While the presence in Kabul of late al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri displeased India, Yvonne Gill highlights Delhi’s cautious response, given historically strong India-Afghan ties and other regional factors
As if out of the blue, at around six o’clock on the morning of July 31, an R9X hellfire missile fired from a Reaper drone, which could have flown to Kabul using Pakistani airspace, slashed to pieces an elderly Arab standing on the balcony of a house in the upscale Sherpur neighbourhood of the Afghan capital. The old man killed was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists – the Amir of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has evaded capture for 21 years, since the September 11 attacks in 2001.
While the Taliban neither confirm nor refute that the dead man wasal-Zawahiri, the fact that the al-Qaeda chief was staying in a house owned by a top aide of the Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani has raised questions about the regime providing safe haven to foreign terrorists. It is a claim the Taliban has constantly denied.
US officials confirmed in a statement that‘the United States hasconducted a counterterrorism operation against a significant al-Qaeda target in Afghanistan. The operation was successful and there were no civilian casualties’.
Two days later, President Joe Biden announced at the White House that the US intelligence Community had located al-Zawahiri in early 2022. Biden also said that the high-precision drone attack did not harm any members of al-Zawahiri’s family, or others. The R9X is armed with a kinetic warhead carrying 45kg of dense material, with six blades flying at high speed to crush and cut the target into pieces.
The moot point is: how come al-Zawahirifinally surfaced in Afghanistan after persistent rumours of the terror boss hiding in some remote tribal area of Pakistan or Afghanistan?This is the second biggest kill carried out by US intelligence operations against the head of a major terror group, after the 2011 despatching of Bin Ladenas he hid out in Pakistan.
Particularly relieved by this development is the Indian security establishment, because al-Zawahiri had an eye on South Asia, particularly India, where he had been trying to recruit disgruntled Muslim youth for his extended outfit, AQIS (al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent), which aims to establish an Islamic state comprising India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. He had even issued a video in 2014 to announce the formation of the Jamaat qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent, alias AQIS.
Both Pakistan and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan have long been suspectedof harbouring Islamic terrorists. A United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report released earlier this year said that AQIS retains a‘presence in Afghanistan, in the provinces of Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Paktika and Zabul, where the group fought alongside the Taliban against the ousted government. AQIS is estimated to have between 200 and 400 fighters, mainly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan’.The report added that al-Qaeda has ‘maintained a strategic silence’ after initially congratulating the Taliban on 31 August last year for its return to ‘political power’.
Pakistan has been the main player in Afghanistan. The main sponsor of anti-India jihadi groups, Pakistan has also played on both sides, angering its American patrons as well as its Talibanbrothers during the war on terror.
Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts were unknown. He was believed to be hiding in the tribal area of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, and had been releasing video messages aimed at his followers and ordinary Muslims. The Americans received a number of false leads about theal-Qaeda number two from the Pakistani ISI. These resulted in US drone attacks in Pashtun-dominated areas, and uproar against the deaths of innocent people. This happened during 2006-2008.
In September 2008, the Pakistan Army said they had ‘almost’ captured al-Zawahiri in northwest Pakistan. Then, in May 2011, the CIA found Bin Laden living near a military cantonment in Abbottabad, where he was shot dead by US Special Forces. But al-Zawahiri’s remained in hiding till he was tracked downin Kabul this summerby US intelligence.
The al-Qaeda boss’s last video, released in April this year,hailedMuskan Khan, afemalestudent who became famous for her February pro-hijab protest in a town ofthe southern Indian state of Karnataka, where she bravely faced fanatical Hindu hooligans demanding that students wearing hijab should not be allowed into educational institutions. Al-Zawahiri gave the incident his own twist by congratulating Muskan for challenging ‘a mob of Hindu polytheists with defiant slogans of Nara-a-Takbeer, Allah-hu-Akbar (God is the Greatest)’. The video was also a lecture on Islamic morality, why women should be wearing hijab, the flaws in Indian democracy, and so on.
Even though India has been irked by al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, New Delhi’s response has been a carefully calibrated one. Indian policy-makers understand that Pakistan-Afghan relations are in a dubious phase. Various issues are causing problems between thetwo countries, including the disputed Durand Line that forms the porous Pak-Afghan border, with closely related Pashtun tribes living on both sides. Fencing of the border by Pakistan has led to many skirmishes. In addition, the Pakistan Air Force bombed the Afghan provinces of Khost and Kunar in April, after the Pakistani army was incensed by the bombing of a Pakistani military convoy in North Waziristan. Taliban defence minister Mullah Yaqoob warned Islamabad of retaliatory action should that happen again in the future. As of now, an uneasy truce exists.
For India, diplomacy and mutually beneficial relations is the mantra. New Delhi has reopened its embassy in Kabul, and this has been welcomed by the Afghan foreign ministry. In fact, the Indian embassy in Kabul was never closed. Local staff have been providing consular services since Indian diplomatic staff withdrew, following the pulling out of American troops and the Taliban takeover Taliban. An Indian ‘technical team’ has been there in Kabul since June, andhas begun the process of identifying business and trade opportunities. Moreover, Indiais already distributing food and medicines to the needy in Afghanistan.
Historically, the two countries have had very good relations. A large number of Afghan students study in India, andIndia had funded a number of developmental projects in Afghanistan over the past many years. With a shattered economy and a humanitarian crisis facing the country, the Taliban is only too keen to ramp up relations with India.
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London