After Ayman al-Zawahiri's Killing, US can re-evaluate Taliban's policy
After killing al-Qaida leader and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a secret safe house in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, the US has a fair time to re-evaluate its Taliban policy.
On Monday, US President Joe Biden revealed that their drone strike killed al-Zawahiri over the weekend.
The death of al-Zawahiri implants doubts in the jihadists to again have faith in their Taliban partner, Javid Ahmad, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, written in The Hill.
For many years, different countries have used the facilities of the safe houses in Afghanistan's major cities like Pakistan, Iran and even China. In some cases, senior Afghan officials in the previous government leased their own properties to nebulous groups and characters to house their unknown guests.
Various jihadists from the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State have long leveraged a vast network of sleeper cells in upscale neighbourhoods. But al Qaeda's decision to place its supreme leader within a mile of the presidential palace illustrates the strength of its multi-layered alliance with the Taliban.
While the conventional wisdom in Washington maintains that al Qaeda has become a statistical outlier in Afghanistan's sprawling jihadist landscape, the group is hardly a bottom feeder in the country. The group's co-dependent partnership with the Taliban's core governing partners is one of mutual confidence.
According to the author, in the eastern part of Kunar province, the presence of al-Qaeda has been so obvious that the local people have also identified those districts.
In northeastern Afghanistan, the business side of the partnership has been involved in an extensive gold smuggling campaign in which joint Taliban and al Qaeda cells disguise themselves as local businessmen.
During the US-Taliban talks in Doha, al Qaeda leaders and the Taliban hardliners expressed serious concerns to core Taliban leaders about how they were being sold out as part of the bilateral agreement. And according to the publication, they have rightly judged the table that unless they are at the table, they will be on the menu.
Taliban is already struggling for the recognition of their government and the death of al-Zawahiri would lead to major problems as al-Qaeda will get suspicious of the Taliban's promise, which may result in more militant diversification and newer alliances.
For the United States, while these brewing developments buy some time to re-evaluate its Taliban policy, it also offers several opportunities.
First, Washington should declassify one of the two classified annexes of the Doha agreement to publicly scrutinize whether the Taliban is living up to its counterterrorism promises.
Second, while Washington has largely regionalized solutions to the Afghan debacle, it should use the time to fix the limits of its over-the-horizon counterterrorism engagement, which, while significant, is insufficient.
Despite the current nature of limited militant targeting, the distance limits in the "horizon" and erratic airspace access remain undefined. Local partners and ground support teams are largely missing, and critical intelligence collection, including from within the Taliban circles, is negligible. And definitely, the regional counterterrorism monitoring station (perhaps one based in Termez, Uzbekistan) to provide timely verification from the ground.
Third, as jihadists' threat grows more decentralized, and the Taliban's civilian bureaucracy becomes more militarized, the United States could also creatively expand and decentralize its targeted activities.
According to the author, Washington has discouraged backing the organized armed opposition against the Taliban, it could instead consider cultivating an institutional counterweight within the Taliban's governing ranks to shape their future choices and actions.