On July 30, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced Osama bin Laden in 2011, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan. U.S. President Joseph R. Biden announced his death on August 1 saying that, “Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.” Originally an Egyptian surgeon, al-Zawahiri had a $25 million bounty on his head (Dawn, August 2).
The most significant question that arose in the wake of his death concerned the origin of the drone that killed him. It certainly was not from inside Afghanistan. But was it from neighboring Pakistan or some other country? And would Pakistan allow the U.S to use its airspace for a strike on al-Zawahiri in Kabul?
If the drone was launched from Pakistan, then the drone strike would not be without geopolitical consequences and political fallout for Pakistan, which refused to host U.S bases in the country following the withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan last year (Geo TV, June 8, 2021). Before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, in contrast, U.S forces had been using Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan, to attack targets inside Afghanistan since the initial U.S invasion in 2001.
Pakistan’s Role in the al-Zawahiri Operation: Speculation or Reality?
Pakistani authorities reject any role played by Pakistan in the U.S. operation to assassinate the al-Qaeda leader. According to an anonymous government source, “The killing of [al-Zawhiri] is an internal matter of Afghanistan. No role of any sort was played by Pakistan…. They [the U.S] have many options in the region. However, it [the drone] did not fly from Pakistan or through its air space (Express Tribune, August 2).” Afghanistan’s Taliban government, however, has accused Pakistan of allowing the U.S. to utilize Pakistani airspace, which Pakistan’s foreign office has rejected (Dawn, August 29).
What has triggered increasing speculation about Pakistan’s role in the operation is the telephone conversation between Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the U.S. Central Command General Michael Erik Kurilla. The phone call occurred only 48 hours before the launch of the drone that killed al-Zawahiri. According to the Pakistani military media wing, both sides exchanged views on mutual interests, including regional stability, defense and security cooperation (Express Tribune, July 29). The timing, therefore, indicated the mission to target al-Zawahiri’s was also discussed.
Moreover, the absence of operational details shared with the media by the U.S. or Pakistan implies that the Pakistani base and air space were used by the U.S. to target al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Security analysts on South Asian affairs contend that the drone that killed al-Zawahiri must have traversed Pakistan’s airspace, although it may have taken off from a Gulf Arab country. Such analysts contend that Pakistan played a role in the operation and, therefore, shared intelligence with the U.S. about Zawahiri’s location (South China Morning Post, August 2).
Al-Zawahiri’s Killing Raises Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan
The U.S drone not only killed the al-Qaeda chief but also dealt a blow to Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, which have deteriorated since the Taliban took over Kabul last year. The assassination has set off a blame game and raised tensions between the two neighboring nations. The Taliban claim that U.S. drones, which enter from Pakistan, continue to be seen in the skies over Kabul even after al-Zawahiri’s killing.
While the Taliban has warned Islamabad about using Pakistani territory to attack Afghanistan, Pakistan has rejected the Taliban’s allegations (Arab News, August, 28). Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson, Asim Iftikhar Ahmad, expressed “deep concern” over allegations leveled by Kabul and stated, “In the absence of any evidence, as acknowledged by the afghan minister himself, such conjectural allegations are highly regrettable and defy the norms of responsible diplomatic conduct.” Islamabad further urged the Taliban to fulfil their international commitment of not allowing the use of its territory for terrorism against any country (Dawn, August 29).
Following the Taliban’s allegations against Islamabad, the TTP also restarted attacks in Pakistan. A September attack that killed five people, including police personnel, in Swat area in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province broke the indefinite ceasefire between the TTP and Islamabad, which had been mediated by the Taliban in Kabul (Dawn, September 13). Further, TTP militants killed three Pakistani soldiers in an exchange of fire across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kurram district (Dawn, September 13).
Pakistan’s Cooperation and Political Fallout
Under its post-Afghanistan strategy, the U.S. wanted Pakistan to play the role of a frontline ally in the war on terrorism, with Islamabad extending logistical support and providing air bases to the U.S. in Pakistan. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined, “We’re staying in the game…We’re pulling our forces out of Afghanistan, we are not withdrawing. We are not leaving. We are remaining deeply engaged when it comes to supporting Afghanistan (Dawn, May 7, 2021).” Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, during an interview last year rejected the idea of allowing the CIA to use Pakistani territory to conduct cross-border counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), or the Taliban (Dawn, June 19, 2021).
Khan has also called the present coalition government of Shehbaz Sharif an “import” imposed as a result of a “foreign conspiracy” by the U.S against him. Khan alleged that “regime change” in Islamabad was hatched by the U.S. to topple his government over his independent foreign policy (Dawn, March 30). He has been publicly proclaiming that his government was toppled because he categorically refused to allow the CIA to launch drone attacks against targets in Afghanistan or use Pakistan’s airspace and territory, such as in the al-Zawahiri operation (Express Tribune, April 5).
A month after the ouster of Khan’s government following a no-confidence vote, the U.S. sought to resume its counter-terrorism operations in collaboration with Pakistan under the new government led by Shehbaz Sharif, who replaced Khan in April. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated, “We want to continue to work together in areas where we do have mutual interests with our Pakistani partners…. That includes counter-terrorism” (Dawn, May 6). Although the Biden administration did not publicly demand the continued use of bases in Pakistan because that demand has been very unpopular among the Pakistani people, Khan’s government had not allowed the U.S. to use Pakistan’s territory for launching attacks on targets inside Afghanistan. If the present Sharif administration had a facilitating role (or is suspected of such) in conducting the operation that killed al-Zawahiri, then it will pay a heavy price for this in the national elections scheduled for 2023. Such suspicions will also put a rubber stamp on Imran Khan’s foreign conspiracy narrative.
The speculations about Pakistan’s role in U.S. counterterrorism operations inside Afghanistan will not come to an end until Islamabad clarifies its policy regarding cooperation with the U.S. and Washington shares more operational details with the media about the operation conducted to kill al-Zawahiri. If this operation was conducted with the secret cooperation of the Pakistani government led by Shehbaz Sharif, it would contrarily not have been possible under the previous Imran Khan government, which was fiercely opposed to participating in the U.S. war against terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
The main Pakistani opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which is led by Khan, has also raised the suspected use of Pakistan’s airspace to kill al-Zawahiri as a political issue, which will continue to persist in Pakistani political discourses. As another PTI leader stated, “The nation wants to know whether we are again going to become a tool of the United States against al-Qaeda (Dawn, August 6).” The answer to that question could determine whether Imran Khan regains power in Pakistan and, if that occurs, whether the U.S. can count on continued counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan.