The death of the al-Qaida leader points to a potential shift in the complex dynamic between the US, Pakistan and the Taliban
A decade after US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in a special operation in Pakistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul.
Both men were synonymous with the image of al-Qaida. But more than anything, the killing of Zawahiri is a symbolic success for Joe Biden, whose approval rating has been dismally low recently. Even before the ill-fated military withdrawal from Afghanistan that led to the Taliban seizing power, the US president had been vigorously trying to avoid discussing the country in his media engagements. Unsurprisingly, he is now trying to capitalise on the drone strike that killed Zawahiri to seek redemption in Afghanistan.
While Zawahiri was involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks, his more recent significance is more questionable. Al-Qaida may be one of the most notorious global jihadist groups since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it has been competing in a crowded space of violent extremists including Islamic State – and its affiliates – in the Middle East, Asia and beyond.
The death of Zawahiri will not transform the nature of any threat facing the US and Europe from Afghanistan under the Taliban. But it underlines how imperative it is to ensure Afghanistan does not become so unstable and forgotten that it provides a ground for the incubation of terrorism and violent jihadists. Groups such as al-Qaida, Islamic State and previously the Taliban are experts in replacing leaders in quick succession without interrupting operations.
Crucially, Zawahiri’s killing unleashes several unknown consequences and political and security implications for different sides of the conflict in and around Afghanistan.
For months there have been unconfirmed reports of drones flying over the skies of Kabul. The Taliban have been presenting their regime as the first in decades to have total control over the Afghan territory. The US drone strike killing Zawahiri in Kabul’s Shirpur district – where some of the most ostentatious mansions were built by former US-backed warlords – defeats the Taliban’s claims of having full territorial control. The US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha in February 2020 states that the Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”. Acknowledging Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul will set the Taliban against the US, but admitting a lack of intelligence will lead to accepting defeat in establishing control.
As the Taliban are largely a loose union of different factions who were strongly united as an insurgency prior to August 2021, it is plausible that one or more factions among them were hosting and protecting Zawahiri. His death will put significant pressure on these internal fissures, especially if the US continues drone strikes in Afghanistan.
Because Afghanistan is landlocked, the over-the-horizon operations by US drones would have needed permission from one of the neighbouring states to enter the Afghan airspace. Iran, central Asian countries and China – which shares a mountainous border with Afghanistan – would not cooperate with the US on this. Pakistan, therefore, would be the logical option. If this US strike was carried out in cooperation with Pakistan, there are several major regional implications. Pakistan has strong relations with China, including the multibillion-dollar infrastructural project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). For nearly 20 years, Pakistan provided the Taliban sanctuary as the group waged a bloody insurgency against US, Nato and Afghan security forces that also killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians. The former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan celebrated the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, and blamed the US for a heedless “war on terror”. But Khan was unseated in a no-confidence vote in April.
Pakistani-American cooperation on counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan would underline a significant thawing of relations. It may impact Islamabad’s efforts to build further relations with China and Russia. However, Pakistan has been facing immense financial difficulties, with rising inflation and plummeting value of the local currency. Islamabad has been desperately trying to gain support from Washington, including by involving its army chief to secure a multibillion-dollar loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). By cooperating on counter-terrorism with the US, Pakistan would naturally expect American support beyond military cooperation including securing financial packages.
It is too early to predict precise outcomes in Afghanistan and the region from this incident. But the US seems to have signalled that it is able to dominate the sky over the country, and that it is willing to act. By demonstrating that they can attack with such precision, the CIA and other US entities will force other jihadist groups underground. Taliban factions who do not enjoy the full patronage of the Pakistani security establishment will also be worried about renewed US-Pakistan cooperation on drone strikes inside Afghanistan.
It remains to be seen if the threat of US drone strikes will be used as leverage to influence Taliban behaviour. Military might did not defeat the Taliban insurgency, but the Taliban did not win militarily either. Ultimately, for all the talk of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, the Biden administration must acknowledge that 20 years of American involvement in Afghanistan has fundamentally transformed the nature of the country and its region. The US and the west must focus on longterm engagement with Afghanistan if the aim is to prevent the incubation of terrorist groups and global jihadists.
Hameed Hakimi is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC