The Dangerous Gamble: Zawahiri’s killing and Taliban’s Blame

Aiymen Al Zawahiri’s killing in the heart of Kabul has thrown the Taliban off balance. Or at least their defence minister, who is reluctant to come to terms with the unsettling reality and its grim consequences for the nascent Taliban regime. Zawahiri’s presence in a Kabul safe-house is a damning indictment of the Taliban who have committed in the Doha agreement that they won’t harbour terrorists on Afghan soil. For this very reason, Mullah Yaqoob continues to deny that the man targeted by a US Reaper in the Kabul compound was Zawahiri. But the Taliban are visibly disquieted by the first US drone strike since the chaotic exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan more than a year ago.

The scant details of the lethal strike shared by the US have left everyone guessing about the possible launching-pad of the unmanned aircraft and the weapon it fired to take out Zawahiri. Over a month after the hit, Taliban’s defence minister publicly accused Pakistan of allowing the US to use its airspace for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. This is a serious allegation for which, by Yaqoob’s own admission, they don’t have corroborating evidence. This hypothetical accusation triggered an angry rebuke from Islamabad.

“In the absence of any evidence, as acknowledged by the Afghan minister himself, such conjectural allegations are highly regrettable and defy the norms of responsible diplomatic conduct,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said. At the same time, he urged the Afghan interim authorities to fulfill their international commitments that they would not allow the use of Afghan soil for terrorism against any country.

The spokesperson wouldn’t say it explicitly, but his reference was to the presence of Zawahiri, who had a $25 million US bounty on his head, in the Kabul safe-house. The United States called it a violation of the Doha agreement and hardened stance on the release billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s money it has seized since the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Afghanistan’s new rulers did recover a “shredded body” from the targeted compound, but they say it’s not confirmed it was Zawahiri’s.

Yaqoob’s “conjectural allegations” were surprising but not new. Pakistan has always been a favourite whipping boy for Afghan rulers, be it Ghani, Abdullah, Karzai, or now Yaqoob. They conveniently blame Pakistan for all the troubles in Afghanistan only to cover up their failure to stabilize their ethnically divided and deeply polarized country. Yaqoob’s outburst wasn’t spontaneous. Sources say he and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interim interior minister, were supposed to jointly brief the media on the achievements of their respective ministries. But Haqqani pulled out at the eleventh hour because he opposed publicly blaming Pakistan without corroborating evidence. Sources also say that Afghanistan’s Chief of General Staff Qari Fasihuddin was also unimpressed with Yaqoob’s dangerous gamble.

But why would Yaqoob do that? There could be multiple triggers.

Firstly, Yaqoob, the eldest son of Mullah Muhammad Omar, might have been spurred by his desire to assert himself as the heir apparent of the Taliban’s enigmatic founder. But Taliban sources say that pedigree is all he can boast of because he lacks the charisma of his father. They describe him as a shrewd, self-centered man with an uninspiring personality, who has failed to appeal to the rank and file in the new Afghan set-up. However, Yaqoob’s ambitions know no bounds. He did not have any official position in the Taliban hierarchy before his reclusive father’s death was revealed in July 2015. Since then, he has been consolidating his power. But he knows that the mighty Haqqanis would continue to overshadow an ideologue like him. For this reason, Yaqoob worked hard on his image among the field commanders, so they accept his leadership. He also developed close ties with the commanders outside the Taliban’s bastion in the south, which helped the group win spectacular victories in the traditionally hostile north during their march on Kabul last year and thus consolidated his control over the military.

Secondly, Yaqoob is believed to have ties with Afghanistan’s previous government and spy agency, the National Directorate of Security. And perhaps this is the reason he has allowed 82% of NDS employees to return to work in various departments of the new set-up. The NDS and Afghanistan’s US-backed previous rulers were bitterly hostile towards Pakistan. The NDS had worked closely with India’s RAW to wage proxy war to destabilize Pakistan. Hence, Yaqoob’s public tirade against Pakistan could not be brushed aside as a spontaneous outburst of a frustrated security czar. He knew this might help him curry favor with India, the United States as well as the Western-inspired Afghan circles – something the hardline militia needs to steer their pariah state out of diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian crises and reconfigure their global image. Coincidentally, India has become the first country to accord a de facto recognition to the Taliban regime. The Haqqanis, on the other hand, hold a soft view of Pakistan, a country which has been demonized for 20 years under the US-backed Afghan rulers.

Thirdly, Yaqoob wants to offset the influence of the Taliban’s Doha office which remained in the international media spotlight during the protracted negotiations with the United States. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was the chief negotiator, who finally clinched an agreement with the US on Feb 29, 2020, which later paved the way for the exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Baradar was the Taliban co-founder and emerged as No. 2 after the death of Mullah Omar. He was the Taliban’s most visible face as Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the successor of Mullah Omar, largely stayed out of the public view. But Baradar appears to have been sidelined since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. He begrudgingly accepted whatever role he was offered in the new regime. Taliban sources say Yaqoob wanted to bring military elements into the cabinet instead of political elements being pushed by Baradar. Yaqoob has publicly said that those living in luxury in Doha cannot dictate terms to those fighting military jihad against the US-led occupation forces.

Fourthly, the Taliban are not a homogenous or monolithic militia. They are united in their objective, the establishment of a shariah-based governance system, but there are fraught with ethnic, factional, and ideological frictions. An internal power struggle between the Haqqani Network and the Kandahari faction is no longer a secret. The Haqqani Network, represented by Sirajuddin, is the fighting machine of the Taliban, while the Kandaharis, represented by Yaqoob, are the ideologues. There are reports that Mullah Omar had issues with the Haqqani Network founded by the fabled jihadi commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. Some Taliban circles believe Yaqoob might have given up Zawahiri to find favour with the US. Others don’t rule out the possibility that Yaqoob first offered shelter to Zawahiri in Kabul and then betrayed him in an attempt to shift the blame onto the Haqqanis.

Lastly, Yaqoob is the interim defence minister and the country’s security is his responsibility. He had repeatedly boasted of “100%” security, but a spike in deadly Da’ish attacks might have unnerved him as he has failed to secure Kabul, let alone the entire country. Zawahiri’s killing in a street where top Taliban officials reside has exposed his claim of 100% security. This called for some introspection, but Yaqoob took the easy route. Going by the playbook of the previous US-backed Afghan rulers, he sought to shift the blame to Pakistan without realising how what he claims could have benefited Pakistan which is already beset with a debilitating economic crisis and political instability. Pakistan and Afghanistan are conjoined twins with shared suffering and joys. And instability in Afghanistan would always have a direct bearing on security in Pakistan.

Yaqoob’s public outburst wouldn’t be a one-off. He might be tempted again to externalize the blame as violence spirals in his volatile country. But it would be unwise for him to choose political expediency over pragmatic judgment and undermine relations with Pakistan at a time when their globally isolated and cash-strapped regime badly needs more friends to stave off economic instability and win international recognition.

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