Men like Ayman al-Zawahiri seldom die of old age. He avoided detection since 9/11 and was proficient in being invisible. He probably never wanted a missile hit to take him out, but then the alternate of being captured was equally terrible. It was just a matter of time. The strike on a Sunday morning at Kabul on 31 Jul 2022 ended that life. For the US it was in the twenty first year of its War on Terrorism. What was Zawahiri doing in Kabul in the first place? Why did he give up his reclusive and invisible existence in deep Nuristan, Kunar and other difficult to access places to expose himself in suburbia Kabul? Answers are needed here.
Zalmay Khalilzad and numerous American visitors repeatedly raised the question of Al Qaida and Ayman al Zawahiri during the Doha Peace Talks with the Taliban team. The US believed that a revival of Al Qaida was very visible in Afghanistan and sought Taliban guarantees to distance itself from the AQ, which was a perpetual threat to the US mainland. The US and NATO themselves failed to restrict Daish/AQ/ISIS/ISIK in that period, that they left it to the Punjshiri/Northern Alliance dominated NDS to manage them. With unlimited funds, a free hand and American trust what else could Amrullah Saleh want! Assurances at Doha were forthcoming. The Taliban only had to show patience, agree on some issues and let the US hand Kabul on a plate, which happened. It is now thought that Zalmay Khalilzad’s main intention was to remove Ashraf Ghani by any means. He and the US believed that Kabul would hold on. The collapse was unimaginably sudden. However by then a secret pact, other than the Exit Plan between the US and the Taliban, surfaced. This was, as some Afghan elders believe was a charter of commitments that the Taliban at Doha have agreed to and signed. Some call it a ‘Lifeline Document’ that the Taliban could not ignore and what the US demanded was its immediate implementation. In Jul 2022, the Taliban were reportedly issued a warning by Washington to immediately comply with some of the clauses. Does this shed a different light on Zawahiri’s elimination?
There is no dearth of informers in Kabul. The street talk is interesting. Three houses, just prior to the US evacuation were prepared by the NDS as possible safe houses. These were located in Qila Fatehullah, Street 15 Wazir Akbar Khan and Shergarh Cantonment. Al Zawahiri returns to Kabul in late July 2022 and stays in one of the same designated houses at Shergarh. On Sunday 31 Jul US missiles strike two houses one at Shergarh and the other on Street 15 Wazir Akbar Khan. Taliban surprisingly cleared all debris from both locations within hours of the strike. Zawahiri was confirmed as killed. The Shergarh house is reportedly owned by a Haqqani supporter. Afghan informers tipped the US off about the presence of their man in one of the two houses. Was someone in the Government complicit? Whatever the case, it was well planned and executed.
The Taliban have banked on every terrorist group that was willing to help it in its war against NATO/US. It either never bothered to check the activities of these groups or knowingly ignored what they were up to. TTP/ISIK/ETIM/AQ/Baluch Terrorists enjoyed immense freedom. Taliban fail to realize that these very groups are mutating into something very menacing even for them. Grievances within the Taliban themselves are many. The Haqqanis, Logari Taliban, Kandahari Taliban and independent armed groups that form part of the Taliban under Commanders Bashir, Bilal, Sadr Azam and Zakir have issues. The edict on girl education and choking of women rights has not made things easier.
Pakistan in a tragic accident lost senior officers in a helicopter crash near Karachi. The reason for the sudden crash is a mystery. Did the US drones fly over Pakistan space to get Zawahiri? Did one of these drones strike the Pakistani helicopter killing all on board? Was this a warning to Pakistan by the US? The answer will be revealed in the forensic of the debris of whether it was due to a missile hit or otherwise. The information so far is due to poor weather conditions the helicopter was unable to clear a mountain crest.
What do the Taliban get out of this whole episode? Will a pleased Washington consider releasing some stuck up Afghan funds? Will Washington pave the way for Taliban acceptance? The US softening or otherwise towards Kabul will become visible.
The US plans for Afghanistan appears to be reviving. While it detests Taliban and its affiliates, it still sees it as a force that commands most of the country, which is far better than what Ashraf Ghani Government could do. The US will work towards the weakening of the Taliban but not allow it to collapse till it does not find an alternate power center which can take over from the Taliban. Till then the EU and Washington will continue pushing for an inclusive government and women rights. There has been a tremendous exodus of educated Afghans from the country, in fact every Afghan educated or not wants to leave. Kabul appears to have worked out a financial management through better taxation and collection on Afghan export. Kabul feels confident that it has survived a year without any meaningful internal or external threat to its rule. However the Afghan population is terrified of the future, it sees another brutal round of internal hardship, war, and power struggle. They sense that the Taliban rule is but temporary.
What of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan. It has being part of the WOT and has had enviable successes. The US is clearly muscling in again and bent on taking out its high value targets inside Afghanistan. Pakistan too has many such targets inside; it has to weigh its options between being a facilitator or remain an onlooker. Whichever the case, Pakistan will face retaliation in both options. The Haqqani sponsored Pakistan-TTP talks are not expected to achieve any headway. The TTP game plan is to get its maximum prisoners released, extend the talks so that its points are agreed upon, remove the barbed fence along the International Border and finally break off in anger on some trivial matter. Incidentally Pakistan is the only country that is talking to its dissidents, no other is.
All Afghan neighbour’s need to collectively stress on Kabul, for the return of these terrorists to their country of origin. The present arrangement cannot be sustained, Pakistan like China and Uzbekistan need to close this festering terrorism chapter once and for all. Does this warrant these countries to harmonise its policies with the US against terrorism for a common cause? The only viable option appears to collectively move forward despite the backlash.