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3 Days After Strike, Taliban Have Not Confirmed Zawahiri’s Death in Kabul
Taliban forces stand guard at a checkpoint after security measures were tightened in the wake of a US drone strike killed al-Qieda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the capital Kabul, Afghanistan on August 3, 2022. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

3 Days After Strike, Taliban Have Not Confirmed Zawahiri’s Death in Kabul

US, Taliban trade accusations of violating the 2020 Doha Peace Agreement

[Islamabad] “Justice has been delivered,” US President Joe Biden declared on Monday announcing the death of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri at the hands of a US drone in Afghanistan. Yet despite the passage of almost three days, Taliban officials have not confirmed either the presence or the killing of Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul.

Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban‘s chief spokesperson, confirmed the drone strike in a tweet but did not mention Zawahiri.

Mujahid strongly condemned the drone attack and termed it “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Peace Agreement” signed by the Taliban and the US in 2020.

Abdul Nafey Takoor, a spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said “an empty house was hit by a rocket which did not result in any fatality.”

John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, on Tuesday said the United States has “visual evidence” and “evidence collected through other means” that the CIA drone strike killed Zawahiri.

During a televised interview, Kirby said, “We do not have DNA confirmation; we are not going to get that confirmation. Based on the multiple sources and methods that we have gathered the information from, we don’t need it.”

Kirby also told reporters that Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul was a “gross violation of the Doha Agreement.”

Zawahiri was assassinated in Afghanistan’s capital about a year after the Taliban movement took control of the country, following the withdrawal of US forces following the Doha Agreement.

The agreement stipulated that the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which is not recognized by the United States or any other country, will not allow any of its members or members of other groups, including al-Qaida, to use the territory of Afghanistan to launch operations against the United States and its allies.

Afraid of the Taliban, residents of Kabul are reluctant to talk to the media about the presence and killing of Zawahiri in the city.

Khurrum Hashmi, a bookseller in Kabul, told The Media Line that “the news about the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri was just a shock for us. However, the area where Zawahiri was believed to reside is known as the high-class area of the city, where a common man does not often dare to visit.”

“The Taliban’s law enforcement unit has tightened the security measures around the site where Ayman al-Zawahiri is believed to have been killed,” he said. The streets appeared to be empty of pedestrians and vehicles, Hashmi added.

“The killing of Zawahiri in Kabul is just a piece of normal news for me,” Farid Khan, an electrician, told The Media Line. “I spend my time worrying about how to feed my children in the evening. I am a daily wage worker and I have nothing to do with politics and such activities. Our children’s future should be secured.”

If Pakistan facilitated this counter-terrorism operation, it has done very well, and if the Taliban were also on board, then it will not have any negative impact on the regional stability

Shams Ur Rehman Agha, a Kabul-based retired diplomatic official, told The Media Line that: “The United States has a double standard. When the US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad [in 2011], it did not immediately accuse Islamabad of harboring bin Laden, but rather rushed to justify the violation of Pakistani sovereignty; but in the case of the alleged killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, the US officials hastened to immediately accuse the Taliban and threaten to punish them. It is not fair.”

Agha added that “if Zawahiri’s death is proven, the Egyptian Saif al-Adel will be al-Qaida’s new chief. Saif al-Adel is believed to be residing in Iran.”

The real name of Saif al-Adel (“Sword of Justice”) is Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan. He is under indictment in the US for his part in the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Kenya and has been connected to the 2002 kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

It is now being discussed on various forums whether Pakistan and Afghanistan were officially aware of the Zawahiri drone strike.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Monday saying that “Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Pakistan’s role and sacrifices in the fight against terrorism are well-known. Pakistan stands by countering terrorism under international law and relevant United Nations resolutions.”

Abdul Basit, director general of the Islamabad Centre for Regional Studies (ICRS) and former Pakistani ambassador to Germany and high commissioner to India, told The Media Line that “Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul shows that the Taliban have not completely dissociated themselves from al-Qaida.

“On the other hand, it is also being said that Pakistan’s airspace has been used during the drone attack, so Pakistan’s sovereignty has also been affected,” he said, adding: “In my opinion, if Pakistan has permitted the use of its airspace, then there is no question of sovereignty being affected. We are bound by international agreements and laws to facilitate counter-terrorism operations.”

