Al-Zawahiri's killing exposes the US's shame in Afghanistan

2 August 2022

9:25 PM

2 August 2022

9:25 PM

Sherpur District, to the north of central Kabul, where al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed, lies at the western end of a huge former military base where British forces were besieged in the winter of 1879, during the second Anglo-Afghan war.

The parade ground, still a wide open area until 2001, was quickly built over by warlords allied to the U.S. when the Taliban were pushed out of power after the attacks of 9/11. I went there with a military commander who was transformed overnight into a building contractor as the plots were parcelled out and garish concrete villas rose out of the dust. Built by one set of warlords after 9/11, those Sherpur villas were seized by other warlords last August when the Taliban took power again.

It was on the balcony of one of those villas that al-Zawahiri stepped outside and was targeted by a CIA drone strike, as America demonstrated its ability to carry out ‘over the horizon’ attacks, despite not having overt assets on the ground. But that does nothing to excuse the Biden administration for its betrayal of Afghanistan and its people.

Screenshot_2022-08-02_at_12.47.18.pngThe balcony where al-Zawahiri was struck by a Hellfire missile (Credit: Lyse Doucet)

The discovery that the Emir of al-Qaeda, and previously Osama bin Laden’s deputy — a key player in the string of attacks on American targets in the late 1990s as well as 9/11 itself — was living almost openly in the centre of Kabul, exposes the hollowness at the heart of America’s withdrawal deal.

The deal, signed in Doha at the end of February 2020, just before Covid closed down the world, was never peace with honour. It was a surrender in which the U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops on timetable, demanding in return only that the Taliban would ‘not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.’ The weakness was that the Taliban did not promise to prevent al-Qaeda members from living in Afghanistan.

America also demanded that the Afghan government release thousands of Taliban prisoners with next to nothing in return, and secret annexes to the deal effectively gave the Taliban carte blanche to take over most of the Afghan countryside: America’s rules of engagement meant that the Taliban would not be attacked if they did not threaten provincial capitals or main lines of communication. At the same time, Afghan commanders were told by their American advisers that they should slow down offensives, and ‘give peace a chance.’ The consequence was that the country fell into the hands of the Taliban as the final American troops left last year.

The Taliban have not honoured even the weak terms of the Doha deal. A recent report by the UN sanctions committee on terrorist groups in Afghanistan says that al-Qaeda’s ‘leadership reportedly plays an advisory role with the Taliban, and the groups remain close.’ With a safe haven and the ability to move and communicate easily, al-Qaeda have increased their propaganda capability. This is crucial for winning new recruits. The UN see Al-Qaeda as now better able to compete with the Islamic State ‘as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat.’ It says al-Qaeda is now so well positioned that they could return to centre stage and be ‘recognised again as the leader of global jihad.’

Al-Qaeda always had more intellectual coherence than the nihilist fantasies of Islamic State, and al-Zawahiri was the driving force behind that. Who takes over will determine whether that can be continued. One potential successor inside Afghanistan is al Zawahiri’s son-in-law Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi. As ‘general manager’ for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has been responsible for the recent improvement in al-Qaeda’s propaganda profile. He was in the cross hairs of an Afghan counterterrorist operation in 2016 led by General Sami Sadat, but escaped and has a $7 million (£5.7 million) bounty on his head. Another potential successor is Sayf al-Adel, with $10 million (£8 million) on his head, who is closely linked to Iran.

The Taliban have inevitably condemned the attack, claiming it to be a violation of the Doha deal. But the presence of the head of al-Qaeda in Kabul makes international recognition of their regime even less likely. The New York Times is reporting that the villa where al-Zawahiri was killed with a Hellfire missile is now owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister of the Taliban. He is also a man with a price on his head for carrying out large-scale terrorist attacks on Kabul. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are joined at the hip

The UN has concluded that al-Qaeda lacked ‘external operational capability,’ and they did not ‘currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment’ by carrying out international attacks from Afghanistan.

But the important word is ‘currently.’ None of al-Qaeda’s rhetoric has changed. They want to fight against the ‘near enemy,’ the kingdoms of the Gulf States, and the ‘far enemy,’ the U.S. and its allies. And America’s chaotic abandonment of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 made it more likely that they will have the capability to once again use Afghanistan as a launch pad: not this time from a cave in the mountains, but a downtown mansion in Kabul.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments