In the last week of July 2022, the United States attended a regional conference on counterterrorism in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqi said his government had considered Afghanistan as a base against the international terrorism and honored promises which should not be used as such. Nonetheless, Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul appears to undermine Motaqi’s statements and the Taliban’s pledge to sever ties with groups like al-Qaeda. It also complicates talks between the Taliban and US officials last week over the release of Afghan central bank assets, which could help ease Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis. During the de facto Taliban regime, US policymakers have attempted to walk a fine line: involving the Taliban in humanitarian, legal, and governance issues important to Washington while minimizing and attempting to threaten to minimize that this engagement is still legal. But the US had to accept that even this minimal diplomatic engagement led to some normalization of the Taliban regime. The deal was that the engagement facilitated US support to end the enormous humanitarian and economic crises and opened a channel for the Taliban to push for inclusive governance that respects women and human rights.
The al-Zawahiri strike reflecting the Taliban leaders’ apparent continued willingness to harbor al-Qaeda brought this trade to the fore. It is now becoming much more difficult for the US and other countries to justify operational links with the Taliban. If the Taliban’s abusive and repressive policies had already dashed hopes that their second round at the top would be different, Varzi’s open defiance of their counter-terrorism promises in the February 2020 Doha Accords has now set them back on the path to become a pariah regime.
US politicians and counterterrorism analysts urgently need to revise their assessments of the terrorist threat in Afghanistan. The successful US attack confirms those who have advocated an overarching counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan. But al-Zawahiri getting a port in Kabul could also portend a more serious threat than expected. Currently US officials need to explore options to end the suffering of Afghans that do not rely on cooperation with or support for the Taliban regime. The recent US measures to freeze the Afghan central bank’s assets, which were intended to help ease Afghanistan’s liquidity crisis and restore normal economic activity, now face further uncertainty. The lessons of the 1996-2001 Taliban regimes in relation to the delivery of humanitarian aid should be revisited. The assassination of Zawahiri is timely evidence that the United States, while preoccupied with other foreign policy priorities and plagued by domestic divisions, remains committed to the counterterrorism mission. But it also demonstrates the bankruptcy of the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda on the other fronts.
The killing of Zawahiri in an airstrike in Kabul, where he was holed up in a safe house under the protection of the Pakistan-affiliated branch of the Taliban known as the Haqqani Network. The fact that the al-Qaeda chief was able to find refuge in the Afghan capital proves that the country’s Islamist rulers have no intention of severing their long-standing ties to al-Qaeda, despite promising to do so last year. Therefore, the Taliban have not kept their side of the deal, as the White House itself now admits. According to Foreign Minister Antony Blanken, the Taliban “grossly” violated the terms of their deal with the US known as the Doha Accords by harboring Zawahiri on Afghan soil. Blankenship and other government officials remain silent about the practical consequences the US is willing to impose on the Taliban after exposing the group’s double-edged policies.
The other stage is Iran. Since Zawahiri is no longer in the picture, the most likely candidate to take over al Qaeda leadership is Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army officer. However, US intelligence and counterterrorism experts agree that he and other members of the group’s leadership have spent most or all of the past two decades in Iran. There, al-Adeel continued to coordinate the terrorist group’s global activities and plan its campaigns, despite being under nominal “house arrest”. All of this should be of great importance in the context of the Biden administration’s favored policy of engagement with Iran. For the past year and a half, the government has pursued a diplomatic strategy aimed at getting the Islamic Republic back on track with the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA. Even now, despite repeated denials, White House officials remain hopeful that Iran may still be willing to accept some sort of new deal over its nuclear program. But to keep that hope alive, the government must largely ignore the Iranian regime’s regional concerns and its widespread support for international terrorism. Such an approach has already become a hard sell in Congress, where skepticism about Team Biden’s prevailing Iran strategy is growing, even among members of the president’s own party. This will become utterly untenable as more and more contacts between the Iranian government and Al Qaeda’s top leadership mount, raising serious questions about whether the United States can support Tehran’s terrorism, why should the government be empowered and what might happen if it does? Zawahiri’s assassination should be celebrated for what it is: an overwhelming victory for the US counterterrorism force. However, we must not be blind of the contradictions and risks inherent in the Biden administration’s foreign policy.