Fighters linked to the terrorist group al Qaeda joined with the Taliban in an attack on Helmand province in southern Afghanistan earlier this month, its governor has claimed.
The Taliban strongly denied the allegation, saying all its forces were from the local area.
Any evidence of al Qaeda activity in Afghanistan could threaten the core goal of the US-led, UK-backed mission in the country: to stop the group behind the September 11 atrocity in the United States from launching international terrorist attacks once more from Afghan soil.
Mohammad Yasin Khan, the Helmand governor, told Sky News the Taliban insurgents involved in the October offensive came from inside and outside his region.
“They brought other Taliban from other parts of the country, as well as members of Pakistani terrorists group and al Qaeda fighters – Pakistani groups such as Jaish-e-Mohmmad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi & Lashkar-e-Taiba,” the governor said.
“Also other foreign fighters joined them and they launched a huge attack on Helmand,” he said, speaking from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
“Their aim was to capture Helmand.”
The assault happened even as a historic attempt at peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban takes place in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, dismissed the governor’s allegations.
“This is all baseless claims since they were humiliated by losing ground to mujahideen [referring to the Taliban],” he told Sky News.
“They couldn’t resist and fought back then started these false claims that foreign fighters were helping mujahideen. There was no one from outside. All mujahideen were from Helmand. They (the Afghan government) are used to such propaganda. They keep doing such things for the past 20 years.”
Dr Moeed Yusuf, a special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister on national security, said there were Pakistani terrorist groups in Afghanistan, but that whether or not they were linked to al Qaeda “is a conversation and a question that needs to be answered based on intelligence in Afghanistan”.
He also said he did not know whether they supported Taliban activities.
But he said “These groups are in Afghanistan – yes. It is my biggest worry as Pakistan that these groups sit there, seem to be acting with impunity and regularly are attacking Pakistani soil.”
The Helmand governor’s allegations, if true, could fuel fears the Taliban is violating a pledge to cut ties with al Qaeda as part of a peace deal with the United States in return for all US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021. Thousands have already left.
Western security sources say there is evidence of al Qaeda fighters returning to Afghanistan, taking advantage of the reduced US presence and the Taliban’s growing legitimacy following its peace agreement with Washington, which was signed in February.
A key concern in the longer term is that the group – which has deep roots with the Taliban – could eventually be given tacit approval once more to establish a safe haven in the country.
Last week, Afghan security forces said they had killed Abu Muhsin al-Masri, a senior al Qaeda figure, who was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list.
Al-Masri, an Egyptian national also known as Husam Abd al Ra’uf, died in a special operations raid in the eastern province of Ghazni.
The core al Qaeda terrorist group founded by Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by US special forces in 2011, has a network of affiliated offshoots, while other groups are allied with its cause.
Islamic State, a rival terrorist organisation, also has a presence in Afghanistan – Islamic State Khorasan – though the Taliban has fought against its members.
In Lashkar Gah, the governor said the Taliban’s attempt at seizing Helmand, launched in the second week of October, would fail.
Afghan soldiers and police have conducted a counter-attack, supported by US airstrikes.
He said he thought the offensive was part of an effort by the Taliban to increase pressure on the Afghan authorities so the group could make political gains during the peace process.
Taliban members have been meeting with an Afghan government-led delegation in Doha since mid-September but the talks have yet to move past procedural matters.
The US has warned the violence in Afghanistan is too high and that the two sides must work harder to agree a ceasefire as part of their discussions.
The Helmand governor suggested regional powers Iran and Pakistan might be helping to fuel the unrest.
“Currently truck loads of explosives material are coming to them [Taliban] from both of our neighbours [Iran and Pakistan],” Mr Khan claimed.
“I don’t know why. Are they supporters of peace or war? What is their hidden agenda?”
Pakistan’s national security adviser categorically denied this claim against his country.
“This is a distraction,” he said.
“We need to focus on peace, we need to focus on how to get the current Afghan peace process moving forward, concluded quickly, so there’s a whole of government, whole of Afghanistan solution and Afghanistan can become peaceful.”
Sky News contacted the Iranian embassy in London for a response to the allegations but has yet to receive a reply.
Tehran has in the past denied allegations made by the United States that it was arming the Taliban.
The Taliban offensive, which targeted areas around Lashkar Gah, forced up to 35,000 men, women and children to flee their homes.
The Afghan defence ministry said this week its security forces had cleared insurgents from a number of districts and that the operation was continuing.