Besides strong indicators of a significant role Pakistan may have played in the latest United States’ endeavour, there are many similarities in the way Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman Al-Zawahiri were eliminated, eleven years apart.
Hard evidence– that will be most likely denied by Washington and Islamabad, as was done in Osama’s case – may soon emerge about the US carrying out the drone attack on Zawahiri in Kabul, with quiet cooperation from Pakistan. The Pakistani military, and the Shehbaz Sharif Government alike, are currently wooing the US to repair relations significantly damaged by former premier Imran Khan.
Islamabad’s help would seem a natural corollary to its seeking the US’ good offices to secure an urgently-needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
A report indicates that the US drone flew from a ‘friendly’ Middle-Eastern country, most probably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but unmistakably, using Pakistan’s airspace. Details may take time to emerge, and finality may never emerge as in Osama’s case.
The bottom line is that all concerned with last weekend’s developments know that there’s no escape from the fact that last year’s chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has opened up dangerous new opportunities for al-Qaeda in a territory where the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is also a rival player.
The very fact that al-Zawahiri was found living comfortably in a Kabul “safe house”, close to the Taliban leadership, shows that hard core jihadist elements within the Taliban have no intention of breaking off ties with al-Qaeda. Also clear is Pakistan’s continued role, despite its wavering vibes with the Afghan Taliban it helped return to power.
As for the operation in Kabul, the US knew of Zawhiri’s presence. It struck once the suspicions turned into hard evidence through months of hard intelligence gathering.
Learning from the way Osama’s hideout in Abbottabad was identified, the Americans have had few difficulties in locating Zawahiri’s, in a posh Kabul suburb that was frequented by many foreigners, among them Americans, till only eleven months ago. They were on known terrain.
Significantly, the reactions of both, Islamabad in 2011 and Kabul under Taliban rule now, are identical. The two leaderships righteously condemned ‘violation’ of their territorial sovereignty, but left it at that.
As per evidence that emerged later, the US had acted in Abbottabad on a tacit understanding reached with Pakistan, particularly its Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. In Kabul’s case, it acted under a formal agreement reached at Doha in February 2020.
If the Taliban used a vaguely worded pact in their favour last year, the US has done it now. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stressed on how assurance under the Doha pact was violated by Kabul. The Taliban may insist that they had undertaken not to attack US interests outside Afghanistan, and had never assured anything about any action within their territory. But they must now live without Zawahiri, killed under their very nose, and future ‘threats’ they may pose to the US.
Cutting through these semantics, there seems little doubt that like Kayani, who actually congratulated the US for “taking out” Osama, Afghan acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the Haqqani network, knew and supervised Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. If Islamabad and Kayani were winking at Osama’s presence, denying it all the while, Kabul did not have to go through that drill.
Just as Osama was moved to a safe house in Abbottabad by Pakistan, the Taliban also, on seizing Kabul last year, moved Zawahiri, with his wife, daughter and granddaughters, from the tribal area to the safety of Kabul’s Sherpur, in the neighbourhood of several Taliban leaders and the Kabul elite, including foreigners.
The two American operations differ on the damage they caused. The one in Kabul took only Zawahiri and no other family members. Even the building was left intact and the Sherpur neighbourhood had to bear only the deafening sound of Kinetic Hellfire R9X. No warhead explosives, just blades that swing out to kill only one guy. Without involving the US Navy in 2011, the CIA achieved the mission.
This is bound to cause a temporary setback in the US-Afghan ties and in their talks for a measure of reconciliation. The Taliban have been keen to recover USD nine billion lying in the US banks that the US has been unwilling or delaying.
Even if symbolically, this is a huge comeback for the US in a theatre it had to quit. Now it can act without the responsibility of sustaining a weak government.
This is a moment of triumph for Biden, just as killing Osama was for then President Obama. It has a psychological impact on the domestic front where Biden was criticised for having actually fled Afghanistan last year. It changes the public mood on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the US’s clash with China.
But challenges could escalate. Zawahiri’s successor, as per a report, is a younger Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian Army Colonel. He was previously affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), founded by Zawahiri, and is believed to be an explosives expert.
The US seems all set to resume its role that is bound to impact South, West and Central Asia. As Blinken put it: “In the face of the Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to abide by their commitments, we will continue to support the Afghan people with robust humanitarian assistance and to advocate for the protection of their human rights, especially of women and girls.”
Blinken has diplomatically left out fighting terrorism.