Did the Quetta Shura Break With al-Qaida?

Mustafa Hamid, aka Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, published a blog piece a little while ago which discussed the arrest of Mullah Baradir. It’s fascinating reading, especially the first part which deals with the historical role of Mullah Baradir in the Taliban insurgency. It’s already been covered in part by Leah Farrall.

I thought I’d add some comment about the opening lines of the article, in which Mustafa Hamid says that the Taliban’s high council made three important decisions after 2001, one of which was to “break the ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida.” Mustafa Hamid has previously said that al-Qaida and the Taliban have moved further apart after 2001, although I don’t think he’s ever been this specific. We have heard similar things in the media, but the reports are hard to confirm. Was there actually a decision in the Quetta shura, led by Mullah Baradir at the time, to break ties with al-Qaida?

If true, it would be really interesting, especially since we know that al-Qaida militants and at least parts of the Taliban movement continue to cooperate closely on a tactical level in Afghanistan. In an article in Sumud magazine in 2008, Mullah Baradir also acknowledged the presence of foreign fighters in the Taliban’s ranks. If the Quetta Shura indeed made a decision to break ties with al-Qaida after 2001, it doesn’t seem to have impeded the tactical cooperation between the two. It is tempting to assume that either, the Quetta Shura has little influence on the actual insurgency in Afghanistan, or Mustafa Hamid’s statement is incorrect.

The first point may in part be true. Al-Qaida fighters are most active in eastern Afghanistan, where the Quetta Shura’s direct influence over the insurgency is probably also the lowest. However, I think there’s another interpretation as well, namely that the Shura never actually intended to break ties with the al-Qaida militants who supported them in Afghanistan. On the other hand, they might have wanted to distance themselves from certain aspects of al-Qaida’s ideology. Reading the rest of Mustafa Hamid’s article, we see that he’s not really talking about an all-out rejection of foreign fighters in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Rather, he refers to the Quetta shura’s rejection of the “al-Qaida strategy” of instigating sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq after 2003. (A “strategy” which was actually criticised by al-Qaida Central as well – but that’s the pitfall of lending out your brand name to unruly regional associates).

Rejecting this particular aspect of “al-Qaida” is pretty easy for the Taliban, which has never been a sectarian group anyway. But rejecting the presence of al-Qaida fighters and ideologues in AfPak is a much more complicated matter.

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