A few weeks after I reached Kabul in March 2002, I saw that the gate of a house, which was very close to my then residence in the Wazir Akbar Khan area, was open; it was usually kept shut. As I glanced inside, I noticed that about a quarter of the house was destroyed through what appeared to be an explosion. Neither the rest of that property nor the adjacent houses bore any mark of what was clearly a deadly attack.
My enquiries revealed that the house had been occupied by someone who was on the United States target list. He had been spotted by US assets on the ground who had laser-painted the exact portion of the house that the ‘target’ occupied. That guided a precision bomb released by a US B-52 bomber circling in the Afghan skies above. I was told that the ‘target’ was eliminated. I could not ascertain whether that was true or who the target was. What was impressive though was the precision with which US forces could deliver an explosive device from the skies without causing collateral damage.
That terrorist groups, after the killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike, will take greater precautions about the security of their leaders, is obvious. But what will be the impact beyond this?
Pakistan did not modify its approach towards terror even after the killing of bin Laden.
The killing may bring about internal recriminations among Taliban factions and leaders. But their impact will be known only later. There may well be demands of even diluting ties with al-Qaeda.
It is unlikely that the killing of Zawahiri will reduce the ISKP’s activities in Afghanistan. It would be aware that the kind of resources needed for such operations cannot be expended easily.
The US has shown no inclination of getting involved in a sustained anti-terrorist activity in Afghanistan. Zawahiri was a special case. His elimination would assist US President Joe Biden in the forthcoming mid-term elections.
A Chilling Operation
In the two decades since what I saw through the open gate of that house, US forces have developed weapons of infinitely greater precision, which can be delivered through drones in the skies. The use of drones to eliminate extremists and terrorists along the Durand Line and in other parts of West Asia and North East Africa has been undertaken by the US for many years now. The same modus operandi was used to kill al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Zawahiri killing may not have had the drama of May 2011, when marine squads landed by helicopters in Abbottabad to attack the compound in which Osama bin Laden lived, but it was chilling nevertheless. It was chilling because it demonstrates that the US now has the capability to kill a man on the balcony of a house in an upscale, relatively densely populated locality, in the closest proximity to government ministries and diplomatic missions. Incidentally, the Indian chancery in Kabul is also fairly close to the house where Zawahiri was killed.
Will Anything Change for Other Terror Groups?
The question now is how the Zawahiri killing will impact the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other regional terrorist groups. That they will take greater precautions about the security of their leaders is obvious. They will do so through known methods of tradecraft: changing locations frequently, reducing public appearances, at least, for some time, and scrutinising the antecedents of their companions, their personal protection details or whom they meet. Besides, they will also be ruthless towards Afghans they suspect of assisting the US and other forces inimical to them. These are standard precautions. But beyond this, what will be the likely impact on the internal dynamics of terrorist organisations and their objectives?
A few initial reports from Kabul suggest that the Taliban leadership is shocked by the US action. The Taliban’s official spokesman condemned the attack, and sources initially claimed that the attacked house was uninhabited. Publicly, they have not changed that position. However, in this day of social media, almost all Afghans would be aware of what actually happened. The Taliban is not an entirely cohesive force. It has contradictions and fractures on tribal and regional lines. It is generally believed that the Haqqani group’s writ prevails over Kabul. Besides, it is also believed that it had given its fealty to al-Qaeda.
What About Ties Between Taliban and al-Qaeda?
The fact also is that the relationship between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden grew stronger after the latter arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. Some scholars claim that the then-Haqqani group leader, Jalaluddin, had played a role in bringing them close. At the same time, there were Taliban members who had warned Mullah Omar against his close ties with Osama bin Laden. Their caution went unheeded. At this time, it is not entirely clear if, along with the Haqqanis, the leaders in Kandahar, including Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakub, are completely committed to al-Qaeda.
In any case, this incident will bring about internal recriminations among Taliban factions and leaders. But their extent and impact will be known only later. There may well be demands of even diluting ties with al-Qaeda.
The Taliban had pledged, as part of the Doha agreement with the Americans in February 2020, that they will not allow international terrorist groups to use Afghan soil either as safe havens or as places from where they could launch terrorist attacks. This included both al-Qaeda as well as ISIS’s Afghanistan branch, known as the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISK-P). It is generally believed that the ISKP is anti-Taliban. It has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks against Shia targets as well as the Kabul Gurdwara in June this year. It is unlikely that the killing of Zawahiri will reduce the ISKP’s activities in Afghanistan.
The ISKP would be aware that the kind of resources needed for an operation such as that against Zawahiri cannot be expended easily. Besides, the US has shown no inclination of getting involved in a sustained anti-terrorist activity in Afghanistan.
Zawahiri was a special case; he was on the United States’s ‘Most Wanted’ list of terrorists, and his elimination would politically assist President Joe Biden and the Democrats in the forthcoming mid-term US elections.
India Is, as Always, on Its Own
For India, Zawahiri’s killing marks the end of a terrorist leader who made videos seeking to incite Muslims against some steps taken by the government. But will his end make a difference to the thinking of Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)? That is not likely at all. For one, besides the statements the US has made demanding that Pakistan end its support to these groups, it has not really done anything. It is true that it has used the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to give effect to its demands. But these have to be seen through the lens of its own interests and in the context of Afghanistan. And now, on the FATF front, too, the US has shown greater positivity towards Pakistan.
The calibrated use of the LeT and the JeM is part of Pakistan’s security doctrine against India. The Zawahiri killing will have no impact on Pakistan’s approach towards the use of terror against India, and, therefore, on these groups. Indeed, Pakistan did not modify its approach towards terror even after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Will these groups change their outlook in the wake of the Zawahiri killing? The answer has to be in the negative. The clear inference for India is that it will have to now, as always in the past, rely on its own resources to deal with Pakistan’s use of terror.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)