The United States just sent a message to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and South Asia—it may not have its boots on the ground, but it is still engaged with the region and keeps an eye out for any threat to its security and interests.
Al-Qaeda supremo Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent killing in Kabul seems to have changed the scene in the region from how it seemed in August 2021, when Washington completely withdrew its forces. Then, there was a sense that the US would lose all its capacity to engage with Afghanistan, which in turn would add to the value of the Taliban. Not that the anxiety caused by the US’ withdrawal doesn’t remain among segments of the Afghan civil society. However, the recent attack on Zawahiri indicates that the US can still challenge the Taliban and remain a player in the Af-Pak security discourse.
Of course, we are reminded of the new pattern of American security planning for the region and, to a large extent, the rest of the world – Washington will not deploy its forces on the ground. It expects countries — and people — to fight their own battles. Of course, resources will be provided depending on which territory is more relevant for American security. Afghanistan no longer falls in that category. However, this does not mean that Washington will not invest in operations related to its own security interests.
All that’s in store
Af-Pak is not a priority for the US but the region still being a hub of terror will make Washington keep watching over it. It explains why the US never gave up observing Af-Pak after Osama bin Laden was eliminated in a highly covert operation in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in 2011. I am reminded of the echo at that time, when Zawahiri was still missing, that he would not be too far away from OBL. This means that a search for the al-Qaeda number two was going on for all these years until he was found and killed on 31 July. Surely, Pakistan handing over Zawahiri’s wife and children, who were in its custody in 2019, must have been watched.
This raises the other important point regarding rumours of complicity of regional State and non-State players in the operation. Fingers are pointed at both Pakistan and the Taliban despite reports claiming that it was entirely an American operation or that the drone took off from a base in Kyrgyzstan. Despite Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically denying its country’s involvement or use of air space, this conjecturing has not been put to rest. But, of course, the doubt will remain until some definitive and reliable information comes out from Washington, which may not be very soon. The Zawahiri operation reminds one of similar finger-pointing during the OBL operation. American journalist Seymour Hersh had published a story then, suggesting the involvement of top Pakistani army sources.
Many like India’s Lt. General (retired) Ata Hasnain or prominent Pakistani-American journalist Wajid Ali Syed do not buy into the complicity argument. While Hasnain says that the US could not afford to trust Pakistan, Syed seems to go by the American claim of having developed across-the-horizon (ATH) capability, making Pakistan dispensable. But the story of Pakistan’s involvement is not going to go away mainly because it is essential for both civil and military players in the country.
Given the ongoing political turmoil in the country, former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his supporters would definitely like to believe or spread the rumour that the army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, was somehow involved in the operation. The idea is to make Bajwa appear more unpopular among the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters and the General’s army.
However, notwithstanding the negative implications of this story, Bajwa can still benefit from it. US policy may have pivoted towards the Indo-Pacific, but Bajwa can create the impression that he, as Pakistan’s top man, can pull some tricks to engage the Americans.
Indeed, the media’s linking of the Zawahiri attack with General Bajwa’s call to the US State Department, followed by the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) statement suggesting the approval of funds for Pakistan, adds to the General’s credit.
A transactional relationship
People would certainly like to believe that the phone call to US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was made to remind their government of a trade-off. This is the story of the continuing transactional relationship between Pakistan and the US. Throughout the war on terror, al-Qaeda terrorists were caught in exchange for resources. Rawalpindi’s biggest problem is that transactions have become very limited, especially after 2011. To reiterate, the rumour benefits Bajwa indirectly in building up his reputation among the echelons.
Indeed, Pakistan’s possible complicity in a small or big way is a better story compared to the idea that Washington went solo in this operation. Nevertheless, the development is full of problems for Pakistan. If the US went totally independent of Pakistan or had no local help in Afghanistan, it means more problems for Pakistan. The US will now be very unhappy with Sirajuddin Haqqani, who seems to have aided and abetted Ayman al-Zawahiri. The al-Qaeda terrorist was living in a property associated with the Haqqani network.
Though the Taliban issued a statement accusing the US of breaking promises of non-intervention in the Doha Agreement, the fact remains that it is the former that broke the promise of denying their territory to al-Qaeda and Islamic State/Daesh terrorists. The links between the Haqqani Network and Pakistan are a known secret, which means that in case the US punishes this Taliban faction, it would complicate things for Pakistan as well. The rumour will not bode well for the ongoing negotiations between the Pakistani State and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that are being conducted with help from the Haqqani Network.
The longer-term lesson of the US drone attack in Kabul is that America still has the capacity to take out terrorist targets in the Af-Pak region. It will eliminate those threatening its peace but maintain a hands-off approach to counter-extremism, which would be a regional problem to solve.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)