Afghanistan mystery: Why was Al Qaeda’s leader in Kabul?

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A year after the jihadist Taliban swept back to power, the presence in Kabul of Ayman al-Zawahri – a key architect of 9/11 and earlier Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets – appears to have brought Afghanistan full circle, to the circumstances that led to 9/11.

Indeed, U.S. officials say that by harboring Al Qaeda leaders, the Taliban have breached the Doha agreement negotiated by then-President Donald Trump in 2020 and accepted by President Joe Biden. The deal included a Taliban commitment to prevent Afghan soil from being used to plan attacks on the United States, in exchange for America’s military withdrawal.

Why We Wrote This

Stripped bare, the drone strike that killed Al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan’s capital exposes a lack of trust between the U.S. and Taliban. But was their agreement broken, or were there just differing views on how to keep it?

There is plenty of interpretation over what Mr. Zawahri’s presence in Kabul meant. Was it a flouting of Doha? Or evidence the Taliban were trying to keep tabs on Al Qaeda?

Graeme Smith, a senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, points to the “difficult balancing act the Taliban have been trying to do politically.”

Citing other parts of the country where the Taliban appear to be constraining Islamist militant activities, he says, “To me it looks like they were trying to keep these guys under control. Publicly, they don’t admit these guys are on the ground. Privately, they’ll say, ‘In the Doha deal we promised to keep an eye on these guys, and we’re holding them close.’”

LONDON

Announcing the death of Ayman al-Zawahri – killed by a CIA drone strike on the balcony of a villa in downtown Kabul early Sunday – President Joe Biden said it demonstrated a U.S. capability to fight terrorism in Afghanistan today, even without thousands of soldiers on the ground.

Yet a year after the jihadist Taliban swept back to power in Kabul, the brazen presence in the capital of the Egyptian-born Al Qaeda leader – a key architect of the 9/11 attacks and earlier high-profile strikes on American targets – appears on its face to have brought Afghanistan full circle: back to the incendiary circumstances that led to 9/11.

Indeed, U.S. officials say that by harboring Al Qaeda leaders, the Taliban have breached the Doha agreement negotiated by then-President Donald Trump in 2020 and accepted by Mr. Biden. The U.S.-Taliban deal included a Taliban commitment to prevent Afghan soil from being used to plan attacks on the United States, in exchange for a troop withdrawal ending America’s 20-year military involvement in the country.

Why We Wrote This

Stripped bare, the drone strike that killed Al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan’s capital exposes a lack of trust between the U.S. and Taliban. But was their agreement broken, or were there just differing views on how to keep it?

But, say analysts, the Taliban have never condemned Al Qaeda nor cut ties, and the presence and killing of Mr. Zawahri in Kabul – just a 15-minute stroll from the presidential palace – expose a collision of differing expectations between the U.S. and Taliban that is likely to worsen.

And there is plenty of interpretation over what Mr. Zawahri’s presence in Kabul meant. Was it a flouting of Doha? Or evidence the Taliban were trying to keep tabs on Al Qaeda?

The U.S. attack reveals the scale of the challenge for the Taliban, who need to balance a desire to maintain their ultraconservative, jihadist bona fides while pushing for recognition as a legitimate government, worthy of open Western embassies and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.

Their “overwhelming victory” gave “the Taliban a sense that they are unstoppable, that they don’t need to obey anything other than what they believe is right, whether that’s Al Qaeda, whether that’s girls’ education, whether that’s human rights,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based independent analyst and expert on the Taliban.

President Joe Biden is shown a model of the Kabul home where Ayman al-Zawahri was residing, in a meeting with his national security team at the White House in Washington, July 1, 2022.

The drone strike “is a wake-up call for them, and this will shake them up a bit, that the golden days are almost over,” says Mr. Amiri, contacted in Europe. The Taliban, he says, do not think twice about hosting fellow Muslim militants; they don’t ask questions, as long as those militants don’t challenge the Taliban; and they don’t believe that in 2001 Al Qaeda actually carried out the 9/11 attacks.



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