“In my personal view, the Taliban were also on board with this operation and it was a coordinated operation between Washington, Islamabad and the Taliban,” he said.

Basit noted that the Taliban “have their own culture that even if the enemy takes refuge with them, they protect him, too, and the same happened with bin Laden. On the other hand, they are also trying for global recognition, so they must have thought to get rid of such people.”

“If Pakistan facilitated this counter-terrorism operation, it has done very well, and if the Taliban were also on board, then it will not have any negative impact on the regional stability,” he said.

Former Pakistani Defense Minister Naeem Khalid Lodhi told The Media Line the killing of Zawahiri will not affect world events because al-Qaida is weak. “In my reckoning al-Qaida was already decimated and was a lame duck, not capable of any worthwhile operational activities. Zawahiri’s death has prevented any future reorganizing capability, but otherwise it will not make any difference whatsoever to world events,” he said.

“The Afghan Taliban government is frantically looking for legitimacy and economic and political relations with the world, so they are not likely to react violently to this American move. Also, they are no longer in their previous fighting mode, so the Doha Accord, in my assessment, will remain intact,” Lodhi said.

“The Kabul drone attack proves that US-Pak relations are improving. This automatically will keep Pakistan away from Afghanistan and Iran and, more importantly, it might affect the Pak-China strategic partnership. So, on the whole, in my humble opinion, Pakistan has compromised its long-term strategic interests for short-term economic gains,” he also said.

The Afghan Taliban government is frantically looking for legitimacy and economic and political relations with the world, so they are not likely to react violently to this American move

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that eliminating Zawahiri in Kabul “is the biggest blow to the Taliban since their takeover nearly a year ago. It confirmed the Taliban still have ties to al-Qaida and it revealed how the Taliban have violated the Doha accord.”

“The Taliban also retain ties to many other terror groups in Afghanistan, and that’s a key reason why regional players haven’t been willing to recognize the Taliban regime,” he said.

“When the US took out bin Laden, relations with Pakistan sunk to a new low. With the US taking out Zawahiri and quite possibly with Pakistani assistance, [US] relations with Pakistan may receive one of their biggest boosts in years,” Kugelman said.

Mansoor Ali Khan, an Islamabad-based international relations expert, told The Media Line that “Ayman al-Zawahiri was not a most wanted terrorist just for the United States but he was a potential threat to Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and elsewhere in the region. So, his killing would not create any irritation among any of the neighboring countries.

“US officials could charge the Taliban with providing a safe sanctuary to Zawahiri, which would be a violation of Doha Agreement. Therefore, I do not think the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri will affect the Doha accord,” he said.

“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri will make al-Qaida spineless for the time being,” Khan continued. “It will depend on its new leadership whether they can rebuild their deadly infrastructure and recruit hardliners from all over the world. The rest of al-Qaida junior leadership does not seem a real threat to the US or to anywhere else across the world,” Khan said, but organizations like ISIS and The Islamic State – Khorasan Province, or ISKP, an ISIS affiliate active in South and Central Asia, “may remain a potential threat to global peace and stability.”

The US drone attack killing al-Zawahiri, a man of no significance, is inviting extremists to hit US interests in the region. In my analysis this is deliberately being done to create friction between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Condemning the US drone attack in Kabul, Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based defense analyst, told The Media Line that “such an indiscriminate or indiscrete act by the US authorities will destabilize regional security.”

“The US drone attack killing al-Zawahiri, a man of no significance, is inviting extremists to hit US interests in the region. In my analysis this is deliberately being done to create friction between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said.

The US drone attack could activate fighters for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or “the Pakistani Taliban,” inside Pakistan, according to Safvi, “which would ultimately be helpful for hostile agencies in developing law and order catastrophes, leading to fulfilling the US’ ultimate objective of the denuclearization and balkanization of Pakistan.”

Amer Al Sabaileh, a Jordanian strategic analyst and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that “Zawahiri has been out of the terrorist scene for a while now.”

The real blow that al-Qaida received in recent years was the killing of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, by the US in 2019, he says. The killing of Zawahiri “has more of a media impact than a real impact. It might help the Taliban in setting them free from al-Qaida, but in the medium term this might give a new boost for a new generation in al-Qaida, who will find themselves obliged to follow the model of ISIS,” Al Sabaileh said.

 

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