KABUL -- A recent high-level meeting between top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Helmand Province is the latest piece of evidence pointing to continuing close ties between the two groups.
Asim Umar, who led al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) from its inception in 2014, was killed during a US-Afghan joint raid September 22-23 on a Taliban compound in Musa Qala District, Helmand Province.
"The killing of the al-Qaeda leader in Helmand, where the Taliban exist and operate, reveals that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have very close relations," said Fawad Aman, a deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defence.
"This al-Qaeda leader gathered with his colleagues to plan terrorist activities," he said.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS) said Umar was a Pakistani citizen, though some reports claim he was born in India.
He "was killed along with six other AQIS members, most of them Pakistani", the NDS said on Twitter, adding that Umar had been "embedded" with the Taliban.
Among the six other AQIS members killed in the raid was a man identified as "Raihan," a liaison between Umar and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the NDS said.
Nearly two dozen Taliban members were also killed in the same operation.
The Taliban released a statement on October 8 denying the killing of Umar, but Afghan officials and analysts say there is a strategy behind the Taliban's denials.
"The Taliban said during the peace talks that they had no ties with al-Qaeda, and they have therefore rejected the news of the al-Qaeda leader's killing as it exposed their ties with al-Qaeda," Aman said.
"Both the groups are Afghanistan's enemies," he said. "Our operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda have increased, and we are determined to annihilate them."
The Taliban and al-Qaeda have had a strategic and close relationship for the past two decades, said Gen. (ret.) Dawlat Waziri, a military affairs analyst and former spokesman for the Ministry of Defence.
The Taliban provided Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan while the group planned and carried out terrorist attack around the world, including the attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States.
"The Taliban claim that they don't have any ties with al-Qaeda to deceive the international community, but the killing of Asim Umar, an al-Qaeda leader, in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand shows that the group hasn't severed its strategic ties with al-Qaeda," he said.
"In their talks in Doha, the Taliban lied to the American [peace negotiators] when they said they didn't have ties with al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups," Waziri said.
"The reality is that the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and all the regional terrorist groups have friendly and close relations with each other, and our information indicates that al-Qaeda finances a portion of the Taliban's operations," he said.
Pro-al-Qaeda media outlets, such as al-Bayan, also regularly post Taliban messages in what many see as a sign of continuing unity.
Shared interests, goals
"The killing of the al-Qaeda leader in Helmand -- and the presence of Tajik, Arab, Uzbek and Uighur fighters in the Taliban's ranks who fight against Afghan and international forces -- reveals that the Taliban still have strong relations with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups," said Arif Kayani, a political affairs analyst in Kabul.
"From an ideological viewpoint, the Taliban have had undeniable and multilateral relations with al-Qaeda since their forming," he said. "They share goals, interests and views, and have the same regional supporters. They both benefit from the black economy, operate in a similar geography, and share information and military resources."
"These are the main factors that have brought the Taliban so close to al-Qaeda, and they have developed organic and unbreakable relations, which they have maintained in many areas," he said.
"In addition to providing an opportunity for other terrorist groups to operate in Afghanistan, the Taliban haven't broken their relations with most of the regional terrorist groups, especially with al-Qaeda," said Asadullah Walwalji, a political and military affairs analyst in Kabul.
"Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have pledged allegiance to each other, and they are still committed to one another," he said.
"The Taliban sometimes hide their relations with al-Qaeda to pretend to Afghans and the international community that they're independent," Walwalji said, adding that the Taliban's denial of Umar's killing "proves their strong relations with al-Qaeda".
Beyond ideological ties
The relationship goes beyond ideology, analysts say.
"Sometimes the Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders consult with each other on leading the war, and they put together plans for launching joint military operations to attack special targets," said Sikander Asghari, a Kabul-based military affairs analyst.
"There haven't been any changes in the relations or goals of both groups," he said.
"The Taliban have given safe havens to the al-Qaeda remnants in areas on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they even claim responsibility for certain al-Qaeda terrorist attacks," he said.
"The Taliban try to hide their relations with al-Qaeda, so they can lie to the world that the group [the Taliban] is no longer a threat to them," he said.
If deceived, "regional countries and the international community might recognise the group as an independent Afghan movement that fights for its own goals in Afghanistan", he said.
"But the evidence and the Taliban's position regarding the killing of the al-Qaeda leader in Helmand show that the Taliban have never severed their relations with al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks."
President Ashraf Ghani praised the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) operations on the Taliban's base in Helmand Province that resulted in the killing of Umar and other strategic targets.
"The killing of the al-Qaeda leader and other prominent figures of the group in Afghanistan proves that the group is active in Afghanistan, and no one can deny the Taliban's relations with al-Qaeda," he said during a cabinet meeting October 9.