ISLAMABAD: The elimination of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a recent drone strike in Kabul has raised questions about the credibility of the Afghan Taliban government on its promise not to allow its soil to be used by terrorists besides sparking speculation about the US tactic of launching unannounced counter-terrorism operations in the region on suspected targets.
Just two weeks ahead of the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the CIA had fired two Hellfire missiles at 6.15 am last Sunday and killed al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, on the balcony of a house in Kabul’s Sherpur locality, also known as the diplomatic quarter. His predecessor, Osama bin Laden, had been killed by US Navy Seals in a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.
Several observers and Taliban sources suggest that al-Zawahiri was moved, along with his family, to the heavily-guarded place in Kabul earlier this year by the top Haqqani leadership, which has matrimonial and strategic ties with Arab militants associated with al-Qaida. “It is said that the Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani provided shelter to the al-Qaida chief in the heart of Kabul. However, one can’t put the whole burden on Haqqani when it comes to maintaining relations with the terrorist group,” said Nazrul Islam, an Islamabad-based observer.
“We shouldn’t forget that the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Omer, had sacrificed his government to protect Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks,” he added.
Al-Zawahiri, intelligence and local sources in Pakistan’s border areas said, had remained for most part of the last two decades in border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since the US invasion of Afghanistan. he had survived a number of attacks on both sides of the Durand Line, the volatile Pakistan-Afghan border.
In an earlier hunt for him, four CIA-operated Predator drones had fired multiple Hellfire missiles on three adjacent compounds in Pakistan’s Damadola area, in Bajaur tribal district, in January 2006. The attack was carried out on intelligence that al-Zawahiri, then second-in-command in al-Qaida, was invited to a dinner to mark the Islamic holiday of Eidul Azha in the compound that was targeted. Nearly two dozen innocent people were killed in that attack, including 14 of a single family.
Following this week’s confirmation of his death by US President Joe Biden, Kabul had termed it an attack on its sovereignty while Washington said al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul was a violation of the Doha Agreement as the Taliban had promised that Afghan soil would not be used against any country.
“These issues are still unclear to us, the only thing we know for sure is that a drone attack has taken place, which is against international law and the Doha Agreement. The Islamic Emirate’s policy, which has been repeatedly stated to the people, is that our soil is not used against our neighbours,” Abdul Salam Hanafi, the second deputy PM of the Islamic Emirate, said on Tuesday.
Afghan analysts, however, said that the latest attack may further harm Kabul’s already strained relations with the international community. “This strike means non-recognition of the Islamic Emirate. It is now clear that no country will recognise the Taliban’s rule. The US, which had recently shown some flexibility to release funds for Kabul, will obviously halt any such process,” said Sayed Ishaq Gilani, leader of the Afghanistan Solidarity Movement.
Aziz Mairaj, a former Afghan diplomat, said the presence of the al-Qaida chief in the heart of Kabul has seriously dented the credibility of Taliban rule. “After this, every claim the Taliban foreign minister has made or will make at international meetings and forums will be considered false and shallow,” Mairaj said.