
Also, several key Taliban Cabinet members are blacklisted by the U.S. and U.N., preventing countries from dealing directly with Kabul.
Washington and other countries maintain they will judge the Taliban by their actions, and that recognition of a Taliban-led government would be linked to the treatment of women and minorities, among other concerns.
The demand stems from fears the Taliban may try to reimpose their hardline Islamist rule the group enforced in Afghanistan when it was in control of most of the country from 1996 to 2001. A brutal justice system, the barring of women from work and public life, and girls from receiving an education, marked Taliban rule during that time.