Zawahiri’s Killing Is a Blow to the Taliban
The U.S. drone strike exposes the regime’s terrorist ties and further dims its prospects for international legitimacy.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: How al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing will affect the Taliban regime, India marks three years since revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, and Pakistan’s election commission makes a long-awaited ruling.
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Zawahiri’s Death Is a Loss for the Taliban, Too
The U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last weekend dealt a major blow to the group he led for 11 years, since the killing of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda had already fallen on hard times. Many of the group’s other key figures have been killed or arrested, its operational capacities are significantly weakened, and it has been overshadowed by the Islamic State, including in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda has survived prior losses of leadership and remained resilient, especially because of the strength of its regional affiliates. As Colin P. Clarke argues in FP this week, al Qaeda received a major boost when its Taliban ally retook power last year. The group also counts on support from other militant groups in Afghanistan, where terrorism remains a very real threat.
However, the hit on Zawahiri has serious consequences for the Taliban government. The U.S. strike embarrassed the regime, exposed several its core narratives as lies, and further harmed its prospects for receiving international recognition and badly needed financial assistance. Al Qaeda may have lost its leader, but the Taliban have suffered a major loss, too.
Nearly a year after the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Washington deployed its military power in the heart of Kabul with the weekend strike, embarrassing a regime that rejects foreign military activity on its soil. The Taliban have also denied they still have ties to al Qaeda. Evidence of continued relations—such as U.S. forces’ 2015 discovery of a large al Qaeda training camp in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold—didn’t prompt the Taliban to change this narrative. The killing of Zawahiri shatters the myth once and for all.
The Taliban and al Qaeda have long been allies, especially because of al Qaeda’s deep links with the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that plays a powerful role in the current regime. Zawahiri was reportedly living in a home owned by a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban interior minister. At any rate, the al Qaeda leader couldn’t have lived in central Kabul without some Taliban support. Unsurprisingly, top Taliban leaders have refused to confirm that he was living there and instead promised an investigation.
The possibility that some renegade Taliban members shared information about Zawahiri’s location cannot be ruled out. It would have been difficult for Washington to carry out months of surveillance and intelligence-gathering on its own, without eyes on the ground. If any Taliban members did provide intelligence to Washington, it would exacerbate existing divisions within the group—another big blow.
Furthermore, the Taliban have seemingly violated the Doha Agreement inked with Washington in 2020. The deal stipulates that the Taliban “will 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. The Taliban may say Zawahiri didn’t threaten U.S. security; on Monday, a senior Biden administration official said the al Qaeda leader was “continually urging attacks on the United States.”
The discovery of Zawahiri in Kabul means the international community—which has held back from recognizing the Taliban regime in part because of concerns about its ties to terrorists—will be even less likely to grant legitimacy through formal relations or the badly needed financial aid that would come with it. Despite seeking to project a softer image in recent years, the Taliban government is now at greater risk of becoming a pariah like it were in the late 1990s.
The blow to the Taliban doesn’t necessarily bode well for U.S. interests. The regime may now be less likely to address Washington’s range of requests, from reopening schools for older girls to not interfering with international aid deliveries. The Biden administration will also worry about the safety of Mark Frerichs, the only known remaining U.S. hostage in Afghanistan whom U.S. officials have been working to return home. On Monday, a senior U.S. official said the administration expects the Taliban to “take no action that would harm” Frerichs.
On the other hand, U.S. officials may hope to capitalize on a moment of Taliban weakness and push harder to secure Frerichs’s release or for more Taliban concessions in negotiations over the possible unfreezing of $3.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets. However, speaking after the U.S. strike, a Taliban spokesperson took a hard line, warning Washington that “such actions will damage the available opportunities.” With the Taliban’s ideologically driven mullahs holding sway over more moderate political leaders, it’s not likely to get any easier for Washington.
What We’re Following
Pakistani-TTP talks reach impasse. This week, monthslong talks between Islamabad and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group reached deadlock. According to local reports, TTP negotiators refused to budge on their demand that the government reverse its 2018 decision to merge the country’s tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Before the merger, the tribal areas were poorly governed, making them an ideal sanctuary for the TTP.
The negotiations with the TTP have been a priority for Pakistan amid an upsurge in attacks and the refusal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where the TTP leadership is based, to expel the group. But a peace deal has always been a long shot. The TTP has made demands that Islamabad is unlikely to grant, such as the full withdrawal of Pakistani military forces from the tribal areas and the imposition of sharia there.
Furthermore, the TTP has never honored past accords with the Pakistani state, always reneging and taking up arms again.
Three years since Modi’s Kashmir move. Friday marks the third anniversary of India revoking Article 370 of its constitution, which stripped Jammu and Kashmir—India’s only Muslim-majority region—of its special autonomous status. At the time, critics warned the move could spark unrest and insurgency in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Those predictions haven’t come to pass, but the region remains tense.
The Indian military maintains a large and often repressive security presence in Indian-administered Kashmir, and local authorities have cracked down on civil rights, including the right to a free press. Journalist Fahad Shah, a Foreign Policy contributor and editor of the Kashmir Walla, has spent much of 2022 in jail on terrorism charges.
India has said that Jammu and Kashmir will hold parliamentary elections by the end of the year, which would be the region’s first since 2014. But this week, local political leaders said officials in New Delhi have offered little clarity about an election timeframe.
A blow to Pakistan’s opposition? In a long-awaited ruling, Pakistan’s election commission announced on Tuesday that the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has received funding from 34 foreign nationals, which is illegal in Pakistan. The ruling means the PTI and its leader, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, face the risk of disqualification from politics. It is not yet clear how or when the ruling will be implemented.
The PTI has rejected the ruling and said the funding in question came from Pakistanis based abroad, not foreign nationals. The PTI does have a strong presence overseas; many members of the Pakistani diaspora in the United States and the United Kingdom are staunch supporters of the party. PTI leaders have vowed to challenge the ruling in court, but it will further exacerbate Pakistan’s polarization, as the PTI has denounced the ruling as government “propaganda.”
Under the Radar
On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a meeting with Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The visit was important for New Delhi, which likely sees a strategic opportunity in Male. India-Maldives relations faced some bumps under Solih’s predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, who cultivated ties with China. The Maldives’ position in the western Indian Ocean, where China’s navy has recently deepened its presence, particularly concerned India. Yameen’s term ended in 2018.
Solih’s visit this week resulted in six deals on such topics as cybersecurity and disaster management. The agreements include a $100 million line of credit, which will fund development projects in Maldives, and a commitment to begin construction on a bridge and causeway linking the capital, Male, to three islands. This can be seen as another example of competition with China, which has supported similar large infrastructure projects throughout South Asia.
Academic Shruti Kapila argues in the Print that Indian politics is starting to look much like China’s, with some indications New Delhi is taking on the characteristics of a one-party state. “India’s new political trajectory shares remarkable features with its outsized Himalayan neighbor,” she writes.
A Daily Mirror editorial asserts that Sri Lanka can’t solve its economic crisis without first creating more political stability. “The need of the hour is for the government and opposition to stabilize the political situation. Without political stability, it becomes impossible for financial institutions … to support a bailout package,” it argues.
In South Asian Voices, Indian policy advisor Subimal Bhattacharjee urges New Delhi to move quickly to implement a new cybersecurity policy. “Delays in doing so leave India’s cyber and national security vulnerable amidst a climate of increasing cyber risks,” he warns.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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