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An embarrassment for the Taliban

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The killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri on July 31 should serve as a major setback to the efficacy of Al-Qaeda. Hopefully, it would usher the War on Terror (WOT) to its logical conclusion. Incidentally, some governments have been using the term WOT liberally to fulfil their vested interest inside and outside the country. The American action against Zawahiri, announced by President Biden, is celebrated as a feather in his cap. However, there are multiple interpretations offered to describe the American action.

First, it should raise the popularity graph of President Biden, which has been falling persistently due to the president’s performance, especially in the economic field. After the killing of Zawahiri, his approval rating rose by one percentage point to 38% in the past two weeks. While the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing was an international sensation, Zawahiri’s killing got overshadowed due to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and the Ukrainian crisis. In his reaction, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “by hosting and sheltering the leader of Al-Qaeda in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”

Second, the U.S. drone attack was a sheer embarrassment for the Taliban under whose nose Zawahiri, the most wanted terrorist with $ 25 million head money, lived in Kabul’s posh locality. His residence was reportedly a few meters away from Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani’s residence; a U.N. declared terrorist with $ 10 million head money. The Taliban insiders may have identified the presence of Zawahiri, which further reinforces the view about factional differences within the Taliban hierarchy. However, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS on August 2: “We do believe that senior members of the Haqqani Network, which is associated with the Taliban, knew that Zawahiri was in Kabul…There may have been other members who didn’t.”

Third, the U.S. displayed its improved military prowess by accurately targeting Zawahiri without collateral damage, unlike when such attacks caused untold miseries for the civilians. The accuracy of attacks also indicated that the U.S. has succeeded in placing its moles in the Afghan capital. The most recent embarrassing drone attack killed ten innocent Afghan citizens, including children, just a week before the U.S. forces’ final departure from Kabul last year. The U.S. also acknowledged that it was a mistaken identity operation.

Fourth, the Taliban government has condemned American action as violating Afghan territory and international laws. The statement said the Taliban government “wants to implement the Doha pact, and the violation of the pact must end.” However, it warned, “If such action is repeated, the responsibility of any consequences will be on the United States of America.”

While the Taliban statement described the American action as a violation of the Doha Agreement’s spirit, it maintained a stoic silence about the Taliban’s role or presence of Al-Qaeda sanctuary in Kabul or elsewhere in the country. The presence of Zawahiri in Kabul would raise many questions about the sincerity of the Taliban regime in not allowing Al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary. Zawahiri’s death is a significant problem for the Taliban because it’s likely to spoil whatever slim opportunity it had to pursue normal working relationships with the U.S., Europe, and perhaps Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Another question arises about whether the U.S. drones were allowed to use Pakistan’s airspace. While the government of Pakistan has not commented on this question, the possibility of such cooperation cannot be ruled out. Such collaboration would be in accordance with the U.N. Security Council’s Resolutions 1267, 1368 and 1373, which call upon the member states to take the Al-Qaeda and Taliban members, figuring in the sanctioned list, to account. Those objecting to the American action should know that the above resolutions are under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, calling upon the member states to implement the decisions of the Security Council, if needed, by force.

Since the Taliban are now in power, they are equally responsible for implementing the U.N. Security Resolutions. The Doha Agreement also reiterates the same obligation upon the Taliban not to allow Afghan soil to be used against the U.S. and its allies. Therefore, the Taliban regime’s condemnation of the American action would not be heeded in light of the above resolutions. Since the Taliban are keen that the world should recognize their regime, the presence of the Al-Qaeda sanctuaries would only ruin the chances of their recognition and future interaction with the international community. According to the American analyst Michael Kugelman, “Al-Qaeda may have lost its leader, but the Taliban have suffered a major loss, too.”

The American drone attack may be a precursor to the American future course of action not only against Al-Qaeda activists, but also some of the prominent Taliban leaders, especially the leaders of the Haqqani network. According to media reports, several Haqqani network leaders, including the Interior Minister Sirajuddin, have left Kabul for hideouts in south-western Afghanistan since the assassination of Zawahiri. In the coming days and weeks, the Taliban factions will return to the drawing board to discuss the future strategy.

Afghanistan is already reeling under a severe humanitarian crisis, where ninety percent of the population cannot access two square meals. In such a situation, Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul has created further hurdles in the way of the Taliban government grappling to establish their writ in the country. Moreover, before the Al-Qaeda leader’s discovery was widely known, U.S. and Taliban officials discussed everything from humanitarian assistance to economic stabilization. The two sides were even trading proposals about how best to unfreeze $3.5 billion in Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. On July 27, U.S. envoy Thomas West led an inter-agency delegation in Uzbekistan to continue talks with the Taliban on Afghanistan’s economy.

The Taliban will have to make extra efforts to restore the international community’s confidence that Afghanistan is no more a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups. The Taliban will have to seriously ponder the unanimity at the global level not to recognize their regime unless they ensure the cessation of sanctuaries to terrorists, allow girls education and create an inclusive political environment for greater stability in the country. They must also realize that they do not live on an island or are immune from international scrutiny. However, their rigid stance only adds to the ordinary Afghans’ miseries. The same is true for the Americans; their stance may be a good ploy to keep the Taliban under pressure, but the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people have become victims of American rigidity.

Note: This article appeared in Bol News, dated 12 August 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.


IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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