Hazardous impact of the Zawahiri episode

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On 15 August last year, when the US forces officially withdrew from Afghanistan and handed over the reins of this war-torn country to the Taliban, it appeared that the Biden administration had decided to ostensibly abandon the Central Asian region,as a low strategic interest territory. With virtual non-existence in Iran and adjoining Central Asian States that have closer ties with Moscow, and increasingly clotted relationship with Pakistan, for the last one year, the Americans’ presence in this territory had been withering away.

There was a feeling that the US President Joe Biden, who was considered to be a big opponent of investing in the US counterinsurgency plans in Afghanistan during his tenure as Vice President, was implementing a complete disengagement strategy in the region, because of other more ‘glamorous’ issues like the simmering Ukraine crisis and the escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait that have more potential to stimulate his approval ratings and expand Democrats’ vote bank in the forthcoming mid-term polls in November.

But his Tweet on 1 August morning, about the killing of one of the world’s most wanted persons, Ayman-al-Zawahiri, the Chief of Al Qaeda (AQ), in a drone-guided strike, has certainly shaken the whole equation. Zawahiri’s death in the drone attack has confirmed one thing, that, contrary to the earlier perception about the Americans’ shrinking interest in Afghanistan, the White House’s umbilical cord with this region is still very much intact and the Americans are not ready to vacate this region that has the potential to slip into the folds of Chinese influence.

The Zawahiri episode has given birth to many picking questions about different dimensions of the United States’ long-term and short-term strategy for the whole region, which has extremely close physical proximity to China and is also the starting point of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Though Zawahiri was more of a ceremonial Head of Al Qaeda, which has also been mostly operating as a placid group in recent years, the US State Department has issued warning about the possibility of Al Qaeda resorting to terrorist activities to avenge Zawahiri’s death, in the near future. But the chances of such possibility are very bleak. Ever since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Al Qaeda has been seriously subdued and very few instances of terrorism have been attributed to Al Qaeda afterwards.

Two factors explain this tranquility of Al Qaeda; One, Zawahiri was not as much hawkish and also lacked the military acumen of his former boss to lead a guerilla war, and two, it has failed to attract new induction of local militants after the removal of the influential and charismatic figure like Bin Laden. At present, Al Qaeda does not seem to be in a position to make a major ‘revengeful’ terrorist strike against the US, however, with the arrival of new leader at the helm, having a different outlook, Al Qaeda may try to re-organise itself into a more violent outfit, in an attempt to recapture its lost stature as the world’s most dangerous terrorist organisation.

The drone attack in the heart of Kabul to kill Zawahiri is also a clear violation of the Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the US government, but interestingly, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken has inversely alleged that the Taliban has grossly violated the Doha Agreement by sheltering Zawahiri. The Americans are accusing the Taliban of protecting and harbouring Zawahiri – a claim that has been categorically denied by the Taliban regime. The fact is, that nobody has confirmation about the death of Zawahiri, many residents of Kabul are still considering it a hoax, while the US officials claim that they have ‘visual confirmation’ of his death but no DNA proof. Nonetheless, the US has found a pretext to rekindle its involvement in Afghanistan and eventually ‘one-sidedly’ abolish the Doha Agreement. For obvious reasons, the existing tension between the Taliban and Washington,will now be further aggravated after this new twist. This will further compound the food and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan; that too, much depends upon the release of US$9.6 billion of the Afghan government, frozen by the US Treasury since last August.

There is no doubt that in recent years, China has silently assumed the role of a big brother in Afghanistan. To the utter disdain of the US, the fingerprints of Beijing are becoming quite visible in the infrastructure development of Afghanistan. This is what most of the American think-tanks had been predicting for the past one decade. But the irony is that, despite all their attempts to keep the Chinese out of the Afghanistan theatre, Beijing has been quite successful in carving out a tangible role there. Beijing is not destined to swiftly replace Washington as the chief patron of the Taliban government, and it has yet to extend diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government.

Afghanistan is certainly a minefield and, it seems, China is not yet completely comfortable with its current rulers. The major strategic compulsion that has pushed China to indulge in the Afghan imbroglio is the BRI, which is perhaps the most vital part of President Xi Jinping’s Vision 2050, and he is eager to ensure that the BRI is executed without any impediments. The continuous instability in the vicinity of the BRI is likely to hamper this ambitious project. China is keen to ensure that peace and stability is realised in Afghanistan, owing to its closeness to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which in turn, is the most crucial component of the BRI. The Zawahiri episode has provided an opportunity to Washington to interfere in Afghanistan again, officially. Is Washington preparing to have another phase of longer stay in Afghanistan to counter China’s growing presence there? The apparent answer is ‘a weak yes’.

Apart from impacting the Sino-US rivalry in Afghanistan, the Zawahiri’s killing is also going to have massive setback for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, as well as their mutual relationship. There is no doubt that the Taliban are the biggest loser in this episode;their relations with both Washington and Al-Qaeda are damaged,and their aspiration for international recognition has also been dashed for the time being.

After the departure of the US forces, Al-Qaeda was enjoying freedom in Afghanistan, and it was slowly trying to revive, thanks to their cordial relations with the Taliban. The group labelled and celebrated the Taliban’s return to power, as if it was its own victory. However, the assassination of Zawahiri has created a deep wedge in their mutual trust and relationship. Al-Qaeda leadership is yet to announce the successor of Zawahiri, but it has not yet done so, because now it feels itself ‘unsafe and insecure’ under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both key contenders to replace Zawahiri –his Egyptian deputy, Saif al-Adel and his Moroccan-born son-in-law and media operations Head, Abd al-Rehman al-Maghribi – are living in Iran and have so far desisted from openly discussing his succession. Probably they are looking for a ‘safe’ territory before assuming the top position in Al-Qaeda. On the other hand, in addition to irreversibly damaging their ties with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban are also facing intensified rifts and debate between the relatively pragmatic group that wants to keep themselves away from Al-Qaeda and the hawkish and hardline groups like the Haqqani Network who are insisting on supporting and harbouring their ‘ideological brothers’. 

Nonetheless, the Taliban are facing a major dilemma. They don’t have money to pre-empt the simmering humanitarian and food crisis in Afghanistan, which will not only have deep socio-economic impact on the inhabitants of this war-torn country but also may weaken the Taliban control. due to their inability to find a solution for this catastrophic food crisis. The Zawahiri episode has catapulted the Taliban and Afghanistan towards more uncertainty and instability.

By Dr. Imran Khalid