It took the CIA, supposedly the most competent intelligence agency in the world, 21 years to search and kill al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the biggest ideologue of Islamist terrorism and mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The Egyptian physician-turned-terrorist, Zawahiri was knocked off in a US drone strike in Afghanistan on July 31. The ailing chief of Islamic jihad was taken out almost in a somewhat similar manner as his master and predecessor, Osama bin Laden. Like Laden, who was shot dead in a walled house in a posh area of the garrison town of Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011, Zawahiri was struck at his hideout, a house in an upscale neighbourhood of Sherpur in Kabul, eleven years later.
While the Biden administration is cheering and projecting Zawahiri’s killing as a huge accomplishment, the fact remains that the most powerful country in the world, the US has been repeatedly taken for a ride by Pakistan Army and Taliban. The duo, which have historically been working in tandem with each other, drained the US in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden remained elusive till the US had spent trillions of dollars (till 2019, the US spent $8 trillion) on its war on terror following the 9/11 terror attacks. In the decade following the September 11 attacks, the US claims to have paid Pakistan over $18 billion as financial aid for assisting it in its war on terror. Islamabad claims it received only $12 billion. Whatever the truth, the fact is Pakistan did not hand over Osama bin Laden to the US without extracting its huge pound of flesh.
Islamabad led Washington to Laden, much after he was comfortably sheltered in its highly protected military area in Abbottabad and much after the al Qaeda chief had become operationally irrelevant. Laden had reportedly relinquished his duties and handed over all the operational and strategic decision-making to Zawahiri, way before he was killed.
Since Laden’s death, the US and the UN monitoring reports have been claiming that al-Qaeda’s fighting power has remarkably declined. In the last few years, reports quoting US officials said that Zawahiri’s health had deteriorated due to a serious ailment. Clearly, Zawahiri was a spent force too, given the prominence of ISIS over al Qaeda in the last decade. Like Laden in the last years preceding his death, Zawahiri did not serve many purposes for the global Islamic jihad except issuing his fiery video-recorded statements against non-Muslim ‘infidels’.
After the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan last year, the Pakistan Army and Taliban ensured that the US-backed government in Kabul did not survive. The US-built political and military set up in Afghanistan, did not last even for six months. In the end, the United States’ 20-year-long effort at establishing democracy and a moderate society in Afghanistan came to a nought. Even as the Taliban, under its peace deal with the US, had agreed to not provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, it facilitated Zawahiri’s stay in a posh locality in Kabul.
Since last year, after the Taliban took over in August, the Taliban has been facing a major financial and economic challenge to run the war-torn country. Taliban even appealed to the US to unfreeze about $9.5 billion in Afghan foreign assets and end financial sanctions placed on Kabul. However, the US had asked the Taliban to “earn” its legitimacy first.
In neighbouring Pakistan, the Army headed by General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been pleading with the US to rescue it from an economic collapse. The situation in Pakistan is so dire that the Army chief went out of its way, requesting Washington to approve an early release of a crucial $1.7 billion instalment from the IMF.
With both Afghanistan and Pakistan struggling economically, it is intriguing that the Haqqani network – an Afghan Islamist terror group and an ally of Pakistan’s ISI – tried to cover up Zawahiri’s death in the drone strike – suggesting that Pakistan and Taliban together may have outed Zawahiri in a quid pro quo with the US.
The Biden administration can indulge in self-congratulation but the colossal cost the US has been made to pay by Pakistan Army and Taliban, makes Zawahiri’s killing a Pyrrhic victory. With his own approval ratings tanking by the day, President Joe Biden won’t be able to impress many at home. The US economy is going through a recession, even as it is euphemistically being dubbed as ‘transition’. The inflation in the US – 9.1 per cent – is the highest since 1981.
Domestic politics aside, the Biden administration will find it difficult to convince the world that the US war on terror has defeated Islamic jihad. Al Qaeda may have been decimated but it is not completely wiped out as it remains operational in a decentralised form. In fact, its ideology of Islamic jihad remains intact and in some ways, has even gained ground since the US-Taliban peace deal and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The goals of Zawahiri and the Taliban were the same – the establishment of an Islamic state. Zawahiri since the age of 15, was a staunch follower of Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the father of Salafi jihadism – the doctrine on which al-Qaeda and ISIL are founded. Whether al Qaeda or ISIS facilitates the agenda or the Taliban fulfils it, is irrelevant to their cadre and supporters in the world. The ideology of the Islamic state is prevalent and will continue to challenge the West because the Pakistan Army and Taliban and their likes have figured out how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.