WASHINGTON - A UN Security Council Monitoring Team for Afghanistan has warned that the Taleban is well poised to make a grab for power in Kabul after the United States completes its ongoing withdrawal in September.
Key Taleban leaders "oppose peace talks and favour a military solution", says the Tuesday (June 1) report made public on Wednesday.
The Taleban already has direct control over more than half of Afghanistan's district administrative centres, while contesting or controlling up to 70 per cent of territory outside urban areas, says the report.
Moreover, the ultra-conservative Taleban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate, and Al-Qaeda "remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties", it adds.
There has been "no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second-generational ties".
The Taleban swiftly rejected the report by the UN Security Council's Analytic Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.
"Unfortunately, this report has been compiled on the basis of false information from enemy intelligence agencies," Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
"Representatives of the Islamic Emirate are also fully prepared for the inter-Afghan negotiating table, in order to make progress in the negotiations and implement all the clauses," he said.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taleban for sheltering Al-Qaeda, which carried out the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.
President Joe Biden last month set a deadline of Sept 1 for withdrawing an estimated 2,500 American troops, along with those of Nato partners. The withdrawal is well under way.
But the 2020 Doha Agreement, which paved the way for this transition, states that: "A comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement will include… guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals against the security of the United States and its allies."
Analysts watching Afghanistan agreed with the UN report.
"It's a little late," tweeted Ms Farahnaz Ispahani, senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute and public policy fellow at the Wilson Centre.
"The Taleban have not given up on anything," Dr Aparna Pande, research fellow and director of Hudson Institute's Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, told The Straits Times. "They don't believe in power-sharing and have shown no intention of breaking ties with Al-Qaeda."
In fact late last month, the Taleban warned neighbours against allowing the US to use their territory or air space for military operations in Afghanistan. This came as the US plans to reposition some US troops in the region to carry out counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan even after it makes its exit.
Mr Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, warned on Thursday that the Afghan government is "slowly but clearly losing ground to the Taleban".
On Thursday itself, the Taleban captured another district in central Uruzgan province, he noted.
Al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan has been confirmed by its own media wings; its Thabat newsletter has listed Al-Qaeda attacks since 2020 in 18 provinces, the UN report noted.
"Al-Qaeda is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions," it said.
"Al-Qaeda, including Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, is reported to number in the range of several dozen to 500 persons. The group's leader, Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri, is believed to be located somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Previous reports of his death due to ill health have not been confirmed."
Al-Qaeda's near-term strategy is assessed as maintaining its traditional safe haven in Afghanistan for its core leadership, and it maintains contact with the Taleban but has minimised overt communications in an effort to "lay low", it said.
"It will be important for the international community to monitor any sign of Afghanistan again becoming a destination for extremists with both regional and international agendas," the report warned.