Hamra Tariq is an undergraduate student currently pursuing her international relations degree at Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore. She has a keen interest in South Asian politics, the Indo-Pacific, and the shift in the global order.
The Death of Ayman al-Zawahiri
Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Al-Qaeda leader, was eliminated in a drone strike under a CIA-led over-the-horizon operation in Kabul on July 31st, 2022. He took the command of Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in an operation by the US in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. Zawahiri had long been the deputy of Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Bin Laden and continued as his successor in 2011. However, he could not take over the charisma and legitimacy as a leader as Bin Laden had for most of the mujahideen.
The attack was carried out by a Predator B drone carrying a Hellfire R9X missile, in a safe house in downtown Kabul. The US officials explained the tracing of the Al-Qaeda leader through his immediate family, wife, and children. The “pattern of life” intelligence and particularly his “balcony habit” gave the United States a strong ground to carry out the attack.
The Taliban government initially denied any strike but after confirmation from the White House, the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) officials released a statement condemning the US drone attack as a violation of the Doha Agreement while disassociating themselves from any information about Zawahiri’s stay in Kabul. Joe Biden was the fourth US president who attempted to trace down the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Biden, in his statement from the White House, confessed that he “authorized” the precision attack. Biden‘s reputation within the United States sank after the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021. With the mid-term elections ahead in November 2022, the drone strike can be seen as an attempt by the Biden administration to restore his position and establish this strike as probably the only high point during his rule.
Smoke Rising over Pakistan
The attack has left a number of mysterious questions and simultaneously provided a ground for speculations to surface in the region. The United States has been silent on two key issues: the route of the drone strike and the remains of Ayman al-Zawahiri after the attack. Eyebrows have been raised over Pakistan’s role in the strike; the self-loathing rhetoric from a number of circles within Pakistan has complicated the situation.
Pakistan’s military has repeatedly denied the provision of its territory to the US to launch any operations in recent times. The director general of ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations), Major General Babar Iftikhar, clarified their stance yet again stating that there was “no question of Pakistan’s soil being used for Zawahiri’s killing.” The Ministry of Interior, in response to a question based on similar rumors, quite clearly explained that “the drone targeting Al-Zawahiri did not fly from Pakistan.”
Such explicit policy statements should eliminate doubts about Pakistan’s position. However, not only external think tanks – like those in India or even Afghanistan – are trying to stain Pakistan’s image but the narrative is also peddled by internal political workers and analysts without concrete evidence. A telephonic conversation between Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and General Michael Erik Kurilla (the US CENTCOM Commander) some forty-eight hours before the drone strike triggered the conspiracies circulating.
However, it is imperative to note that precision strikes like the one carried out for Al-Zawahiri require preparation for months, as revealed by US intelligence itself. Thus, the claims by Indian and US-led analysts remain unproven and baseless. Here, it is interesting to mention that the IEA officials too did not point toward Pakistan. But, the Afghan sentiment in protests unfairly blamed Pakistan while the IEA leadership failed to address this engraved animosity.
Potential Actors Involved
More importantly, some media in the United States claimed that the Ganci Airbase in Northern Kyrgyzstan, a transit facility of the US, was used to carry out the strike. The US Air Force operated the airbase before it was handed over to Kyrgyzstan’s military in 2014. The portion of US media that is claiming such is possibly doing so on the basis of reports leaked to them by their intelligence.
Lastly, Iran’s role in the operation cannot be neglected merely by the existing relations between the US and Iran. Al-Zawahiri relocated from Iran to Afghanistan, while the second in command for Al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, is still said to be sheltered in Iran. The diversified group of Taliban possesses some sections that have a soft heart towards Al-Qaeda.
If all the stakeholders were on board, as the statement by Antony J. Blinken indicates, the involvement of factions from within the Taliban should not be perceived as a surprise. This itself raises questions about the Taliban’s commitment to the Doha Agreement in terms of keeping the internationally recognized terrorist organizations away from Afghan soil.
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